On Fire – Book Review

We can thrive not just survive.

If you or someone you love is planning to live on Earth anytime in the future, you should read Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.

Without ever having read a review about it or at least glancing at the front flap of the book jacket, have you ever grabbed a book off of a bookstore shelf and then walked immediately to the checkout counter and bought it? I will only do this for a very few authors which include Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, and Yvon Chouinard.

That is how I obtained my copy of On Fire.

In just under 300 pages, you will receive a valuable history lesson about the climate crisis and a vision for what we can and need to do to keep Earth habitable for ourselves and those who come after us.

Book Review

Since I had read nothing about On Fire, I did not know what to expect other than it had to do with the climate crisis and the Green New Deal. Having read previous books by Klein I was prepared for a fast-paced, informative, and action provoking book. It is.

On Fire Book Cover

Readers before cracking open On Fire, I suggest you approach reading it with an open and inquisitive mindset. You may find some parts disturbing but you will likely feel uplifted by others.

On Fire consists of essays and public talks that Klein has written and presented over a ten year period from 2010 to 2019.

She covers a lot of ground from the Gulf of Mexico to the Vatican to the Great Barrier Reef. Wide-ranging topics include climate change, capitalism, science, culture, and the Green New Deal. Along the way, you will be exposed to terms like Anglosphere, othering, sacrifice zones, neoliberal economics, and geoengineering.

My copy of On Fire is sporting a bright pink and red ruffle along the page edges where sticky tabs are marking passages that I thought were important or worth reviewing again later. Here are a few examples.

For me, the paragraph below from the “Introduction” pretty much sums up our current situation.

“The past forty years of economic history have been a story of systematically weakening the power of the public sphere, unmaking regulatory bodies, lowering taxes for the wealthy, and selling off essential services to the private sector. All the while, union power has been dramatically eroded and the public has been trained in helplessness: no matter how big the problem, we have been told, it’s best to leave it to the market or billionaire philanthro-capitalists, to get out of the way, to stop trying to fix problems at their root.”

In the chapter entitled “The Leap Years,” Klein describes the Leap Manifesto, a sort of Canadian version of the Green New Deal that she helped write. Page 178 contains a very important message that every environmentalist should heed.

“One thing we were very conscious of when we drafted the Leap Manifesto is that emergencies are vulnerable to abuses of power, and progressives are not immune to this by any means. There is a long and painful history of environmentalists, whether implicitly or explicitly, sending the message that ‘Our cause is so big, and so urgent, and since it encompasses everyone and everything, it should take precedence over everything and everyone else.’ Between the lines: ‘First we’ll save the planet and then we will worry about poverty, police violence, gender discrimination, and racism.’

“The Art of the Green New Deal” chapter near the end of the book discusses the power of art and how it can help us envision the social and ecological transformation we can have if we have the courage to go for it.

The video below co-created by Klein beautifully embodies this idea.

The Bottom Line

When Naomi Klein published her first book about the climate crisis This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate in 2014, she was already an award-winning journalist and bestselling author. She is currently the Senior Correspondent for The Intercept and the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. Klein is the co-founder of the climate justice organization The Leap.

Many wonderful writers do not have the grasp of language that Klein does. Her writing is clear, understandable, and evocative. She tells it like it is and seems to purposefully say things in a way intended to rile you up, like poking a stick in a hornet’s nest. This is one of the things that make her such a powerful writer. We need people who are willing to say what is really going on and to spur us to action. Klein does that.

I recommend you read On Fire first and then give or loan a copy of the book to someone you know that has not come to grips with the fact that the climate crisis is already here and that we can do something about it.

Featured Image at Top: Sunrise Movement youth activists demanding a Green New Deal during a sit-in outside the office of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi on November 12, 2018 – Photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement.

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Falter – Book Review

We don’t have to falter.

In his latest book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Bill McKibben is asking us to get real, get to work, and to have hope.

As soon as I spotted Falter on the bookshelf at a Barnes & Noble in downtown San Luis Obispo, CA, I grabbed two copies and headed to the checkout counter without even looking at the table of contents or reading the book jacket.

One copy was for me and the other one was destined to become a raffle prize at the SLO Climate Coalition event my spouse and I attended later that evening.

At the time, I was already reading two books in preparation for a post called Environmental Impact of Sugar, so when we got home I put Falter on a bookcase shelf in the living room.

Book Review

A few weeks ago, I took Falter off the shelf to read it.

After reading the book jacket, I thought “Hmm…This seems rather dismal.” Then I flipped to the table of contents and saw that the book begins with a prologue entitled “An Opening Note on Hope.” So, I read that part.

“A writer doesn’t owe a reader hope—the only obligation is honesty—but I want those who pick up this volume to know that its author lives in a state of engagement, not despair. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered writing what follows.”

Okay, now I was willing to dive in.

Falter Book Cover

Readers, in this book you will learn about and explore the climate crisis, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence.

How do these three topics interconnect? Good question. Read the book.

Here are a few highlights.

Part One: The Size of the Board

This first section will give you a good sense of how the climate crisis is unfolding, not in some distant time, but now. You will also get a synopsis of how we got to this point.

“Climate change has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it—it’s part of our mental furniture, like urban sprawl or gun violence. So, let’s remember exactly what we’ve been up to, because it should fill us with awe; it’s by far the biggest thing humans have ever done.”

On page 43-45, McKibben quotes parts of a poem by climate activists and poets Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (Marshall Islands) and Aka Niviana (Greenland). I wanted to read the whole poem so I searched on the Internet and found this video. It is beautiful and heartrending speaking to the very essence of what is at stake.

Part Two: Leverage

Money and power provide leverage. This part of the book puts that maxim into the context of the climate crisis.

“The first thing to say is that current levels of inequality are almost beyond belief…The world’s eight richest men possess more wealth than the bottom half of humanity.”

McKibben devotes a fair amount of page real estate to Ayn Rand and her 1957 book Atlas Shrugged. He suggests that this book is required reading for the people who control the money and power in our country and around the world.

I was intrigued so I checked the book out of my local library. If you are interested in what I thought about that book, read the note at the end of the post.

Part Three: The Name of the Game

Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence enter the dialogue at this point. Here you will get a good overview of the topic as well as McKibben’s opinions.

“For our game, the real power of CRISPR comes with the ability to change people.” (CRISPR is a genetic engineering technology)

Part Four: An Outside Chance

Hope returns to the narrative in this section. McKibben points out that we already have the technologies and tools we need to address the climate crisis, like solar panels and nonviolent movements.

“Even in what seems like the very clinical world of environmentalism, mounds of research and data aren’t ultimately decisive: the fight over climate change is ultimately not an argument about infrared absorption in the atmosphere, but about power and money and justice. Given that industry has most of that money and hence most of that power, it usually wins—unless, of course, a movement arises, one capable of changing hearts as well as minds.”

The Bottom Line

Thirty years ago, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature which is often credited as being the first book about climate change intended for the general public. Since then, he has published 17 more books including Oil and Honey, Eaarth, and Radio Free Vermont (a delightful fiction book). McKibben is a prolific journalist, the co-founder of 350.org, and scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

McKibben’s choice to frame the discussion in Falter using game language and concepts seemed kind of weird to me but somehow it works. He writes as if he is having a conversation with you and explains technical stuff in a way I think many people could understand. I like that. I think it makes his work accessible to a wide audience.

I recommend Falter to any human wanting to continue playing the human game and who wants to protect the game board for their children, grandchildren, and the people who come after them.

A Note about Atlas Shrugged

I wanted to read Atlas Shrugged because I feel it is important to try to understand where people are coming from, especially people with different perspectives and beliefs than me. I also enjoy debate (as long it is friendly).

In short Atlas Shrugged is a fiction book written as a sort of treatise on libertarianism taken to the nth degree.

I slogged away until I got to page 291 (of more than 1,200 pages) and then I took the book back to the library. The subject matter was not a problem for me but the book is so poorly written I just could not go on.

Featured Image at Top: A hand flipping wooden cubes from the word “change” to “chance – photo credit iStock/marchmeena29.

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