Why we’re ready for radical change

Illustration of the sun emerging over the curve of the earth, from space.

If nothing else, the past few months have definitively put the lie to the idea that late capitalist societies are incapable of seismic transformations on a deadline.

Image: © Brian Stauffer/theispot

© Brian Stauffer/theispot


This particular moment in human history is utterly extraordinary.

A global pandemic is tearing through a planet with 7.8 billion people living more interconnected lives than ever before. But that is not the only extraordinary thing happening.

Massive and inspiring uprisings in defense of Black life are sweeping that same planet, reaching far beyond the United States, where they began.

And all of this is taking place at the precise moment that the clock is striking midnight on the climate crisis.

How close to midnight?

Well, on June 20, a Siberian town 70 miles north of the Arctic circle hit 100°F. That’s more than 30 degrees warmer than average—one more grim broken record.

We are living in what has been called “The Age of Consequences.” Ours is an economic and social system built on the endless extraction and abuse of the natural world, as well as the endless extraction and abuse of Black and Brown bodies.

Book cover "On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal"(Simon & Schuster, 2019) by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein’s latest book is On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal(Simon & Schuster, 2019), uuabookstore.org.

© 2019 Simon & Schuster

Eventually, a system like that is going to blow back on itself—and that is what is happening now. Deadly viruses leap from animals to the humans who stole their habitats; cities are set aflame by untenable levels of injustice and neglect; and our natural world is on fire, too.

All of our culture’s accumulated debts—to our fellow humans and to the more-than-human world as well—are coming due at once. Will we reckon with them? Will we do the hard work that is necessary to make amends, to repair relations, to set things right, to begin to heal? Or will we keep pretending there is time to spare, even as the fires lick our doorsteps?

So much hangs in the balance of what we—the people who happen to be alive at this very moment—do, or fail to do, right now in these immediate days, weeks, months, and a handful of years.

That’s heavy. There’s a reason it’s good to talk about such weighty matters in rooms packed full of other humans, as I imagined I would be doing when I accepted the invitation to deliver the Ware Lecture to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly this year. When we congregate, we can feel each other’s emotions. We hear the sharp intakes of breath. The cathartic laughs. The applause and the boos. (I know, I know: Unitarians don’t boo. . . . See, you might have laughed together at that. That would have felt good.)

But for the first time in ninety-eight years, a Ware Lecture is not being delivered in the corporeal world. Instead we are gathered separately in front of our computers. We should sit with that for a moment. Because those shared embodied experiences—be they lectures or marches or protests—are critical. They are how we remember the most important thing of all: that though the transformations required of us are huge, we don’t have to do it all alone.

These are frightening times; we need to be unflinchingly honest about that.

But it is also true that a staggering number of people now grasp the scale of our interlocking crises. Small tweaks to our system are not going to get us to safety—not ecologically, not economically, not socially, and not politically.

Naomi Klein delivers the 2020 Ware Lecture via Zoom. (Courtesy UUA)

Watch Naomi Klein’s 2020 Ware Lecture (Vimeo)

Courtesy UUA

We who long for a different kind of society—one rooted in “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” as you so wisely put it in your Seventh Principle—are many. The forces bent on denying those interdependencies and shredding that web are powerful. But they are few.

Last fall, the climate movement was surging. Millions were participating in climate strikes. Our collective focus on the climate crisis has once again receded, for understandable reasons. And yet, I think our chances of winning a future grounded in an ethic of caring for one another and the earth are significantly better now than they were in that seemingly more optimistic time one year ago.

Up until a year and a half ago, very few Americans had heard of the concept of a Green New Deal. When it did enter the political debate, it was not exactly greeted with open arms. We heard objections like: “Why is Medicare for All in there? What does healthcare have to do with climate change?” “Why is there a jobs guarantee?” “Do we really need to fix everything at once? Can’t we solve climate change first and then tackle poverty and racism?” “How much is it going to cost? Trillions? How are you going to pay for it?”

Again and again, a Green New Deal was written off as “too much.” Too much ambition. Too much speed. Too much disruption. And definitely too much money—unimaginably too much money.

Today, after a series of seismic shifts, those objections sound like dispatches from another world. The pandemic was declared in March, but it has thrust the entire globe into an era of rapid and radical change. We have seen radical changes to our individual habits, expectations, and routines. Radical changes to government and fiscal policy and to the relationships between powerful nation states. And radical changes to the natural world around us—from sudden drops in air, water, and noise pollution to abrupt shifts in the behavior of countless wild species.

If nothing else, the past few months have definitively put the lie to the idea that late capitalist societies are incapable of seismic transformations on a deadline.

Indeed, from India to Europe to Argentina to the United States, we have witnessed the most aggressive government interventions in the economy since the Second World War. In the United States, car manufacturers have started making medical equipment. Spain has nationalized all its private hospitals. And then there have been the shutdowns: deliberate decisions to close down all but essential businesses, as well as schools and other core services, in order to deprive the virus of new opportunities to spread.

In the face of the virus, everyone’s life has changed, though by no means in the same way. Where I live in New Jersey, two of the biggest local employers are hospitals and Amazon warehouses. For my neighbors who are employed in those sectors, work has been like going to war without body armor, with death stalking every shift. For those of us who work in the nearby public university, the nature of our change has been cushy by comparison. We spend our days toggling between homeschooling our own kids (if we have them) and teaching students over video calls. We trade strategies for dealing with student anxiety over evaporating future plans. And all of us are lucky because at least we still have jobs. Forty million Americans have joined the ranks of the unemployed during this crisis, including many of you and your neighbors. And that figure does not include undocumented workers whose layoffs go uncounted.

In the face of this kind of economic carnage, other drastic and unprecedented government measures have also been required. Central banks have injected trillions into markets—more than in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Governments have spent hundreds of billions bailing out failing industries.

Families and individuals in need have received direct government aid as well as rent and mortgage relief. But compared to the gusher of funds directed at wealthy companies, often with no oversight and no strings attached, the aid to individuals has been a pittance, at least in the United States. And many of those most in need—migrant workers and undocumented immigrants—have been shut out of aid programs entirely.

My point here is not to idealize the forms of change that COVID-19 has ushered in. And yet, we must pause again to truly take in the reality that we are living at a time when the seemingly impossible has become possible. These seismic shifts to public policy and private lives—flawed and lopsided as they may be—have unfolded in the blink of an eye.

The idea that we humans cannot do what is required to confront the many overlapping and intersecting crises plaguing our world—from climate breakdown to homelessness to systemic racism—because it’s “too much,” was always a lie, a convenient myth peddled by those in whose interests it is for things to remain the same.

What the past few months have proven beyond all doubt is that when societies decide to treat an emergency as an emergency—precisely what climate activists like Greta Thunberg have been calling for—all manner of possibilities instantly bloom.

For so long we were told that people would never accept deep change. They were too comfortable. Too lazy. Too selfish. And yet we have seen that when necessary changes are clearly explained and genuinely understood to be in the interest of protecting life and keeping the vulnerable safe, and when these changes are imposed on individuals and big business alike, most of us are more than willing to do our part. We have seen this in the overwhelming support for and cooperation with shelter-in-place orders, despite all the economic hardship and personal difficulties. And we have seen it in the widespread adoption of mask-wearing in large parts of the country, despite the president’s best efforts to turn mask-wearing into a weapon of the culture wars.

In the early days of the pandemic, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson observed, “The virus is rewriting our imaginations.” We are seeing that deep change is and always was possible. That is both radicalizing and empowering.

We may also be seeing imaginations rewritten in the unapologetic boldness of the demands coming from the multiracial uprising against police murders of Black people. The call coming up from the streets—from the Movement for Black Lives and building on years of organizing and theorizing by abolitionist Black feminist intellectuals like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Michelle Alexander—is not for reforming the police or for technological fixes like body cameras. The demand is to “defund the police” and dismantle the carceral logic (and I’m thrilled to hear that you just passed a resolution supporting that demand).

While seemingly focused on police and prisons, these demands are actually much more profound and impact every aspect of how we live. Dismantling carceral logic requires a paradigmatic shift from an ethos of punishment, violence, and disposing of people in prisons to an ethos of care, cherishing, and repair. It requires transformational investments in the infrastructure of care in the most neglected and excluded communities so that rule by fear and coercion is not necessary.

This should all make us tremendously hopeful about our chances of winning a future that dares to solve multiple crises at once—that simultaneously confronts climate pollution, entrenched racial and gender hierarchies, and widening economic inequality.

Our chances of winning a future grounded in an ethic of caring for one another and the earth are significantly better now than they were in that seemingly more optimistic time one year ago.

Unlike earlier, carbon-centric climate policies like cap and trade, the Green New Deal doesn’t ask anyone to wait their turn for justice. It says we can—and we must—multitask. The pandemic response has revealed what governments can do if they choose. But even more importantly, the pandemic has provided everyone with a crash course in why disaster response must be intersectional: if it isn’t, it will fail.

When the lockdowns began, there was a great deal of talk about how we were all in this together and “viruses don’t discriminate.” But as with hurricanes from Katrina to Maria, which had such outsized impacts on the already vulnerable—people in public housing, in care homes, or living alone with mobility challenges—such talk turned out to be a mask for tremendous inequities of vulnerability.

Like those earlier disasters, COVID-19 revealed itself as a ruthless detective, shining a spotlight into every corner and crevice of our society where life and labor were being abused and discounted. That is where it spread like wildfire. That is where it killed in its greatest numbers: wherever bodies were overworked, traumatized, stressed, or poisoned. It spread in Amazon warehouses, where every move, every gesture, and every second are measured to increase worker productivity and efficiency. It spread in industrial-scale meatpacking plants, where amputations have long been treated by employers as an acceptable risk of going to work. It spread in bunkhouses, where migrant farmworkers, stripped of all rights, sleep between shifts. It spread, in other words, in all the places where humans were treated as interchangeable extensions of machines.

The virus also ran riot in the darkest places where human lives were being locked up, hidden away, and written off. In prisons. In holding pens on our borders. In long-term care facilities, where our elders are treated not as carriers of life wisdom who are owed our respect and dignity, but rather as profit centers, as are the people (mostly immigrant women) who care for them.

Anyone can catch the virus, true. But bodies weakened by the stresses of poverty, pollution, neglect, and systemic racism have proven far less able to fight it off.

These same systems of sacrificing certain types of bodies as outside of our circle of care have also shaped the response to the crisis.

Because at the start, when we thought everyone was at risk, governments—even in deep red states—were willing to put economic activity on hold in the name of protecting human lives. But once the data showed that the virus presented the greatest threat to those whom capitalism had already discounted and discarded—working-class people, poor people, Black and Brown people, elderly and disabled people—the calls to “open up the economy” grew louder.

This is not a coincidence. Nor is it a coincidence that even as cases surge today, at the end of June, we hear again and again that we will never go back to sheltering in place.

It’s also not a coincidence that “social distancing” guidelines are being used on the streets as a new weapon to over-police and inflict violence on Black people. Nor that they are being used inside workplaces like Amazon warehouses to prevent workers from talking to each other and potentially organizing.

For environmentalists, the message in all of this should be clear: we cannot craft a response to the climate crisis that hives it off from the many other crises we face. Every large-scale disaster—whether it begins in the body or in the atmosphere—contains virtually every other disaster within it. Whatever was bad before the disaster gets downgraded to unbearable during it. And whoever was treated as disposable before the disaster gets downgraded to sacrificial when disaster strikes.

This is one of the wrenching lessons of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is why we must embrace not fear, but holistic, systemic change. The good news, as I said, is that more people get this than at any point since the 1960s. Having changed our lives to fight the virus, a great many people are hungry for more change. For instance, the systemic violations of worker rights in meatpacking plants have convinced more people that cutting meat from their diets is a moral imperative: a potential boon for the climate. And having changed our lives to cut out all but the most essential driving and flying, many of us are in no rush to go back to all that rushing—a development with more climate benefits. We may not love having assemblies like this one over video conference but clearly it can be done. So maybe we should carry that through to our post-COVID lives: save our in-person gatherings for local and regional events, so we don’t have to fly, and keep having our national and international gatherings virtually. That feels not just possible but sensible.

We are seeing these types of COVID-inspired shifts at the governmental level as well. For instance, to facilitate social distancing, cities have opened up dramatically more bike lanes and pedestrian roads during the pandemic. That way, restaurants can spill onto sidewalks, and sidewalks into streets. And what do you know? People like it better. Some visionary cities, like Milan, have decided to make these changes permanent, as a way to reduce air and noise pollution and improve quality of life.

If our governments can pump out trillions of new currency to bail out markets, surely there is money to be found to bail out the planet.

But we need to take these changes all the way to the top. We have seen that governments are capable of paying millions of workers their full salaries (or close to it) to shelter in place. If they can do that, why can’t they pay millions more to perform green jobs, like planting trees, remediating polluted land, and building energy-efficient affordable homes? Why can’t workers be paid to retool their skills to shift from high-carbon sectors to zero-carbon ones, which is what we demand in a Green New Deal?

Yes, it’s all expensive. But if our governments can pump out trillions of new currency to bail out markets, surely there is money to be found to bail out the planet.

There is strong evidence that voters understand this well. A poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in April 2020, at the peak of the COVID lockdown and bailouts, found that 72 percent of those surveyed support a Green New Deal, including virtually all Democrats, 69 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Republicans. That’s incredibly good news.

Look, I am not saying that winning these fights will be easy.

I have been studying disasters long enough to know how ferociously we will be pushed in the opposite direction. In case studies of what I have called “The Shock Doctrine,” governments in Hungary and Israel are already seeing an acceleration of authoritarian rule under cover of the pandemic. We have seen obscene annexations of territory from the West Bank to Hong Kong. And, of course, military tanks have rolled through the streets of U.S. cities, egged on by a president who has strongly hinted he will question the legitimacy of the coming presidential elections if they don’t go his way.

Meanwhile, in the name of “getting back to growth,” the very industries at the heart of the climate crisis are in the process of winning a slew of regulatory and tax victories, on top of their bailout billions. While we have all been rightly focused on the pandemic and police killings, the Trump administration has taken advantage of our distraction to slash rules restricting air and water pollution.

At the same time, the trillions that were injected into the market to stop its freefall are already being used to prepare the ground for brutal economic austerity. Cities and states are worried about making payroll. Programs for the poorest and most vulnerable are on the chopping block.

Disaster capitalism, in other words, is alive and well.

The question is: Will these ploys work, given the extraordinary levels of political engagement right now? Shocks have often been used to push societies backwards, true. But they have also been moments when we have leapt forwards.

The Green New Deal, after all, takes its name from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal, a sweeping economic stimulus program introduced during a time of profound crisis much like our own. It was opposed by many elite interests of its day, but it managed to overcome those barriers because, despite its many baked-in discriminations, it offered what so many people needed desperately: jobs, food, and also joy, in the form of publicly funded art and access to nature.

Similarly, a Green New Deal would create tens of millions of desperately needed jobs and revitalize some of the most neglected parts of our nations.

I am not here to offer easy reassurances or slogans. Our moment in history deserves more. But I do want to end with what I think is most important for us to understand: the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Old truths are falling away. Old stories are collapsing, along with the monuments that stood in for their dangerous lies and omissions.

The future, in other words, is up for grabs. As Kim Stanley Robinson observed, “We are all now stuck in a science fiction novel that we are writing together.”

Writing it together, that’s the key point. No one knows how this ends because we haven’t written it yet.

The great Arundhati Roy made a similar observation, comparing the pandemic to a portal. “We can choose to walk through it,” she wrote, “dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

That, my friends, is precisely what is happening in the streets. A movement, led by Black people and young people but welcoming to all races, gender identities, religions, and generations, has done the work of imagining a radically different and more beautiful world, and they are already fighting for it.

Let’s do whatever it takes to walk through the portal and join them.

Adapted with permission from the 2020 Ware Lecture to the Virtual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, June 27, 2020, © Naomi Klein.