A Green New Deal to a Dead Planet

2018 has been a year of devastating reports about our ecological crises. There was the WWF’s Living Planet Report showing wildlife population declines of 60% globally since 1970; there was the OECD’s Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060 report showing the world’s consumption of raw materials will double by 2060; there was the IPCC’s special report on 1.5C showing we have very limited time to prevent 1.5C global warming, and then a follow up article in Nature describing how that same 1.5C report is lowballing the crisis by not fully accounting for global warming acceleration; there was the United States’ fourth national climate assessment showing huge risks to all aspects of life in the United States; and to top it all off, there was the Global Carbon Project’s report showing 2018 CO2 emissions will likely be 2.7% higher than 2017’s emissions, putting us well in the “business as usual” track for an estimated 3.5–5C warming by 2100.

Who knows how much this litany of bad news had to do with the Democrats retaking the House in the United States Congress in early November; most polls show climate change at or near the bottom of a list of concerns, and other environmental issues rarely show up on any polls. However, it’s clear that the climate change issue in particular is the primary motivation behind the Green New Deal championed by incoming congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement. Beginning with youth protests in the offices of several Democrats and other congresspeople who take money from the fossil fuel energy industry, the Green New Deal has quickly gained steam in the United States and seems to now be catching the spotlight in the media and gaining support in congress.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for a select committee for this Green New Deal, and outlines on her website a summary of the legislation she intends to propose. The proposal seems to take many of its points from a UK-based Green New Deal Group’s report as well as the Canadian-based Leap Manifesto, and the US Green Party’s 2006 Green New Deal proposal (curiously, the proposal championed by Ocasio-Cortez makes no reference at all to any of these predecessors).

All of these efforts focus almost exclusively on an energy transition to “clean” energy and social justice reform, with the goals of moving to 100% renewable energy for national electricity grids and reducing poverty, providing job retraining, and addressing racial and income inequality in the process.

Beginning with Jimmy Carter’s White House rooftop solar panels in the late 1970’s, and more recently with the delusions of “clean coal” and natural gas as a “bridge fuel”, along with a massive push for so-called renewables of wind and more solar, we humans have been on a desperate search for some magic trick that will solve our climate crisis for over four decades. The Green New Deal is just the latest in this long list of tricks that serve to distract us from the primary problem: that human civilization and capitalism are killing the planet.

Let’s take a closer look at the Green New Deal and where it falls short, which is pretty much everywhere.

First and foremost, this plan is designed to address climate change. Yet climate change is only one of several crises we are facing. Notably, the plan does not address biodiversity loss, wildlife habitat loss, mass extinctions and extirpations of flora and fauna, deforestation, human overpopulation, industrial agriculture, materials use, our consumption-based economy, or capitalism. Of the many bad news reports I list above, the climate crisis is the one most discussed in the media, and where mass extinction and extirpations have received attention, the overall attitude seems to be that we have accepted the sixth mass extinction as inevitable at this point, because social justice and fixing the climate are more important. This is of course, a result of human supremacy and our anthropocentric view of the world, and we will find out at some point that we cannot survive on this planet without our wild non-human relatives.

A mistake made over and over in the press and in the public at large is that we confuse “100% clean energy” with full decarbonization of our way of life. The Green New Deal proponents are not confused about this (their first point, “100% of national power generation from renewable sources”, states clearly they are talking about electricity generation), however, the proposal implies that 100% of electricity generation from renewables will solve our climate problems. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In the United States, electricity generation accounts for about 34% of total CO2 emissions. That leaves 66% of CO2 emissions caused by other activities, including transportation, agriculture, cement, and materials extraction and use.

The Green New Deal’s plan to replace our grid with 100% renewable energy also ignores the fact that no energy is 100% renewable; in particular solar and wind energy require materials, manufacturing, maintenance, and disposal. While payback on these processes from a CO2 emissions perspective may make them more attractive than using fossil fuels to generate electricity, they still require destroying habitat to make, use, and dispose of. In other words, their use does not give back to the land what we take, and therefore they are not “renewable” and they are certainly not “clean”.

We live in a world run by capitalism — that is, an economic and political system controlled by private owners for profit. There are, of course, billions of people who live on very little a day, for whom the lifestyle benefits of capitalism are a distant dream. And there are still a few indigenous communities who live off the land and sea, who manage just fine without capitalism. But those of us who wake up in the morning and worry about climate change and plastic pollution are trapped in an economy that relies on constant growth, an economy that is killing the planet. We know in our hearts that capitalism, constant growth, consumerism and its attendant waste are killing the planet; we just don’t want to accept it. We take for granted (and desperately want) our economy will continue as it is because we don’t want to have to change the way we live at a fundamental level. It’s easy to buy canvas bags and reusable mugs; it’s not so easy to envision how to live without capitalism, because capitalism runs the world.

Do we see the need to end capitalism addressed in the Green New Deal? No. It is far more likely that the Green New Deal is just another mechanism to keep capitalism going longer. The proposal suggests that we fund “massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases” (requiring new technology and new infrastructure), that we make “‘green’ technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States,” and that we “help other countries transition to completely carbon neutral economies.” Corporations must be looking at this proposal and salivating at the new opportunities to make money. We have spent centuries building our ever-growing economy on fossil fuels, and now we have the opportunity to build it on renewables too.

Unfortunately, what is not addressed in this Green New Deal is the problem of an infinitely growing economy on a finite planet. Capitalism requires growth to function. Growth means more people, more stuff, more “resources” (i.e., forests, water, rock, minerals, metals, etc) used, and more habitat destroyed. Even those who have the best intentions for capitalism — raising the standard of living for the poor around the world — can’t deny that doing so increases the resources (i.e., forests, water, rock, minerals, metals, etc) used (and destroyed) in the process. Nowhere in the proposed plan does the Green New Deal discuss how we change the economy so we don’t require infinite growth (which requires infinite destruction). Without addressing this fundamental underlying assumption, that our economy can continue as it is now, this plan will not help us, and it will not help the natural world.

The proposal contains glaring contradictions related to this view of the economy. For instance, how will we “upgrade every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety” while simultaneously “decarbonizing the manufacturing industry”? Upgrading every building in the country would be great for the economy, and it would require amounts I can’t even fathom of steel, concrete, wood, plastic, and other materials. How on Earth (literally) would we do that without emitting huge amounts of CO2? Without stripping the Earth of as many materials as we’ve already stripped from it in order to make the industrial nation we have right now? Without destroying as much habitat over again as we’ve already destroyed while instigating the sixth mass extinction? And then, imagine if China were to replace or upgrade every residential and industrial building in the same way. China, the country that used more cement in 3 years than the United States used in a century. The capitalists will be rolling in their money, roaring with laughter as we “green build” our way to a dead planet.

The proposal suggests that we “decarbonize, repair and improve transportation and other infrastructure.” What does this even mean? Let’s imagine that the proposal means, for example, replacing all cars with electric vehicles (since “electric mobility” is one of the catchphrases of the day). Electric cars require plastic, steel, and batteries, among other things. Plastic, steel, and batteries all require fossil fuels. Plastic is made from fossil fuels; steel and the metals and minerals in batteries require mining and extracting and transporting and refining and manufacturing — all processes that require fossil fuels. Replacing all the nation’s cars, and ultimately, one supposes, the world’s 1 billion+ cars with electric vehicles would require a massive amount of fossil fuels. Okay, so let’s imagine a fantasy world where we can make electric vehicles with a minimum of resources — perhaps, in this fantasy, we can recycle most of the stuff needed to make electric cars from existing cars — we still have the main problem with cars. And that is that cars, designed for carting around small numbers of people to places we can’t walk or bike to, enable a culture that requires fossil fuels, that requires destroying habitat with infrastructure, that allows us to live far from where we get our food to eat, from where we work and where our families live. For instance, how do cars get around without roads and bridges? Where do we store all those cars without parking lots? Roads, bridges, and parking lots are all built out of asphalt and/or concrete, which require fossil fuels. Roads, bridges, and parking lots fragment and damage habitat. I could go on.

The main problem with cars isn’t the CO2; it’s the lifestyle they enable. And it’s that lifestyle that’s killing the planet. And one can apply the same analysis to other forms of transportation and the vague-sounding “infrastructure” described in the proposal. The Green New Deal will sound attractive to congress, to corporations, and to voters precisely because it assumes we can keep our growth-based economy, and keep on living roughly as we do now, with cars and other forms of “transportation”, with “infrastructure”, and with plenty of jobs to go around to build all that “infrastructure”. This assumption is the path to failure in the long term, because it requires destroying the natural world, without which we cannot survive.

Is there anything in the Green New Deal proposal that makes sense for a truly sustainable life on this planet for humans? No. I appreciate the proposal’s recognition of inequality, injustice, and the harms done to front-line communities dealing directly with the fossil fuels industry, but the answer is not more industry. Industry always finds a way to exploit the poor, the disenfranchised, and the natural world and its inhabitants. Labeling the industry “green” doesn’t change that. So-called green industries already exploit the poor and disenfranchised: the cobalt miners (many of whom are children) in the DRC; the iron ore miners in the Brazilian Amazon; the sweatshop laborers making silicon wafers in Chinese factories. Where does the Green New Deal propose to help them? The problem is not the kind of industry, the problem is industry.

So if the Green New Deal isn’t the magic trick to solve our problems, what is? The one thing that will work, the one thing that isn’t a magic trick, the one thing most of us cannot even contemplate: ending our global capitalist economy and our way of life on this planet, our human industrial civilization.

Photograph by yours truly, titled Forest Path