by Leah Temper and Sam Bliss
The Green New Deal is on everyone’s lips and policy platforms. Liberal pundit Thomas Friedman coined the term in 2007, and Left parties in the UK called for a Green New Deal during the recession that followed the 2008 global financial crash. Last year, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez rebooted the idea in the United States. Now progressive politicians from Canada to Australia are putting forward Green New Deals.
The proposals vary from place to place, but each GND is a package of policies designed to transform our economy to deal with the dual crises of climate change and social inequality. In this way they link environmental justice with economic justice in an all-encompassing vision for restructuring much of the existing social order.
It’s a tall task. The right has criticized the GND for being a laundry list of everything environmentally minded socialists have ever wanted anyway: not just publicly owned renewable energy and small-scale eco-agriculture but also universal healthcare, housing, and living-wage jobs. Centrists have argued that such a broad and deep policy package isn’t politically possible; only incremental, piecemeal changes can fight climate change successfully. Some leftists have expressed concern that the GND doesn’t go far enough: that it might cater to corporate and financial interests; that it threatens to intensify rich countries’ extraction of mineral wealth from the rest of the world (for solar panels, batteries, electric cars, and so on); that it could further marginalize Indigenous peoples; and that it risks being counter-productive by kickstarting economic growth, which would probably increase carbon emissions.
Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details.
Despite these criticisms, the GND’s ambition has led to great excitement. The Left has been reanimated behind a common cause. Seemingly every progressive and socialist espouses some version of the GND in part because it remains a vague outline of aspirations. Now its proponents must flesh out the details. We need to publicly debate different visions of the GND. We must think strategically about how to make the GND a reality and how to ensure it is just and truly transformative.
We argue that ecological economists can play a leading role in this. In their textbook Ecological Economics, Herman Daly and Josh Farley list sustainability and justice as the field’s first two goals. If the GND’s goal is to facilitate, through policy, the transition to a socially equitable low-carbon economy, then ecological economics basically bills itself as the science of the Green New Deal. Of course, many fields have knowledge and ways of thinking to contribute to informing a GND. Part of ecological economics’ strength is its willingness to incorporate evidence, theory, methods, and perspectives from diverse disciplines.
Yet ecological economists haven’t engaged much with the GND, other than the pile of comments (compiled here) on how it might impede or enable degrowth—a downscaling of rich countries’ economies, and the global economy, that would also downscale emissions and exploitation. While making the GND compatible with degrowth is crucial (see point 2 below), we know that ecological economists have a lot more knowledge and ideas to offer to the design of such a transformative policy package.
To this end, this essay is the first in a series of articles that aim to inform the GND through the lens of ecological economics. The series will feature short position papers by students of the Economics for the Anthropocene program, a three-university collaboration to train graduate students in ecological economics, as well as by other invited experts.
These short articles will focus on thematic issues outlined in the GND, touching on questions such as: How can we pay for the GND? Would it break international trade law? What agricultural policies should an ecologically sound GND include? How do we organize to win a GND? And so on. The authors will propose specific principles and policies to ensure the GND lives up to its eco-revolutionary potential.
To introduce this series, we want to convince you that ecological economics is a science fit for scrutinizing, deliberating, and deepening the GND. That it can provide tools for exploring the intricacies of changing everything about how the economy works.
The following are just a few aspects of ecological economics—and the transdisciplinary research community it’s part of—that can enrich understandings around the GND:
1. Social-ecological perspective
Ecological economics, unlike any other school of economic thought, integrates its investigation of the biophysical, social, and financial aspects of economies. Most economists study these realms separately. Considering them as coevolving, mutually constitutive pieces of a more-than-human whole allows ecological economists to analyze policies that address climate and the economy together, as the GND endeavors to do. One emerging approach, that of ecological macroeconomics, combines modeling techniques to demonstrate how flows of money between economic sectors relate to flows of resources and pollution through the production process, and how changes in one part of this ecological economy affect the rest of the system. Such models can project how different versions of the GND might affect employment, inequality, carbon emissions, mineral extraction, and other variables. Ecological economists’ coevolutionary way of thinking about the economy within society as part of nature, moreover, allows us to consider change holistically, historically, and materially, whereas most other brands of economics study production and exchange as if they occurred separately from politics, beliefs, traditions, and ecosystems. A total social transformation like the GND cannot be reduced to its economic elements.
2. Thinking beyond growth
Ecological economists have continually shown that resource use and carbon emissions rise together with GDP, and that wealthy economies have grown beyond the capacity of society and ecosystems to support them. We have also proposed many ideas for degrowing the economy justly, in ways that do not harm vulnerable people and that enhance local autonomy. The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment: a government program that gives everyone a job who wants one would ensure people economic security even as the economy shrinks overall. But to avoid simply stimulating growth, a GND must provide jobs that are regenerative and reproductive rather than productive in the conventional sense: ecosystem restoration, caring for the elderly, ecological farming, and such. Ecological economists are already imagining post-growth economies that pursue plural values. Real flourishing means balancing society’s evolution toward a diverse array of worthy goals that cannot be reduced to a number next to a dollar sign. Beyond GDP, the monetary value of all production in an economy, ecological economists measure whether economies meet people’s material needs and use metrics that track the physical size of the economy—the resources used and wastes discharged. Multiple countries in Europe, as well as Japan and others have integrated these into their national accounting systems. This is a first step towards understanding economies otherwise.
The GND could spark a degrowth transition by breaking growth’s link to employment.
3. Understanding complexity and scale
Ecological economics is well positioned to reflect on the difficult-to-foresee consequences of GND policies because of its grounding in systems theory. Making big changes to any system brings unpredictable cascading effects. If economic degrowth or the transition to renewable energy decreases the amount of institutional complexity that society can maintain, it is imperative to make sure that the resultant simplification does not impinge upon democracy or the rights that marginalized people, women, and minorities have won through social movements, and that any increased labour burdens from decreasing energy use do not fall disproportionately on these groups. Managing the government programs of the GND will itself require a lot of materials and energy. If a simpler society powered by renewables cannot sustain sophisticated systems like centrally administered national healthcare as we know it, there is a need to guarantee that newly designed systems for care are based on principles of justice. Systems theory helps us think up policies and institutions that can ensure justice that’s resilient to changing conditions. Central governments can finance and oversee decentralized healthcare systems, for example, that communities construct and operate in ways that work for their local contexts. Our ideological systems might need to coevolve with social-ecological change, too. Women’s emancipation need not rely on professional employment made possible by state-funded childcare and birth control, but we can dream up alternative desirable feminisms only if our beliefs about empowerment and freedom transform along with the economy.
4. Emphasis on equity
Just distribution is a key principle of ecological economics. If we cannot solve poverty by growing the economy, then someone has to take from the rich to give to the poor. But a GND proposing that the government play Robin Hood is not enough. Ecological economists recognize that the economy is set up to continuously create inequality. Labor markets, financial markets, tax laws, property rights, inheritance, and a horde of other institutions continuously transfer wealth to the already wealthy. An economically just GND can’t merely redistribute income and capital, it must redesign the rules of society to dole out the goods more evenly in the first place, and to recognize and recompense historical injustices. Ecological economists go further than government transfers and employment programs, studying collective property systems and commons governance regimes through which people share benefits and make decisions collectively. And we devise programs that integrate equity and ecology—not just a universal minimum income but a maximum, too; a job guarantee that offers part-time work that’s enjoyable but not super productive; taxes on carbon-intensive luxury goods. Reducing inequality will itself likely lessen the competitive pressures that drive the expansion of extraction and emissions. Ecological economics can also help inform processes for recognition of ecological and colonial debts and support charting paths toward meaningful decolonization. Additionally, ecological-economic models estimate production’s effects in other places, such that policy making can account for people and ecosystems abroad. A just GND, even if implemented by one country, must be internationally equitable.
5. Justice beyond humans
Some ecological economists are beginning to adopt a broader understanding of justice, one that considers the fate of other animals, plants, and entire ecological communities. Such a perspective, in the words of our colleagues, “views maintaining the integrity of the web of biotic and abiotic processes and communities that mutually constitute the biosphere as the first principle of distributive justice.” Protecting earth’s biodiversity and life-support systems will be incredibly difficult but at least the goal is straightforward. Extending justice to non-human beings is trickier. How do we know what an individual coyote wants? How can we invite prairie grasses to the negotiation between rotational grazing and total rewilding to replace monoculture corn? This is new ground for ecological economists— to study these questions we’ll need to see worldviews in their plurality beyond the Western one and methodologies from other disciplines that may include rituals, arts-based approaches, and radical forms of listening. Yet analyzing the potential effects of different possible GNDs provides an opportunity to invent innovative methods for thinking about, say, whether wind turbines or hydropower are better for birds’ wellbeing, or if rivers and their inhabitants mind diverting some water for small-scale hydroelectricity.
The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary movement.
6. Political framing
Ecological economists, like any critical social scientists, insist that all economics is political. Powerful actors take financial and environmental benefits for themselves while pushing burdens like difficult labor and toxic pollution onto those who are powerless to refuse them. We argue that the citizen movements from below can counteract this power with numbers, by acting together. The original New Deal, and most reforms historically, were essentially compromises authored by elites in the face of mass uprising. The GND must be accompanied by a revolutionary movement focused on the spirit as well as the details of a policy package that the ruling class will try to water down anyway. This means making big demands and taking to the streets, along with Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and environmental justice activists around the world, rather than simply designing an “optimal” GND.
The GND can serve as a vehicle for dreaming up a desirable future, inspired by degrowth, environmental justice, and other visionary ideas about radically different societies than our own. Parallel to designing and fighting for a state-led Green New Deal we must continue self-organizing and engaging in projects of solidarity outside the market and state. A successful GND, by ensuring certain basic needs and even a livable climate, could in fact facilitate the creation of autonomous mutual aid networks for food, care, housing, and so on by freeing people from some precarity or wage labor.
This essay is a call for ecological economists to collaborate with grassroots movements to put forward ideas about a truly transformative and just Green New Deal that bridges political aspirations, justice, and material realities. We therefore launch this series with this think-piece in hopes that ecological economists and other radical thinkers will join the conversation and bring their expertise to bear on the ideas around the GND. What should a big government program to restructure society and create an ecological economy include? How do we hold them to account?
We hope these essays contribute to the radical reimagining of economic life.
We would like to thank Martin Sers, Katie Kish, Rut Elliot Blomqvist, Vijay Kolinjivadi, and Christopher Orr for comments that contributed to this piece.
Leah Temper is an ecological economist and filmmaker based at McGill University, Montreal and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She is the founder and co-director of the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice.
Sam Bliss studies and organizes non-market food systems in Vermont. He also reads and writes about ecomodernism and degrowth.