Trade governance will make or break the Green New Deal

by Shaun Sellers

‘The food that you buy will all be grown locally,’ says policy director at New Consensus, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, in a Vox video. This is stated simply, as an aspect of what it will be like to live in the time of a Green New Deal (GND). Yet it represents a fundamental challenge to international trade governance in ways that must be addressed if the GND is to be successful.

Green New Deals are currently being developed across Europe and North America, with policy initiatives ranging from regional to state to national levels. These Green New Deals vary in their details, but are generally an attempt to rally governments to address climate change, as opposed to letting the deregulated ‘free market’ decide if or which humans will survive the Anthropocene. GNDs are a forceful recognition that governments have a mandate to respond to the existential needs of the populace. In February of 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a resolution to recognize the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. It asserts that by 2030, the US needs to become a net-zero emissions economy, and to do this, a combination of green tech, ecological restoration, targeted growth in localizing economies and targeted degrowth in particular sectors of the economy need to all be undertaken together.

The language in the resolution is intentionally non-specific to leave room for interpretation and flexibility, yet that has not stopped conservative and centrist voices from calling it economically impractical. Others caution that the GND may be mere greenwashing of the current status quo. What is notable is that the Resolution chooses to emphasize economic security as opposed to economic growth. These are not the same thing at all. While the resolution could be read to be growth focused, it can also be read as a degrowth transition document—allowing for certain sectors to be targeted for growth but reducing the emissions of other sectors dramatically. The one place where economic development is promoted is in directing investment towards ‘deepening and diversifying industry and business in local regional economies’. And this is where trade governance comes in. To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.

To develop local economies with the goal of lessening emissions in trade is to effectively dismantle the international web of supply chains, and by extension, the current international trade regime.

Investing in local and regional economies would require a change from the ways in which our local economies function today. Nearly half of all global production today is destined for international trade. The food, goods, and services we use every day overwhelmingly come from farms and factories and call centres around the world, and government attempts to change this won’t go unanswered by the corporations that feel the effects of a changing economic climate. National and regional attempts to change the way that economic activity happens in local contexts have been regularly shut down through a process of investor state dispute resolution provisions, because these initiatives violate current international trade rules. In countries all over the world, if local or national policies appear to prevent a corporation from accessing a market—that is, selling their product ‘competitively’—that corporation can sue the government in question in the court at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The way that international trade happens today is both intentional by policy design and also particularly emissions intensive. The emissions from export-oriented production in the world economy are rising faster than global GDP, contributing to absolute increases of emissions over time. Yes, per capita GDP has risen around the world with the increases in international trade, but so too has social inequality  and environmental degradation, correlations that major trade organizations admit are concerning.

The GND Resolution calls for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas; and to grow domestic manufacturing in the United States”. Internet commentators have pointed out the problems this would create with trade agreements and global trade governance, but they’ve missed the explicit framing of climate change as a national security threat: ‘by impacting the economic, environmental, and social stability of countries and communities around the world.’  This framing may offer insight into the policy pathway to enact such a challenging task as relocalizing economies through policy as suggested by the GND. Article XX and XXI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the core international trade governance document, allows for nations to be exempt from the free trade mandate if they are protecting the environment within their borders (though this is often hit or miss) or for reasons of national security. By declaring in the Green New Deal resolution that climate change is a national security issue, not just for the USA, but for many countries, we can envision a policy pathway to defend iterations of the GND at the WTO court of appeals.

A climate policy must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful, but if a policy is effective enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules.

However, if we now enter into a world of global climate change discourse framed primarily as a national security issue, this threatens to entrench the military and security sectors at the very moment that people are calling for their drawing down. This also potentially has the power to challenge the fundamental mandate of the WTO, because economic growth through free flow of trade across borders is their goal, and emissions are intimately tied to GDP in today’s trade regime. The broad goal of indiscriminate growth in the world economy is incompatible with the goals of the GND, and with climate policy in general. It is an important climate policy paradox: a climate policy must change the way that the global economy works if it is to be successful (because decoupling of GDP and emissions is a mere myth), but if a policy is effective enough to disrupt global trade, it will violate global trade rules. If the relocalization of economies as proposed in the GND can be defended at the WTO appellate court on climate change as national security grounds, this argument is theoretically available to any country or state or municipality, which would render the WTO useless in managing trade in climate policy contexts. And because we have waited so long to act on climate change, almost everything will be within a climate change context from now on.

The trade and relocalization goals of the GND cannot be achieved without fundamentally challenging the mandate of the WTO, and today’s international trade regime oriented toward free trade and economic growth. This scenario is not a complete victory for those who protest free trade agreements, nor is it a universe-ender for those working in the WTO offices in Geneva (or elsewhere). It must be seen as an opportunity to ask what an international trade regime would look like if it were oriented towards ecological futurity. If the GND is successful in changing the way that international trade works without being clear about how, why, and who should be part of future international trade governance, we risk instability and power accumulation. We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis. Planning for a GND at any scale must include larger visions for an international trade regime in which protectionism is actively redefined. Right now, protectionism means protecting domestic industry and interests, and language in the GND Resolution echoes this. But protectionism could and should reflect the goals of the GND itself, envisioning international trade governance in which protection of ecological integrity, well-being, and justice are the focus.

We must not allow the inevitable clash between the GND and the international trade regime to be an unanticipated crisis.

The Green New Deals around the world have the seeds of change within them; they are ambitious and important. But we must acknowledge that a new international trade governance approach is integral to any national or international Green New Deals. For the food we eat to be grown locally, we are going to have to do nothing less than restructure the global economy. Best to know this going in.

Shaun Sellers is a PhD Student at McGill University, studying ecological economics and trade theory.

Rethinking education for the Green New Deal

School strike in Hobart, Tasmania. Image: Flickr CC BY

by Gabriel Yahya Haage

The Green New Deal seeks expansive changes for society, from climate change mitigation to job creation. Education reform, while certainly not the focus, is also included, particularly in advocating for free higher education for all people who wish it. As stated in the 2019 United States House Resolution 109, which outlines the ambitions of the Green New Deal, society must provide ’resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education’.

Certainly, progressive movements in many nations are fighting for free, or at least affordable, higher education. However, it is in the lower levels of education—primary and secondary school—that change is most vital in working toward the vision of the Green New Deal. After all, younger generations will face direr consequences of climate change. In fact, youth are one of the ‘frontline and vulnerable communities’ discussed in the Green New Deal House Resolution. Young people are leading the climate movement—see Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future school strikes. A truly transformative Green New Deal must be for and by the youth.  

One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component.

The Green New Deal strives to put the government in charge of providing more social services, including government-funded healthcare and job training. But an important but largely undiscussed question for Green New Deal advocates is: What role should government policy play in determining what is taught in classrooms? One may envision a classroom in a nation that embraces the Green New Deal with students being taught a government approved, eco-centered curriculum with a strong climate justice component. Some may see this as a good way of creating the citizens needed for the current and future state of the world. To others, this would be an unacceptable overreach of government influence. Certainly, governments already influence primary and secondary school curricula as it is. Even where states do not control classroom content, teachers must still shape their lessons to standardized examinations. The Green New Deal’s vision may lean toward even greater influence, however.

In this piece, I do not take a stance regarding the ideal role of government in education. Rather, I offer examples to open a critical dialogue on the topic among proponents of the Green New Deal. As discussed below, governments could influence lower education indirectly by simply increasing access or more directly by ensuring accurate information, by reformulating disciplines and, most controversially, by setting moral education.  

Indirect influence on lower education in the Green New Deal

Even without targeting what is taught in classrooms, the Green New Deal can still have a strong influence in the school system and the lessons that are imparted to students. For instance, by offering affordable daycare and preschool, more young children could be exposed to the education system. Increasing access to early education would also increase the diversity of preschools. Putting kids from different races, classes, and even countries together early on in life could instill a greater multicultural spirit. Of course, this requires well-trained teachers who can ensure that students of different backgrounds are not marginalized or bullied.

Factual content and teaching students to think

If one believes the government should play a role in what is taught in the classroom, the least controversial target may be ensuring that the content taught in classrooms is supported by science. Curriculum on climate change, for example, should be evidence-based. Unfortunately, as discussed in a National Research Council workshop on climate change and education, some teachers do not teach climate change as it is considered too controversial and others feel pressure to teach ‘both sides’ of the issue.

Science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason.

More generally, science education should move beyond facts and figures and teach students how to reason. In fact, critical thinking is important beyond the sciences. In a world where people on both the right and left call the other’s facts ‘Fake News,’ people need a cognitive toolbox to evaluate the credibility of what they’re told. The internet, especially social media, bombards kids with a plethora of claims every day. Students must learn to wade through them and determine which are accurate. 

For advocates of the Green New Deal, it is vital to discuss not just the importance of having the right information in school courses, but also potential policies to ensure this. This piece can not delve into specific policies, but, in general terms, how teachers are trained would be a good starting point.   

Reformulating disciplines

If one is okay with government shaping the classroom, one can move beyond content and target the disciplines themselves. Which disciplines should be rethought and how can we change them? A movement of university students, for example, calls for rethinking education in economics, which has become dangerously separated from the knowledge of social and natural sciences. However, these changes target adult students and experts. After all, economics, whether mainstream, Marxist, ecological, or otherwise, is not a field universally taught to elementary or high school students. And yet, it is at these lower levels that the push for an ecological future must occur.

Just as ecology and our understanding of the biophysical planetary limits can help reformulate economics, however, so could the linking of academic disciplines be used to reform primary and secondary education. For instance, education on the history of developed nations could include a discussion of the environmental impacts of the industrial revolution. Another example is the Climate Change and Environmental Education (CCEE) curriculum, which incorporates environmentalism in all areas of study, emphasizing how the most vulnerable are disproportionally impacted by environmental degradation. Examples such as these show how reformulating disciplines can be achieved by connecting concepts that, until now, where segregated into their own disciplines. Governments could, in principle, bring these changes to much broader swaths of society by forcing all public schools to adopt them.

Education and morality

Even those who feel governments should play a strong role in what is taught in the classroom may balk at the idea that governments should determine which moral lessons should be taught in school. Moral education, it may be argued, should be taught in the home, not in the classroom. But morality is already a part of US education at the lower levels. Religious instruction and the Pledge of Allegiance (a standardized recital meant to express one’s allegiance to the nation) are cases in point, even if the former is meant to instill the morals that the students’ parents are assumed to already espouse and the latter is not necessarily mandatory.

Several examples from the previous sections show how the current education system already has a moral component. For instance, teaching acceptance of students with different backgrounds helps develop empathy and inclusiveness. Teaching about the global environmental impacts of industry, which disproportionately target the most vulnerable in society, is unavoidably tied to the concept of moral responsibility.

In many cases, moral education may simply mean making the process more targeted and explicit. For instance, Child-Friendly Schools sometimes hold social cooperation and conflict resolution activities and seek to instill a ‘respect for nature’ in their students. As another example, the Humane Education movement advocates for activities explicitly meant to encourage empathy for others.

It will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training.

That morality is already inexorably tied to education does not mean that the government should be given a more expansive role in determining moral education in schools. There are always dangers in giving a central government too much control over its citizens, and this is particularly worrisome when its influence is related to young people. In terms of the Green New Deal, proponents must consider how expanding the influence of the government could have detrimental effects, particularly as the parties in power shift over time. Setting a precedent on how the government can intervene in education must be done with caution. There is no easy answer to the question of what role the government should play in determining what is taught in schools. A functioning Green New Deal proposal must wrestle with this issue and, hopefully, proponents can develop a position that is of benefit to both students and society in general.

Finally, while this piece focused on education, it will also hopefully stir a more general discussion on how much government influence proponents think an ideal Green New Deal should advocate in other fields, from healthcare to job training, and what such influence might mean to people needing those services, both now and in the future. It may even spark discussions for Green New Deal proponents on potential alternative modes of governance beyond centralized governmental control, both at the local, regional and international levels.

Gabriel Yahya Haage is a PhD candidate at the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Canada. His research focuses on freshwater systems and the methods of understanding water demands in the ecological, social and economic spheres.

Shrink the military, shrink injustice

Somali people protesting at gate eight of the US Embassy in Mogadishu.
Image: Flickr CC BY

by Walter Keady

The climate crisis does not respect national borders, and neither should programs that respond to it. The Green New Deal, unlike most proposed climate legislation, addresses justice, not just emissions. But to be truly transformative, it must consider justice internationally, not just in the country implementing a GND.

United States House Resolution 109, the document that proposes a Green New Deal, focuses narrowly on the US. It threatens to create Green New Colonialism through increased extraction abroad. It also gives no mention of the US military’s environmental impact or its ability to maintain global injustice by force. 

The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice.

Happily, the GND holds a radical understanding of how environmental injustice comes to be. The GND names social, political, and economic oppression as root causes of environmental injustice. Traditional policy approaches for environmental justice, by contrast, focus on ‘disproportionate shares’ of ‘environmental consequences’ in a way that laments, rather than counteracts, underlying oppressions. 

The fact is, socially and economically marginalized people bear the brunt of environmental hazards. Speaking plainly, environmental injustice occurs along race and class lines. 2018’s Hurricane Michael hit poor counties in Florida and Georgia hardest, demonstrating a pattern where environmental hazards exacerbate existing inequalities. This injustice does not confine itself to the United States or other countries that have produced the lion’s share of the emissions causing climate chaos. Shortly after Hurricane Michael, two serious cyclones hammered the coast of Mozambique, with more frequent storms expected in the future. 

Climate mitigation and adaptation—not hazards alone—can also create or perpetuate injustice. For instance, implementing the GND’s call for net-zero emissions would require vast increases in production of renewable energy technologies and batteries. Accordingly, it would intensify mining in places such as China, Congo-Kinshasa, and Chile. This mining contributes to water toxification in Inner Mongolia, depends on child labor in Congo, and threatens to degrade Indigenous and peasant farmland in the Andes. The lack of attention to these energy and environmental injustices constitutes a ‘green colonialism,’ where the global north achieves a high standard of living and a sheen of carbon neutrality by exploiting the health, labor, and land of the global south.

It is true that renewable energy production can cut greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthiest countries, mitigating climate change’s most acute threats in the global south. Climate change is certainly a mortal threat and in itself an environmental injustice, but simply replacing one energy source with another would hardly be a just transition. Instead, as Elena Hofferberth writes, in order to prevent green colonialism, ‘[t]he acknowledgement of the global historical responsibility [for oppression and discrimination] must translate into true environmental justice…’ 

Accordingly, an internationally just GND must target the processes that generate global oppression. But what are those processes? Why are marginalized people at greater risk? And who marginalized them in the first place? The short answer is that state power determines who is protected from environmental injustice and who suffers it. Environmental hazards mostly result from economic processes, all of which require ecosystem destruction or disruption. Within a given state, non-marginalized people, those with economic means and social privileges, can protect themselves from these risks by influencing decisions or using legal processes to mitigate existing harms. Or they can simply pay to protect their land, often in the form of conservation easements.

But these people are usually playing a zero-sum game. If their communities avoid risks, others will not. Corporations have to grow or die, so they won’t surrender dirty projects if they do not have to. Rather, they will move them to where poor and marginalized people live. The state will thus favor industrial interests over people without political, economic, or social power who challenge them. In the US, this pattern concentrates pollution in low-income areas, especially those populated by people of color. Internationally, global south countries bear the brunt of resource extraction and waste disposal. 

Economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations.

These conflicts also arise across international borders. Where no one state dominates, the political fights take the form of military competition. Without a global government, there is no single body that can back up or arbitrate economic processes, so economic processes, especially raw material extraction, depend on international stability that results from military power. A central example is the US military’s tight link to major US fossil fuel corporations. In other words, it is no coincidence that the US has the largest economy in the world and the largest military. 

A transformative GND, one committed to environmental justice and avoiding green colonialism, should therefore reduce American military capacity. This reduction would degrade one of the primary mechanisms on which injustice and exploitation depend. Thankfully, the current House Resolution already contains the seeds of that more transformative vision.

First and foremost, the GND already calls for justice through ‘stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of [I]ndigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth” (my emphasis). One only needs to go one step further to acknowledge that oppression based in militarism reproduces injustice on a global scale. 

Consider military bases. The US military operates approximately 800 bases around a globe composed of 206 UN-recognized countries. They amount to hundreds of “sites around the globe are where the military can store its weapons, station its troops, detain suspects, launch its drones, and monitor global affairs.” This storage, stationing, detaining, launching, and monitoring all comprise a mechanism for oppression, one that projects the interests of the United States and holds the rest of the world in check. But bases can also create direct environmental injustices themselves. Bases, current and former, have left a range of environmental hazards around the world, ‘[f]rom Agent Orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium in Iraq, and munitions dumps and firing ranges in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to a toxic brew of poisons along the Potomac River…’ Often, these hazards impact people along colonial lines, such as military bases’ impact on traditional Native American foods in Alaska.

The GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world.

Accordingly, the GND should halt oppression by significantly reducing the number of US military bases around the world. In doing so, the GND would weaken the capacity of the United States to inflict environmental injustice, while simultaneously directly mitigating existing environmental hazards. Of course, this process would not do away with the injustices of extractivism in and of itself. What it would do is decrease imperial power and shrink local sites of environmental injustice.

This process would easily fit with GND jobs. Decommissioning bases, managing their contents, and remediating their impacts would require a huge amount of work. A GND committed to base reduction would also significantly cut oil consumption. The US military itself is the world’s largest consumer of oil, and shrinking it would cut its huge greenhouse gas emissions. Reduced military expenditure could also free up federal funding to pay for other aspects of the GND.

Critics may rightfully ask why this proposal does not simply call for full demilitarization and the abolition of the armed forces. After all, why simply lessen the potential for environmental injustice rather than eliminate it? One response could be that it is not just militarism but imperialism which the GND must target. But the two are intricately linked, and tackling the latter would warrant a more radical opposition to the military. My only defense against that is tactical restraint. A major strength of the GND has been its popularity, and too strong of a critique of American militarism could decrease support. I admit this defense is based on speculation about public opinion, but limiting the worst dangers from climate change requires mitigation as soon as possible. Compromises on rhetoric are warranted to adopt a transformative GND within the existing political structure. Since the proposed GND is largely aspirational, the GND goals could perhaps be framed in a way that is sympathetic to public opinion while policies themselves could be more radical.

These issues need to be carefully worked through in the creation of an anti-imperialist GND. The conversation should start by recognizing that reduction of military capacity provides an effective means of combating imperialism and environmental injustices alike.

Walter Keady is a masters student at the University of Vermont studying energy, environmental justice, and just transitions. He is a member of the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America’s Executive Committee.

A Green New Deal for an ecological economy

Image: Peg Hunter CC BY-NC

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.