Naomi Klein: Narratives for the Future


The Center for the Arts and Humanities welcomed world-renowned climate activist, best-selling author, and filmmaker Naomi Klein for a virtual visit to Colby on October 6th and 7th.  Klein served as the Keynote Speaker for the Center’s annual theme, Boundaries and Margins, and as the 2020 Mellon Distinguished Fellow in the Environmental Humanities. To learn more about Klein’s accomplishments, please click here.

Klein virtually visited four classes: EN283 Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience, taught by Assistant Professor of English Chris Walker,  AY256 Land, Food, Culture and Power, taught by Professor and Chair of Anthropology Mary Beth Mills, SP135 Introduction to Critical Analysis: Eco-Fiction and Eco-Thought, taught by Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish Luis Millones, and AY365 Space, Place and Belonging, taught by Associate Professor of Anthropology Winifred Tate.

On October 6th, Naomi Klein also gave her keynote address in the form of a webinar. She was introduced by Provost Margaret McFadden, who applauded Klein’s “uncanny ability to pinpoint emerging issues, and offer impassioned arguments for making a better world”. This was followed by a screening of Klein’s new short film A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair. Next, Klein discussed her work and contemporary environmental issues with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Britt Halvorson. Finally, Naomi Klein answered questions from Colby students. More than 400 people watched the webinar, not only in the United States but in Canada, Australia, Italy, Singapore, Nigeria, and Turkey.

Naomi Klein is famous for finding the threads tying together our past with our present, and for imagining possible futures. Colby was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to share in Klein’s insights on a wide variety of topics which Klein shared with us.

The Great Chain of Being

The idea of “The Great Chain of Being” can be traced back to Greece in the middle of the fourth century BCE, when Aristotle theorized on what set humans apart from the other animals. Rather than viewing life as a web, with every life form playing a role (as is common in indigenous cosmologies), Aristotle viewed life as a dominance-based. He established a ranking system of living beings, with humans at the top, as they alone possessed the power of reason. This idea later merged with Christianity to become a pyramid with God at the top, then the angels, then man, then woman, then animals.

Naomi Klein argues that this ranking of life, and obsession with hierarchy, is at the root of all racial violence, gender violence, and violence against the natural world. By viewing a race, a gender, or a species as lesser, an individual can justify stealing from, killing, or otherwise harming that other. This rationale was used to justify the North American settlers’ stealing the land of the Indigenous peoples that they had inhabited for millennia. In the present day, the same hierarchy is used to justify the “sacrifice” of essential workers, who are forced to work throughout a deadly pandemic while still receiving little pay or benefits.

Klein argued that for approximately the last 400 years, humanity has believed that it can dominate the earth, that it can extract whatever it needs without any consequences. The earth and its animal and plant inhabitants are lesser, and are treated purely as resources. However, we are beginning to see the consequences of this treatment of the earth. Climate change and environmental degradation are resulting in uncontrollable wildfires, disastrous storms, polluted water, and collapsing fisheries. Naomi Klein believes that we need to return to the Indigenous view of life as a web and to enter into a two-way relationship with nature, rather than simply viewing every relationship as consisting of a dominant and a submissive.

Motivating the Middle

In nearly every class that Naomi Klein visited, students had the same question: How do we convince people to care about climate change? Often, they referred specifically to changing the minds of climate change deniers. To this question, Klein always had the same answer: “Don’t start with the hardest people to change first and ignore the people in the middle. They’re who you should be targeting. Those in the middle aren’t hardcore climate change deniers, they simply haven’t been paying attention, or don’t care, or feel hopeless about the situation and don’t see any way out.”  According to Klein, most Americans believe climate change is happening, but only a small percentage believe we can do anything about it, or that we can have a strong economy and still take action against climate change. Many of them don’t even bother to vote. Their sense of doom is even more of a hurdle than climate change denial. Naomi Klein believes that we have to convince these people in the middle not with abstract ideas but through green jobs, through supporting local agriculture and businesses: through positive changes they can see in their own lives. Klein brought up the example of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed more than three million young men, planted 3.5 billion trees, and created 800 national parks; and FDR’s strategy of placing those jobs in districts where he’d lost during his first term, convincing them to vote for him in his second term. Klein argues that the success of the Civilian Conservation Corps suggests that enacting policies to provide green jobs would be the most effective way of convincing people to vote for environmentalist leaders.

Narratives for the Future

Naomi Klein believes that we need to liberate peoples’ imaginations. “We’ve been told that there’s no alternative to capitalism, except maybe Soviet gulags,” she said. “But that’s not true.” The most lasting legacy of neoliberalism is a war on the imagination, the story that tells us there is no other way. When artists and writers imagine the future, it’s almost always a dystopia, often a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s commonly thought that to make good art, the future has to be bleak. To present a hopeful vision of the future is considered propaganda, and bad art. But Klein disagrees. She thinks that we have to work to imagine new futures, alternative paths that don’t end in destruction but rather in equity and sustainability. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says in Klein’s first Message From the Future short film, “we can’t be what we can’t see.” A vision of the future is more than a list of demands: it’s a story. This is the work Klein has been doing with Message From the Future I and II—creating narratives of possible just futures. Envisioning these positive futures is political work, and a key component of climate justice. If we can tell a story about how we might find our way out of our current predicament to a brighter future, then we have a path to follow.

As Professor of Spanish Luis Millones wrote after Klein visited his class, “Naomi Klein recalls the power of telling stories. The one we need to hear condemns climate and social injustices rooted in a narrative of a brighter future. Not a utopia, but a world created through choices and actions available to each one of us today.”    

The Role of Young People

A number of Colby students asked Naomi Klein what she thought they could do to help bring about positive change. Klein responded that “As young people, you have a really powerful moral voice… Your futures are being put in jeopardy. You have the right to a future that won’t be spent running from one crisis to the next. This is a failure by the people who have a duty to protect your future…None of this is abstract. When I say your right to a future is being betrayed, that’s real. That’s your life.”

Klein discussed the huge generational shift she’d seen in the last couple of years, during which youth voices have become increasingly prominent in the environmental movement. She expressed her amazement at young peoples’ hunger to go deep, to do the unpopular work of connecting climate change and environmental destruction with capitalism and white supremacy. She told us how she’d spent much of her career fighting her own side, people who internalized the values of the opposition, tried to make environmentalism palatable to them, and therefore lost track of their own values. Klein argues that these difficult issues can’t be ignored any longer—that suppressing them is like suppressing a fire. But sometimes fire is needed to clear away the debris, to make room for transformation and growth.  We need to grieve, to deal with our issues, in order to start knitting a real community where people engage in the labor of mutual aid and care. And young people are the key to building this environmentally and socially just future.

Finding Hope

When asked what gives her hope in the long fight, Naomi said that she was energized and inspired by the rapid generational shift she was seeing. “Young people have already changed so much. You’re the heart and soul of the climate movement”, she told students. “I’m really glad that you’re doing this work at Colby—that gives me hope.”

Then Naomi Klein turned to the root of all her striving: her passion for the environment. “I take a lot of solace from the beauty of the natural world, the gift that is a walk in the forest or on a rocky beach,” she told us. “Nothing makes me happier than hanging out with my amazing 8-year-old son (who is a die-hard composter!), and seeing the wonder of nature through his eyes. Make sure you get out there and enjoy nature. That’s what will sustain you, root you in love. Environmentalism isn’t a campaign, it’s a life’s work. We need to find ways to be in this struggle sustainably. We have to remind ourselves of the gift of living with the nonhuman world. If I wasn’t being fed by what it is I’m fighting for, I’d still be writing with clenched fists. We should feel rage, at the vandals who want to torch all this beauty, and wonder, at the powerful people who treat life with disdain, but rage isn’t enough. We need to temper that rage with our love for nature. We need to find a way to hold onto both, to remember what we’re fighting for and take care of each other.”

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities