Naomi Klein: Capitalism is waging war on life on Earth

September 24, 2015
Since phosphate mining has ruined Nauru, it has little option but to take asylum seekers who the Australian government washes it

Canadian activist and author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus Climate Naomi Klein spoke to a packed audience at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House on September 5. This is an edited transcript of her speech. Klein and Avi Lewis’ film This Changes Everything is about to be released.


I want to thank you for your acknowledgement of country. Out of respect I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, past and present, here in Sydney and the elders of the over 500 Aboriginal nations across Australia.

When British colonisers first came to this land they treated it as if these nations did not exist, as if it were empty land, unsettled, terra nullius. These early settlers encountered people of course. It is in all of the colonial records. But the humanity of those people, and the complex culture they had built, was not recognised under law. Humanity nullified.

That highly profitable refusal to see the humanity of others, made possible by crude theories of superiority, is the foundational sin of your country, as it is of mine. In Canada, where I come from, we often signed treaties [with the indigenous peoples]. But we broke them with impunity so it is not really all that different.

If our respective nations had truly learned from the violence of our past, done the hard work of change, then perhaps it would be adequate to acknowledge as we have today what our ancestors failed to do — that we are on indigenous lands — and then we could swiftly move on to other things. But unfortunately I fear that we have not learned from that foundational sin.

If anything, it feels like the categories of nullified humans is expanding all the time and that racism still plays a central enabling role. Indigenous peoples are still being disappeared into your country’s — and my county’s — prisons at shockingly high rates. Indigenous land rights are still being denied through various forms of legal trickery to make way for mining and drilling that will render those lands unrecognisable.

And, in the midst of the global refugee crisis, both of our governments’ highly restrictive immigration policies are effectively nullifying the humanity of whole categories of people, denying them safe haven from wars in which our states are often directly complicit. Conflicts, like the Syrian one, have been badly exacerbated by drought linked to climate change. And of course we are also disproportionately complicit in that too.

We tell ourselves stories to make all of this seem okay, as our ancestors did. We tell ourselves, perhaps, that migrants from conflict zones are dangerous to us, whether because they will steal our jobs or blow us up. But really we are part of a system that is doing the same thing, in denying the full humanity of others and with that humanity their full human rights, refusing to share our wealth, as ill-gotten as it may be.

This week all Canadians have been confronted with an unbearable truth. Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy whose tiny drowned body has become the tragic symbol of this moral crisis, should have been living safely in Vancouver right now. Instead he, his brother and his mother all died off the Turkish coast. Alan’s aunt, who lives in Canada, had been trying to sponsor members of her family to come as refugees, but the increasingly hostile bureaucratic process that my country has for refugees failed her and failed her family.

Desperate and with Canada unwelcoming, the family decided to trust their fates to that precarious plastic boat and those fake lifejackets. Our government has closed the door on so many others, accepting 10,000 fewer Syrian refugees than they had promised. But Canadians have never before been so directly confronted with visual evidence of the true costs of our government’s policy.

Human costs hidden

Politicians are good at that kind of thing — hiding the human costs of policy. I believe you call it Operation Sovereign Borders. That policy, which sees your navy ruthlessly intercept boats of migrants, bringing them to detention facilities far from prying eyes, run by private companies, proving that no misery is too great to turn into a profit-making opportunity.

Terrible things happen in those camps, but workers sign gag orders and cameras are judiciously kept out. All of which helps prevent the consciences of good people from being shocked as they have been this week by the image of Alan Kurdi’s small body on that beach.

So obscure are the camps that Australian refugee rights advocates have started calling them “black sites”. It speaks to the reality that people are being wilfully disappeared again. Not for being terrorists as the US has done with its black sites in its so-called war on terror, but simply because their need is inconvenient.

Tony Abbott has been in the news a lot this week marketing his black sites as a humane solution for Europe: a way, he says, to “keep people safe”. Yes that’s right. Prison camps for safety from the man who brought you coal is good for humanity. Up is down. War is peace.

And while I’m on the topic of oxymorons I would be remiss if I did not mention the Ethics Centre, co-curator of this wonderful festival. On its board is retired Major General James Moylan, one of the main architects of the “sovereign border” policy — a policy not just devoid of ethics by any rational standard but, as the New York Times put it, “inhumane, brutal and of dubious legality”.

Our statement about Moylan, which was signed by Johann Hari, Laurie Penny, Tariq Ali and Jon Ronson, was not very polite. We writers were scolded a little bit and told by the head of the Ethics Centre that we should have raised our concerns privately first. Perhaps we should have, only that is part of the problem, isn’t it? All of this being polite about ideas that just have no place in polite company.

Now a few of you are thinking: “This is not what I came here for. I came here to find out about the book, how capitalism is waging war on life on Earth. Something relaxing, not so upsetting.”

Before anyone goes to the box office demanding a refund for your undelivered anti-capitalism, let me shift to the connection between capitalism and the very live debates about migrant rights and climate change.

Because there is a line connecting the way we treat human beings, whether they are refugees from Syria trying desperately to reach Greece or whether they’re Greek citizens suffering under unending attacks to their standard of living and the degradation of the planetary systems on which all of life depends. Indeed, Greece is told that the way to get out of debt is to drill for oil and gas in the Ionian and Aegean Seas. The same forces, the same logic, are behind all of these attacks on life.

Because a culture that places so little value on human beings that it allows them to be thrown to the waves is also going to allow poor people’s countries to disappear beneath the waves because that is a threat to today’s profits. And that same system will figure out how to profit from that misery tomorrow.

That is what our current system is doing and it is why I make the argument that climate change is not just about carbon pollution, it is the collision between carbon pollution and a toxic ideology of market fundamentalism that has made it impossible for our shackled leaders to respond while they simultaneously make the problem so much worse. It’s also how Barack Obama can say all the right things about climate change as he visits the Arctic and simultaneously open it to Shell’s Arctic drilling.

We suffer from this case of bad timing and you see it so clearly here in Australia with your government so under the grip of this ideological project. Slashing the taxes that tax the polluters to try to get us off fossil fuels, whether the carbon tax or the mining tax, the dismantling of environmental laws, the totally inadequate emission reduction targets, which according to all experts won’t be met because there is no regulation ensuring they will be met. This is the collision and the result is not just hotter weather. It’s a meaner, crueller society and that is the connection with what we are seeing with the refugee crisis. And that’s why we have to challenge this system head-on.

I make the argument in This changes Everything that we need a “movement of movements” and we need to build coalitions across traditional divisions. We need environmentalists working with trade unions and farmers working with indigenous people. And just to prove how diverse this movement must be I’m going to quote the Pope, which is a bit odd for a secular Jewish feminist.

I don’t agree with every word in his historic encyclical on climate change, but I would urge everyone to read this remarkable document because it is truly a revolutionary meditation on these overlapping crises and how they intersect. It’s also quite beautiful. Several themes come up again and again in the encyclical and one of them I think is particularly relevant to these themes that so many of us are struggling with right now.

Throwaway culture

There is a term that is used five times in the encyclical and that term is “throwaway culture”. Essentially it refers to that process that systematically turns the precious into trash; that writes off people and places as if they do not matter.

The “throwaway culture” is based on the core idea that we can take what we want and toss away the rest and just because we cannot see it we convince ourselves that it doesn’t really exist. There are a lot of places that typify this logic. But there is one place, more than any other I have studied, that brings these expressions of the throwaway culture together. It really clarifies how many fronts we need to work on and the need for system change.

The place I’m referring to is one that most people in the world have never heard of but it is a place Australians know quite a lot about. That place is Nauru. I write about it in This Changes Everything, but I rarely speak about it because it feels too complicated to explain.

But I thought I would talk a little bit about that section in the book so I’ll read a very abridged version if you don’t mind.

For thousands of years Naurans lived on the surface of their island, sustaining themselves on fish and fowl. That began to change when a colonial officer picked up a rock that was later discovered to be made of almost pure phosphate of lime. A German-British firm began mining, later replaced by a British-Australian-New Zealand venture. Nauru started developing at record speed. The catch was that it was simultaneously disappearing.

By the 1960s Nauru still looked nice enough when approached from the sea, but it was a mirage. Behind the narrow fringe of coconut palms circling the coast lay a ravaged interior. The phosphate had been mined down to the island’s sharply protruding bones, leaving behind a forest of ghostly coral totems.

With the centre now uninhabitable and largely infertile, life on Nauru unfolded along that thin coastal strip. Now none of this came as a surprise. Nauru’s successive waves of colonisers had a simple plan for the country. They would keep mining phosphate until the island was an empty shell.

Acceptable sacrifice?

“When the phosphate supply is exhausted in 30 to 40 years time the experts predict that the estimated population will not be able to live on this pleasant little island,” a Nauruan council member said rather stiffly in a 1960s-era black and white video produced by the Australian government. Nauru, in other words, was designed to be a disposable country.

It is not that these extractive companies or the Australian government had any genocidal intent per se. It is just that one dead island that few people knew existed seemed like an acceptable sacrifice to make in the name of progress.

Later, Nauru became the target of a more virtual form of extraction. In the 1990s, aided by the wave of financial deregulation unleashed in this period, the island became a prime money laundering haven. For a time, Nauru was home to roughly 400 phantom banks that were utterly unencumbered by monitoring, oversight, regulation, taxes or bricks and mortar. They did not actually exist.

These schemes have caught up with Nauru too and now the country faces a double bankruptcy. With 90% of the island depleted from mining, it faces ecological bankruptcy. With a debt of at least $800 million, Nauru faces financial bankruptcy as well. But these are not Nauru’s only problems. It also turns out that the island nation is highly vulnerable to climate change.

Speaking to the 1997 UN conference that adopted the Kyoto Protocol, Nauru’s then-president very evocatively described an image that I’ve never been able to get out of my head. He said: “We are trapped: a wasteland at our back, and to our front a terrifying rising flood of biblical proportions.” Few places on Earth embody the suicidal results of building our economies on polluting extraction more graphically than Nauru.

For a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the Earth, burn them in massive quantities and have the airborne gases and particles released in the atmosphere and think because we cannot see them they will have no effect. Or if they do then we will just invent something to fix it as we humans always have.

We tell ourselves all kinds of implausible stories all the time about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. Indeed, we are always surprised when it turns out otherwise. We extract and do not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared, why the soil requires ever more phosphate to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their militias and wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs overseas, destroy worker protections and hollow out local economies and wonder why people cannot afford to shop. We offer those people cheap credit instead of steady jobs and wonder why nobody saw that system being so prone to collapse.

System collapsing

At every stage our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing. A certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned into garbage and the people we treat like garbage will not come back to haunt us. And Nauru knows all about this because in the past decade it has become a dumping ground of another sort.

In an effort to raise more revenue it is, as you all know, a refugee detention centre for the government of Australia. There are great efforts made to stop images coming from Nauru, but they are getting out nonetheless.

Mark Issacs, a former Salvation Army employee who worked there, has said that Nauru is all about taking resilient men and grinding them into dust, on an island that itself was systematically ground into dust. It’s a harrowing image, as harrowing as enlisting the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow to play warden to the economic and war refugees of today.

Reviewing this island’s painful history, it strikes me that so much of what has gone on there has to do with this idea of the middle of nowhere. This idea that we can just throw away without consequences. So if Nauru is what the Pope calls a “throwaway culture” and that is the problem, then the task is clear and that is to introduce a culture of caretaking, in which no one and nowhere is thrown away. In which the inherent value of people and all life is foundational.

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