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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Your Individual Climate Actions Matter and this is Why

One action can lead to another.

Do your individual climate actions, mine, and everyone else’s matter? I strongly believe that they do—in more ways than you may think.

Yes, I have read many articles and blog posts followed social media threads and watched interviews of climate scientists and environmental experts declaring that our individual climate actions will not be enough to avert the worst of the climate crisis or to mitigate its effects.

Yet, here I am advocating for individual climate actions and averring that they do indeed matter.

“Is she in denial or just naively promoting wishful thinking?” are logical questions. Let me assure you that I do not inhabit a fantasy world or an alternate reality. However, I do reject the premise that what we do as individuals does not matter.

In this post, I will attempt to explain why I believe that our individual climate actions do matter. Perhaps my reasoning will resonate with you or perhaps not.

We Need Massive Structural and Social Change

Climate experts and many others keep repeating the mantra that the climate crisis requires massive structural and social change. Our energy, transportation, food, water, land use, justice, and economic systems—our very way of life—needs to be completely transformed if we (meaning people) are going to continue to be able to live on Earth now and in the future.

This is an undertaking like no other that has ever occurred in human history. It is going to take all of us changing our own lives and demanding that corporations and governments act like there is a climate crisis because there is one.

Who do you think is going to get that done?

It is going to be people, individual people. After all, it is individuals who make up families, neighborhoods, cities, corporations, nonprofit organizations, government bodies, and international climate movements.

You, I, and everyone else are the individuals that can collectively change the world. Our children, their children, and all the non-humans with which we share the planet are counting on us.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Barack Obama

That brings us back to individual climate actions and why they matter.

Action Begets Action

When faced with a mind-bogglingly complex and seemingly insurmountable situation, like the climate crisis, some people immediately step up and take action. I am humbled by and grateful to these people. But that does not describe me and maybe not you either.

Many, if not most people will feel overwhelmed. You are just one person. What could you possibly do that would make any positive difference? You may feel powerless and afraid. Freezing like a deer in the headlights you do nothing. You are in a state of inertia indisposed to motion, exertion, or change.

“Well, duh.” you may be thinking. “But, how am I supposed to get over feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and afraid?”

Do something, anything, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem.

Taking action breaks the cycle of inertia. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. A feeling like you can do something. One action can lead to another which leads to another and so on.

Lois Gibbs in Her Kitchen with Her Kids in 1978
Lois Gibbs with her kids in her kitchen making calls about the Love Canal toxic waste dump – photo Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

Then one day you will realize that you are one of the millions of other climate activists around the world who are all striving to live more lightly on Earth and in harmony with all the other living beings that share the planet.

Are you wondering what action you should take to get started? It is up to you. Consider choosing something that you actually want to do and that you feel confident you can accomplish. You can work on the harder stuff later.

Ideas and inspiration can come from almost anywhere. Talk with your family, friends, and coworkers, watch a film, go for walk, read a book, check out social media, attend an event, or read blogs posts here on Green Groundswell.

I am not suggesting that I am a paragon of anything or that I am a model climate activist. But I do know that my own journey began when I purchased a reusable water bottle and filled it up with water from my kitchen sink faucet.

Naysayers will suggest that we cannot wait for each person to find their inner climate activist. The thing is you cannot force another person to change. The only person that can change you is you.  

Water Drops and Ripples

Water Drop Creating a Ripple
Photo – Shutterstock/science photo

Let us say that you switch to reusable shopping bags, plant a pollinator-friendly garden, or install solar panels. Patting yourself on the back you feel that you have done your bit for the climate movement.

Is that enough?

Chances are that whatever climate actions you are doing, there are millions of other people around the world doing the same thing where they live and millions of other people are doing different climate actions.

Just as tiny drops of water will fill up a bucket all these actions add up to a significant positive impact.

Another benefit of taking action is that you are setting an example for other people that action is empowering. Your action could start a ripple of other actions.

Will incremental climate actions be enough to stave off the climate crisis? I do not think so.

However, as long as you, me, and everyone else is engaged in climate action at any level there is always the possibility that we will move beyond our comfort levels and do what is necessary to transform our society.

I will look for you along the journey.

Featured Image at Top: Newton’s Cradle perpetual motion device with one blue sphere – photo credit iStock/26ISO.

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