A Green No Deal?
A Terrestrial examines a Modern document
Could I live well without meat, air-conditioning, air travel, a car, cement, steel and paddocks? These are among the things Jasper Bernes in Between the Devil and the Green New Deal thinks need to be radically reduced if all human (and other) life is to flourish in the twentyfirst century, through successfully decarbonising the way too many of us live now. I already live without meat and air-con, so no worries there. Air travel – well, I lived the first 21 years of my life without getting into a plane, and I don’t enjoy being in them, so no worries there either. A car is harder to give up when one lives in the country, twelve kilometres over a very big hill to the nearest public transport, so that’s a tough one. My house is nearly all wood (some of it over one hundred years old), and the technologies for building larger buildings all in wood are already invented, so I can contemplate that in my future with equanimity. Where I live in the country there are lots of paddocks for grazing animals for meat which could be used for growing wood, or go back to permanent native forest. The latter would improve my amenity along with the general amenity.
But such ‘revolutionary austerity’, as Giorgis Kallis describes it in Degrowth is Utopian, and that’s a good thing, is not what is promised in the Green New Deal programmes currently on offer. If I were being cynical I would say that they offer the Earth – and fries with that. This being the case, the programmes just can not, could not and will not ever work. As Brian Davey said in Feasta on 29 April 2019 “However you play it, the need to stop the growth process is primary – without it all the talk about Green New Deals will achieve nothing.”
Given the current state of the world, I desperately want an alternative, as do many others. Could it be a Green New Deal? The GND is being promoted by intelligent political activists and representatives, such as Caroline Lucas, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Yanis Varoufakis. And yet…what they propose seems unreal to me, a Modernist fantasy, when what we need is some Terrestrial reality. Something that can and will actually have a chance of succeeding, and some achievable mechanisms for getting there.
That’s the conclusion reached by Bernes and Davey, and also by Stan Cox in That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant, and Richard Seymour in What’s the Deal with the Green New Deal? There are three main themes in their critiques – the growth contradiction, the use and misuse of history, and political impossibility.
1 The growth contradiction
Seymour and Bernes both say it explicitly – “Capitalism cannot not grow.” (Seymour) and “..capitalism keeps doing the thing which it can’t not keep doing – grow.” (Bernes) They explain the way in which growth is the essence of capitalism, in its DNA. Capital is not capital unless it is growing by getting a return on its investment, and hence “There is no solution to the climate crisis which leaves capitalism’s compulsions to growth intact.” (Bernes) and “…what would a non-growing capitalist economy look like, if not a broken system?” (Seymour)
Yet the Green New Deal, just like the old New Deal, is predicated upon economic growth through the creation of jobs and products. The preamble to the GND resolution introduced to the US House of Representatives on 7 February 2019 states that the threat to American national security which is climate change can be re-purposed into an historic opportunity via a World War Two and New Deal scale mobilisation which would aim
“(1) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States;
(2) to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; and
(3) to counteract systemic injustices…” (Resolution on a Green New Deal, p. 4)
Reality check: The average American consumes the equivalent of seven planets worth of stuff annually, and last year the US had overshot its fair allocation of planetary resources by 15 March 2018. (Global overshoot day for the planet in 2018 was August 1.) It is not physically possible for the rest of us to live like Americans – ever – and nor is it physically possible for Americans to continue to live in such a wasteful and destructive manner. The route to correcting systemic injustices for Americans can not and will not go through ensuring better jobs and wages for the currently excluded by getting them making products or building infrastructure with non-renewable and/or carbon-intensive natural resources.
Davey and Bernes both provide information on the limits to the supply of key non-renewable resources, such as the minerals essential to the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines, the computers which run them and their grids, electric cars and the batteries that power vehicles and portable computers. Bernes also describes what a toxic and carbon-intensive process any kind of mining is. Unsurprisingly, both conclude that scaling economic activity down, not up, and ensuring justice as this is done, is the big political challenge of the 21st century. As Davey expresses it: “…the GND is shockingly inadequate when you look at it closely. It is an expansionary programme – when to achieve decarbonisation we need not expansion, but degrowth. We need an equitable contraction of economic activity.”
Rufus Jordana, in False hopes for a Green New Deal, supports Davey’s analysis, saying “The Green New Deal pivots on a central lie of continued growth, promising this growth and employment whilst pretending it can magic away the environmental and humanitarian consequences. The result of this is that on all three counts – infinite growth, reliance on fossil fuels, and colonial resource extraction – the Green New Deal is unable to challenge the prevailing order. Instead, it perpetuates the capitalist paradigm and economic relationships and maintains the system leading us towards total ecological collapse.”
2 The use and misuse of history
Cox and Bernes are Americans who are familiar with the history of the original New Deal. They point out that the circumstances of its creation were utterly different than those which prevail today. The American economy was one quarter of its current size, and the climate change menace did not exist. The capitalist class had lost a lot of money in the Great Depression and was as keen as everyone else to grow production and consumption – more jobs, more stuff, more profit. But as de Graaf, Wann and Naylor point out in Chapter 17 of Affluenza The All-Consuming Epidemic there was a road not taken – more leisure time instead of more consumption. Of particular note is the failure of a bill introduced to the House of Representatives in April 1933, which would have made thirty hours the official American work week. It passed the Senate but failed by a few votes in Congress. The authors say “President Roosevelt opposed it because he was convinced that federal job creation programmes – the New Deal – offered a better way to both reduce unemployment and keep industry strong.” (Affluenza, p. 138)
Fast forward eighty five years, and in Bernes’ words: “The problem with the Green New Deal is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same.”This is probably because under existing political circumstances it is difficult to see how things could ever be made different.
3 Political impossibilities
There are many things about the GND Resolution which disturb me because they show that its drafters and supporters are still stuck in the Modern mindset of equity being achieved through economic expansion and technological ingenuity, when the historical connection between the two is part of the problem. Alf Hornborg summarises the issues in his article A globalised solar-powered future is wholly unrealistic – and our economy is the reason why, saying that “…a historical view reveals that the very idea of technology is inextricably intertwined with capital accumulation, unequal exchange and the idea of all-purpose money.”
Furthermore, the horrific ecological consequences of the past two centuries of economic expansionism are now foreclosing on better lifestyle options for the majority of the world’s population.1 The Modern leftists claim to care about the excluded, but what could be more care-less (and imperialist?) than the clause in the Resolution which states that the GND will include:
“ (N) promoting the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal…” [GND Resolution, pp 9-10]
That sounds like the so-called Green Revolution2 as an American imperialist project all over again. This particular project has contributed mightily to the planetary problems we face today, rather than being a solution to problems which those on whom it was imposed never actually had in the first place. (As Ivan Illich stated so robustly in 1968 in his must-read talk To Hell With Good Intentions, where he notes: “Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or “seducing” the “underdeveloped” to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.”
Rufus Jordana also draws a blunt conclusion on the political efficacy of the GND, saying “We cannot afford to blindly put our faith in political parties as the vehicle for achieving a free and ecological society, consoling ourselves with the rhetoric of a Green New Deal on account of ideological laziness. If the Green New Deal is the Labour Party’s best answer to the climate crisis, then the Labour Party has no answer to the climate crisis.”
Hornborg is sceptical about those currently in politics even listening to, let alone acting upon, the insights of those who understand why economic growth and new technologies are no answer to the climate crisis, saying “Those who remain sceptical to the promises of technology – such as advocates of radical downshifting or degrowth – tend to be marginalised from politics and the media. So far, any politician who seriously advocates degrowth is not likely to have a future in politics.”
I hope that this sad state of affairs changes soon, for all our sakes. Ocasio-Cortez, Lucas and Varoufakis are all impressive people who are working very hard, and they presumably believe that they have agency within the existing political system to affect a change which would – if it could be achieved – keep the whole thing going a bit longer. I don’t know why they think this. Could it be due to the affirmations they get from the circles they move in? Given the pounding that Varoufakis got from the global financial and political elites in his brief time as Finance Minister of Greece I’m amazed that he thinks that an International GND has any chance of working. I would love it if they would spit out the Modern Kool-Aid they have been imbibing, take a deep draught of cool, clear Terrestrial water, and put their undoubted talents towards achieving more realistic and necessary goals.
- See The Divide by Jason Hickel for a good introduction to the causes and possible cures of global inequality.
- There are now numerous critiques of the so-called Green Revolution and its role in so-called development. Two good book-length treatments of the subject are Kenneth A. Dahlberg (1979) Beyond the Green Revolution The Ecology and Politics of Global Agricultural Development and John. H. Perkins (1997) Geopolitics and the Green Revolution. Wheat, Genes and the Cold War.