Playing With Fire: Securing the Borders of a Green New Deal

Reviewing Naomi Klein's book "On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal", the author challenges Klein's view that the right can and should be useful in any challenge to ecological disaster.

Delegations from Brazil, the United States and Australia emerged as significant opponents of an intergovernmental agreement at COP25, the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2019. They did so in the wake of fires in the Amazon forest, the California wildfires that led to widespread power shutdowns, and while raging fires continue to burn across the Australian continent—some 15 million acres at the time of writing.

Those governments were not the only impediments to an agreement that—to be clear—would have ensured the ongoing extraction of fossil fuels rather than the decommissioning of fossil-fuel infrastructure. But their implacable opposition to any limit on fossil-fuel expansion is based on a distinctive combination of anti-immigrant politics, ethnonationalism and religious conservatism—in which the influence of Pentecostalism is particularly pronounced. They have a theory about the causes of and solutions to climate change that is influential within those governments, rarely taken seriously, and dangerous.

The world’s largest Pentecostal organisation, Assemblies of God, played a prominent role in the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, and the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison—whose Hillsong Church was, until 2018, the Australian branch of Assemblies of God. Morrison launched his political career from Cronulla, in which the largest racist riots in recent memory had taken place. In his speech prior to the 2019 election, Morrison signalled to evangelical voters “I will burn for you,” and went on to declare his election victory “a miracle” made possible by “the quiet Australians”—paraphrasing Richard Nixon’s 1969 appeal to white evangelicals and religious conservatives as the “silent majority.”

Representing far fewer voters than its power within governments might suggest, the influence of white evangelicalism has nevertheless been amplified by those who—having contributed to the conflation between Christian cultural-nationalism and ‘white working class’ voters—accorded its assumptions credence or failed to directly challenge them.

As it happens, fire is the central theme of Pentecostalism (see, eg. Anderson 2007; Cox 1995). It describes the workings of the Holy Spirit and the end of days, where “tongues of fire” distinguish those who will be saved from those sinners who will perish, and the “day of Pentecost” is marked by “signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke” (per the Book of Acts of the Apostles). For evangelicals, this is a literal rather than symbolic account of the end-times. As unprecedented heatwaves and drought turned into unprecedented fires, it is a view that has accorded precedence to overturning anti-discrimination legislation and reproductive rights through the passage of ‘religious freedom’ laws—because their theory of climate change is, when it comes down to it, a theory of sin and salvation. In its less-lurid iterations, it aligns closely with arguments from other religious conservatives over the presumably restorative ecology of family, faith and nation.

I think about these confluences, in a city whose air has become unbreathable for days at a time as a result of devastating fires, while reading Naomi Klein’s recent book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (2019).

And I find myself wondering, among other things, about the positive ease with which Klein puns on “burning,” and writes of the need for “[a]n evangelism of ecology” while, in the same book, makes a passing critical reference to “theological theories of white and Christian supremacy” (147, 19). Some passages in the book argue, rightly, that “there is nothing natural about this disaster” in Puerto Rico or the pattern of climate change impacts (256)—though Klein does not point the reader to those who have argued this before (eg, Park and Miller 2006; Squires and Hartman 2013). Other passages, by contrast, praise the Vatican’s efforts to compete with the growth of Pentecostal churches in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere by adopting evangelical language. For some reason, Klein decides that this is the redirection of an “engine designed to proselytize and convert non-Christians” toward presumably better, “life-altering transformations” around environmental action (147). It is not.

On Klein’s previous book — This Changes Everything— reviewers suggested it lacked coherence, as if it were written by two authors: a predominant voice which “tends towards explanations of social phenomena in terms of moral failings,” and a quieter, scattered “radical realist” who talks “in terms of raw power and material interests” (Out of the Woods 2015).

As for On Fire, it hovers between exotic descriptions of other people’s “cognitive dissonance” (presumably attributable to “[p]eople with autism [who] tend to be extremely literal”) and exculpatory accounts of the author’s own capacity to “embrace contradiction” (9, 138). The book could be described as incoherent. But overall, the effect is cathartic—at least, I expect it might be for those who are likely to gloss over its numerous contradictions. Stylistically, however, On Fire proceeds by weighing the pros and the cons, of almost everything, trivial and important.

Theoretically, it moves its arguments forward—including the titular case for a Green New Deal—by partially digesting counterpoints and conflicting approaches (few of which are cited or meaningfully engaged with) into a restatement of Klein’s long-standing moral-economic approach. That framework’s cosmology of “ecological breakdown” is a Malthusian story of “natural limits” (45, 79, 85). Any reader looking for a critical account of “theological theories of white and Christian supremacy” will, instead, come across Malthus’ parable of transgression of these “natural limits” instead, refigured as capitalism’s origin story.

In any event, as with all conservative understandings of capitalism and neoliberalism, Klein’s definition of the problem remains “deregulated capitalism,” “profligate consumption,” and “home” functions as a pivotal, nostalgic trope throughout the book, against which Klein laments what she describes as a shallow “rootlessness” (119-120, 27, 249, 127, passim). The contradictions thrown up in the process are dissolved in an aesthetic political solution, which Klein calls, with a nod to both Roosevelt and Trump, “the art of the Green New Deal.” That is, the book ends by outlining an art project promoting a Green New Deal, which Klein is working on with someone who, not that long ago, made artwork promoting a neo-Nazi.

Overall, On Fire is the culmination of Klein’s argument that a “good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away” by a Green New Deal, one that implicitly validates conservative accounts of the problem as people having “lost their sense of security, status and even identity.” Such appeals to religious conservatives and Trump supporters only seem plausible if one is already steeped in a moral-economic approach, one that renders various iterations of Christian imperial anxiety as a legitimate concern and—in line with the Christian imperial theologies elaborated by Polanyian moral-economy—views “rootlessness” as a problem.

As for the Green New Deal: it is difficult to see—if it ever comes to elaborating on the all-important detail rather than the political branding—what such an approach would not be prepared to jettison in order to accommodate religious conservatives and supporters of the far Right.

Whose insecurity?

If I might, therefore, offer a blunt, condensed counterpoint: treating climate change as a problem of national security does not facilitate decarbonisation. Moreover, despite no one being able to explain how, for instance, borders might filter greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the securitisation of climate change has become the prevailing approach of corporations, governments and non-governmental organisations. On notable occasions, Klein describes ecological breakdown as if it were the collapse of national security. Securitisation is a growing market, in its military, organisational and financial senses (as in the pooling of risk profiles that makes it possible to monetise threats).

In the meantime, prominent advocates for a Green New Deal have either explicitly argued that climate change is a national security problem—as have both Thomas Friedman and Bernie Sanders, who claimed there would be “[h]undreds of millions of climate refugees causing national security problems around the world”—or, as does Klein in On Fire, tried to reconcile a view of neoliberalism derived from moral-economy with the imperatives of climate justice informed (rather superficially) by critical understandings of race, capitalism, colonialism and fascism.

For instance, Klein comes as close as possible to examining assumptions about the necessity of immigration restrictions without quite doing so. Klein is by no means alone in arguing that refugees should be welcomed (242), as if immigration restrictions are analogous to deciding whether strangers might enter one’s private home. But as Sanmati Verma suggests, “time and time again [the point has been made] by writers of colour, that multicultural toleration and ‘welcome’ particularly in … [settler colonies] like Australia are the flipside of the same coin as marginalisation and exclusion” (2015).

There is, however, no scope for ambiguity over securitisation—in part, because securitisation incorporates uncertainty, hedging and second-order contradictions into a broader suite of risk management strategies. At best, this results in the dubious accomplishments of “clean coal and nicer cages.”

Either way, securitisation is why Boris Johnson can announce that “tackling climate change” would be at the very top of his government’s agenda, and perhaps why Chrisopher Hohn—who has a £630m stake in Ferrovial, may have donated £50,000 to Extinction Rebellion.

On the one hand, Johnson will undoubtedly approach climate change as a national security issue. But the election of a Conservative government merely underscores the extent to which it is not possible to rely on national governments to propel a transformation of structures whose scale is that of global energy systems and supply-chains rather than national economies—particularly those governments which are premised on shrinking and ethnonationalist definitions of citizenship. On the other, securitisation involves risk management. Managing the risks of carbon emissions (rather than eliminating them) creates opportunities for hedging—such as taking a range of contradictory positions in energy markets short of eliminating fossil-fuels, or green funds which act as a means of portfolio diversification. For its part, Ferrovial was founded as a rail company in Spain during the Franco years, is one third of the consortium that runs Heathrow Airport (the largest single emitter of carbon in the UK), and held nine contracts to construct and maintain the high fences of Europe at the Spanish-Moroccan border. There have been protests against these interlocking systems before, though not by Extinction Rebellion.

I am not, however, describing an unavoidable impasse but the limits inherent to a moral-economic paradigm, heavy on a philosophical idealism that tries to juggle contradictions by treating them as composed of ideas devoid of material implications and assumptions. It is, moreover, an argument for the critical importance clarity—not least concerning the implications and limited capacity of national and electoral approaches to accomplish decarbonisation—and, by extension, an argument for the importance of well-informed strikes, boycotts and divestment to building that capacity and solidarity within movements around climate change, and on a global scale.
I will come back to boycott and divestment campaigns in concluding, but it has to be said that On Fire contributes far more to building a political coalition and shared vocabulary with supporters of the Right than to understanding the systems with which boycott and divestment campaigns have to grapple. Given this, and before coming back to a discussion of On Fire, what follows is a brief outline of securitisation and its history.


Securitisation converts expectations of a failure to decarbonise into an asset, and in so doing, brings about the future it imagines. It transforms both the imagination of catastrophe and the anticipated lag-time of energy transition and dissipating gases into a new frontier of emerging markets—such as carbon trading which effectively functions as a hedge against decarbonisation, green energy plugged in to carbon-heavy circuits, a prospective gold-rush in the non-renewable strategic materials of renewable energy transmission, end-time theologies, or a growing number of products promising a selective salvation, of which borders are the largest example.

Securitisation imagines a new century of exploitation that may or may not involve decarbonisation (and is unlikely to by that course), but will certainly involve more borders.

National security approaches to climate change can readily be traced to the securitisation of energy supply after the so-called oil shocks of 1973 and 1979—as in the arguments put forward by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In the wake of the 1973 oil embargo on the United States over its decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the war, it became a working assumption that the continuous supply of oil could be interrupted without warning, leading to shortages, rapid fluctuations in the price of oil, and political fallout for Nixon over pump prices. The handing of energy supply as an array of threats to national security eventually culminated in the ‘war on terror’ and the so-called doctrine of pre-emptive war—with notable implications for the securitisation of borders (cf. (Chaturvedi and Doyle 2015; Mitropoulos 2015).

In 2007 Friedman proposed “an energy New Deal” so as to convert the United States’ energy supply from oil to “solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power” (2007a). In another article in the same year, Friedman explicitly called for a “Green New Deal,” describing it as the imperative of recapturing US geopolitical and economic supremacy. It was, he went on to argue, necessary in view of an impending “climate war” over scarce resources (2007b).

More recently, Friedman has turned to wondering about environmental and population “stresses,” going as far to argue that there is a “real immigration crisis [at the US-Mexican border] and that the solution is a high wall with a big gate—but a smart gate,” one that would preference migrants with “high-energy and high-I.Q.” He also endorsed David Frum’s argument that liberals had to enforce immigration restrictions so as to avert a turn to fascism (Friedman 2019; Frum 2019).

While Friedman’s columns have ranged across topics, few do not involve speculations about burgeoning markets—perhaps in “solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power” industries; or in eugenic gadgets and protocols that can be deployed at the southern border of the United States. The post-Fordist accelerationism of Tesla’s Cybertruck and the rustic lifeboat of Ark Experience might be at aesthetic odds, but as with Friedman’s musings about a ‘smart’ wall, the investor is sold on the idea of purchasing some end-time insurance.

As for the effects of the decades-long national security approach to energy: it led to the establishment of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to buffer supply and domestic price volatilities, and natural gas was added to coal and oil as principal sources of energy—that is, as an additional fossil-fuel source, which grew along with the continued growth of oil and coal. By the late twentieth century, the diversification of fossil-fuel sources resulted in greater possibilities for hedging within energy markets and the growth of risk management tools to handle supply chain vulnerabilities. It also resulted in a sharp rise in greenhouse emissions, the first peaks in recorded land-sea temperature averages above 0.2 ℃, and the rapid climb thereafter to above 0.8 ℃.

According to Klein, action around climate change was derailed by neoliberalism, which she defines (inaccurately) as the absence of government regulation of markets—not the interlocking of states and markets around shared measures of value, protocols of accountability and definitions of threat, that is: securitisation.
While securitisation has merged speculative investment and accounting practices with national security, and contributed to the upward trend in emissions in so doing, it also invites the treatment of ecofascism as one, perhaps misguided, solution to otherwise legitimate concerns about climate change. It does this because its identifications of threat and security, and therefore the validity it is prepared to attribute to more or less tacit racist ‘concerns,’ have been shaped by the same categorical (ie, national) premise.


On ecofascism, Klein argues that the murderer in Christchurch “was not driven by environmental concern—his motivation was unadulterated racist hate—but ecological breakdown was one of the forces that seemed to be stoking that hatred,” and the way to avert the rise of ecofascism is “to forge a Global Green New Deal—for everyone this time” (45, 53).

It might be a reassuring to dismiss any association between “environmental concern” and racism. It might even seem politically convenient to argue that a Green New Deal averts fascism. But it is inaccurate as a description of the range of understandings of environmental politics (which have yet to make a clear break with, for instance, Paul Kingsworth’s “völkisch environmentalism”), ineffective as a response to ecofascism, and verges on irresponsible in its avoidance of serious reflection on understandings of “ecological breakdown” advanced by conservatives and the far Right. Environmental movements are not immune from racism and white supremacy. Moreover, fascism has long had its own understanding of ecology as a natural order of right—as with the call in the 1930s by Richard Walther Darré for the formation of a New Nobility from Blood and Soil (1930), or the murderer in Christchurch’s call to “ensure the existence of our people and a future for white children, whilst preserving and exulting nature and the natural order.”

The most influential far Right approaches to ecology are Malthusian-inspired claims about ‘overpopulation,’ which have formed the centrepiece of arguments for a ‘sustainable population’ and immigration restrictions—a position that has been articulated by some prominent members of Extinction Rebellion (whom Klein praises without qualification). What Malthusian approaches share with ecofascism is a distinctive narrative of ecological breakdown as the collapse of a presumably natural or divinely-appointed order, one understood to be organised as the global separation of racial-national types—according to which responding to climate change comes to mean restoring the ideal of an ethnonationalist order.

From either angle, the threats of climate change are redescribed as threats to national security—and the solutions thereafter have little to do with carbon emissions, but instead incline toward regulating the movements of people beyond their ‘racially-assigned’ places. Remarkably, Klein’s description of the origins of “ecological breakdown” is not a critique of colonialism, nor is it informed by Cedric Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism—as Klein briefly claims (19-20). Ironically, it is a Malthusian critique of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Roosevelt’s New Deal

Klein describes Roosevelt’s New Deal as a “far-from-ideal analogy,” but nevertheless one which serves as a historical precedent of the scale of change required to meet emission-reduction targets (36, 26). Except that the scale of change required is, unlike that of the New Deal, definitively not national.

Moreover, Klein runs through an entire history of critical scholarship of Roosevelt’s New Deal—without citation and, aided by the absence of citations, as if those criticisms amounted to a checklist of flaws (which might be remedied by appending climate justice provisions) rather than a critique of the very model.

While the debates about the New Deal are many, the point is this: these ‘flaws’ were integral to its design. At its core, the New Deal was a national security policy.

In terms of its historical trajectory, Roosevelt’s New Deal was ushered in by the suspension of the gold standard—which lay the groundwork for the symbiotic, global rise of the petrochemical industries and the US dollar as the de facto global currency—and it culminated in the mass deportations of agricultural workers and the internment of people of Japanese ancestry. In terms of energy, Roosevelt’s New Deal was premised on the massive expansion of fossil-fuel use and infrastructure around the world—oil, in particular. “America’s crown,” Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior declared, “symbolizing supremacy as the oil empire of the world” would be propped up by US claims over Middle East oilfields (Shah 2005, 13). The concentration and industrialisation of agriculture was accomplished through the use of migrant workers excluded from political rights and, more broadly, the meshing of land reclamation policies, white settlements and internment camps (Wilson 2011; Cruz 2014; Mitchell 2012). The New Deal, moreover, facilitated racial segregation in its housing policies and, further to this, creating a racial-gendered welfare state—as with the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from federal social security legislation (Mettler 1998). Yet none of these things—not even the admission that the New Deal was widely viewed as a means of holding “back a full-scale revolution” (262)—diminishes Klein’s insistence that it should serve as a precedent for energy policy today or, despite its perpetuation of racism, that it might avert an ecofascist response to climate change.

Yet as a national security approach, the New Deal was one among other prominent answers to solving a moral-economic problem, namely: the Malthusian constraint of agricultural productivity and the purported absence of moral-economic price signals that, according to Malthus, were the causes of ‘overpopulation’ and poverty. Fascism was another, similarly nationalist and expansionist solution to the same, false characterisation of the problem. Where National Socialists adopted the policy of Lebensraum to justify colonisation and annexation as a means of resolving the counterfeit problem of ‘surplus populations,’ the New Deal promised to relaunch the project of white settler colonialism and the improvement of the fertility of the soil through land reclamation projects and biochemical-technological invention—both of which were viewed as the unique traits or capacities of white superiority operating in the frontier.

Klein alludes to some of this as if the Malthusian assumption of “natural limits” holds true, draws no connection to either the New Deal’s or fascist ‘solutions’ to that Malthusian ‘problem,’ and instead claims that the breaking of Malthusian limits is the source of ecological breakdown. It might be noted that while Malthus was ambivalent about disturbing what he took to be a divinely-ordained geographic-racial system, he eventually argued for the benefits of settler colonialism as a solution to the growing poverty (‘surplus populations’) in Europe, on the grounds that it might secure the future supremacy of the British empire. This, as it happens, is the ideological and imperial history that gave rise to the global cartography of a ‘white working class’ (Hyslop 1999).


On a final note: much of On Fire is a reflection on Klein’s speaking engagements; far more than it is a cogent argument for a Green New Deal. For instance, Klein is troubled—after the event—about her participation in the launch of the Vatican’s Laudato Si’ while that organisation is charged with covering up and facilitating the widespread sexual abuse of children (148). At another point in the book, Klein accepts the Sydney Peace Prize in Australia, telling the reader that she is persuaded by the “Australian friends” with whom she “consulted that having the megaphone that comes with this prize could help support their work” (198).

At no point does Klein wonder about how such awards, megaphones, consultants and parachutes are constructed—even as she wonders about how movements become “made up entirely of uppermiddle-class white people” who profess confusion over the absence of people of colour (131). Not speaking or writing on things that, as she admits, require her to do last-minute research, does not appear to be an option.

Not speaking at some events, as at the Vatican, does not appear to be an option either. Klein writes about Australia quite a lot. She does not, however, mention her decision to speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2016, which remained under a boycott due to the involvement of General Jim Molan—one of the architects of the militarisation of Australia’s borders, and a global salesman of Australia’s particularly vicious border policies.

Rather than respect the boycott, Klein decided that she should write and speak about Australia’s immigration policy instead—despite boycott organisers making it clear that “merely voicing one’s concerns from inside the event does not produce change.” This is what speaking over, but more so, hedging and risk management look like, in practice. It is, moreover, why the Festival of Dangerous Ideas exists, given the organisational sponsorship of ethicists from the banking sector, whose entire remit is managing the risk of financial investments. As part of that risk management, such events are exercises in laundering or culture-washing. They allow the practices of harmful industries (like the border-industrial complex and fossil-fuel extraction) to continue, while incorporating an inconsequential opposition to them—that is, by reducing that opposition to another set of faux-dangerous ideas floating around in the proverbial marketplace of ideas.

It becomes possible to bundle together these presumably contradictory ideas together because, once shorn of the material practices that would render them irreconcilable, they simply become another value-point in a spectrum of investments and, thereby, a means of portfolio diversification and hedging.

Much of On Fire is like that, as both a product (book) and a political discourse, an inconsistent accumulation of ideas that strives to appeal to both supporters of fascists and their targets—per Klein’s overriding objective of peeling away “a good chunk of Trump’s supporters.” It might be a prudent marketing approach for promoting a Green New Deal, particularly as a slogan stripped of detail. But it it is not an effective approach to ensuring meaningful change on carbon emissions. That, by contrast, will require an impolitic clarity about investments—financial, political, and personal.


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Angela Mitropoulos (@Mitropoulos_A)

Angela Mitropoulos is a Sydney-based academic, the author of Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia (2012), and has written on precariousness, borders and welfare policy over many years. Her current research project is ‘Infrastructure and Uncommon Forms’.