Naomi Klein on Place, Pace, Perspective, and Climate

April 24, 2014

“The most radical thing you can do is stay home,” – Gary Snyder

Wendell Berry – The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

Complete poem at end of post.

Naomi Klein in The Nation, by way of the Guardian:

The importance of the intensely local

Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.

But that is increasingly rare in the urbanised, industrialised world. We tend to abandon our homes lightly – for a new job, a new school, a new love. And as we do so, we are severed from whatever knowledge of place we managed to accumulate at the previous stop, as well as from the knowledge amassed by our ancestors (who, at least in my case, migrated repeatedly themselves).

Even for those of us who manage to stay put, our daily existence can be disconnected from the physical places where we live. Shielded from the elements as we are in our climate-controlled homes, workplaces and cars, the changes unfolding in the natural world easily pass us by. We might have no idea that a historic drought is destroying the crops on the farms that surround our urban homes, since the supermarkets still display miniature mountains of imported produce, with more coming in by truck all day. It takes something huge – like a hurricane that passes all previous high-water marks, or a flood destroying thousands of homes – for us to notice that something is truly amiss. And even then we have trouble holding on to that knowledge for long, since we are quickly ushered along to the next crisis before these truths have a chance to sink in.

Climate change, meanwhile, is busily adding to the ranks of the rootless every day, as natural disasters, failed crops, starving livestock and climate-fuelled ethnic conflicts force yet more people to leave their ancestral homes. And with every human migration, more crucial connections to specific places are lost, leaving yet fewer people to listen closely to the land.

How we made the air our sewer

Climate pollutants are invisible, and we have stopped believing in what we cannot see. When BP’s Macondo well ruptured in 2010, releasing torrents of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, one of the things we heard from company chief executive Tony Hayward was that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” The statement was widely ridiculed at the time, and rightly so, but Hayward was merely voicing one of our culture’s most cherished beliefs: that what we can’t see won’t hurt us and, indeed, barely exists.

So much of our economy relies on the assumption that there is always an “away” into which we can throw our waste. There’s the away where our garbage goes when it is taken from the curb, and the away where our waste goes when it is flushed down the drain. There’s the away where the minerals and metals that make up our goods are extracted, and the away where those raw materials are turned into finished products. But the lesson of the BP spill, in the words of ecological theorist Timothy Morton, is that ours is “a world in which there is no ‘away.'”

When I published No Logo a decade and a half ago, readers were shocked to learn of the abusive conditions under which their clothing and gadgets were manufactured. But we have since learned to live with it – not to condone it, exactly, but to be in a state of constant forgetfulness. Ours is an economy of ghosts, of deliberate blindness.

Air is the ultimate unseen, and the greenhouse gases that warm it are our most elusive ghosts. Philosopher David Abram points out that for most of human history, it was precisely this unseen quality that gave the air its power and commanded our respect. “Called Sila, the wind-mind of the world, by the Inuit; Nilch’i, or Holy Wind, by the Navajo; Ruach, or rushing-spirit, by the ancient Hebrews,” the atmosphere was “the most mysterious and sacred dimension of life.”

But in our time “we rarely acknowledge the atmosphere as it swirls between two persons.” Having forgotten the air, Abram writes, we have made it our sewer, “the perfect dump site for the unwanted byproducts of our industries … Even the most opaque, acrid smoke billowing out of the pipes will dissipate and disperse, always and ultimately dissolving into the invisible. It’s gone. Out of sight, out of mind.”

The timeframes that escape us

Another part of what makes climate change so very difficult for us to grasp is that ours is a culture of the perpetual present, one that deliberately severs itself from the past that created us as well as the future we are shaping with our actions. Climate change is about how what we did generations in the past will inescapably affect not just the present, but generations in the future. These timeframes are a language that has become foreign to most of us.

This is not about passing individual judgment, nor about berating ourselves for our shallowness or rootlessness. Rather, it is about recognising that we are products of an industrial project, one intimately and historically linked to fossil fuels.

And just as we have changed before, we can change again. After listening to the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry deliver a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our “homeplace” more than any other, I asked him if he had any advice for rootless people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always seem to be shopping from home. “Stop somewhere,” he replied. “And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.”

That’s good advice on lots of levels. Because in order to win this fight of our lives, we all need a place to stand.

The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front by Wendell Berry:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.


15 Responses to “Naomi Klein on Place, Pace, Perspective, and Climate”

  1. A similar article appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday this week:

    It has so far received 1226 comments from both sides of the divide. This shows how powerful her message is: We have become consumers, unable and unwilling to stare reality in the face. As I stated:

    “We deliberately ignore the killer in the room because we’re too busy chasing our own tails.

    It’s a frightening thought that we are the products of a consumer society, but it’s clearly the case. I love buying second-hand things (Oxfam is great) and rescuing old materials in order to create new stuff. People I meet along the road are curious when they see me collecting stuff. Last year I spotted a set of teak garden furniture being thrown out and grabbed the lot. The previous owners were happy to see someone making use of their rubbish, but I got the feeling that I was a strange creature from another planet. Remember the Wombles anyone?

    Talking of feeling like an alien, I sometimes (rarely) enter the shopping mile in my local town. I never buy anything, but I like to take photos of this strange world. The consumers I see there are the real aliens on this planet. They are devouring it, piece by piece.”

    • Which is exactly why its so important to train ones own skeptical brain to step out of your own bubble to observe yourself and be self-critical. This generally goes for any addiction, whether it be capitalist consumerism to smoking habits.

      Somewhere very early on we learn that our ego’s are the most important thing and that we are “special” in this universe. I believe the Rust Cohle character in the True Detective series has a bit of this philosophy.

      What we should learn is how fragile everything around us really is and that we need to learn to be kind with our surroundings to limit externalized costs of our behavior. That we do not exist solely as individuals but are essentially a tiny piece of a complete system that needs to be balanced right by our collective actions.

  2. jimbills Says:

    In the 1970s, with rising environmental costs and the oil shocks, it was a fairly common belief that the world was indeed finite and that the consumer culture was inherently vacuous and destructive. This belief didn’t lend comfort to us, though, and in a culture addicted to instant gratification any reduction in exterior hardships will immediately revert to its preferences.

    Starting in the late 1970s, we had three things that allowed us to do so. One, we opened up the North Sea and Alaska for oil drilling and OPEC eased up, so the energy crisis was over for the time being. Two, much of our industry moved out of the country, so a lot of the immediately obvious environmental effects went with it, and out of sight, out of mind (plus, EPA regulations went into effect). Three, we opened a floodgate of debt spending in the private and public sectors, allowing us to ramp up spending as never before.

    We blame Reagan, but we elected the guy, and by an overwhelming majority. We wanted the party to continue.

    Nowadays the story is that the party can continue (and that it can expand many times over and to all segments of the globe) because of technology. I’d suggest technology has only allowed us to mistake the fake for the real as we drift further and further away from the real, but time will tell.

    We’ll trundle on to our preferences, blinding ourselves to any other possibility, as long as pressing reality doesn’t make a re-appearance, and likely for quite a while afterwards, too.

  3. anafairday Says:

    Reblogged this on Anafairday Poems, Pictures and Musings and commented:
    Connection is a decision, Wall St. decides otherwise. ‘Getting rid of’, favourite phrase of a narrow mindset disconnected from responsibiilty to nature and the world. The Divided Self. One does not have to ‘get rid’ of water (flood waters) or waste. Recycle and eliminate the uncreative financial model. Participate in the rhythm of life, rather than destroying it.

  4. rayduray Says:

    Stumbling through the detritus of comments in the Guardian’s version of the Klein op/ed, I came across this bit of calculated snark regarding Barack Obama’s homage to Earth Day. It’s a doozy, if you’re woozy. Fasten your seatbelt and return to the BOHICA position.


    Today is Earth Day. President Obama will mark the day by flying from Washington, D.C., to Washington state — 2,328 miles, generating 568,032 pounds of carbon emissions at 244 pounds per mile — and then beginning his week-long trip to Asia, flying tonight to Tokyo — 4,792 miles, an additional 1,169,248 pounds of carbon emissions. The two trips add up to 1.73 million pounds of carbon, or 868.64 tons.

    For perspective, the average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide in one year.

    This figure does not count the carbon emissions from the president’s backup plane, cargo planes transporting the president’s limo and helicopter, advance staff, etc.

    End Quote.

    Ray here. Ouch. On Earth Day, I guess we couldn’t instead expect the President to walk out to Michelle’s White House kitchen garden and do some weeding, now could we? No. The President is here to lead us by example… off the cliff.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Ouch indeed. Just helps us to think about how much CO2 we EACH put into the air. 864 tons pales in comparison to the total that all we “average Americans” generate. ~19 tons x 310,000,000 Americans comes out to around 60,000,000,000+ (that’s billion) tons per year, or 120,000,000,000,000+ (that’s trillion) pounds. You and I make 20 pounds of CO2for every gallon of gas we burn in our cars.

      We don’t need the President to “lead us off the cliff by example”—-we’re doing fine on our own. What gets me angry is all the people who get on planes and in cars and go no place really important every day (and that includes you and me).

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      Oh please…. This is what a President is supposed to do – use a bully pulpit. I don’t begrudge his CO2 output, it’s his lack of grit and lack of concern to actually do something meaningful for the environment (among a lot of things) that I begrudge.

      “look at Obama” is a bullshit Limbaughesque argument. Hey, look at something shiny and don’t think about what YOU or I are doing.

      Homey don’t play that game.

  5. omnologos Says:

    It’s sad that a species’ success story be narrated as some kind of terrible disaster

    • dumboldguy Says:

      What is truly sad is that you don’t understand that the human species IS proving to be a ‘terrible disaster” for the planet and not a “success”.

      • omnologos Says:

        Worms, of which the Creator’s been so fond, are doing fine

        • dumboldguy Says:

          More Omnostupidity. “Worms” is a rather imprecise term, scientifically speaking, and there is no evidence that “the Creator has been so fond” of them as compared to any other life form. The really “favorite” life form on the planet are bacteria. Most importantly, “worms” of the earthworm variety that Omno probably means, actually are NOT doing fine but are having problems in many places on the planet, and some scientists think AGW is the cause, in addition to man’s more direct meddling with localized “worm” environments.

          Omno just loves to hear himself talk, especially when he is speaking ignorant nonsense and untruths—-listening to him is our cross to bear, I guess.

    • stephengn1 Says:

      The narration is ongoing. Whether it ends as a terrible disaster or a success story is up to us. To take no heed of the easily foreseen consequences of our own actions (as you constantly do and want to promote doing) is pure folly

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