Naomi Klein: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World

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This year, the Edward Said Lecture at the Southbank Centre was given by Naomi Klein, the author and social activist. In giving this lecture, Naomi followed in the footsteps of Marina Warner, Rashid Khalidi, Ahdaf Soueif, Noam Chomsky, Raja Shehadeh and Daniel Barenboim in an annual event that aims to emphasise the forward-looking nature of Said’s work.

Naomi’s lecture, ‘Let Them Drown – The Violence of Othering in a Warming World’, focused on climate change and, specifically, the discrimination within global (in)action on this subject that sees the elite (rich, White) prioritise their rights over ‘others’ they consider less worthy, and considers the central role that structural discrimination and systems, which rank the relative value of human beings, have played in deepening this crisis.

This lecture builds on the work in Naomi’s recent bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate which EVERYONE SHOULD READ! (That includes you.)

Naomi spoke not only on the urgency of the issue of climate change, but how ‘othering’ – capitalism entwined with institutional discrimination – is an intrinsic part of the problem. ‘Othering’ is where the rich and privileged look to other people, communities and countries to pay the price of climate change so that they can preserve their wealth. It is ‘others’ that can be sacrificed – islands lost, communities destroyed, lives rubbed out – so that rich nations don’t have to water down their industrial production growth to meet targets such as carbon reduction and ‘maximum’ two degree increase in world temperature.

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The concept of ‘othering’ works on the incorrect premise that climate change can be contained – hence why rich White nations don’t mind sacrificing poorer ones – and is based on the overriding veneration of capitalism. That nothing must be allowed to temper or moderate, let alone challenge, economic growth.

It is these beliefs that have meant rich nations have not slashed carbon emissions or taken on concerted and transformational efforts to change energy sources and halt the ever-increasing temperature is because of economic growth.

So what if we lose a few islands to rising sea temperatures? So what if a few hungry migrants drown in the Med? So what if we destroy our environment to dig out every fossil fuel possible? These are the monstrous sacrifices the rich and privileged do not sweat about – because they do not value the lives of these ‘others’ they are sacrificing to ensure their own wealth remains secure.

It was frightening listening to Naomi. Her statistics scared me even though you’d think we would be immune to this. After all, we hear this data and these warnings all the time, don’t we? But when you hear “we face the loss of all coastal cities and all of their history within this century,” it wakes you up.

Such is the urgency of the rise in sea levels that you have to ask, are we searching for a solution that no longer exists? Or are we not actually searching? And when you hear of assassinations of activists in Honduras and elsewhere, you fear it’s the latter.

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But such is the pressure that rich nations found their hand forced. Only whilst they bicker over the solutions and squabble over who should be allowed how much carbon emission, Naomi points out that we are facing a crisis of symptoms.

Climate refugees are increasing – people are beginning to migrate in their millions, whether they are the victims of flooding and erosion of their land, or because drought has made their area inhabitable – yet climate refugees have no status or recognition under international law. We have a looming crisis of where we house displaced people.

2011 saw East Africa’s greatest drought in over 60 years. And it Is no coincidence that 2011 also saw the uprisings across North Africa, in Libya, Egypt and Algeria. Rising food prices caused by the drought was a key factor in why the uprisings happened at this time – the people were angry and hungry. 

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Drought always exacerbates conflict, and this drought was a good example of how the problems do not remain localised. For as these droughts led to uprisings, so these uprisings led to war – first local, and then international.

And then when those wars solved little, the oppressed and the hungry got into boats and headed for safety in Europe. Only, so deeply entrenched is this ‘othering’ that when these boats capsize and the people drown, sympathy is limited as their lives again fall short in our relative ranking system. They don’t matter to us because, you know, we need to make sure that we’re ok first.

So what are we doing about it?

Not a lot because, as Naomi puts it, environmental racism means that the rich and the elite don’t care. The rich think they’re going to get away with it, that they will get through climate change. They are gambling with the lives of the rest; they are gambling that all these ‘others’ can be sacrificed because they are inconsequential.

The climate refugees are ‘others’ – impoverished victims of racism that the rich have decided are not of equal value to their own. It doesn’t matter if all these poor non-white people in Africa, Middle East and Pacific Islands have to leave their homes and their lands to die in makeshift refugee camps brimming with violence and disease – their lives are not equal to the white life so white inaction can be excused.

The desperate are left to drown because the elite want to preserve their advantage. The lives of ‘others’ are not worth compromising for.

And it can happen within rich nations too. Naomi pointedly referred to the floods in New Orleans, USA and in the UK, which saw entire communities destroyed (and are still to be rebuilt). You see, the rich elite within the US and UK didn’t make action a priority, and still quibble over funding to improve flood defences, because those people who suffered are not the elite. They are not rich. Kanye was right when he said Bush didn’t care about black people. And the rich don’t care about the poor. As far a second they rationalise, why invest in flood defences when they can save a few pennies and the ‘others’ can keep getting flooded.

Naomi’s theory is a powerful one – that to truly address climate change, we must challenge the capitalist structures themselves. Institutional racism and elitism allows the powerful to discount the lives of the less powerful. Capitalism preserves and enables the ranking of the relative value of human life.

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Look at capitalism itself, Naomi urges. It exists to constantly create wealth, to constantly drive industrial production and growth. And key to industrial development is the continued extraction of fossil fuels.

The very extraction of fossil fuels demands sacrifice and ‘othering’. It demands the poor to sacrifice their health and even their lives to go deep into the mines, and to work on dangerous and unstable oil rigs. And it demands the sacrifice of land. Beautiful landscapes in impoverished areas are ripped open to allow pit mining, and why would we care about the Middle East? Who cares about Arabs? That’s the reasoning of the elite – hence why they tear open those countries for every ounce of oil they can find.

And why wars are always fought ‘over there’ because it’s the ‘others’ again. The rich can sacrifice the ‘others’ and their homes, they can carpet bomb their cities and disregard their lives because, on the relative value scale, they are not high enough.

These theories of ‘othering’ explain how the elite justify the treatment of others. And the enacting of this theory is capitalism, and its associated institutionalised racism, sexism and classism.

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As Naomi puts it, the fight to push back climate change will get nastier and uglier unless we change the corrosive values in our economic system that pits us against each other.

A full video recording of Naomi’s lecture is available here. I urge you to watch it. What I’ve written here is just a summary and not as eloquently and persuasively phrased as Naomi’s words. She talks with passion and with powerful intellectual insight into the tensions between indigenous communities and the elites, and how our enslavement to economic growth must be challenged if we are to survive.

I also want to make a special note of Naomi’s assertion of how key it is that indigenous populations lead the fight against climate change. That shows an admirable self-awareness of her own privilege and how important it is that those who are not being listened to, rise up and make their voices heard.

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