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June 25, 2021

PaRx People: A Conversation with Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University, and an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and international and New York Times bestselling author of eight critically acclaimed books. She has written a regular column for The Nation, The Globe and Mail and The Guardian that was syndicated in major newspapers around the world by The New York Times Syndicate. Naomi reported from China for Rolling Stone, Standing Rock and Puerto Rico for The Intercept, Copenhagen (COP15) for The Nation, Buenos Aires for The Financial Times, and Iraq for Harper’s. She has been ranked as one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals in Prospect magazine, one of the 100 People Who Are Changing America in Rolling Stone and one of Ms. Magazine’s Women of the Year.

In September 2021, she will join the Geography Department of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of Arts as inaugural Chair of the new Centre for Climate Justice.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with Naomi to learn about nature’s importance in her life from her formative years to fostering resilience as a global journalist, how nature helped her son and family grow and heal during the pandemic, the essential role of conserving and connecting to nature in saving the planet, and her latest book How to Change Everything: The Young Human’s Guide to Protecting the Earth and Each Other (2021).

How to Change Everything includes stories about youth whose connection to nature inspired them to protect it. Can you tell me more about your own early experiences in nature, and how they influenced your life path?

I’m very fortunate because my family, especially on my father’s side, was very connected to nature. My father grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and my grandparents were part of this movement of young people there who went back to the land.

It began with a group of German socialists living in the area who really believed in the salutary impacts of being out in nature. They started—I don’t know what to call it, kind of a commune—called Nature Friends, in Ringwood, New Jersey. And they would go hiking and have concerts in this beautiful part of New Jersey—that probably sounds weird, because the image you have is shopping malls and highways—but it has beautiful parts as well. During the Great Depression they also got money from the US Works Progress Administration to build a spring-fed freshwater swimming pool.

Naomi enjoying nature as a child.                                                                                    Naomi bonding with wildlife. Photos supplied.

My grandparents eventually moved to Nature Friends, and we spent a lot of time there in a house they built themselves just outside of the camp. My grandfather was a sculptor, and my grandmother was a teacher and artist, and we grew up swimming in that pool and hiking those trails. When my father was growing up, the camp had been raided and under FBI surveillance because it was during the McCarthy era, and it was a place for left-wing political organizing and known for having musicians like Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie perform there, who were all accused of being communists. Nature Friends was a combination of art and nature and political action. So that culture is part of my DNA.

And going back to the Great Depression, a great part of FDR [US President Franklin Roosevelt]’s New Deal programs were about getting people out into nature and the health effects of lifting people’s spirits. FDR knew that people were depressed—it wasn’t just economic depression, it was also a psychological state. So there was all of this funding for state parks and outdoor recreation. When I was a kid, Nature Friends had become a place where poor kids from Newark would come by bus and get access to nature in a way they couldn’t in the city. My dad was a lifeguard at the pool and taught thousands of kids to swim; because he grew up with that, we grew up with that ethos.

Naomi with her father, family physician Dr. Michael Klein. Photo supplied.

I really grew up so privileged in terms of access to nature, and this weird, kind of socialist tradition of nature access even though my grandparents were not rich; they were working class. The right to nature was not something most people considered back then—it was something that elites engaged in.

I think nature has also always been really important for me as a kind of antidote to my work, especially when I’m writing about really traumatic material, to be able to have a respite from it in nature. That’s always been the rhythm of my writing. I did a big chunk of the editing of my book No Logo on Vancouver Island. I was reporting a story about Clayoquot Sound and the aftermath of the blockades. I moved out there to report that story in the day, and in the evening reworked No Logo.

My happiest moments in life are probably spotting wild animals, that speechless euphoria. I love reporting, I love being out in the world where the action is, but the actual writing part is hard, the solitude and sometimes the grimness of it. And being able to be somewhere where I can walk in the forest and on the beach, and have these euphoric moments of seeing a bear or a whale, like I did when I was on Vancouver Island, they really sustain me. I’m a nature girl.

Naomi on the job in New York. Photo supplied.

After I wrote No Logo, I wrote The Shock Doctrine. By that time my parents had moved out to the Sunshine Coast from Montreal. And I started coming out for summers and vacations, and just fell in love with it. I wrote up some of the reporting that led to The Shock Doctrine in a cabin friends of theirs lent me. I had come back from Iraq and was just utterly traumatized by what I’d seen there. Being able to be on the Sunshine Coast in this little cabin, and being able to process it and be in nature, I think allowed me to write from not just a place of anger, but something more porous to humanity. I’ve written books in cities before, but it’s a lot harder because you don’t have that counterbalance.

We ended up buying a place in Halfmoon Bay. I did most of the research for This Changes Everything there as well. It’s a small community and isolated enough that you have to take a ferry to get to any city. Because I get a lot of requests to travel to speak here and there, living somewhere where it’s just a little harder to say yes is helpful for my writing discipline.

You started the pandemic teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey, then relocated to BC’s Sunshine Coast. How has nature been important for your family’s health and wellbeing during this time?

It’s a completely different feeling to be here than where we were. We spent the first three months of the pandemic in New Jersey, and it was very much a COVID epicentre. We could go for walks but we never exhaled—we were just so stressed because it was crowded and there was COVID all around us, ambulances pulling up in front of neighbours’ homes all the time. We were so afraid of ending up in a hospital, because we knew hospitals were just overwhelmed and not coping. People all around us were getting sick. My husband Avi and I both got sick, and you couldn’t get a COVID test unless you were basically in respiratory failure at that stage of the pandemic.

So coming to Canada at that point was—we felt like we could finally breathe. Not just because the COVID rates were so much lower. It’s also just hard to feel cooped up when you have access to forests and beaches.

Avi, Toma and Naomi in Halfmoon Bay. Photo supplied.

We’re so blessed here in BC, because at least on the coast, anyone who has access to the ocean has access to a feeling of expanse, right? So I always felt a little weird talking about being locked down. This is not what feeling locked down feels like, like being in a 1-bedroom apartment in a city and not being able to go out is a totally different experience.

But the biggest thing for us has been that our son Toma can be in a school in Halfmoon Bay that works for him. It’s this very, very special school that backs onto a network of incredible trails, many of which were cleared by earlier generations of students—and the kids use them as part of their education. I have friends in the area whose kids are young adults now, and a big part of their education was going out and clearing those trails. The school also has a wonderful garden.

One of the things that really struck me about COVID early on is the things that were safest are also things research shows are best for us and our kids anyway. Smaller classrooms, more outdoor education—these are good at preventing the spread of a virus, and they’re good, period. They’re especially good for kids like my son who has a developmental disability. I don’t talk about the specifics of his situation because he’s turning nine next month, and I think that it’s his decision when he’s older to decide how he wants to self-identify in the world. I can say that, like many kids, he has challenges and special needs, and we know kids like that benefit from smaller classrooms and more physical activity. Their nervous systems are calmed in nature, they are less overwhelmed by the ambient noise in smaller classes. But there’s lots of research that shows that these things are good for all kids—even if neurotypical kids are better at masking.

Nature in Halfmoon Bay, BC. Photo by Anatastase Maragos on Unsplash.

If we recognize that, and design our schools based on that research, we can have more integrated education. In New Jersey Toma was in a small class with kids with special needs only, which was better than being in a general education classroom with 30 kids and one teacher. But with the supports he now gets, and with daily access to nature, he can actually be in a general education setting. I think that’s better for all the kids; it’s important for your typical kid without disabilities to know there are kids who have different needs. Some might have trouble with structured playground games, but when Toma just runs around in the forest and hides behind trees, I see him integrating so much more easily with other kids.

You’ve travelled around the world as a journalist. What’s your favourite place to spend time in nature?

I’m sorry [laughs], but it’s here. Toma and I were just talking about that yesterday, how lucky we feel that we get to live in our favourite place. I think it’s our favourite place because we have those connections to it, even though we are settlers and it doesn’t go many generations deep. I was pregnant with him here, he was born here, and his grandparents are here. My grandparents spent some very happy years here at the end of their lives. It’s where we have the most roots because my family moved around a lot. I feel really lucky that my parents made the decision to move here, because Avi’s family is all out east and we miss them.

I don’t think about nature as what is the most awe-inspiringly beautiful. It’s more, where do I feel most at ease, and where do I feel most connected?—and that’s definitely here. I’m in love with Coast Salish territory generally, and I feel like I’ve seen just the barest glimpse of it. We went up to Alert Bay and Telegraph Cove last year and kayaked, and were amazed by that.

But I would say the place that just took my breath away the most in terms of the natural world was Sri Lanka. Avi and I travelled there in 2005 after the tsunami when I was writing The Shock Doctrine. Because there was a pause in the warfare, we were able to travel to places that had been closed off before. I wasn’t prepared for just the breathtaking beauty of the land—we were staggered by the wildlife.

Elephants in Rambukkana, Sri Lanka. Photo by Rajiv Perera on Unsplash.

We saw elephants walking on the side of the road, and monkeys swinging in the trees, and just the most beautiful beaches I’d ever seen. And I had the most delicious spicy food I’ve ever eaten in my life. Sri Lanka is culturally so rich and so diverse, and just—it was all mixed together with this trauma and pain and heartbreak.

In the aftermath of disasters people are broken open. It’s a particular kind of intimacy, being in a space like that; people have survived but also come together in extraordinary ways. This is the sort of tension of these post-disaster environments that I’ve spent too much time in—you see the worst and best of what humanity is capable of. It changes you.

You mention in How to Change Everything that you signed a letter in 2019 to the world’s governments about the importance of preserving forests and other natural ecosystems to protect us from climate change. Tell me more about this.

That was stating something that really is common sense. We don’t just need to radically get our emissions down to zero as fast as we can—even if we do that we have emitted so much carbon that it’s well above safe levels now. So we have to draw it down. And there are various sorts of technological, gee-whiz approaches to that, like sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground—but the way to do that is essentially to build a huge number of fake, metal trees.

Or, we could just do our best to revegetate the world, because there are already these wonderful carbon-sucking machines called trees. And in so doing we have the potential to rehabilitate habitats for animals that are endangered, and to rewild parts of the world. And so that is the sort of climate solution we really have to be lifting up.

This was an initiative that built on all the research showing the connection between land rehabilitation, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The letter was spearheaded by George Monbiot and Greta Thunberg and I was happy to sign it.

Naomi with David Suzuki and Pamela Palmater in Toronto. Photo supplied.

One of the youth climate initiatives I’m most excited about is the potential for a new kind of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was established during the Great Depression. FDR’s “Tree Army” planted more than 2 billion trees, which was more than half the trees ever planted in the US, and hired more than 2 million young people to plant them. They also built 800 state parks and they did a lot of soil restoration.

I think one of the most wonderful parts of the CCC was that it addressed the right to nature. These young people were from poor families. It was based on the idea that access to nature should not just be something for rich people who can afford Patagonia outfits—it should be a right for everybody. This was baked into who worked in the CCC, and also building networks of trails free and open to the public.

If we were to do something like that in Canada today, and I think we should, it would have to be designed and led by Indigenous communities, as part of a process of returning much more land to Indigenous jurisdiction. But in this moment where we have a youth mental health crisis, a climate crisis and a crisis of ongoing colonialism, I think we have the building blocks of something really incredible.

We’re both mothers of young boys. Has becoming a parent changed your relationship to nature in any way?

My son Toma is—he’s such a nature boy. He doesn’t have a drop of cynicism in him. Whatever the blasé gene is, he doesn’t have it. He’s literally never said he’s bored in his nine years of life. Just his sense of wonder, and being able to share in it, is such a gift.

Being here this year has been so special for us. Because I travel so much for my work, I’ve never stayed anywhere for an entire year, not since I’ve been an adult. And we’ve been able to just sit here continuously, watching all the changes.

Sunset on the Sunshine Coast, BC. Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels.

We’ve been writing a poem together called “What we saw when we stayed.” And we’re tracking all the changes. They’re not small, they’re huge! I’ve never been so aware of the fact that we are on a planet that is moving [laughs], and because we’re on a planet and it’s moving, it’s changing all the time. Which is such an obvious point, but when you don’t have the continuity of being in the same place and part of the changes as they happen, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that we’re not static. When we stop moving, we’re still moving. That’s just been such a gift to be aware of that, watch those changes, document those changes, gasp in awe at those changes.

And this has been such a wrenching year, so hard in so many ways, but we are so intensely privileged. Even though we started the pandemic at its epicentre just outside of New York, we are still tremendously fortunate. Although we know many people who had COVID, I only know one person who died of COVID, who contracted it in a hospital in Toronto getting treatment for something else. But when I think about our friends in India and what they’re experiencing right now, it feels terrible to be talking about this year as a gift—but being in one place and watching it change has been a gift. I think the huge challenge of COVID is how to take the things we’ve learned that have been good about this period, and apply them to the post COVID era.

Like Arundhati Roy said, the pandemic is a portal. Where we’re going is changing—it’s not going to be the place we were before—so what do we want to carry with us? One of the things that’s been really interesting is because it hasn’t been possible to gather indoors, so many people have discovered the trails in their communities. There was all this shaming of people crowding into parks and beaches, but to me what that speaks to is that we don’t have enough outdoor infrastructure.

People want to be in nature but we don’t have enough infrastructure to support it, so urban parks got crowded. We need more urban parks. We need to invest more in that. And every kid should be able to have nature breaks during the day, like my son does.

Naomi backstage with Dublin Climate Kids. Photo supplied.

You tell inspiring stories in your book about youth taking action to protect natural ecosystems. What lessons do you think youth have to teach adults about our relationship to nature and the planet?

I think the main thing with young people in all of this is that they get it way better than adults. If you tell a young person about an environmental problem, they’re like, Okay, let’s fix it, let’s get all the plastic out of the ocean. Is climate change a problem? Okay, then we can’t use those fossil fuels. Whereas adults say, we need to make a complex carbon market, trade emissions, plant metal trees. Adults make things way more complicated, but youth say, let’s get to the source, let’s fix it. So that sense of we need to treat a crisis like a crisis, like Greta always says, we need to stop doing the things that are creating the problem instead of creating overcomplicated reasons why we can’t.

And we have to take care of people. What’s most exciting to me about this generation of activists is how determinedly intersectional they are. The young people who go to climate marches are the same people who go to BLM marches. When young people decide to get involved and start caring about something, they don’t just care about one thing. Their hearts break open. They are about all of it.

The other thing that inspires me about this generation is they really have each other’s backs. They’re really building a movement, not just a bunch of NGOs, and it’s been such a privilege writing this book to have a lot of different conversations around the world. For example, there’s this great Fridays for Future movement in Ireland, and they invited me to their weekly meeting two weeks ago. Over Zoom, of course. It was just the sweetest thing—they were reading poetry to each other and crying together. And the thing we have most to learn from them is that this is emotional. If we’re talking about the collapse of our common home, and the losses of our relatives in other species, that breaks their hearts. And young people are willing to admit it. They’re very, very clear that this is an intensely emotional topic. Once you become an adult climate activist, that emotional side gets suppressed, and it shouldn’t. It’s a powerful motivator.

You’re an incredibly busy person. How do you find the time to fit nature into your life?

Being close to nature is part of the reason why we decided to move to the Sunshine Coast. It’s been a tough decision, honestly, because so many of the people I love most in the world are far away, in Toronto and New York and New Jersey. We have friends here, but because we’ve lived here for a shorter period of time we don’t have quite as much community here. But I feel like it saved my son, and it’s so clearly healthier for him that it made it easier to prioritize for us, because it’s healthier for us too.

And so even just something simple like picking Toma up from school—we combine it with a walk in the woods. We grab the dog, pick him up and go straight into the forest. And whatever happened at school or work that day just kind of exhales, and we’re able to get into the next part of our day and reset.

What role do you think health professionals have to play in inspiring people to protect nature and the planet?

Health professionals are some of the most trusted people in our communities. And so I think they have a huge role to play in standing with the people who are already raising the alarm, whether it’s young people or Indigenous communities, to lift up other models and ways of living, like agroecological farming, or the right to access to nature.

And I think your work, Melissa, is so, so critical in this moment, when there is this lived bodily memory of how important access to nature has been for so many people, and how a lot of people live in places where that access is not there.

We need to build it into every municipal plan, every school board needs to take it much more seriously, and we need to keep drawing the connection between individual, community and planetary health. We’re poised for a breakthrough in that area, because these are all connected. The things that keep our bodies healthy are also healthy for the planet. And the more ways we can express that, the better our chances are for a real breakthrough.

Melissa and Naomi hiking in Halfmoon Bay.

Learn more about Naomi’s life and work on her official website here.

Have a question for us? Get in touch.


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