Naomi Klein says the climate crisis is now a war: "We need to grow out of the story that some politician is going to come along and save us"

Salon spoke to Klein and her husband Avi Lewis, director of the documentary adaptation of "This Changes Everything"

By Anna Silman

Published September 15, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Mark Blinch)
(Reuters/Mark Blinch)

Today at the Toronto International Film Festival, author and climate activist Naomi Klein introduced her "Leap Manifesto," which implores the Canadian government to divest from fossil fuels and take radical steps to forge a more sustainable and equitable society. Endorsed by well-known signatories like Neil Young, Alanis Morissette, Ellen Page and Rachel McAdams, as well as a long list of actors, musicians, activists and Aboriginal leaders, the manifesto implores political leaders to "seize this opportunity and embrace the urgent need for transformation" and to uphold "our sacred duty to those this country harmed in the past, to those suffering needlessly in the present, and to all who have a right to a bright and safe future" (read the whole text here).

But, as ever, this is not the only front Klein is fighting on. This year's TIFF also saw the premiere of "This Changes Everything," a documentary adaptation of Klein's bestselling 2014 climate polemic of the same name, directed by her husband Avi Levis. While the book was a far-reaching, dense anti-capitalist epic -- dubbed "the most momentous and contentious environmental book since 'Silent Spring'" by the New York Times -- and the manifesto is a concrete attempt to launch a new set of climate policies, the film is a more intimate, emotionally driven look at the grass-roots communities on the front lines of the climate war, from indigenous communities fighting against the Alberta Tar Sands to inhabitants of Andhra Pradesh, India defending their wetlands from being destroyed by a coal plant. Like the book, the film has an optimistic spin to it. “What if global warming isn’t only a crisis?” Klein asks viewers. “What if it’s the best chance we’re ever going to get to build a better world?”

We sat down with Klein and Lewis yesterday, before they unveiled the manifesto, to talk about making the film, the power of grass-roots activism, and their (tentative) optimism about the future. the As Klein puts it, "We are not winning. That doesn't mean we can all relax. But it does mean that it's getting interesting."

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Naomi, you've spoken to Salon before about your book and I know a lot of readers are familiar with your work, but I want to focus specifically on the process of turning your book into a documentary. How did this all come to be?

Naomi Klein: The two projects were conceived pretty much at the same time. I came up with the idea for the book and at the time, Avi was working for Al Jazeera English and co-hosting a show called “Fault Lines,” which is a documentary show. I was doing travel for my work and Avi was traveling all over the world for Al Jazeera and we were basically not seeing each other, and it was just completely unsustainable, so we decided to work on a project together. And I had the experience of making a film based on my last book after it was all done, “The Shock Doctrine," with Michael Winterbottom, which did very well. But I think there's something inherently flawed about [making a documentary after the fact]. It takes me a long time writing books. It takes me about five years to write a book and when I'm done, the last thing I want to do is to do it again. In the research process, there's a genuine sense of discovery since you haven't figured out your thesis entirely, and then when you make a documentary that sort of simulates that -- going back to the places that you've already been to, and so on -- there's something about it that's inherently simulated that we wanted to do it differently with this [film]. Both because we wanted to spend more time together personally and also because we thought, well, maybe this is a better process: What if Avi makes the film while I'm writing the book? And in that way the genuine process of discovery is documented. So that's the upside.

Avi Lewis: The downside is I was trying to make a film about a book that hadn't been written, and that was tough. But it went deeper beyond our own personal reasons and the sense of authenticity around the research process. I think we both have the conviction that if you want to try to plant a big idea, a radical idea in a very cluttered culture, that it's worth trying it on as many platforms as possible simultaneously. So not only did we have a book and film project that happened in parallel, we were working on the web engagement, for lack of any better term.

Tomorrow in Toronto we're launching a political manifesto called “The Leap Manifesto.” Naomi had a classic Naomi-brainwave that next year's the leap year, and that what we need to do — societally, culturally, economically — is leap. There's no more time left for little steps. So we've been doing a lot of organizing apart from the film and the book, and meeting with organizers across a whole spectrum of issues. We had a meeting in Toronto in the spring that brought together First Nations activists, trade unions, environmentalists, migrant rights and economic justice organizers. This manifesto, calling for a transition in Canada to a low-carbon economy in a way that embodies principles of justice and addresses injustices in our country, is launching tomorrow in the middle of TIFF.

A film doesn't do meticulous argument and evidence very well. Films have emotion and connection and the human dimension. With the big idea books of nonfiction, it's harder to really bring characters to life in the way that a film can. And neither of those are especially good formats for launching a set of policies. So we're exploring these ideas and their implications on different platforms according to the strengths of those mediums.

The film focuses a lot on these grass-roots movements, the so-called "environmentalism of the poor," as well as on a number of these groups that end up being successful, like the protesters who stop the creation of a goldmine in Halkidiki, Greece.

AL: People are winning all over the place. The climate justice movement is on a serious roll. If you look at where we were a year ago this month, there were half a million people on the streets of New York City. No one had ever seen anything like it for a climate [demonstration] before. The divestment from fossil fuels has exploded in the last couple of years, reaching far beyond the American college campuses where it started, to towns, cities, and municipalities in Canada, Europe, Australia, and beyond. We have all of these massive pipeline projects that have been delayed, that have been stopped. You have the fracking movement that has exploded and won fracking bans, from New York state to Scotland. So there is a tremendous amount to celebrate and to be inspired by, in the way the climate movement is expanding its notion of what it is and is expanding around the world, and is in a moment of intense, rapid growth. That's a story where the dots don't get connected very often.

I’m interested in the notion of “Blockadia” as a way to connect all these grass-roots environmental movements that can seem so disparate.

AL: Actually, they're connected. We have met people across the United States who are anti-tar sands activists, not because they're necessarily connected to something that's happening in northern Alberta, but because the big rigs carrying the tar sands' infrastructure -- the big Lego pieces that they use to build the refineries and pipes -- are going through their state. Because there are oil tankers full of bitumen that have exploded near their towns. So people are finding each other.

Do you feel that we are on the cusp of something, a tipping point?

NK: When I was watching the film in the theater for the first time yesterday, I was really struck that it's a war. When you see the way it plays out when people try to stop a coal plant or a mine: The guns come out. That's just true, and that's hard for people to see. There are sides to this thing. And if you try to stop it, you're going to see that there really are sides. So I would say that it's a race, if you don't like military metaphors.

AL: Yeah, let's go [with] race.

NK: And I would say that we start far behind. In that emissions are up, and because we've delayed for so long, we now need to do so much, so quickly. But it's a really difficult task, which is why we're using the word "leap," because it really is this punctuated, multi-front transformation. But there are really, really exciting signs: the price of solar has dropped by 75 percent. It's now cheaper than fossil fuels, or on par in most parts in the world. You look at at the rate at which solar is being rolled out in a country like Bangladesh, it's stunning. I think the fossil fuel industry is genuinely freaked out by the combination of the price collapse, the divestment movement, and that fact that renewable energy is getting so cheap so fast. But that doesn't mean we're winning. We are not winning. That doesn't mean we can all relax. But it does mean that its getting interesting.

How do you feel about the recent effort from corporations to co-opt the climate movement, like BP’s "Beyond Petroleum" campaign?

AL: You can see with the “Beyond Petroleum” campaign exactly what it means, since they abandoned it in relatively short order.

NK: They said all the right things, they said they were going to become a diversified energy company and move beyond petroleum, but then when the price of oil went up, they sold their renewable energy and doubled down on the dirtiest fossil fuels on the planet. So we don't think we can leave this to the market. It's just too important. It's our home. It's life on earth. One shouldn't gamble with what is irreplaceable and precious. That doesn't mean there is no role for the market, but the idea of just hoping for the best and putting a few market-friendly mechanisms in place and leaving them to do their job -- no, I think this is a regulatory issue.

In the film, you really focus on the journeys of individual activists, which yields some very emotional scenes: The Montana ranchers devastated over an oil spill in their backyard and the women of the Alberta Beaver Cree Nation stonewalled by this oppressive bureaucracy. What was it like meeting and talking to these people, and how did you choose which stories to include?

AL: Well, it was very tough to make those decisions. I decided that to match the scale of Naomi's work, it needed to be a global project. I also decided that one couldn't make a film about climate and capitalism in 2012-15 without going to India and China, without being in the places where the climate crisis, the climate challenge, is really going to be lost or won. What that meant was, because it's very expensive to travel for a documentary, especially when you're trying to do it with high production value and there's 20 pelican cases every time you get on an airplane, it meant that we weren't able to stay as long in the different places we went. It would have been lovely had we had a couple of months in every location, but we had just a few weeks. So that meant more research, more talking to people in advance, more trying to form those critical relationships with subjects from a distance before arriving. When you are there, when something dramatic happens in real time, that's just the documentary gods smiling on you. Because you didn't see all the times when the whole point of the shoot and the reason that I scheduled for a certain time just didn't happen.

Documentaries -- don't let anyone tell you that there's a formula. Anyone who acts like they know what they're doing is just lying. It's guesswork; you develop these hunches over years. One thing that is a solid bet is when you know a community is engaged, when you know a community is fighting on an issue or coming together on something, when you have the sense that there's a real struggle going on, you will find these real moments of emotion and drama, and find people who you'll learn from and be inspired by, who say things that will rock your mind.

I was so struck by the moment at the protest [opposing the construction of a coal mine] in Greece when a woman came up to the camera and cried, “I would give my life tomorrow for this to end.” That didn’t feel planned or orchestrated at all. 

AL: She is not fucking around.

NK: She came up to us, actually. The other thing I wanted to say is that the scenes in northern Alberta with Crystal, her family and the Beaver Cree Nation community have never opened up their lives to cameras before like that. Crystal's done a lot of interviews, but she never invited anyone to her family camp before.  It has to do with the fact that Crystal and I are in this movement together, we know each other. So that is also what allowed us some of this. Even though we weren't there for long, people really graced us with a tremendous amount of trust that we do not take for granted. It's a huge deal, to allow people into your homes with cameras and into these intimate family moments. Crystal said to me after the film, “When I said they treated me like some 'dumb Indian,' do you think people understood that that's not a word we use?” I assured her that everybody who we've shown that scene to absolutely understood that. But that was a moment of unguarded intimacy, and we were tremendously grateful for that trust.

I'm Canadian, and I was moved by the film’s depiction of indigenous communities in this country. It seems that the issue of environmental protection really dovetails with all these other issues that Canadian indigenous communities face in terms of government oppression and having the rights to their own self-determination. Throughout the film, we see that the climate struggle also intersects with questions of women's rights and poverty. 

NK: One of the things I love most about the film is that there are so many women in it, and so many women leaders in it. It's not something Avi made a big deal out of.

AL: It's a reflection of who's leading, it's a reflection of who are the inspiring figures.

NK: Its just who's leading. Crystal, Vanessa, Sunita, and all three women in Greece, who are all incredible. We found out about that struggle because they wrote an open letter from the women of Halkidiki to the world about what they were experiencing. It's an incredible open letter about the oppression they were experiencing, saying "we want to speak to you woman to woman." So it is really intersectional. We didn't make a big deal about that. Maybe we should have pointed it out more, but I'm glad that you picked up on that.

Looking ahead to the U.S. presidential election, is there any candidate that you see as the obvious green choice? 

AL: There's better candidates and worse candidates, but I actually think that the American political system has not produced the conditions for the kind of shift that's required, that science tells us we need to make as a society. And the same is true here in Canada, it's even more so. And when you have a deadlocked Congress and an executive [branch] at war with one or both Houses, you don't have a recipe for any single candidate, no matter what position they're in, to make this kind of massive shift that the planet requires and that science is telling us is required right now. And that's okay. Because that's one of the narratives that we need to shed.

We need to outgrow this 400-year-old narrative that we can control nature, bend nature to our will, and that there will be no consequences for society based on that premise. We need to grow out of that story, and we need to grow out of the story that some politician is going to come along and save us -- no matter who they are or how inspiring they are. What we need is what happened in Germany, where movements pushed politicians and created so much public support that it was in the politicians' self-interest to do the right thing — around spreading renewable energy, around creating good jobs, about regulating corporations, and the whole basket of policies that deal with both the climate crisis and with the inequalities of our system. That's where we see change happening, is when there's huge public support and the politicians come to where the people are. And luckily, we can do that already, because we're them.

Right. That’s us.

NK: I feel like we're in this moment where we have this sort of all-knowing “serious” political class that's constantly saying what is an electable issue, who is an electable person, that is constantly pushing us to this utterly untenable mushy middle where it's guaranteed that we're going to stay on this suicide path. They're just being proven wrong again and again. It's incredible that Bernie Sanders is surging ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Iowa, in that it shows that those experts were completely wrong. It's incredible that Jeremy Corbyn just won the leadership of the Labour Party in the U.K.

AL: Or that Alberta threw out the conservatives after 44 years of one party rule.

NK: So for me what this moment is about: How do we meet this reality where the experts are wrong, where people want more, where they're ready for more, but there's a kind of vacuum of vision?

Avi Lewis & Naomi Klein LIVE

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