Open Democracy – False Hopes for a Green New Deal

If the ‘Green New Deal’ is our best answer to the climate crisis, then we have no answer to the climate crisis. The GND will founder on capitalism’s endless quest for growth.

Rufus Jordana is a campaigner in the climate justice movement

Cross-posted from Open Democracy

In recent months the ‘Green New Deal’ has given hope to many on the Left as a promising solution to climate breakdown. Having been championed by the Sunrise Movement and figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders in the US, excitement for the Green New Deal has spread to the UK with the launch of the ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’ campaign.

Successive local Labour Party branches have passed motions in support of the programme, and the UK Labour Party itself has launched consultations for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution.’ Recently, the progressive think-tank Common Wealth published a ‘road map’ for implementing sweeping reforms for a greener and fairer economy, providing the most detailed description yet of what a Green New Deal might look like.

The Green New Deal promises everything. Its advocates anticipate a green industrial revolution led by workers, forging a power-grid run on renewables, a new and luxurious electrified transport system and affordable homes retrofitted for energy-efficiency. Our economy will be one of ethics and environmental stewardship, producing only what is socially-useful, with low-carbon lifestyles for all and with investors investing for sustainable ends. We will see employment for all, workers on shorter hours enjoying high-paid green jobs and a democratised workplace. Equally as important, the UK will enact this great renewable transition without perpetuating colonial resource extraction abroad. It all sounds too good to be true.

That’s because it is. Basic enquiry into the details of the Green New Deal reveals a failure to confront the political and economic realities leading to climate breakdown.

Capitalism’s dilemma

The cause of climate breakdown is our economic system. Capitalism relies for its functioning on a logic of infinite growth, fossil fuel combustion, and colonial resource extraction abroad. The drive for infinite economic growth exhausts the world’s finite resources and creates increasing waste and pollutant by-products which necessarily ends up crossing planetary boundaries and undermining the world’s biosphere. The capitalist economy’s growth imperative relies on the high efficiency of polluting fossil fuels to sustain itself, manifested in the stark rise in carbon emissions and global warming since the industrial revolution. The capitalist economy is historically built on colonial resource extraction abroad and has only survived by these same means. Still today, the fuels and resources for the Global North are obtained by means of gross human rights violations, exploitative work conditions, and localised ecological degradation in the Global South. It is this system of infinite growth that is currently driving the planet to climate breakdown and ecological Armageddon.

However, without this increasing growth, the economy falters and even collapses in recession, putting shops out of business, pushing communities into unemployment, and creating grim economic hardship and social fallout. This creates an impossible dilemma for those running society’s political institutions – they are unable to keep the economy afloat and tackle climate breakdown at the same time.

What is the Green New Deal’s answer to this dilemma? It refuses to acknowledge the problem. Clearly, the Green New Deal is rhetorically very strong on highlighting the injustices and ecological problems of the current economic system, rightly arguing for the climate crisis to be understood as a social justice and a class issue and outlining some of the basic characteristics of an ecological society. It’s educational role here is valuable. But its rhetoric is not matched by a practical plan to transform the economic paradigms producing climate change.

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.

The lie of infinite growth

Continued economic growth is necessary for the Green New Deal to fulfil its promise of jobs for all, which is only possible in a growing economy. Where the Green New Deal plans dare to tackle the question of growth, they promise to decouple economic growth from the extraction of finite resources and environmental consequences. But this is not possible. Economic growth has never been absolutely decoupled on a global scale from growth in material and energy use, and there is no credible empirical model to suggest it will ever be. To make claims to the contrary is to deny the planet’s ecological limits, and this is precisely the realm of ‘green growth’ narratives and a business class trying to find excuses for endless profit in an era of climate breakdown.

The Green New Deal plans imagine that they can measure growth by more ethical standards, but this ignores the harsh reality that jobs in this economy are tied to the grow-or-die imperative of businesses. Green New Dealers cannot use qualitative, ethical measures of value to create the quantitative economic growth that is necessary both to create new jobs for the unemployed and replace the tens of millions of current useless jobs. Indeed, millions of jobs in our existing economy are socially-useless – by providing superfluous products and services they exist merely to keep profits rolling and the economy growing. Simply put, ethical considerations cannot penetrate the capitalist economy.

A growing capitalist economy means environmental destruction. There is no such thing as ‘green growth’.

The limits of renewable energy

Secondly, the Green New Deal ignores the realities of renewable energy. Renewables are not a magic bullet. Like all technologies, they have their limits. A capitalist economy powered by renewables would still be ecologically damaging. Due to their lower energy density, renewables require high land-use, and for current levels of growth this land use would be at a scale which presents devastating ecological consequences. To power Britain’s current level of energy consumption solely on solar energy, around 30% of the UK’s available land would be needed, 50% for the EU overall, and many countries would need more land than they currently have available. This would not only wipe out biodiversity buffers but the need for land would also entail disastrous trade-offs between food and energy production. Beyond this, there are important limitations of efficiency, land competence, and mineral reserves. These technical limitations of renewables means that we should not expect them to replace fossil fuels in a capitalist system.

Fossil fuels have always been vital to the functioning of a capitalist system, to the degree that capitalism cannot exist without them. Fossil fuels, with high energy density, can be extracted, stored and burnt for energy around the clock. Historically their storage provided greater mobility than renewables and energy that wasn’t tied to a particular river or windmill, and despite their continual fall in efficiency, they would still have to play a huge part in a capitalist economy. If the Green New Deal is to maintain a growing economy it will inevitably end up relying on the final reserves of fossil fuels, the incessant burning of which is the main driver of climate breakdown.

Colonial resource extraction

Finally, the Green New Deal maintains imperialist relations between Global North and Global South, by which countries in the Global South are subjected to economic servitude. To build up its renewable technologies, like solar, wind turbines and batteries, the Green New Deal would require high inputs of earth minerals for its production, such as lithium and cobalt, and would rely on kilotonnes of silver, copper, and steel. These minerals are mined predominantly in the Global South; from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Chile, Argentina, and China. Vast increases in extraction and appropriation of these resources would be needed to ‘green’ the UK’s economy – the process of which would be deeply violent. These mining industries are associated with some of the world’s most appalling work conditions, human exploitation, and a host of tragic health problems and ecological degradation for local populations – all enmeshed in colonial economic relations to service the Global North.

UK journalists rightly warn of ‘green colonialism’. To demand resource extraction at such increased levels would be maintain the colonial relationships between Global North and South and would intensify disaster for local populations. The climate justice rhetoric of the Green New Deal would lie in tatters.

The climate crisis – an institutional problem

Where the Green New Deal plans do present a challenge to the economic system, they fail to specify how the state’s political institutions would allow for any such changes. Whether the Road Map’s proposals to decentralise state power, democratise the workplace, enforce ethical financial regulations, or the Green New Deal’s support for a four-day working week, such plans completely ignore the harsh institutional realities that have always constrained and prevented such political and economic change within the State-capitalist system. Whilst these policies might be desirable – and some of them are crucial for an ecological future – until the Green New Dealers offer a feasible plan to implement them it will remain as mere rhetoric against the institutional reality.

The Green New Deal presents so many contradictions and failings that it is possible to read it not as a concrete plan on how to transform society, but rather as a rhetorical front to highlight the need for political action on climate change and put the climate crisis on the agenda for politicians and left-wing political parties. On this basis, it has had its successes, at least in the UK. But rhetoric isn’t enough, and the warm words of politicians must eventually come up against reality.

The climate crisis is not a simple problem of policy; it’s a problem of the institutions themselves. The climate crisis will not be solved with the institutions that created it.

The harsh reality is that the State-capitalist system presents inescapable economic and political realities that drive global warming, and at its core is so antagonistic to creating an ecological society that even the best programme it offers – the Green New Deal or any similar programme – spells continued ecological disaster and runaway climate breakdown. Fundamentally, the Green New Deal ends up maintaining the basic relationships of the capitalist economic system, and is thus incompatible with a green future. These obvious failings of the Green New Deal on relationships which are so central to the climate crisis should wake us all up from its cornucopia of false promises and force us to rethink where we seek ecological solutions and reconsider our faith in the institutions governing society.

This is not a call for despair or resignation. Rather, it’s a wake-up call that on the Left and in the climate movement we are in urgent need of critical self-reflection and questioning of our political assumptions. Crucially, we need a revival of ideological debate.

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. It’s time to revive the classical Left debate as to the route and vehicle for socialism, questioning the State and how capitalism and the conditions of the labour movement have changed in the 21st century – whilst seeking new alternatives which will allow us to transform society.

We have desperately little time left to avoid total ecological and social collapse, and must begin organising immediately for all those suffering on the front lines of climate fallout. Nothing short of total transformation of society’s paradigms – that is, revolution – can win the survival of organised human life on this planet, and only a united and organised Left is up to the challenge.

If, in this late hour, we make a wrong decision as to the route we take to achieve this, it could be the last decision we make.

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