Women of 2014: Naomi Klein
No one pays the slightest bit of attention to Naomi Klein as she wanders into the lobby of her London publisher’s offices. I’m not surprised. The scourge of 21st-century capitalism has arrived in a jacket and sensible jeans, carrying a smart backpack. She looks more like a holidaying librarian than the anti-globalisation firebrand once voted one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals.
“Hi,” she says, sounding perky for someone who has spent the past three and a bit weeks promoting a new book in three countries and 11 cities, including Los Angeles, New York and her home of Toronto.
It is 15 years since Klein first burst on to the international stage, at the age of 29, with No Logo, an anti-corporate blockbuster that became a bible for an emerging movement against globalisation. She followed up with The Shock Doctrine, a 576-page assault on “disaster capitalists” exploiting catastrophic shocks to impose free-market policies on a dazed populace. Published on the eve of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, it also influenced an unfolding movement: the push for economic equality that inspired the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and others around the world.
Now she has written This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, another bulky indictment of economic liberalism, this time for its incompatibility with action on global warming. Its call for grassroots activists to rise up against a political system that entrenches the power of fossil fuel interests is eerily well timed. The book came out in September, just as the streets of New York and elsewhere filled with hundreds of thousands of people in some of the biggest rallies for climate change action ever seen. And it is already influencing a growing campaign demanding an end to fossil fuel investments as world leaders prepare to sign a new global climate change treaty in Paris next year.
The book has stirred a debate that is no doubt pleasing its author. (The only description she gives of herself on Twitter is: “They say I’m polarizing.”) That is one reason for the twinge of apprehension I feel as we head off to talk. On top of that, interviewing another journalist can be tricky, especially an unconventional one like Klein. One of her first jobs was reporting for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. She did not last long (“I was disturbed by the cynicism of the culture”) and has a bracing tendency to publicly berate the mainstream media when the urge arises.
Vogue magazine discovered this in August when it ran a flattering profile of Klein that included a photograph of her in a white shirt, next to the name of the garment’s designer. She liked the story, and the photo, she wrote on her website soon after. “However,” she told her thousands of admirers, “I did place one condition on the interview, and it’s the same one I’ve placed on all my public appearances for almost 15 years: no logos.”
The editor had agreed to this “in writing”, and had since been “extremely apologetic”, removing the offending reference online and agreeing to publish a correction. So has she forgiven them? “I actually really do think now that it was just an oversight,” she says, shifting in her chair. “I wasn’t so sure at first but, having spoken with the reporter, I do think that it was just an oversight and they are genuinely sorry and embarrassed.”
Actually, Vogue got off lightly. If there is a hallmark of Klein’s work, it is her unrelenting dissection of the powerful. In This Changes Everything, she targets billionaires professing a concern for the climate, including Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s former mayor, and Microsoft’s co-founder, Bill Gates, for not doing more to ensure their vast wealth did not end up being invested in fossil fuels.
None gets such a pasting as Sir Richard Branson, the flamboyant entrepreneur who made a widely reported 2006 pledge to invest $3bn of profits from his transport businesses over the next decade to fight climate change, but has only delivered around $230m by Klein’s reckoning. He is the only one to respond to the book so far, which has annoyed Klein even more. “I got a personal letter from Branson telling me that I should stop saying things that are untrue, yet not pointing to anything specific that is wrong,” she says. “If Richard Branson points out any actual error in my book, I will happily correct it but I’m not going to just be intimidated by being told I’m wrong and to stop talking.”
Branson said through a spokesman that he had written because he did not believe he had broken his 2006 pledge, as he had only said he would direct proceeds from his transport businesses to climate projects. He had “optimistically estimated” this might amount to $3bn but then his companies were hit by the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
Either way, Klein says she was not trying deliberately to embarrass anyone, and only mentioned individuals to make the broader point. “I really do believe Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson understand climate change better than pretty much any other billionaire alive, and if they’re not able to reconcile their economic activity with that knowledge, then that is telling us something important about the system’s ability to self-correct.”
For a woman who has spent much of her adult life promoting activism of one type or another, Klein is by no means an earnest agitator. She is not a vegetarian. She flies, though she tries to do meetings by Skype. The last film she saw was the new X-Men movie (on a plane). And though she loves the precision and “quiet rage” of Silent Spring, the 1962 Rachel Carson book credited with launching the modern environmental movement, Klein is not an avid marcher. She did go on the huge climate protest in New York on September 21, which she helped to promote, but as far as she can remember, “I don’t think I chanted.”
That does not mean she is not determined. In fact, she is driven in the way Russell Brand is outgoing. She tacked her honeymoon (with Canadian documentary film-maker Avi Lewis) on to a research tour of Asian sweatshops, and discovered she was pregnant with her son Toma while she was with Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York.
The source of her intellectual confidence is not hard to spot. Her American paternal grandparents were Marxists. Her father moved to Canada after protesting against the Vietnam war. Her mother, the feminist film-maker Bonnie Sherr Klein, made Not a Love Story, a landmark documentary about the pornography industry.
Avi Lewis has a similar background: his father, Stephen Lewis, was a prominent centre-left politician; his mother, Michele Landsberg, is a writer and social activist. I imagined that must mean family get-togethers are full of intensely political discussions but Klein says not, mainly because there are so many children underfoot. “I can’t remember the last time I finished a sentence when talking with Avi’s dad because there are always toddlers running around.”
And while Klein may not do much chanting, it is hard to think of many other writers whose work has been so central to the movements for social and economic equality over the past 15 years. “She is a uniquely smart person,” says Bill McKibben, the American writer who founded the
350.org environmental campaign group, of which Klein is a board member. “She sees patterns and understands them in ways that very few people do,” he says. “She thinks ahead. She’s not reactive.”
Klein also played a role in one of the most eye-catching climate change campaigns of recent years, a push modelled on the anti-apartheid divestment campaign in South Africa that is trying to stem investment in fossil fuels. McKibben says he and Klein both started discussing the idea of the campaign after spotting a 2011 report by a small London think-tank, Carbon Tracker, which highlighted the value of the vast quantity of proven fossil fuel reserves that may need to stay in the ground to avoid risky global warming.
“No one had really paid any attention to it, at least in the States,” says McKibben, who went on to speak at rallies across the US. “She was instrumental in helping figure a lot of that out. Then she decided to have a baby so I ended up having to go do the whole tour about the thing by myself. She’s been a huge, smart help in thinking it through.”
The birth of Toma, now two years old, was one of two important events Klein experienced as she was working on This Changes Everything. The other was a diagnosis of thyroid cancer that led to surgery in May, just as she was finishing the copy-edit for the book. “You can see my scar,” she says, pointing to her neck, where in fact it is hard to see anything. Her health test results since have been good but it was clearly a difficult time. “When you have your thyroid removed, they have to replace it with drugs, so it takes a while to get that right,” she says. “Thyroid is your hormonal engine, so it’s a funny thing to lose control over. But it seems to be going away. I actually think maybe it’s chilled me out a little bit.” Later, when we go upstairs for a photography shoot, she says, “I’m getting to like my scar. It looks as if I had my throat cut and survived.” There was, however, always the possibility of one awful side effect: “I could have lost my voice. They go so close to the vocal cords.”
Her voice had seemed fine a few nights earlier, when I saw her give a talk organised by The Guardian in a large hall packed with admirers and, in my section, the powerful whiff of serious cyclists. Her lengthy speech was heartily applauded. But I found myself thinking that her real influence lies in the clarity of her writing rather than her ability to perform in public.
That’s not to say she is dull but she is definitely more lively in less predictable circumstances, such as the interview she recently did with US political satirist Stephen Colbert. “You’re a damned Canadian. How dare you come down here. You never lived under a capitalist system!” said Colbert. “You can let go of your Canadian fantasies,” Klein retorted. “My government is actually keeping the George W Bush dream alive. We have a complete merger of oil and state and we’re digging up the Alberta tar sands as fast as we can — and my mayor smokes crack.” (A dig at Toronto’s colourful former mayor, Rob Ford.)
So could the next step for Naomi Klein be a run for public office herself? “I don’t think so. I don’t think I would be very good at it,” she says, not sounding totally convinced. She would not rule it out for her husband, and she has been “interested” to see how some grassroots movements no longer reject the idea of institutional politics.
She also thinks climate change is the sort of issue that is so urgent and important that “you’ve just got to do what it takes”.
“We’ll see,” she says. “But in terms of my running, I don’t have any intention of doing that.”
Pilita Clark is the FT’s environment correspondent.
Photographs: Hannah Starkey; Getty