A book that seeks to make the case for a Green New Deal merely exposes the faultlines in the uneasy green-red coalition behind it, argues Tim Abrahams
A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos. Verso, November 2019
It is important to remember that none of the Green New Deals currently floating about are actually deals. The original New Deal was made in the 1930s between Franklin D Roosevelt and the US electorate and stood throughout his presidency. Meanwhile the Green New Deals (GND) are a series of propositions which have so far been proffered to the electorate and elected bodies in the US, the UK and to a lesser extent Europe since 2008, with little or no take-up.
In the UK, the economist Ann Pettifor – who ultimately had more luck influencing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party than Gordon Brown’s or Ed Miliband’s – proposed it not long after the stock market crash and, holding the idea close, published a book in defence of the idea late in 2019. In the US, the new socialist wing of the Democrat party got in on the act when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put forward legislation that might simultaneously address climate change and economic inequality. It didn’t even reach debate in the Senate.
This was not the fate of the New Deal, which had a huge impact, leading to the creation of a number of key institutions in the US. The Social Security Act (1933) still provides income to retirees and the disabled. The Federal Housing Administration is still a government agency, which was established in 1934 to combat the housing crisis of the Great Depression. It still – just about – regulates mortgages and housing conditions. Then there was the Public Works Administration, which created jobs at the end of the Great Depression. Under the programme, 850 airports were built, 651,000 miles of roads and streets were repaired, and 125,000 public buildings were built. The Lincoln Tunnel and the Hoover Dam were Public Works Administration projects. Eight million jobs were created by the PWA alone.
When today’s environmental activists use the term, they are co-opting the scale of investment from the state: a Keynesian economic gesture which stimulates the economy to the widest possible human benefit. In 2008 a new depression on a similar scale to the Great Depression was predicted, although due in part to the sheer scale of the quantitative easing undertaken at the time, it never materialised. The thinking behind the GND was to pull in the socialist and environmentalist factions and create a single opportunity.
A Planet to Win is at the dafter end of the scale: what the GND looks like from the more excitable branch of the American left. Its inadvertent effect is to show both why a moment of potential unity has passed unfulfilled in most places and why Bernie Sanders’ more mature take on the GND may stand a chance.
Greenifying socialism and turning environmentalists into leftists is not as easy as it looks, and this book is only occasionally able to make this potential coalition convincing. A rare moment is when the authors make a sustained critique of the US’s lack of a national grid to transfer surplus power and forcefully prevent opting out of it. They reject the concept of smaller power grids as libertarian. There’s also a successful plea to consider power as a national resource. In the UK, although the national grid is privatised, it was created and unified by a state body, the British Electric Authority. Yet there are enough greens out there who find any concept of universal access to electric power created by large central generating facilities problematic.
Elsewhere, the search for quick consensus slips into farce. The idea that the heads of oil companies should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity is frankly insane. Even if ExxonMobile produces oil in a manner it knows to be pernicious, every single one of us has lived and continues to live using petrochemical technology. This is a just flimsy attempt to create a mutually viable target for reds and greens instead of any real critique of capitalism. Harder questions are avoided. Nuclear power is dismissed without explanation: a sop to the lingering fear of nuclear radiation in the green movement, reflecting their broader concerns about the morality of human activity. The same concern motivated fear about technologies such as genetically modified food, which has since subsided even among the most rabid opponents of human progress in the green movement.
And if we are to move to this new utopia, who is it for, one wonders? Surely political support must be won on terms that acknowledge the liberation of the working classes from vassal status by the so-called dirty industries of the past. Why? Because firstly it’s true and secondly because the working classes are not going to give up their position simply because some middle-class green holds up the spectre of the world ending in 10-12 years’ time (why is it always 10-12 years by the way?). And thirdly, they aren’t going to be hoodwinked into doing all the political legwork. In this book the working classes are not invoked simply as beneficiaries of an NGD, but having the agency to bring it about.
No real offer is given in return. Healthcare is optimistically co-opted as part of the green agenda, as is a rebranded Civilian Conservation Corps (one of the original New Deal creations), whereby building trails in public parks is somehow meant to entice sizeable chunks of the population to the cause. No real reason is given as to why the working classes should act as the historical agents to make the super-rich conform to bourgeois norms of constraint, with the promise of a pittance in return. It is unlikely to work, especially when the doomsayers’ 10-12 year timeframe again elapses. It is telling that the far more mature GND drafted by Bernie Sanders prioritises ‘the fossil fuel workers who have powered our economy for more than a century’ and promises ‘good paying, union jobs with strong benefits’ including ‘in steel and auto manufacturing’ and ‘construction’.
One of the most revealing moments in this book, which crams green and red together in one bin like so much co-mingled plastic, is when the writers point to the street protests and rioting around the world in 2019 as an opportunity for the left to take over and their red-green policies to be introduced. And yet in France, the gilets jaunes began as a spontaneous protest by working-class and squeezed lower-middle-class protestors
living in rural and suburban locations against supposedly green fuel taxes. In the UK, middle-class green protestors were gobsmacked by the response of London’s workers to their protests at tube stations around Canary Wharf. Far from being a misguided tactic, the internal logic of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which sees humankind as the problem and nature the solution, was playing itself out most obviously.
This is not to say that environmentalists are per se right wing, but there is a tendency within green movements to treat the mass of the population as problematic, an approach that should be the antithesis of socialism. If we don’t appreciate politics as a means of championing humanist values primarily, environmentalism will increasingly find itself in some invidious political partnerships and its Malthusian tendencies will rise to the surface again. Sanders’ GND has its faults, but it is primarily a socialist manifesto with carbon reduction thrown in.
Less cheering are events in Austria. On New Year’s Day, Sebastian Kurz, chairman of the Austrian People’s Party, and Werner Kogler, federal spokesman of the Green Party, together announced the new coalition government of Austria. By way of concluding the broadcast, Kurz stated that his party’s priority to protect the country’s border was in strong sympathy with his partner’s goal of protecting the environment.
This article appears in Icon 199, which explores the contemporary countryside.