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ECOPINION: What Naomi Klein Taught Me About Environmental Action

By Virginia Nowakowski

Author and activist Naomi Klein, called for a giant leap in environmental action during her address in Leverone Auditorium on Wednesday night. Speaking based on her newest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, she touched on several important concepts I think every environmentally-friendly college student should keep in their back pocket.

Intersectionality in the Environmental Movement

“If there is any glimmer of hope it is actually that there are a great many people around the world who understand that this system [of capitalism] needs changing with or without climate change,” Klein said. She emphasized the point that environmentalists shouldn’t push aside other movements, like human rights or racial equality in favor of the climate movement. Telling other people that their issues don’t matter as much as your own doesn’t help you gain followers. Instead, Klein encouraged audience members to unite climate causes with groups like Black Lives Matter and the Fight for 15 to change large-scale systems that bring about inequalities. This is especially important on a college campus where there are a bounty of social justice causes all vying for attention. Rather than focusing on what divides us, maybe we should work together to create change.

Who to Address

In a dinner directly preceding the event, a student referenced Naomi Klein’s appearance on Fox Business News back in 2008, which included biting opposition to Klein’s views. The student asked how to approach people who might hold opposing views on climate change. Klein took the opportunity to mention that the most important individuals to address about issues of climate change are not the people that deny climate change. Arguing about the science of climate change with climate change deniers will seldom cause them to reconsider their stance on the issue. To actually yield results, students interested in saving the environment should reach out to the apathetic or the uninformed, those who may partially understand the crisis, but do not know how to respond.

Justice and the Environment

Klein spoke briefly about her time in the Vatican, helping draft “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’s encyclical about the environment. Although she says she does not agree with many of the views of the Vatican, Klein was struck by Pope Francis’s use of a certain phrase within the document: “throwaway culture.” This is a “culture that throws people away throws refugees away…treats the goods, the products in our lives as if they are garbage and ultimately treating the planet as if it’s disposable,” according to Klein. Carbon emissions and other factors that cause climate change disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Whether it’s making sure communities don’t have to breathe smog-filled air or guaranteeing island nations their homes won’t be destroyed, rectifying the current “throwaway culture” begins the reparations process for communities that have been harmed by it.

Being Humble in the Face of Nature

In an age full of technological advances, Klein raises the key point that we still cannot control nature, and so we need to control human actions instead. This idea is very present in the “Leap Manifesto,” a document encouraging Canadian involvement in environmentalism, and calling on leaders to head efforts to make systems better for the environment and the many communities currently affected. The manifesto is named for leap years, when we add an extra day to February to compensate for the fact that our calendars don’t perfectly match the Earth’s pattern of revolution. “It’s this rare act of human humility where we recognize that it is easier to change the laws that humans create than it is to change the laws of nature,” Klein said. “We now need to do that to our economy and to our political system.” I don’t think that this means that we need to embrace an idea that “nature is always better.” There are certainly times when human advancement has been important. Instead of fighting against nature, or simply yielding to natural laws in all matters, we should consider how we can work with natural forces to create a better world.

Klein received a standing ovation at the end of her address for her inspirational, new framing of climate change issues. Whether that indicates that she has successfully incited her audience to take a “leap” on climate change is uncertain; it will be interesting to see how Northwestern movements like Students for Ecological and Environmental Development (SEED) or Fossil Free NU incorporate the main messages of Klein’s address in their work.

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