Sharon August 5th, 2009
I don’t like Sarah Palin, and I do very much admire Naomi Klein, whose book _The Shock Doctrine_ was one of the most important books of the decade. Had you asked me a few days ago whether I’d write an essay criticizing Naomi Klein for, among other things, her representation of Sarah Palin, I would have suggested that the odds were, to say the least, extremely low. And yet I find myself doing precisely that, which just, as they say in the song, just ”goes to show you never can tell.”
The problem with Naomi Klein’s essay, originally given as a speech, is not that we disagree about many of her basic observations about the problems we face, but rather that I think she’s allowing a cheap shot, and a false description of a moment to blind her to the scope of the real problem, and to throw up barriers to what needs doing. In the end, Klein and I agree about a lot – but the devil is always in the details, and in this case, her use of details troubles me.
Klein begins her essay using Sarah Palin as the embodiment of a moment in time, as the human version of the idea that our culture can go on as it is forever. She writes:
“I usually talk about the bailout in speeches these days. We all need to understand it because it is a robbery in progress, the greatest heist in monetary history. But today I’d like to take a different approach: What if the bailout actually works, what if the financial sector is saved and the economy returns to the course it was on before the crisis struck? Is that what we want? And what would that world look like?The answer is that it would look like Sarah Palin. Hear me out, this is not a joke. I don’t think we have given sufficient consideration to the meaning of the Palin moment. Think about it: Sarah Palin stepped onto the world stage as Vice Presidential candidate on August 29 at a McCain campaign rally, to much fanfare. Exactly two weeks later, on September 14, Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the global financial meltdown.
So in a way, Palin was the last clear expression of capitalism-as-usual before everything went south. That’s quite helpful because she showed us—in that plainspoken, down-homey way of hers—the trajectory the U.S. economy was on before its current meltdown. By offering us this glimpse of a future, one narrowly avoided, Palin provides us with an opportunity to ask a core question: Do we want to go there? Do we want to save that pre-crisis system, get it back to where it was last September? Or do we want to use this crisis, and the electoral mandate for serious change delivered by the last election, to radically transform that system? We need to get clear on our answer now because we haven’t had the potent combination of a serious crisis and a clear progressive democratic mandate for change since the 1930s. We use this opportunity, or we lose it.
So what was Sarah Palin telling us about capitalism-as-usual before she was so rudely interrupted by the meltdown? Let’s first recall that before she came along, the U.S. public, at long last, was starting to come to grips with the urgency of the climate crisis, with the fact that our economic activity is at war with the planet, that radical change is needed immediately. We were actually having that conversation: Polar bears were on the cover of Newsweek magazine. And then in walked Sarah Palin. The core of her message was this: Those environmentalists, those liberals, those do-gooders are all wrong. You don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to rethink anything. Keep driving your gas-guzzling car, keep going to Wal-Mart and shop all you want. The reason for that is a magical place called Alaska. Just come up here and take all you want. “Americans,” she said at the Republican National Convention, “we need to produce more of our own oil and gas. Take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska, we’ve got lots of both.”‘
And to a degree, all of this is true. But the problem with holding Sarah Palin up as the embodiment of business as usual, is that it is a cheap shot. I don’t like Sarah Palin, and I sure as heck don’t want her to be in charge of anything bigger than the local Elks Club. But if we are going to use Sarah Palin as the embodiment of our failure, to imply that our doom comes from the right, we need to ask what alternatives the left has proposed? That is, who isn’t Sarah Palin? Is there someone out there who stands up as the essence of this new, progressive movement that Klein claims is in progress, and that undermines our situation?
The logical candidate, of course, would be Obama. And while I am always a fan of the lesser of two evils, and give Obama sincere credit for some of his actions, I think an attempt to imply that our disaster comes from an ignorant right is a deeply false and troubling one. The contrasting figure, Obama, was a senator from the midwest, fully complicit in the massive ethanol boondoggle that helped create a new starving class worldwide, as cars competed with people for food. He is and was an advocate of so-called “clean coal” – despite the fact that there is no such thing, despite the fact that carbon capture and storage is a non-starter. He is certainly an advocate of continued economic growth, and I find myself queasily forced to admit (since I like George W. Bush a whole lot less than Sarah Palin) that I think Bush’s stimulus package, which at least put money in the hands of ordinary people who needed it, was more populist, more successful and more humane than Obama’s funding of the auto industry and a whole lot of re-paving and highways projects.
It would be just as accurate, and far less petty for Klein to state that the figure that represents business as usual, going on as we are, is Barack Obama. And in giving a speech to a group of people at a celebration of _The Progressive_ it would have been a whole heck of a lot more honest and more just. That is, the problem is not just the world vision embodied by the people you already don’t like, it is the problem embodied by the people you do, and in fact, by the people you are.
Klein claims that last August, we were actually “having that conversation” about the urgency of dealing with our ecological crisis. After all, polar bears were on the cover of Newsweek. I’m casting my memory back to last summer, and trying to recall a sense of invigorated national dialogue on the subject of climate change. I’m not finding it. If the subject was coming up in discussion more, which it probably was, although not nearly as much as Obama’s birth certificate or McCain’s fits of temper, or who would be VP, well, great. But the terms in which the discussion was occurring were still completely unrelated to the scale of action that we must function on to address climate change – and they still are. Yeah, there were polar bears on the cover of a national magazine – why not, they are cute, and as long as the issue is framed in terms of how much we care about fuzzy bears, it is conveniently placed outside of our own future and our own survival.
Now Klein goes on to frame our discussion in precisely necessary terms – she turns us to the basic idea that we have to end growth, that we can’t live on a planet that engages in the kind of rapine, endless growth modern capitalism that we have. I’m thrilled that she did so, and I think this is the important essence of the discussion – and Klein’s use of her platform to have it matters a great deal. She says,
“The President tells us he wants to look forward, not backwards. But in order to confront the lie of perpetual growth and limitless abundance that is at the center of both the ecological and financial crises, we have to look backwards. And we have to look way backwards, not just to the past eight years of Bush and Cheney, but to the very founding of this country, to the whole idea of the settler state.Modern capitalism was born with the so-called discovery of the Americas. It was the pillage of the incredible natural resources of the Americas that generated the excess capital that made the Industrial Revolution possible. Early explorers spoke of this land as a New Jerusalem, a land of such bottomless abundance, there for the taking, so vast that the pillage would never have to end. This mythology is in our biblical stories—of floods and fresh starts, of raptures and rescues—and it is at the center of the American Dream of constant reinvention. What this myth tells us is that we don’t have to live with our pasts, with the consequences of our actions. We can always escape, start over.
These stories were always dangerous, of course, to the people who were already living on the “discovered” lands, to the people who worked them through forced labor. But now the planet itself is telling us that we cannot afford these stories of endless new beginnings anymore. That is why it is so significant that at the very moment when some kind of human survival instinct kicked in, and we seemed finally to be coming to grips with the Earth’s natural limits, along came Palin, the new and shiny incarnation of the colonial frontierswoman, saying: Come on up to Alaska. There is always more. Don’t think, just take.
This is not about Sarah Palin. It’s about the meaning of that myth of constant “discovery,” and what it tells us about the economic system that they’re spending trillions of dollars to save. What it tells us is that capitalism, left to its own devices, will push us past the point from which the climate can recover. And capitalism will avoid a serious accounting—whether of its financial debts or its ecological debts—at all costs. Because there’s always more. A new quick fix. A new frontier.”
Why on earth am I quibbling with someone who gets so much right in this speech? She goes on to call our modern economic models a leaky pirate ship, and suggests we need to destroy the ship and buid a whole new vessel. And she’s absolutely right – that is, our economic models, our whole way of life, our assumptions that there are always more resources, have to change – they will change, one way or another, by virtue of climate change and energy limitations. Our only choice for a softish landing is to change them voluntarily, before we have no other options, and our window for doing so is getting very, very, very narrow. And the only possible option is to change as we must – that is, not as we want to, not as we are comfortable with, not as would be easy for us, but as the facts demand. And that change is going to be quite profound.
Klein gets the problem right. She gets that we can’t continue to live this way. But she still is attached to old enlightenment political categories that simply do not function well in the face of our crisis. She imagines a rapine right, selling the Business As Usual model, and a at least partially critical left. There is some truth in this analysis (and there is often some truth in the criticisms of the left from the right) - but not enough to take us where we need to go. Because the left has been complicit in creating other myths, just as false. It is the left who created the idea that we could buy our way out of this, simply because we want to retain our identity as consumers. It is the affluent left that has told us that if we just buy better products, if we just recycle more, it will be enough.
It is leftist environmentalists who have understated the scope of the problem, and who have told us over and over again that our economy will grow again, this time with plenty of green jobs for everyone, that sacrifice is not necessary. But when you look closely at the studies that support this idea, they all involve radically lower emissions cuts than those that are necessary, radically longer time frames, the viability of technologies that do not presently fully exist and the assumption that we have all the energy in the ground and all the money in the world to do it. All of those assumptions are fundamentally false – they are still working with old numbers, often with 450 ppm rather than 350 ppm, and without acknowledging that many of the things we thought we had a lot of time for – the melting or arctic ice, the leaking of methane out of the permafrost – are happening now, decades or centuries before even the IPCC reports expected them.
Left and right, working together, have conspired to create a culture of denial, have declined, for the most part, to offer clear terms to the general public. The right has claimed that we can drill our way out, the left that we can build solar panels in the desert and capture our coal emissions. Neither one has a remote handle on climate change, much less climate change intersecting with peak oil and economic crisis.
And this is why her talk bothers me so much – she gets the answers right. But until you frame the discussion correctly, we’re back to banging on the same old drums – back to arguing over who is better, Obama or McCain. Sure there’s a difference, and an important one, but that’s not the central question – the central question is how do we get to a leader who will actually deal with realities. Sarah Palin is one face of our disaster. Barack Obama is another one. And all of us wear that face too – every one of us who does not want the solutions to be too hard, too extreme, and thus, declines to fully understand the evidence in front of our faces; every one of us who desperately wants the solutions offered on both sides to be true, and thus, chooses lies over truth.
We do have to end growth. We do have to sink the pirate ship and build again. We also have to acknowledge the true state of our ability to do that – the pressing limitations on our capacity to rebuild. We do have to acknowledge what that actually means, and find a way to make it politically palatable to people on both sides of the aisle, because it is the vast middle, those people who are mostly neither left nor right, but who move with our political tides towards where they think their future lies, that matter most. As a leftist, of course, I’d prefer that wasn’t true – but we don’t have the time to change the world in every respect before we deal with the impending crisis. So the question becomes this – in what terms do we speak? How do we move the majority in the direction of the painful and necessary alterations that we face? And I don’t think we do it by making Sarah Palin the rhetorical face of our failure. Not when that wears so many other familiar faces.