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Naomi Klein: How shocking events can spark positive change

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Things are pretty shocking out there right now -- record-breaking storms, deadly terror attacks, thousands of migrants disappearing beneath the waves and openly supremacist movements rising. Are we responding with the urgency that these overlapping crises demand from us? Journalist and activist Naomi Klein studies how governments use large-scale shocks to push societies backward. She shares a few propositions from "The Leap" -- a manifesto she wrote alongside indigenous elders, climate change activists, union leaders and others from different backgrounds -- which envisions a world after we've already made the transition to a clean economy and a much fairer society. "The shocking events that fill us with dread today can transform us, and they can transform the world for the better," Klein says. "But first we need to picture the world that we're fighting for. And we have to dream it up together."

- Author, Activist
In her latest work, Naomi Klein wonders: What makes our culture so prone to the reckless high-stakes gamble, and why are women so frequently called upon to clean up the mess? Full bio

There's a question I've been
puzzling over and writing about
00:12
for pretty much all of my adult life.
00:16
Why do some large-scale crises
00:20
jolt us awake and inspire us
to change and evolve
00:23
while others might jolt us a bit,
00:28
but then it's back to sleep?
00:31
Now, the kind of shocks
I'm talking about are big --
00:33
a cataclysmic market crash,
rising fascism,
00:37
an industrial accident
that poisons on a massive scale.
00:41
Now, events like this
can act like a collective alarm bell.
00:46
Suddenly, we see a threat,
we get organized.
00:52
We discover strength and resolve
that was previously unimaginable.
00:55
It's as if we're no longer
walking, but leaping.
01:01
Except, our collective alarm
seems to be busted.
01:06
Faced with a crisis,
we often fall apart, regress
01:11
and that becomes a window
for antidemocratic forces
01:15
to push societies backwards,
to become more unequal and more unstable.
01:19
Ten years ago, I wrote
about this backwards process
01:26
and I called it the "Shock Doctrine."
01:30
So what determines which road
we navigate through crisis?
01:32
Whether we grow up fast
and find those strengths
01:38
or whether we get knocked back.
01:41
And I'd say this is
a pressing question these days.
01:44
Because things are
pretty shocking out there.
01:48
Record-breaking storms, drowning cities,
01:51
record-breaking fires
threatening to devour them,
01:54
thousands of migrants
disappearing beneath the waves.
01:58
And openly supremacist movements rising,
02:03
in many of our countries
there are torches in the streets.
02:06
And now there's no shortage
of people who are sounding the alarm.
02:11
But as a society,
I don't think we can honestly say
02:16
that we're responding
with anything like the urgency
02:21
that these overlapping crises
demand from us.
02:25
And yet, we know from history
02:29
that it is possible for crisis
to catalyze a kind of evolutionary leap.
02:31
And one of the most striking examples
of this progressive power of crisis
02:38
is the Great Crash of 1929.
02:44
There was the shock
of the sudden market collapse
02:47
followed by all of the aftershocks,
02:50
the millions who lost everything
thrown onto breadlines.
02:52
And this was taken by many as a message
that the system itself was broken.
02:56
And many people listened
and they leapt into action.
03:02
In the United States and elsewhere,
governments began to weave a safety net
03:06
so that the next time there was a crash
03:12
there would be programs
like social security to catch people.
03:14
There were huge job-creating
public investments
03:18
in housing, electrification and transit.
03:21
And there was a wave
of aggressive regulation
03:25
to reign in the banks.
03:29
Now, these reforms were far from perfect.
03:30
In the US, African American workers,
immigrants and women
03:33
were largely excluded.
03:37
But the Depression period,
03:39
along with the transformation
of allied nations and economies
03:41
during the World War II effort,
03:45
show us that it is possible
for complex societies
03:47
to rapidly transform themselves
in the face of a collective threat.
03:51
Now, when we tell this story
of the 1929 Crash,
03:57
that's usually the formula
that it follows --
04:01
that there was a shock
and it induced a wake-up call
04:04
and that produced a leap to a safer place.
04:09
Now, if that's really what it took,
04:13
then why isn't it working anymore?
04:15
Why do today's non-stop shocks --
04:18
why don't they spur us into action?
04:21
Why don't they produce leaps?
04:24
Especially when it comes
to climate change.
04:26
So I want to talk to you today
04:29
about what I think is a much more
complete recipe for deep transformation
04:31
catalyzed by shocking events.
04:36
And I'm going to focus
on two key ingredients
04:38
that usually get left out
of the history books.
04:41
One has to do with imagination,
the other with organization.
04:45
Because it's in the interplay
between the two
04:51
where revolutionary power lies.
04:54
So let's start with imagination.
04:56
The victories of the New Deal
didn't happen just because suddenly
04:59
everybody understood
the brutalities of laissez-faire.
05:03
This was a time, let's remember,
of tremendous ideological ferment,
05:07
when many different ideas
about how to organize societies
05:13
did battle with one another
in the public square.
05:16
A time when humanity dared to dream big
05:19
about different kinds of futures,
05:22
many of them organized
along radically egalitarian lines.
05:24
Now, not all of these ideas were good
05:29
but this was an era
of explosive imagining.
05:31
This meant that the movements
demanding change
05:36
knew what they were against --
crushing poverty, widening inequality --
05:39
but just as important,
they knew what they were for.
05:43
They had their "no"
and they had their "yes," too.
05:46
They also had very different
models of political organization
05:51
than we do today.
05:55
For decades, social and labor movements
05:56
had been building up
their membership bases,
05:59
linking their causes together
and increasing their strength.
06:01
Which meant that by the time
the Crash happened,
06:06
there was already a movement
that was large and broad enough
06:08
to, for instance, stage strikes
that didn't just shut down factories,
06:12
but shut down entire cities.
06:17
The big policy wins of the New Deal
were actually offered as compromises.
06:20
Because the alternative
seemed to be revolution.
06:25
So, let's adjust
that equation from earlier.
06:30
A shocking event plus utopian imagination
06:34
plus movement muscle,
06:38
that's how we get a real leap.
06:39
So how does our present moment measure up?
06:43
We are living, once again, at a time
of extraordinary political engagements.
06:46
Politics is a mass obsession.
06:50
Progressive movements are growing
and resisting with tremendous courage.
06:53
And yet, we know from history
that "no" is not enough.
06:59
Now, there are some "yeses"
out there that are emerging.
07:03
And they're actually getting
a lot bolder quickly.
07:06
Where climate activists
used to talk about changing light bulbs,
07:10
now we're pushing
for 100 percent of our energy
07:14
to come from the sun, wind and waves,
07:16
and to do it fast.
07:20
Movements catalyzed
by police violence against black bodies
07:22
are calling for an end
to militarized police, mass incarceration
07:26
and even for reparations for slavery.
07:31
Students are not just
opposing tuition increases,
07:34
but from Chile to Canada to the UK,
07:37
they are calling for free tuition
and debt cancellation.
07:41
And yet, this still doesn't add up
07:46
to the kind of holistic
and universalist vision
07:48
of a different world
than our predecessors had.
07:52
So why is that?
07:55
Well, very often
we think about political change
07:57
in defined compartments these days.
08:00
Environment in one box,
inequality in another,
08:03
racial and gender justice
in a couple of other boxes,
08:07
education over here, health over there.
08:11
And within each compartment,
08:15
there are thousands upon thousands
of different groups and NGOs,
08:16
each competing with one another
for credit, name recognition
08:21
and of course, resources.
08:25
In other words, we act
a lot like corporate brands.
08:28
Now, this is often referred to
as the problem of silos.
08:32
Now, silos are understandable.
08:36
They carve up our complex world
into manageable chunks.
08:38
They help us feel less overwhelmed.
08:42
But in the process,
they also train our brains to tune out
08:45
when somebody else's issue comes up
08:49
and when somebody else's issue
needs our help and support.
08:52
And they also keep us from seeing
glaring connections between our issues.
08:57
So for instance, the people fighting
poverty and inequality
09:03
rarely talk about climate change.
09:06
Even though we see time and again
09:08
that it's the poorest of people
09:10
who are the most vulnerable
to extreme weather.
09:12
The climate change people
rarely talk about war and occupation.
09:16
Even though we know
that the thirst for fossil fuels
09:20
has been a major driver of conflict.
09:22
The environmental movement
has gotten better at pointing out
09:26
that the nations that are getting
hit hardest by climate change
09:29
are populated overwhelmingly
by black and brown people.
09:33
But when black lives
are treated as disposable
09:37
in prisons, in schools and on the streets,
09:40
these connections are too rarely made.
09:44
The walls between our silos
09:47
also means that our solutions,
when they emerge,
09:49
are also disconnected from each other.
09:53
So progressives now have this long list
of demands that I was mentioning earlier,
09:55
those "yeses."
10:00
But what we're still missing
10:02
is that coherent picture
of the world we're fighting for.
10:03
What it looks like, what it feels like,
and most of all, what its core values are.
10:07
And that really matters.
10:12
Because when large-scale crises hit us
10:14
and we are confronted with the need
to leap somewhere safer,
10:17
there isn't any agreement
on what that place is.
10:21
And leaping without a destination
10:25
looks a lot like jumping up and down.
10:28
(Laughter)
10:31
Fortunately, there are all kinds
of conversations and experiments going on
10:32
to try to overcome these divisions
that are holding us back.
10:36
And I want to finish
by talking about one of them.
10:39
A couple of years ago,
a group of us in Canada
10:42
decided that we were hitting the limits
10:45
of what we could accomplish
in our various silos.
10:47
So we locked ourselves
in a room for two days,
10:50
and we tried to figure out
what bound us together.
10:53
In that room were people
who rarely get face to face.
10:57
There were indigenous elders
with hipsters working on transit.
11:01
There was the head of Greenpeace
11:05
with a union leader
representing oil workers and loggers.
11:07
There were faith leaders
and feminist icons and many more.
11:11
And we gave ourselves
a pretty ambitious assignment:
11:15
agreeing on a short statement
describing the world after we win.
11:18
The world after we've already
made the transition to a clean economy
11:24
and a much fairer society.
11:29
In other words,
11:31
instead of trying to scare people
about what will happen if we don't act,
11:33
we decided to try to inspire them
with what could happen if we did act.
11:37
Sensible people are always telling us
11:43
that change needs to come
in small increments.
11:46
That politics is the art of the possible
11:50
and that we can't let the perfect
be the enemy of the good.
11:52
Well, we rejected all of that.
11:56
We wrote a manifesto,
and we called it "The Leap."
11:58
I have to tell you
that agreeing on our common "yes"
12:02
across such diversity of experiences
12:06
and against a backdrop
of a lot of painful history
12:08
was not easy work.
12:12
But it was also pretty thrilling.
12:14
Because as soon as we gave ourselves
permission to dream,
12:16
those threads connecting
much of our work became self-evident.
12:20
We realized, for instance,
12:24
that the bottomless quest for profits
12:25
that is forcing so many people
to work more than 50 hours a week,
12:28
without security,
12:32
and that is fueling
this epidemic of despair
12:34
is the same quest for bottomless
profits and endless growth
12:37
that is at the heart
of our ecological crisis
12:42
and is destabilizing our planet.
12:45
It also became clear what we need to do.
12:48
We need to create
a culture of care-taking.
12:51
In which no one
and nowhere is thrown away.
12:55
In which the inherent value of all people
and every ecosystem is foundational.
12:59
So we came up with this people's platform,
13:06
and don't worry, I'm not going to read
the whole thing to you out loud --
13:08
if you're interested,
you can read it at theleap.org.
13:11
But I will give you a taste
of what we came up with.
13:14
So we call for that 100 percent
renewable economy in a hurry,
13:18
but we went further.
13:23
Calls for new kinds of trade deals,
13:25
a robust debate
on a guaranteed annual income,
13:27
full rights for immigrant workers,
13:30
getting corporate money out of politics,
13:32
free universal day care,
electoral reform and more.
13:35
What we discovered
is that a great many of us
13:39
are looking for permission to act
less like brands and more like movements.
13:43
Because movements don't care about credit.
13:49
They want good ideas
to spread far and wide.
13:51
What I love about The Leap
13:55
is that it rejects the idea
that there is this hierarchy of crisis,
13:56
and it doesn't ask anyone
to prioritize one struggle over another
14:00
or wait their turn.
14:04
And though it was birthed in Canada,
14:07
we've discovered that it travels well.
14:09
Since we launched, The Leap
has been picked up around the world
14:11
with similar platforms,
14:14
being written from Nunavut to Australia,
14:16
to Norway to the UK and the US,
14:19
where it's gaining a lot of traction
in cities like Los Angeles,
14:22
where it's being localized.
14:25
And also in rural communities
that are traditionally very conservative,
14:27
but where politics is failing
the vast majority of people.
14:31
Here's what I've learned from studying
shocks and disasters for two decades.
14:37
Crises test us.
14:44
We either fall apart or we grow up fast.
14:47
Finding new reserves of strength
and capacity that we never knew we had.
14:51
The shocking events
that fill us with dread today
14:57
can transform us, and they can
transform the world for the better.
15:00
But first we need to picture the world
that we're fighting for.
15:06
And we have to dream it up together.
15:10
Right now, every alarm in our house
is going off simultaneously.
15:13
It's time to listen.
15:19
It's time to leap.
15:21
Thank you.
15:23
(Applause)
15:24

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About the speaker:

Naomi Klein - Author, Activist
In her latest work, Naomi Klein wonders: What makes our culture so prone to the reckless high-stakes gamble, and why are women so frequently called upon to clean up the mess?

Why you should listen

In the January 31, 2011, edition of The Nation, Naomi Klein reports from one of the highest-profile failures of 2010: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And what she finds is a cascade of unintended consequences arising from a massive corporate risk.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein makes the case that corporations (and capitalism-friendly governments) not only profit from disaster and conflict, but actively work to exploit countries in crisis. The “shock doctrine,” as Klein defines it, falls into place after a terrorist attack, a killer hurricane, a regime change—when corporate interests swoop in on a disoriented people to rewrite the rules in favor of commerce and globalization. In her deeply historical, carefully sourced book, Klein shows the link between commerce and crisis. The Shock Doctrine was adapted into a feature-length documentary by Michael Winterbottom; it premiered at the Sundance in 2010.

Klein’s previous book, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, took on the creeping influence of megabrands on culture and government—with arguments so persuasive that the book earned a point-by-point rebuttal from Nike. She is a regular columnist for Nation and the Guardian, and is now working on a book on the idea of ecological debt. You can follow her on Twitter: @NaomiAKlein

More profile about the speaker
Naomi Klein | Speaker | TED.com