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Book Review

‘On Fire’ a chilling prescription for a burning planet

Noah Berger/Associated Press/file; Evgenia Eliseeva (below)/FR34727 AP via AP

Naomi Klein — author, environmental activist, agent provocateur — is yelling ‘’Fire!’’ in the crowded theater of American politics.

And with good reason. All around there is evidence that climate change is real, dangerous, and already here. The conventional institutions of civic life, in America and elsewhere, have failed to recognize the urgency of the problem and craft responses to the crisis.

So Klein’s “On Fire” is a cri de coeur and an exposition on what she calls the burning case for a Green New Deal. In rhetoric that is ablaze with passion — her metaphors run like, well, wildfire — she sets out a blistering critique of capitalism, democratic institutions, and contemporary politics. On a planet where the basic elements of life are changing, it doesn’t seem too much to ask, she seems to be saying, to change the basic elements of politics and economics.


“Responding to climate change,” she argues, “requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency.”

That means less if not no fossil fuel consumption. More central planning. Strict regulations on business. Less worship of economic growth. More taxes on “the rich and filthy.” But also, in her conception: More jobs, because she argues renewable energy sources produce surprisingly large boosts in employment. A fairer economy, because the Green New Deal would foster less wealth concentration. Protections against recessions, because the new investment would provide an economic stimulus.

If there is a breathlessness to all this, it is not by mistake. Listen to Klein’s ukase to urgency:

“I have always had a sense of tremendous sense or urgency about the need to shift to a dramatically more humane economic model. But there is a different quality to that urgency now because it just so happens that we are all alive at the very last possible moment when changing course can mean saving lives on a truly unimaginable scale.”


But let there be no mistake. There will be a cost to this, and it will be paid at the commanding heights of the economy. The Klein manifesto will not be greeted congenially at the White House. Indeed, these 320 pages constitute Donald Trump’s worst nightmare: not only a plan to address a climate crisis he doesn’t think exists (or blames on the Chinese), but also a menu of just about everything he abhors — with special emphasis on a vision of immigration that does not include a border wall.

This is what Klein prescribes for a period if — she says “when,” but let’s stick with “if” for now — blighted land is too parched for crop production and the seas rise to unsupportable levels: “[T]hen justice demands that we clearly recognize that all people have the human right to move and seek safety. That means they are owed asylum and status on arrival.”

Some of the facts she presents are — and here the language fails us — chilling. About half of global emissions come from the richest 10th of the globe’s population, though their effect is harshest on the poor, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. “Most will stay in their own countries,” Klein tells us, “crowding into already overstressed cities and slums; many will try for a better life elsewhere.”

The chances of the president reading this book, or heeding its warnings, are about as great as a Trump appearance at a NARAL rally. He won’t change his mind. The question is whether other minds are changeable — a good example is Representative Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican who served a dozen years on Capitol Hill, changed his mind on climate change, and was defeated in a primary — and whether these goals are achievable.


Klein makes a good effort on both fronts. But that effort is marred by the architecture of this volume, which isn’t so much a book as a collection of speeches and articles, some of which seem dated. She argues that the “chapters,” which aren’t really chapters, are assembled in chronological order to show the development of the case, but that is more a rationalization than a rationale.

The most effective and persuasive part of this book is in its first 53 pages, written as an introduction to what follows. In those pages she sets out her argument with a precision that matches her passion. Even so, there are important elements in the latter sections of the book, especially in her November 2016 Sydney Peace Prize acceptance speech, delivered in Australia, where she argues that getting clean means cleaning up morally.

“As we get clean, we have got to get fair. More than that, as we get clean, we can begin to redress the founding crimes of our nations: land theft, genocide, slavery. Yes, the hardest stuff. Because we haven’t just been procrastinating climate action all these years. We’ve been procrastinating and delaying the most basic demands of justice and reparation. And we are out of time on every front.”


This is a scorching volume for a heated time. The fire next time, it turns out, is now.


By Naomi Klein

Simon & Schuster, 320 pp. $27

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.