In the next installment of Eco-Age’s ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ series, Livia Firth speaks to author and social activist Naomi Klein about the importance of instigating a ‘Marshall Plan’ to make sure things are done differently for both people and planet following the Covid-19 crisis.
To say that I have a crush on Naomi Klein is a bit of an underestimation – I have voraciously read her books like ‘No Logo’ or ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and her last one, ‘On Fire: The burning case for a Green New Deal,’ hugely resonated with me. What she describes in this book is not only how I have felt for a long time, but exactly where we are today, at this precise moment in history.
“For my entire life,” it begins, “I have been involved in movements confronting the myriad of ways that our current economic systems grind up people’s lives and landscapes in the ruthless pursuit of profit. My first book, ‘No Logo,’ published almost 20 years ago, documented the human and ecological costs of corporate globalization, from the sweatshops of Indonesia to the oil fields in the Niger Delta (…) The painful, even lethal, impacts of these practices were impossible to deny; it was simply argued that they were the necessary costs of a system that was creating so much wealth that the benefits would eventually trickle down to improve the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. What has happened instead is that the indifference to life that was expressed in the exploitation of individual workers on factory floors and in the decimation of individual mountains and rivers has instead trickled up to swallow our entire planet”
There is an urgency now because it just so happens that we are all alive at the last possible moment when changing course can mean saving lives on a truly unimaginable scale. This is why I was over the moon when Naomi accepted to be interviewed for our The Best is Yet to Come series. We discussed how today we have a huge opportunity to implement what she calls “a Marshall Plan for the future of our society, a major operating system upgrade, a plan to roll up our sleeves and actually get the job done.” This is an extract of our conversation – which I wish could have lasted for ever.
Livia Firth Hi, Naomi!
Naomi Klein Hi. How are you, Livia? It’s so nice to meet you.
Livia Firth It’s so nice to meet you. I think I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life. I have had so many conversations in my head with you over the last years. And also, I was laughing because I think in the last four months since I finished ‘On Fire,’ I’ve probably quoted that book probably 4000 times! It really describes so well where we are at today. And when you describe the need for a ‘Marshall Plan,’ well, now is the perfect moment in history for that.
Naomi Klein It is, yes. That phrase, a ‘Marshall Plan for Planet Earth’ is a phrase I first heard more than 10 years ago when I was just starting to do reporting about the climate crisis. And I met a woman named Angélica Navarro, who was a negotiator for the Bolivian government. She introduced me to this concept of climate reparations, which is the simple idea that because the climate crisis is a crisis created by the rich, but felt overwhelmingly by the poor (who had the least to do with creating the crisis), that there is a debt owed, a tangible debt owed from the Global North to the Global South, and also within wealthy countries in the Global North. It’s a debt from the super consumers and polluters to the people who are on the front lines of pollution. And so Angélica was making the case to me about ecological debt. And she said we need a Marshall Plan for planet Earth that will mobilise resources on a scale we haven’t seen since the end of the Second World War, that will mobilise technology and create opportunities for development, for job creation in clean technologies. And that’s the vision. It’s a vision really for battling the ecological crisis and the crisis of economic inequality and injustice at the same time.
Livia Firth The thing I feel strongest about in this moment is that we have an enormous opportunity. There’s been this huge shock and shocks are never gentle, but we now have a chance to put this Marshall Plan in place. But how do we go about it; what are the solutions and how can we be vigilant that we don’t miss this opportunity?
I actually thought of you the other day; I’m sure you read the article that Chuck Collins published on CNN Business? He’s the director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. And he was saying that the wealth of America’s billionaires actually increased by nearly 10% over just three weeks as the Covid-19 crisis took hold. And that at least eight of these billionaires have added another one billion to their wealth during the pandemic, with the exception of Jeff Bezos from Amazon, who added 25 billion since January 1st. And so obviously this wealth surge is unprecedented in the history of markets, but also, what is happening to the frontline workers? And what happens when a business becomes so powerful that it can influence the policy-making and the governments because that’s what happens when someone has a wealth equivalent to the GDP of a country. So how do we make sure that this opportunity doesn’t evaporate in front of our eyes?
Naomi Klein Well, that’s the question. And I think about it all the time. The thing about moments of shock is that is that they move very, very quickly. Right? And the reason why the strategy that I’ve called The Shock Doctrine is so prevalent is that because in moments of shock, we are focused on the emergency of the shock itself. And so even though, as you say, it is a tremendous opportunity and I think intellectually more of us understand that, than at any other point in my lifetime. Right?
I would say in 2008, after the financial crisis, even though it was also a huge opportunity when the banks were on their knees; when the car companies were in crisis, when we had the opportunity to have a huge stimulus bill; we could have had a Marshall Plan for Planet Earth then, and that is when Angélica was calling for it. But not enough people understood that, and not enough people were pushing for it. This moment is different because I think that you and I are not the only ones who understand that this is an opening and it will either go really badly or it could be one of these sort of catalytic, transformative moments where things get actually better. Because the injustices are just laid so bare.
And, you know, you were pointing to one: that the way Amazon workers are treated in the warehouses and the fact that Jeff Bezos is just getting unimaginably richer in the midst of this. It exposes the lie that pandemics don’t discriminate. They discriminate brutally! They follow the fault lines of pre-existing injustice – but that can also be radicalising. So I would say there are some things that we have working for us, and a lot of us see it. too. Then there are things like the fact we are enjoying the fact that birdsong is returning and wildlife is coming back. We’re realising that maybe we don’t need to consume as much as we were consuming before. When I talk to people about what they miss, it’s not shopping, you know!
Livia Firth That’s what I say! In all that webinars that I’ve done in the last few weeks, I’ve said that this lockdown is helping us realise this. Do you miss your friend’s hugs or do you miss the clothes (and other crap) that you didn’t buy? And I think you’re right; the pandemic is still not touching all of us in the same way, but it is touching all of us. But more than the pandemic itself is the lockdown that has been affecting everyone worldwide. For the first time in history, every one of us is in the same situation. We all have been forced to be in lockdown. And so hopefully that is also awakening the sense of community a lot more.
Naomi Klein But we do we still have the fact that some people are actually more exposed and working harder than they’ve ever worked; like nurses, doctors, those who work in the supermarkets. But they’re having their own realisations. I think the realisations that the lockdown class is having are kind of in one category, about what we need, what we miss, what we can do without. And then you have the essential workers who are realising how essential they are. Which is a very important realisation for them to have, because so many of these workers have been treated as disposable or told they are ‘low skilled.’ And that is the rationale for not giving them the wages they deserve. So I agree entirely; this is affecting all of us. Not in the same way, but there are realisations that are happening, that are layered, that are different, and we have to figure out how they fit together.
Livia Firth A lot of things are happening. Even when you were talking about the financial crisis, we didn’t realise as much because it didn’t touch everyone in the same way. We actually started buying crap even more because it was so cheap and disposable – we couldn’t afford education or healthcare but we could still afford a McDonalds or an H&M t-shirt for five dollars! And now this pandemic has put all the cards on the table, and this is why I’m optimistic that hopefully something will happen. But, you know, we have to be vigilant because you touched on another very big thing that is happening, and Harari also wrote about it last week in the FT: now we are faced with issues like mass surveillance on a scale that will make the Cambridge Analytica data gathering look like it was a bad joke from the Middle Ages.
Naomi Klein Yes, there’s definitely a lot going on with the tech companies in this crisis that we have to be really vigilant about. You were talking about Bezos and the billionaire class. This makes it very different from the 2008 financial crisis becase this is the first time that we’ve had a global economic crash that excludes billionaires. But particular billionaires – it’s the tech class in particular that are seeing huge increases!
I feel like we are now living in the dream that Silicon Valley had for us, that they weren’t able to fully implement because there was actually increasing suspicion of tech companies before this. People didn’t want driverless cars and they didn’t want the drones delivering Amazon packages. They were talking about breaking up these companies. But now here we are, doing Zoom calls, online health, my son’s classes are now remote. This is happening without privacy protections and it’s being rushed through. And you’re seeing all these companies rebrand their products, now they’re selling themselves as the solution to a pandemic.
I heard Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, talking about this as a grand experiment. So I think we should say: ‘You’re right. It is. We’ve been living in Eric Schmidt’s grand experiment. And guess what? We hate it.” You know, we’re not happy! Do you know anybody who’s enjoying spending this much time on screens, having this little contact with other humans? So I think we should be grateful that we got this fast forward vision of this Silicon Valley utopia. And we now know in our bones that we don’t want to go there.
Livia Firth In fact, now that you’re saying this, I think maybe the effect of the lockdown will be not only that we realise that we don’t need the crap, but that we will throw our iPhones and our computers out of the window!
Naomi Klein And our Alexas, please! There’s something really uniquely exhausting about this. I think it has to do with the fact that, you know, we’re humans. We have five senses and we’re built to use all five of them. And I think we’re at our best when all of our senses are activated and nourished.
Livia Firth So this is why the best is yet to come, because we will ditch our computers and our phones. And actually, this is the best vision of all. We will realise that this technological revolution, well, we don’t like it.
Naomi Klein I think what we need to do is get back to the idea that these are tools, right? We should treat the internet like a public utility. It should be treated as a commons. We cannot have three men control the pipelines that unite us and control the algorithms that allow our movements to strategise. This is not ok. And so in this moment we are feeling the hazards, but also the fact that we really do need these tools. But we need to have control over them. We need to use them as tools, not be used by them. That raises some really big questions about whether or not we should be leaving this technology in private hands. You know, I think Amazon should be a workers co-op myself!
Livia Firth We can go on for ever, I love talking to you, and hopefully next time we meet, we can have a glass of wine and a hug!
Naomi Klein Exactly. It was such a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for having these real conversations. I hope we can find ways to work together, because this is a moment where we need to. And if people want to check out what my little team has been working on around this they should go to theleap.org. We just launched a new project, a People’s Bailout, which sort of has three phases of how we move through this crisis. The first is the relief phase, which we’re in right now. Then we’re slowly going to move into the recovery phase, but we also have to have the reimagine phase. And the seeds for the reimagine phase have to be in each one of these earlier stages. And so we sort of map out what that might look like in the way we imagine what kind of relief we want, and what kind of recovery we want, so that we’re best situated for the reimagining, which we need most of all.
Livia Firth This is wonderful, thank you! And thank you for this time together!
This transcript has been abridged. Listed to Naomi and Livia’s full conversation: