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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Green New Deal for the 21st Century

The Green New Deal is an emerging idea that is gaining momentum because it gives us a vision of a better future and a way forward that includes everyone.

Imagine living in the United States of America where clean air, clean water, healthy food, a safe place to study, work, and live, and an opportunity to thrive is available and accessible to everyone.

Even though the framers of the U.S. Constitution were not a diverse bunch (being all white men), I still think they envisioned the America that I described above and said so in the preamble to the Constitution using late 18th-century language.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Everyone needs a habitable planet to live on but the U.S. federal government is actively making climate change worse by ramping up fossil fuel development, dismantling protections for people and the environment, and denying that there is a problem.

Apparently, many of our elected officials have forgotten whom they work for or just do not care. We the people need to take back our power and demand that they either step to the plate or take a hike (we made progress during the last election).

The Green New Deal could be the rallying cry we so desperately need to unite us and mobilize our country to do the work necessary to keep Earth habitable for everyone.

So, what is the Green New Deal? After a quick refresher of the 1930s New Deal that inspired the Green New Deal, we will take a look the green version.

1930s New Deal

The stock market crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression that was well underway in 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president and declared,

“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.”

By the time he took office on March 4, 1933, the banking system had collapsed, unemployment was at almost 25%, and millions of people had lost their homes and farms.

As he had promised the American people, President Roosevelt immediately set about making the New Deal a reality.

Civilian Conservation Corps Rock Creek Bridge in Little Rock, Arkansas
Bridge across Rock Creek in Little Rock, Arkansas built by the Civilian Conservation Corps – Photo Credit Eric Hunt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

From 1933 to 1936, millions of federally funded jobs put people back to work on projects as diverse as planting trees to building bridges to painting murals, new federal agencies formed, and Congress enacted legislation reforming the banking industry and stock market, strengthening protections for workers, and setting up the social security system.

A lot has changed in the United States since the New Deal ended some eighty or so years ago. The Green New Deal is for the country we are today.

2020s Green New Deal

Ideas for a Green New Deal have been swirling around for well over a decade but had not gained much traction, until just after the November 2018 elections.

On November 13, 2018, young activists wearing black Sunrise Movement t-shirts and holding yellow signs saying “Green Jobs for All” and “What is Your Plan?” occupied soon to be Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected congresswoman from New York stopped by to add her support for a Green New Deal.

The Sunrise Movement’s message is simple, audacious, and inclusive.

“We’re fighting for a just transition to 100% renewable energy within 12 years—the time frame set by the world’s leading climate scientists.”

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and other representatives supported the formation of a House Select Committee for a Green New Deal with the authority to develop a detailed national Green New Deal plan and draft legislation in 2 years or less, with implementation taking place the following 10 years (currently there is no plan to do anything).

Major goals of the Plan include:

  • Transitioning to 100% renewable energy
  • Building a national smart electricity grid
  • Making all buildings energy efficient, comfortable, and safe
  • Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, agriculture, and other industries
  • Upgrading water infrastructure to ensure everyone has access to clean water
  • Investing in drawing down greenhouse gases
  • Making “green” a major U.S. export and helping other countries bring about a global Green New Deal
  • Guaranteeing a living wage job to every person who wants one
  • Helping people transition from fossil fuel energy jobs
  • Providing a just transition for all workers and people living in disadvantaged communities

Speaker of the House Pelosi, who has the power to establish committees and appoint representatives to committees, nixed the idea.

Instead, she decided to resurrect the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming (2007-2010) renaming it the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and appointing Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida to chair it. This committee will not be working on a plan for a Green New Deal.

The thing is the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. The Green New Deal idea is garnering increasing media attention and gaining proponents in the House of Representatives. Even a few 2020 presidential hopefuls are talking about it.

“Green is the new red, white and blue.” – Thomas L. Friedman

What Can You Do?

  • Learn more about the Green New Deal. Of course, you can read whatever you want; however, on your behalf, I have slogged through dozens of articles and selected several that I think will give you a good grasp of the topic and will point you to other articles and resources.
  • Talk about the Green New Deal with your family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and community leaders.
  • Tell your elected officials that you want them to support the Green New Deal and share with them what is important to you.
  • Join an organization that is mobilizing to support the Green New Deal.
  • Participate in a Green New Deal protest march, sit-in, or rally (please refrain from hopping on an airplane to do so).

I am in. Are you in?

Featured Image at Top: Piece of paper in a typewriter with the words “If not now, when?” – Photo Credit iStock/IvelinRadkov

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