From Ideology to Action: Naomi Klein Comes to Town

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[Cecilia Han Springer, ERG MS-PhD Student]

Throughout Naomi Klein’s talk on climate change, waves of applause broke forth as if it were a State of the Union speech. The audience – mostly older, white, vocal, local – was adulatory. The couple seated next to me turned to me and remarked, “You’re so young! It’s amazing you’ve heard of Naomi Klein,” and “It’s great to see university students getting involved with these issues.” I was surprised; it always seemed to me that younger folks should and do care more about climate change than the boomer generation. And with the rise of ideologues like Klein, we are becoming better equipped to take on the issue of climate change.

Naomi Klein at the Berkeley First Congregational Church (Han Springer)

Last week, author Naomi Klein spoke on capitalism versus the climate to packed pews at the Berkeley First Congregational Church. She described her new book, This Changes Everything, as a sequel to her previous manifestos against capitalism and corporate power. But in the time since she released her earlier bestsellers, Klein started caring a lot about climate change. Through her new book, she has become an ideological figurehead in the climate movement alongside Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and other activist-scholars.

Klein’s talk was a bracing infusion of straight ideology. No free market solutions or policy compromises here – Klein pointed the finger directly at trade laws, privatization, and other fundamental gears of the modern capitalist machine. The only real climate solution, according to Klein, is to dismantle these systems. Trade laws, she said, are “a bill of rights for corporations, written in a language of discrimination,” encouraging reckless and unsustainable development. “We are allowing sea levels to rise to preserve an economic system that is already failing the vast majority of people,” she said to thunderous applause.

Klein’s ideas are big, and in many ways they go beyond what’s taught in classrooms in terms of boldness. But how can students translate ideas into action? One of the most exciting aspects of studying energy now is that there are ample opportunities to engage in related advocacy outside the classroom, perhaps more than ever before. When ideology feels inert, we can take to the streets with no-KXL protests, fossil fuel divestment organizing, local environmental justice activism, and more.

Klein expressed support for the growing populism of the climate movement. Her anti-capitalist manifestos are ideological fuel for much of this organizing. Klein herself even attended the People’s Climate March in late September, calling it one of the most exciting political experiences of her life. “We need to supercharge progressive policies with existential angst,” she said, highlighting how she sees her own role in the climate movement. She had the audience at the First Congregational Church hanging on to her every word, rapt as a devout congregation. Fortunately, her talk was followed by a panel with Movement Generation and local environmental justice organizers who highlighted ways to get involved.

As a student and a sometime-activist, I don’t think that the climate problem can be solved by bold ideology alone, nor will it be solved just by grassroots action. But together, the feedback between ideas and action accelerates the pace of progress. And the content of the ideological fuel matters, which is why Klein’s ideas have caught on so quickly with climate activists. Well-informed advocates are better advocates. As Klein noted wryly, “The revolution should be footnoted.”

Note: The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.

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