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On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

Naomi Klein


On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

Review by:

Hannah Harrison

8 May 2021

Naomi Klein’s main purpose for “On Fire” is to promote an all-encompassing paradigm shift as the way to combat climate change. Her Green New Deal is presented as a necessarily integrated approach to this, including changes to the economy, abolishing both inequality of all strands and systemic racism whilst improving the climate. She acknowledges the barriers in its path including the denial of reality in favour of self-preservation, the “fetishization” of GDP as well as the naturalisation of capitalism and consumerism. In spite of these, at times, damming barriers to climate change preventing action, Klein still manages to assert action as something that can be feasibly actualised, providing hope for the young people to which the book is addressed.

“On Fire” is split up into fifteen chapters, an introduction and epilogue. Throughout the book, the barriers to acting on climate change are detailed as well as ways to counter them via Klein’s The Leap (a manifesto outlining ‘green’ actions that will reduce greenhouse emissions). It is semi-autobiographical in that it references Klein’s experiences speaking at the Vatican and being affected by wildfires in Canada and explains how these have affected her views on environmentalism. The book also details the slippery slope of geoengineering, challenges the definition of “green” activity as well as demonstrating how political narratives can stall climate change action in the name of self-preservation.

Due to the emphasis placed on a paradigm shift resulting from collective human action on a scale previously inconceivable, it is perhaps fair to say that Klein’s “On Fire” is aimed at young adults, particularly those who are studying at university level. In spite of the direct reference to this demographic in chapter 6, it is clear to see that this is the case due to the extent of the actions she is calling for. Young adults not yet fully influenced by the unjust sacrifices of capitalism, Klein believes, can recognise the logical inconsistencies surrounding political (in)action and can find beneficial information about the issues surrounding the changing climate in the book. Klein uses Greta Thunberg’s work to exemplify this throughout. Furthermore, in the polarised times we are living in, “On Fire” is also a useful tool in preventing unnecessary conflict between people of different world views. Klein’s acknowledgement that people opposed to The Leap Manifesto and other works like it are not simply fact-deniers, but perhaps unwilling to accept the huge changes that will ensue if her paradigm shift were to occur (a new type of capitalism, local and global wealth distribution as well as a prioritisation of the welfare of those people and places openly “sacrificed” by polluters) thus making dialogue between groups easier to navigate and more productive in terms of the environment.

Particularly relevant to today and indeed the future is the diminishing power facts hold over our belief systems and world views. In the “post-truth” world we find ourselves in (Higgins, 2016) “On Fire” recognises that in order for Klein’s ‘paradigm shift’ to happen, proponents need foundations not only facts but emotions. Klein successfully addresses this via advocating for her integrated approach which means to say addressing structural inequality and the dehumanisation of indigenous populations at the same time as climate change, ideas which people can find common ground in wanting to change for the better.

A recurring theme of Klein’s argument throughout the book is the issue of capitalism as central cause of climate change. Her stance is opposite that of Thomas Friedman who in The Lexus and the Olive Tree, portrays capitalism as a natural consequence of the Cold War: a juggernaut that, if ignored, leads to failure. Klein’s approach refuses to naturalise capitalism and take on Friedman’s undertones of European exceptionalism and instead asserts that its “inevitability” is only a product of humanity being used to living in capitalism. As a result, the abandonment of capitalism is not, to Klein, a source of failure but instead something which will kick-start the paradigm shift needed for climate change and social inequality mitigation.

While Klein’s integrated approach to mitigating climate change may be described by some as too idealistic and transformational to be possible in such a small timeframe, her final comparisons to other structures that are currently changing, most notably the Catholic Church, portray it as a feasible choice for humanity. In short, “On Fire” represents the universal desire to better our climate and effectively manages to balance optimism with harsh realism, providing an accessible route into climate change activism for all.

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