Review: Naomi Klein’s ‘On Fire’ urges us to quit hitting the snooze button on climate change


Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein has been one of the most forceful and even lyrical voices for social justice for decades, and her book “No Logo” remains one of the best articulations of radical sentiment leading up to the 1999 Battle of Seattle, when protesters from around the world tried to block the adoption of the World Trade Organization agreement.

Klein’s new book, “On Fire,” collects essays written between 2010 and now, as a kind of time-series of unheeded warnings about the climate crisis, with ever more dire consequences mounting around us.

But her purpose is not to dishearten us by forcing us to confront our failures. Rather, Klein wants to awaken us to the growing global movement for action — real action, radical and transformative, striking at the roots of climate inaction in institutionalized racism, inequality and colonialism.

Today, this transformative program has a name: the Green New Deal. But before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her political colleagues popularized the Green New Deal, Klein backed the Leap Manifesto, a visionary document intended as a yardstick (or meter-stick, for Canadians like Klein and me) to measure any climate crisis proposal against: You must be this bold to save the planet. Anything less is cowardice and depraved indifference to the plight of our children and (especially) the children of poor people in poor countries.

Klein’s book opens with an introduction that describes her experience meeting Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl whose one-teenager strike — refusing to go to school so long as Sweden’s grown-ups continued to behave as though everything was normal — jump-started the Extinction Rebellion movement. The movement has become the uncompromising, militant wing of the Green New Deal, holding triangulating politicians to account.

Klein and Thunberg discuss how Thunberg’s neuro-atypicality (she is on the autistic spectrum) has left her incapable of compartmentalizing the imminent catastrophe. The house is on fire, Thunberg tells us, and we cannot afford to play “this is fine,” complacent and comfortable on the sofa as the flames lick around us.

Thus begins a journey through both the peril and promise of climate inaction. Klein’s work takes the form of the very best activist messaging: “This will all be so great ... if we don’t screw it up (and if we do, it will be ‘terrible’).” Klein recognizes that for those of us who lack Thunberg’s clarity, the mounting evidence of imminent crisis is as likely to cause catatonia as commitment to change.


So Klein’s essays don’t just document the failure of inaction. They celebrate and lionize the mounting commitment to action, the sacrifices and commitments that everyday people are making all around us, all the time, in growing numbers.

I have a theory of change I call “peak indifference.” When we are faced with a problem like the climate crisis, it can be hard to persuade people that the problem exists at all.

But if the problem is real (as climate change is), then the inaction from indifference will build up a kind of policy debt as rains come and the fires rage. Little by little, and then very quickly, people self-radicalize as their personal experiences with climate change convince them that there is a problem and that it’s getting worse.

Eventually, we arrive at peak indifference, when the number of people who acknowledge the crisis only increases, even if activists never lift a finger to spread the alarm.

The moment of peak indifference is when the activist’s job flips: from convincing people that there is a problem to convincing them that it’s not too late to solve it.

The boldly ecstatic vision of climate justice — a Green New Deal that gives every person meaningful, full employment in solidarity work and mutual aid that saves our planet from our species and saves our species from itself — is a powerful tonic, an antidote to despair.

In “On Fire,” Klein shines a spotlight on a world in crisis, illuminating the terrible (the Great Barrier Reef, finally dying after years of inaction, despite urgent warnings); and the inspiring (the people of Puerto Rico soldiering on despite hurricanes, official neglect, structural racism and a state hollowed out by colonialism).

Klein brings us inside her family discussions as choking clouds of smoke sweep across the ancient forests of British Columbia, and inside the activist camps rallying around young Greta Thunberg and the extraordinary Extinction Rebellion she has touched off.

It’s an urgent book that never surrenders hope, committed to the idea that we can act and insistent that we must. Klein’s message could not be more timely, because the time for action is now.

On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

Naomi Klein

Simon & Schuster: 320 pages; $27

Doctorow is the author of “Radicalized,” “Walkaway” and other books. He resides in Burbank.