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Don’t give up before you even tried ! (or what I wish Naomi Klein’s interview in Antwerp had been about)

By Pierre Massat
on November 2, 2017

Last Sunday  we went with a group of ex-ITM-colleagues to hear Naomi Klein talk about her latest  book “No is not enough” in the beautiful De Roma theater in Antwerp. A journalist led the conversation with Naomi. Her questions were unfortunately almost exclusively focused on Trump, a topic Klein didn’t manage to escape either. Klein’s latest book is indeed for a large part about who Trump really is (his own “lifestyle” brand, out to make profit by being true to his brand’s values), but it ends with a strong call for unification of efforts to access political power and for immediate action. Yet by limiting the discussion to Trump, and despite the relevance of Klein’s analysis, the audience was left with a sense of helplessness and fatalism.

This is most unfortunate, as Klein’s last two books (“No is not enough” and “This changes everything”), while providing a crisp analysis of our time, are very much about the countless opportunities to do things, instead of commenting and complaining helplessly. “This changes everything” was about doers who are building new ways of working, growing food, producing energy, and so on that are sustainable, respectful of humans and their environment, and, most importantly, that actually WORK. “No is not enough”, on the other hand, has two main messages beside the analysis on Trump (who for Klein is nothing but a logical consequence of the trends she’s been warning about for years) : 1) that we must be prepared for shocks and for what corporations and neo-liberal politicians will try to push for in their aftermath, and 2) that activists of all trades must unite at last to access political power in order to challenge the single economic ideology responsible for most of what they’re trying to combat.

One should be well aware by now that the way information is brought to our attention is anything but neutral. For various reasons nowadays most newspapers feel the need to give a lot of space to the loudest, richest and (sometimes) most idiotic individuals of our species. This might be because the press is for a large part currently owned by a few very wealthy individuals, or because of the dependence on advertisement.  In any case, if your name is Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon, from which you should stop buying immediately by the way – reasons available on request), and you woke up with a brilliant idea that will make you earn more money while sacking 100 000 workers, you can be sure that your idea will be in the headlines of the world’s biggest newspapers in a matter of days. If you are an unknown farmer on the other hand, who manages to both feed his family and make a living by selling his production on a small permaculture farm in an innovative and sustainable way, you are bound to be turned down by most of the news industry except in your own bubble. That’s one reason why most people are unaware of the wealth of solutions (already) at hand.

The other reason is that keeping people in a perpetual state of shock  is in the interest of the proponents of the status quo (i.e. those whose job is to make sure trillion-dollar assets such as offshore drilling platforms and car assembly lines will still be worth something in 10 years).  The sum of the information we ingest in our everyday life works toward keeping us in a state of fright and helplessness that prevents us from thinking (and imagining things). You walk past a giant ad for clothes : the models look like suicidal, anorexic junkies. You read the news on websites : collapsing ecosystems, nuclear threats, terrorism, unstoppable corporate power, and so on. And you end your day with a dystopian Hollywood movie where a handful of either very wealthy, or very unhappy and sick people survive a giant catastrophe. The message is clear : anyway, you (we) are ****ed.

Yet, and this is what Naomi Klein’s last two books boil down to,  there are already plenty of working alternatives to what is currently presented as inevitable. From permaculture to community-owned windmills to “zero-waste” shops. From companies turned into cooperatives to local currencies. So much has already been tested and implemented. There are many very serious projects of giant cargo sailships. Airbus is even working on a fully electric plane. Many of these alternatives also mean a much more equitable balance for less “developed” countries, that could become energetically and agriculturally (at least partly) independent, and are sometimes even leading the transition (e.g. Rwanda with the ban on plastic bags). And look at the substantial support that Sanders, Mélenchon’s ‘France Insoumise’ and Corbyn received in recent elections. Those were not one-time votes. These are votes by people who feel they’ve understood what the current ideology was about, and no matter how much advertisement and lies and threats you throw at them, they’re not likely to change their mind anytime soon.

Humanity has never had access to more knowledge and to more advanced tools than today. Those who think that climate change is the biggest threat that humans have ever had to face are ridiculously pretentious, and if they lived in Gabriel García Márquez’ Macondo the ghosts of their ancestors would probably come to scold them big time for minimizing what they had to go through in their time.  What do you think our ancestors had in mind tens of thousands of years ago when crossing unknown oceans and immense stretches of tropical forest, thousands of years before anybody learned to make metal tools ? My bet is that they carried on, and that they forced themselves to not give in to discouragement. Because their very survival was at stake. And even if climate change were (was?) indeed the biggest challenge ever, sitting around trying to measure just how complex the problem really is isn’t helping much. Do you think Coltrane would have ever picked up a sax if he’d first read papers about the complexity of group improvisation ?  

We have all we need to solve most of our problems. Just because they’re not making the headlines every morning doesn’t mean the solutions don’t exist. At the political level, we might as well assume that nothing substantial has been done to address climate change yet. The Kyoto Protocol and the emissions trading system have let emission levels soar happily, and the Paris Agreement hasn’t translated into any meaningful change yet – or at least not yet to the extent that dire scenarios for the planet can be avoided. So how can we decide that all hope is lost when practically nothing has been implemented at any significant scale ? Now (and in the coming years) is the time to actually do what needs to be done. At the political level, as Klein urges us to do, by joining efforts across all disciplines and causes to access decision-making positions. But also as individuals, by turning away from all the harmful consumption habits and choosing the environmentally and socially sustainable alternatives. For once let’s set a trend and politics and markets will have to follow.

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