“Don’t Look Up” and Fighting Capitalism With Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein and Jon Schwarz discuss the new film “Don’t Look Up” and the current state of the climate justice movement.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/ The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images (asteroid striking Earth), Niko Tavernise/ Netflix ("Don't Look Up" still)

As 2022 begins, the world continues to see the effects of the climate crisis — from the severe drought in East Africa to the odd snowfall in British Columbia. But since December 5, a new film has been sounding the alarm. In Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” an allegory about the impending climate disaster, scientists discover an approaching comet that will destroy Earth. But the media, politicians, and elite in the U.S. fail at every opportunity to prevent the impending doom. The Intercept’s senior correspondent Naomi Klein joins senior writer Jon Schwarz to discuss the film, how present-day elites are failing to address the climate crisis, and the future of the climate justice movement. Klein is a professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia and the author of many books on climate change, including her latest, “How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other.”

[Intro music.] 

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. 

Jon Schwarz: I’m Jon Schwarz, a senior writer with The Intercept.

This is the first Intercepted episode of 2022. 

But here, in the new year, we have a lot of the same old problems:

ABC News: Tonight the number of hospitalizations in this country is now setting an all-time record since this pandemic started. More than 141,000 Americans are now in the hospital. So many hospitals are barely keeping up because so many of their own staff have Covid, too.

Nick Schifrin (PBS NewsHour): Afghanistan is on the brink of mass starvation. Every single Afghan province is considered food insecure, even in crisis: 23 million Afghans need food assistance; 8.7 million are nearing famine; 1 million children face acute, severe malnutrition, and could starve and die this winter — far more than died in 20 years of war.

CBS News: The U.S. labor market experienced an unexpected slowdown heading into the new year. The U.S. added a disappointing 199,000 new jobs in December. That’s less than half of what economists were projecting for the last jobs report of the year. 

Christiana Cordero (ABC7): At some point soon after finding the suspect, you heard one officer there fire three shots towards him, one of those shots hit you killed that man who we now know is 24-year-old Daniel Elena Lopez, another one of those shots went through the drywall past Lopez and hit 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta.

JS: That’s right. We have Covid, catastrophes overseas caused by U.S. foreign policy, catastrophes at home caused by U.S. domestic policies, and we have to battle it all while getting 37 spam phone calls a day.

Spam call: In renewing your auto warranty now —

Spam call: Since we have not gotten a response —

Spam call: Your student loans just became eligible for new programs that were just —

JS: But all our biggest problems are sort of the same problem: The fact Americans can’t agree on what reality is, so we can’t even get started on dealing with it. That’s especially true with global warming.

NBC News: Wildfires devastating the West Coast and other parts of the country.

Sky News: The Eastern Mediterranean is sweltering under the most intense heatwave to hit Europe so far this year.

Matt Gutman (ABC News): It’s a common sight in what’s called the dry corridor, a swath of drought-battered land covering parts of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Channel 4 News: Western Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States have seen temperature records tumble as a dome of heat sits over the region. 

Al Jazeera English: Malnutrition rates continue to rise. Children are receiving emergency food supplies from aid agencies … the drought in parts of Kenya [that] was sent by climate change has been declared a national disaster.

JS: The world is getting hotter and hotter. Meanwhile, lots of Americans refuse to believe this is happening, and it’s somehow all a conspiracy by people in the pocket of, eh… Big Thermometer.

But the end of 2021 did bring us a tiny amount of genuinely good news — which is “Don’t Look Up,” the latest movie from filmmaker Adam McKay, who also wrote and directed “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers,” and, more-recently, “The Big Short.” It’s based on a story by McKay and the journalist David Sirota, whom I’ve known for a long time.

“Don’t Look Up” is a comedy literally about scientists discovering a giant comet about to hit earth in six months. But as Adam McKay said, this is “the most thinly disguised metaphor in the history of metaphors.” It’s really an allegory for global warming, and the complete failure of the American media, politicians, and elites in general to do anything about it.

So we’re lucky to have the best possible person joining us to talk about “Don’t Look Up,” and what it means for the real world, and that’s Naomi Klein.

Naomi is a senior correspondent at The Intercept, the professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia, the author of several books on climate change… as well as a new book “How to Change Everything: A Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Planet and Each Other.”

If you haven’t seen “Don’t Look Up,” we are going to completely spoil it. But if you have a Netflix subscription, you should watch it right now and come back.

Naomi and I first talked about whether she thought “Don’t Look Up” succeeds just in terms of being a good movie — and whether it was effective in what it was trying to do beyond that:

[Musical interlude.]

Naomi Klein: I think the numbers sort of speak for themselves. People are breaking Netflix’s records for how much they’re watching it. They’re debating it. It’s entertaining. It holds people’s attention for longer than a traditional comedy, and it packs a huge political punch. So I think it clearly succeeds as a kind of popcorn film, if the measure I: Are people watching it? Are they enjoying it? Not: Do critics love it? Because, in general critics aren’t big fans of more crasser comedy, and it’s the fans who carry it forward. And that’s certainly the case with this. 

But at the same time, it packs this devastating punch. And it sucker-punches you in the best possible way, by using the conventions of an “Anchorman,” or you’re gonna get the Jonah Hill fans and sort of silly, stupid humor. And then you find yourself in this extraordinarily earnest moment around the dinner table, and when you’re actually confronting: Maybe nobody’s going to save us. That piece of it is so courageous, because we didn’t get saved. 

And so you have this kind of mash-up of the way Hollywood has hardwired our brains to believe we’re gonna get saved through so many disaster movies that do have either a literal meteor hurtling towards Earth, or some other immediate-term threat and all of the resources of the state are marshaled, and just in the nick of time, we get saved. And so we think that’s going to happen when it comes to climate change. And it’s dawned on us that it’s not going to happen. And so by using those conventions, and then landing this moment, where — whoa, this is dead serious, and we’re not going to get saved unless we get our shit together. That is extraordinary filmmaking.

Look, I think Adam McKay is a genius. I base that on many of his films. And I think this is his best work yet.

JS: So you yourself, you’ve engaged in filmmaking, so you know about all of its weird challenges. And so what did you think about just the various aspects of it? I personally was extremely impressed by everything — like by the writing, by the acting, the editing — I thought was extremely effective, both for comedy editing and everything else. The score, even the visual effects, which to me were superior to what you see in huge blockbusters, huge superhero blockbusters.

NK: Yeah, and pandemic filmmaking, I think, isn’t easy. I think, honestly, I’ve been embarrassed for the critics who have just refused to get the brilliance of this film. And I feel like they are reinforcing their irrelevance, which is not to say that there aren’t legitimate critiques to be made of certain performances and certain editing choices. But overall I think that we saw some staggeringly great performances. Cate Blanchett, in particular, I think was such a breakout performance. 

I agree with you. I think the use of documentary footage, of just sort of nature imagery, was also really beautiful. But I think a lot of the criticism I’ve seen has sort of nitpicked over individual jokes — it wasn’t funny enough, it wasn’t witty enough. I think there was great writing, there were great one-liners. I love that scene where Jennifer Lawrence’s character goes home to her parents.

Jennifer Lawrence (as Kate Dibiasky in “Don’t Look Up”): Mom, dad, I’m so glad to be home. Unlock the door.

Allyn Burrows (as Mr. Diabiasky in “Don’t Look Up”): No politics. None.

JL: What are you talking about? 

Tori Davis Lawlor (as Mrs. Diabiasky in “Don’t Look Up”): Your dad and I are for the jobs the comet will provide.

NK: I mean, they were really, really great individual lines. But the genius of the film is in the way it’s structured, and to make us think it’s one thing and a big part of that is just this unbelievable lineup of stars, which is just going to get people’s attention, no matter what the critics say. And just the sort of comedic conventions of settling in and letting your guard down, and then finding yourself confronted with the biggest issue of our time, which is the failure of our elites to protect us really from anything, right? So it is climate, but it’s also Covid. It’s all of the failures of capitalism. And I’ve also seen critiques where it’s really mischaracterized the film’s message as being: We just need to believe scientists, and that’s not true at all, because the narrative arc is people did believe scientists, eventually, and what interfered with the impulse to save ourselves, to save our planet, was profit.

Mark Rylance (as Peter Isherwell in “Don’t Look Up”): This comet hurtling towards us from deep space actually contains at least $32 trillion of these critical materials, critical to technology. 

Leonardo Dicaprio (as Dr. Randall Mindy in “Don’t Look Up”): I’m sorry —i s that why you aborted this entire mission is because you’re trying to mine the —

Meryl Streep (as President Orlean in “Don’t Look Up”): Doctor, I think we should hold all questions until the end of the presentation. And you might find that your questions are answered. 

LD: Yes, Madam President.

NK: The interference of the capitalist class and seeing opportunities to profit from disaster, right? Which is something I’ve unfortunately spent a lot of time documenting as a journalist. And that rings pretty true. I know how long this film has been in production, and it was in production well before Jeff Bezos blasted off and came home again to Earth effusive about the opportunities to turn space into a trash can, if you’ll recall.

Stephanie Ruhle (NBC News): This was your dream. But for all those millions of Americans who are watching this, who are saying: This is a joy ride, it has nothing to do with me.

Jeff Bezos: Yeah. 

SR: What did you experience that matters to all Americans?

JB: We live on this beautiful planet. We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry and move it into space, and keep Earth as this beautiful gem of the planet that it is.

NK: It’s really beyond parody what tech billionaires will imagine as an opportunity.

JS: As everyone knows, the comet is a metaphor first and foremost, for global warming, it certainly looks like a metaphor for other things as well, particularly Covid, and, as you say, everything that happens on Earth — which is the failure of elites to do anything to actually protect us from genuine danger right in front of us. What I thought was also interesting about the filmmaking was little touches. They were, I thought, kind of beautifully put together, where McKay was reminding you what this is actually about. There are not one but two appearances by polar bears in the movie. 

NK: Yeah. 

JS: The movie begins with the sound of boiling water.

NK: Yep. Yep. Yep. 

JS: And the Jennifer Lawrence character is making tea for herself.

NK: Yeah, and the boiling water metaphor is one of the most overused — well, the frog in boiling water, right? In climate circles it’s used all the time, like: If you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps, but if you put a frog in lukewarm water and bring it to a boil, it will just cook. And we’re the frog, right, in that metaphor. 

And I always think it’s actually a dangerous metaphor. Because what it elides is the fact that we’ve tried to jump a whole bunch of times, and that the forces of capital just keep putting the lid back on the pot. If you think about all these moments, the “An Inconvenient Truth” moment, or the Rio Earth Summit moment, where there have been all these moments where all of this sort of popular energy is marshaled, or the student climate strike moment. And then what happens to that energy? Is it that people just give up? Or is it much more active than that? And that’s the thing that I thought was so interesting about their disaster capitalist, because he just slammed the lid on, right? People were trying to jump.

JS: So as you say, elites have just been putting the lid back on, keeping us from getting out of the pot of boiling water over and over again. And you have written about the psychology of elites and how it looks from their perspective, and why they put the lid back on. And so I think people would be interested to hear about that. 

NK: Yeah, I mean, I think the work you’re referring to is for “The Shock Doctrine,” my book about what I call disaster capitalism. And it’s pretty straightforward. We’re all terribly familiar with it in the context of Covid, which is just these moments of shock collectively, as people lose their script and are encountering something new and unfamiliar. I often describe a “shock” as a gap between event and narrative to explain an event, right? So if we think about 9/11, as perceived by so many Americans as a bolt out of the blue. It wasn’t, but because they had so many gaps in their stories of who they were in the world, it felt like a shock. And so in that shock, there’s a huge amount of disorientation and discombobulation, and it’s a moment to kind of bring in a new narrative, right? They’re with us or against us, or they’re against our freedom, and so on. And it’s also a moment, a kind of malleable moment where you can come in and you can do a lot of things. You can pass the Patriot Act, you can have a huge privatization of the military industrial complex, and all of that happened after 9/11. 

But then, I looked at a lot of different moments of disjuncture, of shock, as actually key moments when the neoliberal project advanced despite a huge amount of popular opposition because people were so shocked and disoriented. And it’s not the only way that neoliberalism has advanced, but key moments like the collapse of the Soviet Union, or in the aftermath of coups, or debt crises, have been big leaps forward for the neoliberal project. 

But I think when we’re talking about climate change, you’ve got something more troubling, where, yes, there are economic opportunities to reap from disaster. You know, even in the context of what we’ve been living this year where I live, right, where we’ve had these huge floods, and we’ve had snow like we’ve never had before — and this is going to lead to a spike in SUV sales, and the companies know it, right? That these shocks in the absence of collective responses makes people want to respond privately, right? So shoring up your own little kind of escape pod. 

And we saw this with Covid, too, right? And whoever could afford it was expanding their living spaces and just sort of building their own little pod of safety. So there’s always going to be ways to profit from disasters, those are just a few examples that companies can step into. But the problem with climate is deeper than that, which is that we have an ecological crisis — climate is one part of a broader crisis of extinction, and pollution, and just pushing beyond the safe boundaries of our relationship with the natural world on which all of life depends, and so a crisis like that requires a contraction of our use of the natural world, of our use and exhaustion of the natural world, whether we’re depleting resources or whether we’re pouring pollution into them. So that is fundamentally incompatible with an economic system that defines any contraction as a crisis, and defines success as expansion and growth, and where growth is intimately connected to consumption. 

So it isn’t just the fossil fuel companies that have a problem with what we need to do in the face of the climate crisis, it’s really any consumer company, and this is why it’s such a joke that somebody like Jeff Bezos is holding himself up as a climate hero, because this is a man who’s built an empire based on the most wasteful forms of of disposable consumption, and massively accelerated consumptions because he has taken so much of the friction out of it, right? You have a thought; it’s delivered to your door. 

So it’s more than just a kind of disaster opportunism. It’s a fundamental conflict. And this is what I wrote in “This Changes Everything,” that what the planet needs is for us to step back, to use less. And what our economy needs within a capitalist system is continual expansion. And that’s the fundamental clash.

If we want to understand why, despite the momentum to jump out of that pod, to bring it back to that metaphor, why the lid keeps coming back on, a big part of it is this case of catastrophic bad timing, because the awareness about the crisis — and here, I’m not talking about the scientists who were studying it or the politicians who were getting memos through the 60s and 70s. But the moment where it became a popular issue was 1988. And that’s when James Hansen, who was then at NASA, testified on Capitol Hill and said, he could now, with, I think he said, a 99 percent certainty that the humans were contributing to the warming of the planet. And that was when the editors of Time magazine made planet Earth the man of the year. And this was the momentum that eventually led to the Rio Earth Summit.

But 1988 is also the sort of the peak moment of the neoliberal project. This is the year that Francis Fukuyama writes the essay that eventually turns into “The End of History and the Last Man.” This is the year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This is the most triumphant moment for this idea that there is now one way to run the world and it is free markets, free people was the banner right. And it equated free markets with free people, which was the freedom-to-choose Milton Friedman idea that that democracy is voting on the color of your tie, which is a quote, and the tenants of this project were privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the financial sphere, and everything that would release capital to be as free as possible, and austerity in the public sphere. And, of course, that was accompanied by mass criminalization and a divestment from all of the functions of the state that actually helped people. 

And if you look at what we need to do in the face of the climate crisis, it breaks every single one of those tenants of the neoliberal project. We need massive investments in the public sphere. The fact that we privatized so many essential functions of the state, like energy, like transportation, has been a huge barrier to our ability to act with any speed, right? And so, as I said, there is a deeper clash between the logics of capitalism and the climate crisis because of the capitalist need for expansion and growth, but within a kind of Keynesian framework you could have had these major public investments and then kind of confronted the consumption piece of it. And we haven’t had either.

JS: Yeah, it’s very difficult not to notice that during the approximately 30 years since that began, that we’ve just seen catastrophe after catastrophe in projects engineered by our elites — the invasion of Iraq, the 2008 financial collapse and the gigantic recession, the response to Covid. And it just demonstrates, you know, that there is nothing that they will not do in the sense of destroying the world, and they often will come out of it better off themselves than ever.

NK: Yeah. And, I mean, to bring it back to what brought us here, I think the part of the film that is most devastating is its indictment of our media ecosphere, right? Our media ecosystem, whether it’s sort of infotainment television, or social media, or even legacy media, right? I mean, nobody gets off here. But this is also related to the fact that in this same period when we most needed a serious, seriously minded public square to confront the deepest and most fundamental crisis that humanity has ever faced, which is — I don’t believe in creating hierarchies of disaster, I think we face a lot of them, but the fact that we are destroying the systems on which all of life depends, it’s a pretty big one! And so we needed to be able to talk to each other in serious ways and the privatization of our airwaves and the deregulation of the internet — by which I just mean letting corporations treat it as a frontier where they could experiment with their most libertarian fantasies has not served us well, let’s just say, Jon.

JS: Yes. And in fact, in the big Network-like monologue by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in “Don’t Look Up,” he says pretty much exactly that, right?

LD (as Dr. Randall Mindy): And if we can’t all agree at the bare minimum that a giant comet the size of Mount Everest, hurtling its way towards planet Earth is not a fucking good thing, then what the hell happened to us? I mean, my God, how do we even talk to each other? What have we done to ourselves? How do we fix it? We should have deflected this comet when we had the fucking chance, but we didn’t do it. I don’t know why we didn’t do it.

NK: Yeah. And, you know, this is why I feel like the reaction to the film is a continuation of the film. It’s almost performance art. Where you have so many critics going, but you didn’t make me laugh enough. You know? [Laughs.] And it’s like: Thank you, you played your part perfectly.

JS: This movie about the end of the world was not as funny as I was anticipating. It is funny, like so many of the reviews did seem as though they were written by characters in the movie.

NK: I mean, look, we both know that David Sirota is just a Twitter menace in so many ways. But I think he’s been really quite funny responding to some of the reactions asking: Did the comet write that?

JS: [Laughs.] The comet has some perspectives on this movie that he would like to express. 

[Musical interlude.]

JS: Now I want to strike a small note of optimism regarding our future because of this movie. 

One thing that has always struck me about global warming is that in popular culture — we’re about the same age — when we were growing up, there was an enormous amount of books, movies, and everything about nuclear war. “Dr. Strangelove,” was kind of the progenitor of everything. But then there were things like, you know, “The Day After” which traumatized an entire generation — all kinds of things!

NK: [Laughs.]

JS: The thing that I think is crucial for human beings in terms of thinking about the world is being able to imagine disasters, so you do not, in fact, experience the disasters. And I think for the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-war movement, that really burgeoned during the 1980s, it was tremendously helpful to have this be part of popular culture, and thus popular consciousness, and it was a kind of virtuous circle where the more people imagined it, the more people thought seriously about this, the more they’re going to get involved in political activism that created a larger audience for this kind of culture. 

And so it has seemed extremely ominous to me that the same kind of thing has not been present in popular culture about global warming. There have been things obviously. There’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” There are scattered movies, there are scattered books, but nothing like it was about nuclear war during the ’60s, ’70s, and particularly the ’80s. 

And so I’m wondering if you think that this is a positive sign that there’s this huge blockbuster movie with the world’s biggest movie stars talking about this?

NK: Look, I do — [laughs] and because this is the other side of capitalism: This movie is a capitalist success. And I think that generally these decisions get made, even at the kind of documentary level of like: Well, the last film we made about climate change flopped, so we’re not going to make another one.

I remember when we were looking for a distributor for “This Changes Everything.” We had conversations with distributors, where they were like: Can you just not make it — like, not say it’s about climate change? [Laughs.] Because the last time we had to film about climate change … therefore, people don’t like films about climate change, right? So it’s an imitative, incredibly unimaginative decision-making structure. Which means that if the biggest film in Netflix’s history was a film about climate change that was critical of capitalism, there’s going to be a bunch of executives, not just at Netflix, but elsewhere going: Well, who’s got the next “Don’t Look Up”? And so I think that’s good. 

I mean, one of the things that’s interesting is that I’ve seen around these discussions of: Why aren’t there more big budget films about climate change? I think there have been more films about climate change than we’re giving ourselves credit for, they just haven’t necessarily been explicitly about climate change. But there have been a lot of films that have taken ecological collapse for granted in imagining the future. We’ve imagined dystopian versions of ourselves many, many times, where we are just us, only worse. And so I would say that’s true for “Snowpiercer.” That’s true for “WALL-E,” that’s true for “The Road,” right? And I’ve often said, and I believe this, that we are up against a crisis of the imagination when it comes to our response to the climate crisis, in that neoliberalism itself was a war on the imagination and that’s what it means to declare history over, right, when Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History and the Last Men.” That was an act of violence against the imagination. It was saying to people: You don’t have to imagine any more futures, because this one, the one that we have, the one that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gave us, that’s the end of time, and we’re just going to do this forever. 

Or when Margaret Thatcher said: “There is no alternative.” We can’t quote that enough to remind people what we have been living through in terms of the ways our imaginations have been policed. And so in addition to that, we’ve had a lot of sometimes brilliant films that have told a vision of the future that just gives us only worse. And the problem with that combination is that we begin to take the end of the world for granted. And that informs our response to huge crises: We think it’s impossible. We think we’re actually unworthy; not only that we can’t save ourselves, but that we’re almost unworthy of being saved. 

And so I think what’s interesting about this film is that there’s a decision point, right, where we could have done something different. And the message that I think it’s trying to convey is that it’s not too late. It’s saying: If we don’t act very differently, this is where we will end up. So, you know, I do take some hope from that. And I do think that it opens up some space in the culture industries to take some risks around films that present a vision of the future that’s a little bit more of a mash-up, right? Because it’s not going to be a utopia. We screwed up too much for that. But if we think about Kim Stanley Robinson’s visions of the future, where things get worse, but in some ways, we also treat each other better, and a kind of little mini-utopia is amidst dystopia, I think that’s where we have to let our imaginations free.

JS: Yes. And something that I have always believed I think is borne out by human history is that stories, movies, books, everything else, are truly the best ways for you to communicate anything. That’s the best way to reach a large audience. That’s the best way to really move people to action and it’s a difficult and very subtle process, but they are superior. Stories are superior, I believe, to, for instance, the angry little screeds that I tend to spend my life writing. Direct political communication: Here are the politics of this issue, here’s the political analysis, kind of bounces off the consciousness of a lot of people, whereas stories can sort of take a sneaky route around the blockages that they may have in terms of thinking about stuff and get into their subconscious and get them to make decisions that that they might otherwise not.

NK: Yeah, and I mean that’s one of the things that I think is quite interesting about the film is that is the way it is a film about stories, right? And the stories within the stories, right? Within “Don’t Look Up,” there’s that disaster movie that’s set to launch on the day that the comet is set to hit Earth. I think that’s an asteroid.

JS: Yeah, it is, and the tagline for the movie is something like: When the asteroid hit Earth, he hit back!

NK: [Laughing.] Exactly. And that, to me, was the most interesting part of the movie is the way it directly challenged the hardwiring of our brains to believe that yes, we may have vino elites, but when the shit really hits the fan, they will get it together and they will save us. And the thing that’s interesting is they believe that. 

I remember before the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. a year into Obama’s presidency, there was a lot of momentum, and there was a lot of sort of feeling that, OK, the Bush years are over, Obama was elected promising he is going to do something about climate change. And Stern, who was his chief climate negotiator, spoke a few months ahead of the Copenhagen Summit, and he said that we had to be like superheroes saving the Earth from an asteroid. [Laughs.] And then he proceeded to go to Copenhagen and blow the thing up. [Laughs.]

JS: [Laughs.]

NK: So, I think that we need to reckon with the way our own brains have been hardwired by these crappy action movies, to believe that our elites are frankly, better than they are and that really it is only us who are going to save us. 

And that’s another message in the film, right? Is that it’s everyday people who do try so hard. And there was that very touching moment around the dinner table.

JL (as Kate Dibiasky): I’m grateful — I’m grateful we tried.

Rob Morgan (as Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe): Man oh man did we try.

NK: You know, I teach a course to graduate students that I call “Ecological Effect.” I’m just starting to teach it. It’s the first time I’m teaching it. And here I’m teaching students who are in their graduate work documenting extinction. And it’s hard. It is really hard to be a scientist right now. This is not why most people become natural scientists; a lot of them do it, because they actually like nature and it’s actually pretty hard to find yourself, counting the number of species that die during a heat dome, and having it surpass a billion, the number of marine creatures. 

So this course is sort of trying to attend to the emotional side of this work, and what it means to be alive today. And we don’t know that we’re going to succeed. In fact, our chances are really slim. But it actually is important to know that we did everything to try. It’s not enough of a comfort, but I’d rather say that I did try.

[Somber musical interlude.]

JS: You know, I would also say something that I suspect you agree with me about is that a real basis, a genuine basis for optimism can be found in the perspective of people who have lived through the 30 years of the triumph of neoliberalism as just like their baseline of how the world works. So younger people get this, understand it in a way that, in my experience, older people simply do not. They are motivated for very understandable reasons and also some reasons that are a little more subtle than just the fact that they’re going to be alive for longer. They understand how urgent this is, how everything really does have to change.

NK: Yeah, and I think that young people are, even though people in their 20s and even to a lesser extent kind of early 30s absolutely grew up under intense neoliberalism and in the wreckage of the success of all of the we’ve been discussing, they didn’t grow up with as heavy an ideological indoctrination as you and I did, right? I mean, they didn’t grow up with this sort of triumphant period of: This is all going to be fantastic, and don’t you dare think anything else. They’ve grown up in the zombie period of neoliberalism where the policies are continuing and indeed deepening and the crises are worsening, but very few people will admit to believing in it. And everybody is critiquing capitalism all over the place. So I do think that that, you know, that both intensifies the urgency and frees up the imagination, and people are angry and need to be angry. And this is another point — it’s not a moment to be polite about failures. It’s a moment to be really, really angry about it and not just leave that to young people. Because I think that there is a way that when young people are angry and saying: “you stole our future,” there’s still a kind of a “good for you, kids” response. 

JS: Thank you for calling us on that. 

NK: [Laughs.] So, I mean, this is why I love sort of the new incarnation of Greta. There was a wonderful film actually made about Greta, a documentary by a Swedish team who followed her for the first couple of years. And you watch the sort of absurd celebrity machinery descend on her, right, where all of these politicians who don’t want to do anything, want to get their picture taken with her and want to have a meeting with her so that they can say nothing. 

There’s an incredible scene with her and Macron where it’s like: Why is he putting her through this? And she’s just kind of baffled by the whole thing. And so Greta at Glasgow, where she’s swearing, [laughing] and just openly mocking all of these political efforts — build back better, blah, blah, blah. You know? 

Greta Thunberg: Many are starting to ask themselves: What will it take for the people in power to wake up? But let’s be clear, they are already awake. They know exactly what they are doing. They know exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to maintain business as usual.

NK: It’s really interesting, because she’s sort of being like: I’m not going to be your cute, earnest photo op anymore. Right? I’m not going to give you any respect. And I think honestly, we’ve got a lot to learn from that attitude.

JS: Yeah, that is impressive. And you know, the politicians are like: I’m stopping climate change by posting this picture of myself with Greta on Instagram.

NK: Or my favorite, being a Canadian, was Justin Trudeau joining the climate march against Justin Trudeau.

JS: [Laughs.] Look, I’m really on your side here. What a terrible person he is.

NK: Timothy Morton, they also have this great BBC Radio series about apocalypses that have happened before, right? This moment that we’re in, white Western narratives, always put the apocalypse off into the future. And from an indigenous perspective, from an African perspective, a Black perspective, in North America, apocalypses have already happened, worlds have been destroyed. cosmologies have had war waged on them. And so if we think about who should be leading these movements, and whose stories we need to hear, we should hear stories from people who have lost worlds and rebuilt in the rubble, I think these are the stories we need to hear now.

JS: So things are happening in the real world — nowhere near, obviously, the scale that’s needed. The changes are modest, I would have to imagine you believe. But what is going on to address global warming right now?

NK: Well, not enough. I think people are really worn down. I think we have to acknowledge that we’re in another bad timing moment, because the isolation of the pandemic and just the sort of wearing down and really two years of this is we’re not in a situation where we are getting our batteries recharged as movements. Movements recharge their batteries in company with other people. And so many of us have been trying to do this organizing remotely, over Zoom. And so you end up with kind of all the worst parts of being on the left and being in movements, where there’s a lot of infighting and a lot of stress without the kind of catharsis and joy. So I think that once we get through this and I do believe that we will — here I’m talking about the current wave, we need to prioritize being in each other’s company and doing it as safely as we can and being outside as much as we can, but really kind of feeling our strength with each other. So I think we can point to some small-scale, municipal-level advances that have happened in the midst of the pandemic. There’s a push in New York state right now for some very ambitious climate legislation. And, I think, with Joe Manchin screwing everything up at the federal level, the push in blue states like New York, and California is where we need to be, as well as at the city level. 

But look, I’m worried. I’m worried that the Democrats have blown things so badly that the midterms look really bleak. And I guess I don’t really know what to say, except that the left — the movements that have been pushing for a deep intersectional response to the crisis under the banner of the Green New Deal, but before that, well before that, that the climate justice movement has been pushing for. I don’t think that we, as a movement, have really gotten our power back since Bernie was defeated. And I think, for understandable reasons, that there was a lot of hope and that slid right into the pandemic, and the need to get Trump out, which we needed to do. But I think if we’re honest, that it did co-opt the movement into the Democratic camp a little bit, right?

And I think that the Dems are really good at doing that, by creating committees and putting different people on them, and seeming to listen, right? So it seemed for a little while that Biden was using a lot of the framework from the Sunrise Movement, right? He wasn’t calling it a Green New Deal. But he was talking about a whole government response. He was talking about spending a whole lot of money and taking some ideas from the Green New Deal. And he didn’t fight for it. Right? He didn’t fight for it. Wasn’t a spokesperson for it. And at the rate we’re going, they’re going to be going into the midterms with very little. 

So I think that we need a movement that is genuinely independent of the Democratic Party, because they are a huge part of the problem. Pelosi is a huge part of the problem. Schumer is a huge part of the problem. And, as always, being up against wannabe fascists doesn’t help, because you end up in this kind of dance of just defining yourself as the opposite of them, forgetting that a lot of their power comes from the failures of the corporate Democratic Party, that that set the stage for Trump in so many ways. So we can’t just be the not-fascists. We have to be something else. Here, I’m not just talking about climate, I’m talking about everything.

JS: Naomi Klein is a senior correspondent at The Intercept, professor of climate justice at the University of British Columbia, and the author of several books on climate change. Naomi, thank you so much for joining me.

NK: Thanks, Jon. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

[Credits music.]

JS: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. José Olivares is lead producer. Truc Nguyen is our podcast fellow. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by D.J. Spooky.

And I’m Jon… Schwarz? That’s a little “Anchorman” joke because of Adam McKay. I’m Jon Schwarz.

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