Imagining A Future Without Sacrifice Zones: Othering and the Climate Crisis

Naomi Klein

Pictured: Naomi Klein

Pictured: Naomi Klein

By: Sybil Lewis

Early in the conference, john a powell, director of the Haas Institute, posed a metaphor to the audience: if neoliberalism is a car, then it is fueled by the anxiety of the Other. In her keynote address, Naomi Klein, award-winning journalist and author, showed that if looked at through the lens of climate change, the metaphor is in fact reality—the dismissal of the Other has been integral to powering our fossil fuel cars and economy.

“Fossilized energy cannot exist without sacrificial places and sacrificial people,” Klein said. “Since the early days, fossil fuels have been toxic to those on the front lines of their extraction.”

The “existential nature” of the environmental crisis has caused some environmentalists to work in silos and proclaim that climate change trumps all other issues. While Klein acknowledges the urgency for environmental reform, she argues that real reform is only possible within a framework that understands the intersections between climate change and structural issues of race and class.

Environmental crises do discriminate, she said, leaving poor people of color the most vulnerable, while simultaneously promoting a culture based on othering. This is evidenced by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006,  when African Americans were labeled as looters rather than refugees.

It is crucial to emphasize systems especially when debates over human nature cloud the narrative. The current era is described as Anthropocene, the age of humans, indicating the significant impact that humans have had on the geological landscape. Within this age of humans, Klein argues that the debate around human nature is split between those that think humans are responsible and will inevitably suffer the consequences, and those insisting that technological advancement will save the day.

“Humans are neither a plague on the earth, nor a god species [that will fix it],” she said. “We are just a piece of this magnificent whole. The earth doesn't belong to us, but we belong to the earth. That is a gift. Let's not fight for nature, let's be nature, defending herself.”

Klein encourages the audience to see climate change through a historical lens that is not separate from the economic and ideological foundations of capitalism. By doing so, she argues, it is clear that political, economic, and ideological changes are necessary in order to achieve a “fundamental shift from a society based on Othering, to one grounded on an unshakeable commitment to belonging.”

Since the dawn of the steam engine, industrialization has been largely motivated, not only by a profit incentive, but also by a desire to control the workforce. For her newest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Klein researched the marketing material for the first steam engines and found that for the ownership class, the most appealing selling point was that coal provided control over nature and workers by reducing the dependency on renewable energy, such as wind and water, that kept factories immobile.

“The promise of coal from the beginning was you’re in charge and you can have this one-way non-reciprocal relationship with the natural world and other human beings,” Klein said. “As the Swedish sociologist said ‘climate change is the atmospheric legacy of class warfare.’”

Within this context, one can understand climate change deniers better, she added. In her view, right wing climate change deniers in the US understand that if climate change is real, it would require an end to their economic and social framework which in their view equates to a “redistribution of wealth to brown people in the US and other countries.”

Klein sees climate change as the catalyst to this fundamental shift because the measures needed to alleviate environmental degradation, which scientists say involves reducing 8–10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions per year, “directly counter the capitalist philosophy reliant on growth.”

Current responses to climate change have failed to internalize the radical change needed—Klein noted that during a summit on these issues, it was leaked to the delegates that President Barack Obama made a backroom deal to set the maximum temperature increase to 2 degrees. African delegates walked out of the summit chanting “two degrees is suicide” while delegates from Island nations repeated “1.5 to survive.”

Moving forward the first step is to listen to the science and declare an end to sacrifice zones, which are expanding and encroaching on those who thought they were outside the realms of impact.

We need to design our policies with a justice agenda that takes into account that “we are all in the same sinking boat, but people of color are closer to the water,” Klein said. Hence, she affirms that transit, food sovereignty, the #Fightfor15, and many other issues are part of the climate change justice movement.

Klein concluded her speech by quoting Miya Yoshitani, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Oakland, who eloquently summarizes this intersectionality:

"The point is, that the climate justice fight here in the US and around the world is not just a fight against the ecological crisis of all time, it is the fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world that we want."


Watch the entire video below.

Imagining a Future Without Sacrifice Zones: Othering and the Climate Crisis" A Keynote Address by Naomi Klein