A post-growth Green New Deal

Image: Occupy Reno Media Committee CC BY-ND 2.0

by Riccardo Mastini

Over the past year the Green New Deal banner has been appropriated by so many different movements and political parties that it is difficult to agree on what it actually stands for. However, in its most radical articulations (such as the one presented in the book A Planet To Win) Green New Deal advocates prescribe the need for an active role of the State in the economy. In doing so, they heed Keynes’ advise formulated in the 1926 essay The end of laissez-faire: “The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.” This means moving beyond market-based environmental policy instruments (e.g. tax incentives and price signals) and fully embracing command and control regulation. Deploying the power of public investment and coordination is a historic break from the neoliberal dogma that has reigned over the world for the past 30 years. Thus, the Green New Deal is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

A truly transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative.

However, I argue that the vision sketched out above is inadequate to deal with the current ecological emergency. A truly transformative Green New Deal cannot simply be about returning to a welfare capitalist order of days of yore. It must move beyond capitalism’s growth imperative. This is not only because there is no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures anywhere near the scale needed to deal with the ecological crisis, but also because such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future. At least in affluent countries, therefore, a downscaling of production and consumption should be in order. But to ensure social well-being and equality in the face of a contracting economy, we need to develop a suite of post-growth policies.

Decreasing energy and material use

There is clear evidence that the deployment of renewable energy is insufficient on its own to displace fossil fuels in energy production. Historically, new energy sources have added more energy without removing older sources. The average trend in many nations around the world over the past 50 years shows that each unit of electricity generated by non fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. What is, therefore, needed is a gradually declining cap on carbon emissions that a country is allowed to generate in line with its international commitments. This mechanism should be coupled with additional policies to equitably distribute the remaining national carbon budget across society and reduce energy poverty. To this end, we could think of adopting a system of carbon quotas.

Decarbonizing the energy system can be further facilitated by scaling down aggregate energy use. For instance, a recent study published in the journal Nature shows that successfully reducing emissions has historically required reductions in energy demand, which in turn was caused by a lesser growth in GDP. The objective of reducing energy use can also be pursued by decreasing material throughput since material extraction and consumption are major drivers of energy demand. This approach to reducing material throughput has the added benefit of releasing pressure on ecosystems. Post-growth policies that go in this direction include, for example, legislation for longer-lasting products, banning planned obsolescence, introducing right to repair, mandatory recyclability, mandatory long-term warranties, etc.

The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons.

Decommodifying basic services

Climate change is class struggle as it forces us to rethink the material conditions of everyday life: how we move, what we eat, how we supply energy and heating to our homes. The decarbonization of these basic services should entail their decommodification: removing them from the market logic and subjecting them to the logic of the commons. One important reason why decommodification and decarbonization should proceed in lockstep is because the consumption of public services has a lower environmental impact than their private equivalents. Think of private cars vs public transportation. But even more crucial than that, reducing dependence on individual consumer goods mitigates competition for social status and, consequently, does a lot to counteract consumerism. For example, cities are being increasingly crammed with SUVs as drivers dump compact cars in a vicious race for keeping up with the trend of car-size increase. As other drivers’ cars get bigger, mine feels smaller and smaller in proportion. The proof of this is that more unequal societies tend to have higher levels of average emissions per capita. We know that purchasing power correlates with personal environmental impacts, hence we must reduce outlets in which its destructive power can be unleashed.

Some policy proposals for ensuring that everyone has their basic needs addressed in a fair and sustainable way are the following: a highly progressive tariff structure for water and electricity in which the first unit is free of charge, an enhanced and free public transport system, a large public housing plan with passive houses, public low-carbon amenities (swimming pools, libraries, community gardens, etc.).  It is time to reclaim housing, mobility, water, and energy as rights, not as commodities.

Democratising economic production

Many shades of the Green New Deal are about a return of industrial policies into the government’s toolbox. Such proposals vary considerably in boldness though: from the director of UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose Marianna Mazzucato’s mission-oriented innovation policy all the way to the leader of the climate campaign group 350.org Bill McKibben’s wartime-like mobilization. But we cannot content ourselves with a more direct role of the State in the economy, we must also democratize the workplace. It’s not enough to try and nudge consumption choices, we need to win social power over material production.

It is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand.

The theory of ‘consumer sovereignty in production’, which postulates that it is up to consumers to change their spending habits to influence producers, is at the core of liberal environmentalism. But a transformative Green New Deal must reject this theory as it neglects that it is not so much demand that influences supply, but rather the concentration of the means of production that determines the demand. We have, therefore, to look for responsibilities upstream in the supply chain and put them on the shoulders of producers who have the greatest power to influence consumption options by restricting supply.

In this regard, the current shareholder model is problematic due to its concentration. Few large multinational companies and financial groups control the direction of the economy: they choose the activities in which to invest and those to be abandoned, the regions in which to place factories and those to be de-industrialized, the technologies to be used, contracts and wages to be offered, prices for consumers, and the environmental impacts from production. Hence, democratizing economic production means, first of all, involving in the decision-making processes all those who must live with the consequences of production choices, namely local communities and workers.

But even more problematic is the fact that shareholders are only concerned with a company’s ability to generate profits regardless of its social and environmental impacts. An alternative model is represented by not-for-profit cooperatives for which business activity is not an end in itself, but only a means of fulfilling the social mission of its corporate statute. This type of cooperatives are best placed to become the engine of a post-growth economy in which production decisions are taken democratically and the profit motive is impeded from acting as a pedal on the gas of productivism.

To summarize, from a post-growth perspective a Green New Deal must pursue three distinct but interrelated goals: decreasing energy and material use, decommodifying the basic necessities of life, and democratizing economic production. Any Green New Deal proposal that does not address head-on the drivers of economic growth is doomed to fall short of the challenge of steering away from the worst scenarios of ecological breakdown.

Riccardo Mastini is a PhD candidate in Ecological Economics and Political Ecology in the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is also a member of the academic collective Research & Degrowth, of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, and of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and visit his website.

Who owns the Green New Deal?

“A reindeer stands in silent protest in front of a hydro power plant” on Indigenous Sámi land in northern Scandinavia. Image: Tobias Herrmann CC BY-NC 2.0

by Geoff Garver

Green New Deal? People, we have a problem

You go into your Wall Street investment bank and ask, “What’s a hot investment these days?”  Your super sharp investment advisor says, “Farmland in Africa! People have to eat, right? And there are more and more people. Put your money in African farmland and you’ll double your money in no time!”  She doesn’t say a word about what makes that land unique and special or about the people and other beings that live, or lived, there.

That’s a big problem. It’s a remote ownership problem. In fact, it’s a whole bunch of justice problems related to the hard-wired legacies of colonialism that come together as a multi-faceted problem about remote ownership of land and resources. In a nutshell, remote owners or rights holders often cause serious harm to far away ecosystems they know and care little about, and grave injustice to the people and other life that know those ecosystems most intimately and depend on them. 

So, what about this Green New Deal (GND)? Is it merely the old wine of capitalist growth-driven development in a new bottle, or is it a recipe for socio-political and socio-ecological transformation that will right past wrongs and reshuffle political power in favor of historically disempowered people? Any Green New Deal (GND) framed as a “just transition” has to address problems of remote ownership and empower place-based governance.

Open questions about the remote ownership problem in AOC’s GND

Some say the GND in H.R. 109 introduced by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and others is merely a shift to green or climate colonialism, by which the greening—via decarbonization and other means—of wealthy, developed countries in a growth-driven, capitalist, and globalized world will worsen injustice in developing countries. This injustice includes not only increased exposure to environmental harms and health risks from extraction of materials needed for green technologies but also ongoing wealth inequality and social and cultural upheaval as the wealth-building potential of extracted resources (jobs, profits, etc.) is mostly exported along with them. 

The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems.

At the heart of this injustice are international companies and their stockholders and other remote owners—land and resource grabbers—that exert enormous political power from the local to the global scale. The GND risks continuation of the crushing of long-standing place-based governance systems, permanent displacement of people with the most intimate knowledge of local ecosystems and devastation of ecosystems and the life they support, all typical of land and resource grabbing around the world.  A particular concern is that land use reform is essential to success of the GND, yet the GND does not directly confront the hard wiring of the property rights regimes that must be addressed. Another is that the GND was conceived and announced with virtually no inclusion of Indigenous voices and that unless this lack of inclusion and the superficiality of references to Indigenous ideas is overcome, the GND could maintain “broken structures that perpetuate disconnection and individualism.”

Some cautiously, others more enthusiastically, see the GND as an opportunity to end and provide restitution for these injustices.  The openings for transformative change to scale back land and resource grabbing and empower place-based governance systems, including Indigenous ones, are signaled in support for “community-driven projects and strategies” to deal with pollution and climate change; locally-appropriate ecosystem restoration; and free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities with respect to matters of concern to them.  For these openings to fulfill their potential, justice activist Syed Hussan argues that the GND must foster “just transition in the broadest sense” and not just deal with displaced workers in fossil fuel industries and other discrete issues that decarbonizing the economy will entail.

Where to look for answers to remote ownership problems

The good news is that worthwhile ideas about how the GND can confront problems of remote ownership and promote locally-tailored place-based governance systems are already out there. Here are some of these sources of inspiration.

The degrowth movement. Degrowth is a forceful challenge to the growth-insistent sustainable development model, and a more hopeful approach to long-term perpetuation of a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. Degrowth combines a commitment to respecting ecologically-based limits with a commitment to developing a comprehensive, practicable approach to building thriving human communities based on conviviality and human solidarity without consumerism or material and energy excess. The reforms associated with degrowth “emphasize redistribution (of work and leisure, natural resources and wealth), social security and gradual decentralization and relocalization of the economy, as a way to reduce throughput and manage a stable adaption to a smaller economy.” Giorgos Kallis’s nine principles of degrowth should be useful in making sure the GND adequately confronts remote ownership problems: 1) End to exploitation; 2) Direct democracy; 3) Localized production; 4) Sharing and the commons; 5) Provision of relational goods, through friendship, love, healthy relationships, kinship, good citizenry; 6) Unproductive expenditures geared to communal activities, such as festivals, games and the arts; 7) Care, and treating humans and other life as ends, not means; 8) Diversity; and 9) Decommodification of land, labor and value.

The G20.  What?!? Well, it’s useful to understand the key ideas of the global political apparatus that must be overcome for the GND to lead to radical social, political and ecological transformation.  At annual meetings, the G20 typically agree on the need to “further collective actions toward achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth to raise the prosperity of our people.” The means to do so generally involve supporting global trade and investment (much of which is tied to remote ownership) and the role of the World Trade Organization as a means to create jobs and maintain growth, with weak or marginal actions or aspirations to address inequalities, corruption, climate change and environmental harm.  The G20 supports the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, with emphasis on sustainable, inclusive economic growth. A truly progressive GND should look past the SDGs!

The EJ AtlasThe Environmental Justice Atlas documents real cases of how remote owners have created social and environmental conflict.  These compelling narratives are a rich resource for understanding in detail the problem of remote ownership and the power dynamics that must be confronted and reshuffled in order to overcome them. 

Indigenous ways of thinking and being. In many Indigenous worldviews, attachment to place, founded on respect for all life and for deep appreciation of a reciprocal relationship with the Earth and its life community, is key to a more hopeful vision of the human-Earth relationship. Indigenous activist Eriel Deranger writes, “It is Indigenous communities, locally, nationally and internationally, that continue to push for an actualization of instilling deeper spiritual connections to Mother Earth to help us relearn what systems of colonization, capitalism, and extractivism have severed.” Connecting or reconnecting to the places that nourish our bodies and souls is at the heart of the long-term promise of a GND done well. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that “[f]or the sake of the peoples and the land, the urgent work of the Second Man may be to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place.” But, inviting settler societies to become indigenous to place—and an invitation from Indigenous holders of knowledge of a place is essential—does not mean letting them “take what little is left.” Attaching to a place by carefully and respectfully seeking to become indigenous to it requires humility above all, and it requires direct experience with wise teachers, not merely book knowledge.

Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND.

Six mutually reinforcing proposals on remote ownership and place-based governance for the GND

First, Indigenous peoples and other social groups that have been historically disadvantaged by colonization and land and resource grabbing must play a central role in developing and carrying out the GND. Including Indigenous notions of justice, decolonization and self-determination through meaningful inclusion of Indigenous communities in decisions that affect them, which requires adequate time and resources, is essential.

Second, the GND should empower communities like those included in the EJ Atlas to develop strong place-based governance systems and communities of solidarity and mutual care in order to resist the social and environmental conflicts they face, often because of remote ownership. This means providing them with a determinative role in decisions affecting them directly and indirectly. It also means developing a global/international scope and strategy so remote ownership problems in one place aren’t just displaced elsewhere. Also, we should look for opportunities to scale up and out from local remote ownership problems that are avoided or justly resolved.

Third, the GND should end corporate giveaways that are tied to remote ownership problems and exclude carbon markets, offsets or emissions trading regimes, and geoengineering—all of which typically pose remote ownership problems. Instead, the Climate Justice Alliance is fighting for a GND that shifts “from global systems of production and consumption that are energy intensive and fossil fuel dependent to more localized systems that are sustainable, resilient and regenerative.”

Fourth, stocks and other investment instruments in land and resource grabbing ventures that cause social and environmental conflict and harm in faraway places should be prohibited. This may require profound restructuring, dismantling or abolition of the financial and corporate structures that allow for these kinds of investments. At the least, it would entail deep rethinking of the metaphor of corporate personhood

Fifth, the GND should explicitly reject economic growth as a rationale and driving objective. It should oppose perpetual economic growth and promote communities committed to solidarity, maximal sharing and minimal use of materials and energy.

Sixth, the GND should place limits on wealth, which would help minimize or end the remote ownership problem. The most obvious way to do this is through progressive income taxation or a tax on wealth. For this to be effective, there of course also has to be collaboration between communities worldwide against tax evasion, with the aim of abolishing tax havens. A more radical transformation would be to target the globalized currency system which makes it possible for Wall Street investors to buy African farmland with US dollars in the first place. Or, the international community could finally adopt taxes on financial transactions; already implemented in some countries, this could be expanded to more countries and international transactions.

Some tough questions to test these proposals

If the GND is a step toward post-capitalist societies where remote owners, if they still exist, are no longer able to adversely affect far away ecosystems and people, it nonetheless is starting off in a globalized capitalist economy. As John Bellamy Foster has written, “We have to go against the logic of the system while living within it.” Making the proposals above work will not be easy. It will require people power through mass organizing and consciousness building. And it will mean confronting some tough questions. Here are a few. 

Does the GND inevitably imply ongoing wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North? If so, what are the implications for remote ownership and place-based governance? If not, what mechanisms are needed to minimize or end wealth and resource extraction in the global South to benefit the global North?

How can the GND address remote ownership in the form of ownership of financial stocks or other financial investments—keeping in mind how many people are counting on this type of investment for their retirement and long-term care?

What are some good examples that could be duplicated or scaled up of place-based governance systems that maintain fairness among humans and between humans and other life across generations? How should duplication and scaling up account for the unique features of different places and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches?

Can the GND adequately address, as Deranger puts it, the “intertwined roles of capitalism, consumerism, militarism and colonialism as foundations to the current crisis” if it remains “driven by White ENGOs, those with the resources and power, and mainstream political parties”?

Is re-establishing traditional labor protections and increasing unionization a long-term solution, or does it risk locking in an us-them worker-owner power dynamic—where the owners are often also remote owners and land and resource grabbers—that other alternatives could overcome?  What about more locally-committed, place-based employee-owned businesses or cooperatives?

Final thought

Questions like these need to be asked in relation to every single aspect of GND proposals in the advanced capitalist countries. Political organizers and activists should think about how to balance such critical questions with the visionary rhetoric that makes the GND so popular—all the while keeping in mind that the strength of a GND vision should be judged on the basis not only of its policy designs but also its ability to inspire and unite broad movement building for climate justice. Grappling with entrenched problems of remote ownership is one way to take a focused approach to building momentum for this movement.

Dr. Geoff Garver is an adjunct professor at Concordia and McGill Universities in Montreal and coordinates research on law and governance at McGill University for the Leadership for the Ecozoic initiative. He is on the steering committee of the Ecological Law and Governance Association and the board of the Quaker Institute for the Future and is active in the international degrowth movement.

Energy and the Green New Deal

Image: Fiona Paton CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Tim Crownshaw

Nothing happens without energy. Literally. Lacking energy, there can be no heat, food, motion, information, or life. Commonly defined as ‘the capacity to do work’, energy has always been central to human societies, whether derived mechanically from moving wind or water, chemically from wood, oil, coal or other combustible fuels, or thermally from the sun. This is more than an abstract footnote—there are deep links between available energy and the very structure of civilizations, including their types of social organization and levels of complexity, as noted by anthropologist Leslie White [1]. While this relationship is obviously not deterministic, there are social, technological, and economic arrangements, such those we enjoy in privileged parts of the global North today, which are likely unattainable at significantly lower levels of energy consumption.

Much discussion and research in recent years has focused on the prospects for a global transition to renewable energy, motivated by growing awareness of the existential threat posed by global climate change as well as localized environmental issues attributable to the production and consumption of fossil and nuclear energy. The Green New Deal (GND), the subject of this essay, is the latest in a long line of ambitious plans aimed at accelerating this process, in addition to its social and economic goals. However, many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities. In the process, they typically sidestep irreducible uncertainties and fail to properly engage with the considerable challenges involved in fundamentally transforming our energy system. It must be asked whether the GND commits these same errors. Avoiding them requires recognition that the transition to renewable energy is not simply the eventual outcome of the right set of policy settings, but what systems scientists would call a complex, path-dependent, socio-metabolic process. In other words, the transition will be far more constrained in terms of what we can achieve than we often like to think and will necessarily transform the basic configuration of our societies [2, 3].

Many of these energy transition plans are conceived teleologically: they start with the outcomes they seek to achieve, then fill in the gaps with implied (but uncertain) socio-technological capabilities.

That we must one day rely solely on renewable energy is true by definition. The fossil and nuclear fuels are depleting resources and their use entails ecological harm on an immense scale. Therefore, this use will eventually become infeasible, unacceptable, and uneconomic. But how we get from here to there is radically uncertain. There is no guarantee that we will complete the transition while maintaining an industrial socio-metabolic regime (our current pattern of material and energy use and associated societal configuration). In fact, this appears highly unlikely [2, 3].

Alternative narratives

For most people in the developed world, modern energy services are so ubiquitous and ingrained in our daily lives that they have been rendered largely invisible (at least until they are interrupted). Nevertheless, understanding energy is critical to accurately discerning where we are going as a society and what we can hope to achieve. This understanding suffers from what Mario Giampietro has called a “clash of reductionism against the complexity of energy transformations” [4].

Energy is typically understood in loose terms as something produced and transported by large and highly visible infrastructures (of which there are ‘good’ kinds and ‘bad’ kinds, defined by one’s perspective). It is generally perceived that energy is used for various crucial purposes, such as moving people and things around, heating and cooling homes and workplaces, powering appliances and devices, and producing consumer goods. Beyond this, various emotionally charged and frequently oversimplified narratives come into play, which inform expectations of what lifestyles and society at large ought to look like. While the range of perspectives and positions on energy is vast, they can be broadly grouped into two opposed narratives:

  • Narrative one sees energy presenting an urgent moral duality: oil derricks, pipelines, smog-covered cityscapes, and corporate interests on one side and climate saving technologies, eco-friendly behaviours, and new political movements on the other. In this strain of thought, we already have the requisite technology to carry out the transition to renewable energy and the only serious barriers are political in nature. Nowhere is the first narrative more clearly depicted than in US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent ‘A Message From The Future’ video.
  • Narrative two considers fossil fuels to be miraculous, prosperity-building, and geo-politically important resources, which should not be disregarded in favour of unproven, unreliable alternatives. As for climate change, positions can range from “the science in not settled” to “no problem, we’ll have the tech for that”. This narrative is captured in PR communications from major oil companies (and even more transparently depicted here), frequently loaded with promises of jobs, technological breakthroughs, and nostalgia for an era of pioneering industrial vitality.

Neither of these narratives is totally correct, but neither is totally wrong either. The first rightly highlights the social and ecological imperatives we face and how some forms of energy production are significantly less harmful than others, but tends to downplay the challenges and implications of transforming the entire energy basis of modern economies. Meanwhile, the second accurately identifies the unique qualities of fossil energy resources and their role in reaching our current level of development, but fails to identify that these have a limited lifespan, both in terms of their physical abundance and the extent to which we can use them without unacceptable consequences. It is on this fraught ideological landscape that the GND must vie for influence against competing visions of our energy future.

The Green New Deal

The GND (a clear allusion to Roosevelt’s depression-era New Deal) burst onto the US political scene in 2018, emerging from the youth-led ‘Sunrise Movement’ and subsequently championed by freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and a growing list of progressive political figures. Its supporters now include Joseph Stiglitz, Ban Ki-Moon, Paul Krugman, US senators (Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Ed Markey), and numerous organizations (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, 350.org, the New Economics Foundation, Extinction Rebellion, and the United Nations Environment Programme). The concept has quickly spread internationally to Canada, the UK, Australia, and the European Union due in large part to the advocacy of respective green parties in these places. A recent Yale survey found a strong majority in the US (81% of those surveyed and even 64% of republicans) ‘strongly support’ or ‘somewhat support’ the various proposals associated with the GND. With this impressive momentum, the time has come to translate zeal into workable policy.

In the US, the GND is often described with the tagline “decarbonization, jobs, and justice.” Policy proposals center around a green industrial revolution—a rapid, large-scale transition to renewable energy alongside vastly expanded public transportation and building retrofits for energy efficiency within a 10-year timeframe. The plan is to achieve near carbon-neutrality of the US economy and improved environmental quality through immense public spending initiatives, funded primarily via redistributive measures designed to tackle inequality. The draft text of the GND House Resolution includes the aim to “virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Variations often include increased minimum wages, universal health care, improved access to education, shorter working hours, and democratized workplaces. For a more complete description of the origin story and details of the GND, see this article or this one.

As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial.

Although it’s not hard to see the appeal, no one would deny that this is an immense task. In fact, there is already a chorus of critical voices from right across the political spectrum on questions of cost, timeframe, technical assumptions, and policy design. As the GND ultimately hinges on energy transition, the feasibility of its assertions in this area are crucial. To go any further, we need to cover some energy basics.

Energy primer

The global energy system is by far the largest, most technologically advanced collection of built capital, supporting infrastructure, expertise, and organizational capacity that has ever existed. Despite the hype around renewables, the global energy system is still 96% non-renewable, while solar and wind—the two renewable energy sources with the greatest growth potential—supplied just a little over 1% of total world energy in 2018 [5].

Firstly, it is important to understand that each type of energy production can satisfy only some types of energy demand: energy resources and the flows derived from them are not interchangeable. Instead, the energy system comprises a series of distinct flows spanning four basic stages, from primary resources through to delivered energy services:

Figure 1: Flows of energy travelling through four stages of the energy system

To provide a bit more specificity to this picture, the table below shows common examples of each of the four stages and sequences of flows between them:

If fully enumerated, this would look more like a complex, multi-nodal network rather than a straight line, but this simplification serves to highlight some key features:

  • Changes at one stage require corresponding changes at all other stages in order to avoid supply bottlenecks or unused excess capacity. Each new increment of supply (primary resources plus secondary conversion) must be met with a corresponding increment of demand (end-use capital plus energy service demand) and vice versa. This means that investments needed to change the system are often larger than they first appear—investments in one part of the system require corresponding investments in others—and the ways societies use energy must evolve as supply changes.
  • The common lay concept of ‘energy’ as a homogeneous, aggregate quantity is a fiction. The various flows within the energy system are non-equivalent and non-substitutable (at least not directly). For example, gasoline is produced by a refinery and fuels your car, but this is not interchangeable with the electricity generated by a gas-fired turbine powering your laptop. In particular, the flows of ‘energy carriers’ between the second and third stages—consisting of electricity, liquid fuels, and heating fuels—must be considered separately, otherwise we risk overlooking constraints integral to the system.

The non-equivalence of energy carriers is an essential concept, analogous to the metabolism of living organisms requiring fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to survive. For most animals, diet can change with food availability, but there are limits to this. Humans can substitute one food group for another, at least for a period of time, but beyond certain boundaries severe physiological consequences begin to occur, including starvation and death. The energy system functions basically the same way. The composition of supply or demand can’t be changed arbitrarily and to the extent that it can be changed, this typically requires expensive and time-consuming adjustments at other stages in the energy system.

Energy for energy

Aside from the flows ultimately ending up as final energy services (or waste), a large part of the output of the energy system must be directed back into its own construction, operation, and maintenance. These flows represent the metabolism of the global energy system. As shown in Figure 2, energy carriers are utilized in an ‘autocatalytic loop’ (energy invested to produce energy) and a ‘capital hypercycle’ (energy invested to maintain the means of turning energy into services).

Figure 2: Energy carrier flows required for the construction, maintenance, and operation of the global energy system

Our current economic structure and resource dependencies ensure that we’ll burn a lot of fossil fuels to carry out a major shift towards renewable energy—a cost of the transition that we can’t afford to ignore. Among other things, this complicates discussions around the pace of the transition; it is not necessarily true that faster is better as large, short-term increases in fossil fuel demand for a renewable energy buildout may lead to significant excess capacity, wasting resources and frustrating the transition further down the line. Generally speaking, an ‘optimum’ timeframe in terms of what would limit greenhouse gas emissions or ecological impact will not likely align with the deadlines proposed to date by the advocates of rapid transition. Vaclav Smil notes that energy transitions on this scale typically occur over multiple decades or centuries, not years [6].

The manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal.

Examining the energy system’s own metabolism also raises questions of residual non-renewable energy dependence that may be difficult to eliminate. The energy system’s autocatalytic loop and capital hypercycle are comprised of a mixture of energy carriers, meaning any attempt to shift the system towards a renewable basis will likely run into limits (due to energy carriers required to support the energy system not likely to be produced at scale via renewable means). For example, the manufacturing of silicon wafers in solar PV panels and advanced metal alloys in wind turbines requires a lot of high temperature heat, currently provided primarily by burning natural gas or coal. Will it be possible to run solar PV panel and wind turbine production lines using solar- and wind-generated electricity in the future? We don’t know, but there are reasons to be skeptical [7]. How about all of the remote access roads, transmission towers, substations, and supply depots required to create a renewable energy infrastructure? And the rare-earths, lithium, copper, iron, coltan, cadmium, and vast quantities of other minerals needed for the renewable energy buildout? It is hard to see how all of this can subsist on renewable energy flows alone.

Electricity

And then there’s electricity. Electricity is not like the other energy carriers in one critical sense: it is not a physical substance that can be produced and set aside for later use. In effect, this means supply must match demand at all times in order to maintain the stable, functioning electrical networks that distribute electricity to end users. Demand is stochastic—it changes as industrial production ramps up and down, and more erratically as households turn on or off light switches, run appliances, or do anything else that uses electricity. Consequently, supply must be ‘dispatched’ to meet demand on very short timescales as any temporary gap leads to changes in system frequency and large gaps can cause blackouts and damage vital electrical equipment (illustrated below).

Figure 3: The supply-demand ‘seesaw’ directly affects the frequency and stability of electrical networks (image source)

The key problem with most renewable electricity production (including production from solar and wind) is that it is intermittent and can’t be counted on when it is required most. Electricity systems needs to retain the ability to meet demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. There are ways to maintain this ability as the share of renewables increases, such as building enough spare dispatchable generation capacity to act as a backup (often gas- and coal-fired) or building storage and additional transmission capacity. All have significant costs, in both energetic and monetary terms, and face their own social and technical limitations. For example, while there is much discussion around building better batteries to unlock renewables, this is still an exceedingly expensive option that is suitable only for shorter timescales, not the summer to winter supply-demand gaps creating most of the need for system flexibility [8]. Returning to our diet analogy, pinning all of our hopes on storage is a bit like asking a someone to put on 300 lbs every fall to survive the winter months with very little food. We wouldn’t expect a human being to be capable of this for very long and the odds of the energy system pulling off the equivalent feat are not much better.

This difficulty only increases as renewables provide a larger share of total electricity. Figure 4 below shows how the mitigation investment required to maintain stable electricity grids increases non-linearly as the share of intermittent renewables grows [9, 10]. Technical and economic limitations in the electricity sector will manifest during any large-scale transition to renewable energy. Aside from a few fortunate regions with abundant dispatchable renewable energy resources (geothermal in Iceland, hydropower in Nicaragua, etc.), with current technology, this ceiling is far below the aspirational 100% renewable goal of the GND. The importance of these electricity system barriers is underscored by the fact that the provision of many of our energy services will need to be electrified in order to align with the growth of renewable energy.


Figure 4: The level of mitigation necessary to maintain stable electricity networks increases exponentially as intermittent generation rises

A story of limits

The crux of the problem is this: renewable energy typically produces forms of energy that are poor substitutes for the energy required to manufacture, transport, install, and operate renewable energy, at least without major investments into each stage of our energy system, significantly reducing or even erasing the net energy delivered. As such, these energy sources are dependent on the existing system and function less as a replacement for the fossil fuel economy and more as a temporary extension of it. The empirical evidence agrees—renewable energy investment does a poor job of displacing fossil fuels [11]. Of course, there are exceptions (such as traditionally produced biomass), but these have nowhere near the potential scale required to run today’s enormous globalized, industrialized economy.

Wherever the existing limit lies on the path to a 100% renewable energy system, we can and should push this limit through changes to consumption behaviours on the part of both industries and households, through things like shared utilization of end-use capital and energy services (think communal kitchens), a shift away from currently preferred but inefficient types of end-use capital (e.g. prioritizing public transit and micromobility over cars), greater alignment of demand to match intermittent supply, and overall demand reduction. However, it is precisely these kinds of changes which are more difficult to motivate, especially among those following the second narrative described above who may assume that high-energy, fossil-fuelled lifestyles represent ‘the good life’. Even at the extremes of practical behaviour change, the 100% target may still be unattainable.

Leaving aside the narrow concept of limits, a fundamental change in our energy basis and socio-metabolic regime would mean becoming a very different society from the one we know today. It is tempting to opine on our society’s wasteful habits and ask how much energy we really need, but the answer depends largely on the type of society we want to live in. Do we want to be able to build smartphones? How about MRI machines and water treatment plants? We may not be able to pick and choose what we want to keep from varying levels of socio-technical complexity (while it is certainly worth discussing what we might want to keep and what we can afford to lose). There is no demonstrated historical tendency for complex societies to voluntarily downshift their energy consumption on a large-scale [12].

When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

The main point here is that the prospects and implications of shifting toward renewable energy extend far beyond present-day cost-benefit calculations, political maneuvering, or waging war on climate change. When politicians and activists say “we have the technology” they vastly understate the challenges, potential barriers, and ultimate consequences involved in the transition.

Raised stakes and political pushback

By forcing extensive change into an expedited timeframe, the GND raises the stakes and reduces the margin for error in the transition to renewable energy. If such a policy package were embraced, people everywhere would be subject to dramatically increased risks of misallocation of resources, misalignment of capacity between the various stages within the energy system, and of consequent economic and social fallout. The calls for radical action motivating the GND stem from a sense of desperation in the face of increasingly dire predictions regarding converging climate and ecological crises. That desperation is certainly justified, and yes, time is not on our side, but we must not dismiss the existential risks of a poorly executed GND.

The GND makes some very big promises and displays unmistakeable utopian elements. The problem is not so much the aspirational decarbonization goals, but the assurances of prodigious social benefits assumed to be attainable through or while pursuing them. Universal modern healthcare and higher education, job guarantees, raised minimum income, the elimination of poverty and inequality, significantly increased taxation of the wealthy—these goals proved elusive even during the period of greatest stability and economic surplus the world has ever seen. To achieve them during what will likely be a period of profound and growing ecological disruption, climate instability, and social unrest is rather optimistic to say the least. We will need to walk a long tightrope, balancing the pace of change, unforeseen challenges, impacts on communities, and necessary sacrifices. Perhaps the most dubious aspect is the overall ethical shift underscoring the kind of social cohesion necessary to achieve the GND in developed nations, from hyper-consumerism to environmental stewardship and the voluntary curtailment of discretionary consumption—essentially expecting everyone to spontaneously drop any differences of opinion and embrace the first narrative.

Owing to the existence of embedded conflicting perspectives, the GND will always have its opponents. Assuming we go ahead with it, any unintended consequence or local failure (of which there will be many) will be met with a backlash that risks eroding public confidence in the GND. This is a dynamic heightened in direct proportion to the level of ambition the GND embodies; the more utopian the stated goals, the starker the underwhelming reality, and the greater the negative reaction will be. How would we maintain broad political support for the GND, given the inevitability of broken promises? It may be that some of these promises need to be tempered against the requirement for achievable goals. A prime example can be seen in the German Energiewende, a planned national energy transition initiated in 2010 aimed at phasing out coal and nuclear energy. Promises of clean, renewable, reliable, and affordable energy clashed against the reality of Europe’s highest power prices and unconvincing progress on decarbonization [14]. This failure dampened public enthusiasm and made other countries hesitant to follow Germany’s example. The GND must learn this lesson—to promise more than you can deliver is to ensure failure.

There isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face.

One might reasonably ask whether too much ambition is really a weakness. Isn’t it better to have highly aspirational goals, even if they aren’t achieved, if only to carry us further than we would have gone otherwise? Well, not necessarily. It is important to note that there isn’t one unique, unambiguous end point to travel toward in response to the challenges we face. Time and our capacity for change are both limited. A last-ditch, herculean attempt to rebuild modernity anew would forestall the pursuit of other more credible and beneficial models of development.

First things first

So is the GND a good idea? Unfortunately, not in its present form. Given current levels of understanding of the complexities and trade-offs involved in a transition to renewable energy, and inflated expectations of future energy consumption, it would almost certainly result in a catastrophic failure. However, if guided by 1) an accurate and realistic understanding of the role of energy in society and 2) a willingness to honestly confront the profound socio-economic implications of a shift to a renewable energy basis, a reformulated GND might be able to point our global system toward a more sustainable paradigm.

Here are some additional principles for a truly transformative GND that I would propose:

  1. Energy literacy: energy transition is at the heart of the GND and its current assertions in this area are highly questionable. As such, there is a pronounced need for energy literacy, both in policy formulation and post-implementation general education. This energy literacy is needed to disarm simplistic narratives and enable transformative thinking.
  2. Demand side adaptation: to help bridge the gap between ambition and feasibility and unlock energy transition to the extent possible, the GND must embrace a radical rethinking of expectations for energy consumption. This must include overall demand reduction, but also greater demand flexibility, shared utilization of energy services, and shifting away from inefficient modes of energy service provision. Supply side interventions won’t cut it, we need to talk about the energy we use as a society.
  3. Evolving timeline: a complex, socio-metabolic process cannot be forced to conform to arbitrary deadlines and attempting to do so serves only to lock in unintended, suboptimal outcomes in terms of what we really want to achieve. The GND must abandon its stated 10-year timeframe and instead incorporate an informed, contingent, and evolving target for the pace of the transition.
  4. Political realism: assuming a forthcoming, sweeping alignment of perspectives on energy and social issues and subsequent unilateral action, as if in a political vacuum, is simply wishful thinking and must be rejected. The GND’s overall strategy must remain mindful of contrary narratives and the political pitfalls of excessive ambition. There should also be more discussion on who—from movements like Extinction Rebellion to environmental justice groups—can build the necessary political power for a truly transformative GND and how.
  5. Epistemic openness: new approaches are needed to navigate radical uncertainty and conflicting socio-technical narratives regarding energy transition. The GND must engage fields like Post-Normal Science—an approach to scientific decision-making for issues where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent” [15, 16]—as antidotes to reductionism and ideological echo chambers.

As a parting thought, ‘deal’ may not be the appropriate language given an overwhelming level of uncertainty. How can a deal be made and subsequently serve as the benchmark of success when the most relevant details are not yet known? In place of the GND, we might be better served by scaling back our ambition and embracing a Green New Direction. This alternative could preserve many of the same essential goals, but would need to forgo the use of enticing promises to motivate action and instead do the hard work of building solidarity and commitment to collectively face an energy future which will be more complex, more unpredictable, and more challenging than anything we’ve previously encountered.

References

  1. White, L.A., Energy and the evolution of culture. American Anthropologist, 1943. 45(3): p. 335-356.
  2. Krausmann, F., et al., The Global Sociometabolic Transition. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2008. 12(5-6): p. 637-656.
  3. Haberl, H., et al., A socio-metabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation. Sustainable Development, 2011. 19(1): p. 1-14.
  4. Giampietro, M., K. Mayumi, and A.H. Sorman, Energy analysis for a sustainable future: multi-scale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism. 2013, London, UK: Routledge.
  5. BP, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019. 2019, BP. p. 64.
  6. Smil, V., Energy transitions : history, requirements, prospects. 2010, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
  7. Moriarty, P. and D. Honnery, Can renewable energy power the future? Energy Policy, 2016. 93: p. 3-7.
  8. Carbajales-Dale, M., C.J. Barnhart, and S.M. Benson, Can we afford storage? A dynamic net energy analysis of renewable electricity generation supported by energy storage. Energy & Environmental Science, 2014. 7(5): p. 1538-1544.
  9. Heard, B.P., et al., Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2017. 76: p. 1122-1133.
  10. Trainer, T., Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case. Energy Policy, 2010. 38(8): p. 4107-4114.
  11. York, R., Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels? Nature Climate Change, 2012. 2(6): p. 441-443.
  12. Smil, V., Energy in world history. 1994, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  13. Cai, T.T., T.W. Olsen, and D.E. Campbell, Maximum (em)power: a foundational principle linking man and nature. Ecological Modelling, 2004. 178(1): p. 115-119.
  14. Schiffer, H.-W. and J. Trüby, A review of the German energy transition: taking stock, looking ahead, and drawing conclusions for the Middle East and North Africa. Energy Transitions, 2018. 2(1): p. 1-14.
  15. Funtowicz, S.O. and J.R. Ravetz, Science for the post-normal age. Futures, 1993. 25(7): p. 739-755.
  16. Tainter, J.A., T. Allen, and T.W. Hoekstra, Energy transformations and post-normal science. Energy, 2006. 31(1): p. 44-58.

Tim Crownshaw is a PhD Candidate in the department of Natural Resource Sciences at McGill University in Canada and a student in the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) research partnership. He studies global dynamic transition pathways from non-renewable to renewable energy resources using quantitative, systems-based modelling approaches.

Public money for environmental justice

Fearless Girl statue, facing the Wall Street bull. Image: Alex Proimos CC BY-NC

by Joe Ament

The Green New Deal is perhaps the most audacious plan to ever seriously address the grave social and environmental challenges we face. By identifying “systemic injustice,” the plan is sweeping in its scope. Yet, while the plan discusses public banks in a reference to adequate capital, the plan fails to see the commercial banking sector as one of the structural causes of, and impediments to solving, the problems we face. Importantly, the Green New Deal fails to articulate exactly why a nationalized banking system is critical to the success of the programs its proposes.

Money is created in modern economies when commercial banks extend interest-bearing loans to individuals and corporations. The money in those loans does not exist before the loan is generated but is created when the bank marks up the borrower’s checking account. This is in stark contrast to the general notion that money is a finite resource, such as gold, that is allocated to its best economic use by the Central Bank.

When money is created by the private sector in the manner discussed above, it is seen as a private resource. Accordingly, public use of money for government spending is viewed as wasteful expenditure rather than productive investment. In the case of the Green New Deal, the massive price tag is seen as cannibalizing the productive private sector. It is for this reason that opponents of the Green New Deal argue that it will hurt the economy, and its proponents argue to “finance” the plan by moving money from one sector to another, e.g. from Wall Street to Main Street.

Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another.

Money, however, is not a private resource. And it is not a finite commodity. Money is a social relation. It is an abstract measure of what we all owe to one another. Think of it as a tally of everything you owe and are owed, for all the work you do and all the purchases you make. Now extrapolate that to the whole country, let the government manage it—just like it does with laws and other contracts—and you’ve got a monetary system!

The role of the government is crucial in managing the money system. Since money is a social relation, the government is responsible for the money system. Think of what happened in the Great Depression, the Savings and Loan crisis, and the 2008 Financial Crisis: the government always stepped in to repair the money system. And as guarantor of the social relation, it always will.

Monetary theorists understand the government’s monetary prerogative in three ways. First is the government’s ability to choose the unit of account that is used in the country—dollars in the United States and Canada. Second is the government’s ability to issue those units of account into circulation. Third is the benefit of first use that comes with issuing money. This last right is called seigniorage and can be thought of as the profit of creating money above the cost of printing and distributing that money.

Money has existed as a state-managed tally of owing and being owed (of credits and debts in theoretical parlance) for thousands of years. In fact, a lot of evidence suggests that such monetary systems existed for thousands of years before coins and markets—and might even be the reason humans began to settle in the first place! (See Money: The Unauthorized Biography.) Capitalism is a relatively new manner of social organization and is characterized by a transition from state-created money to bank-created money.

Think about that for a moment. Capitalism is about bank-created money! For thousands of years, the state, for better or worse, controlled three monetary prerogatives discussed above. The state created money by spending it into existence and guaranteed its value by levying taxes in the unit of account in which it spent. Beginning around the twelfth century, however, states began to expand beyond what their power to tax could justify and so they asked private merchants for loans. (See Brown 2013, p.111, and Davies 2002, p.261.) Slowly but surely, states lost the majority of their power to create money and the seigniorage benefit that came with that creation. States only kept the power to determine the unit of account. But with that power came the responsibility to manage the stability of the unit of account.

There has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.

It is this strange conflict of interest with which this paper is most concerned. The state is forced to ensure a stable dollar, but it isn’t able to determine how—or for what—dollars enter society. So while much of the discussion surrounding the Green New Deal concerns ending or reigning in capitalism, there has been precious little discussion on ending or reigning in the commercial banking industry’s money-creation power.

While capitalism is often thought of as the private accumulation of surplus, the manner in which that accumulation is enabled is often ignored. Commercially created money means that production surpluses remain within the private sector. Were the state to take back the power to create money, and the seigniorage benefit that comes with such creation, it would severely limit the extent to which the private sector could accumulate surplus. In fact, nationalizing money creation would align the right of the state to create money with the responsibility it bears to manage money’s stability.

Perhaps most importantly, by regaining the monetary prerogative, the state could influence the direction of the economy by spending and lending money into existence in accordance with its goals. In the case of the Green New Deal, these goals would be social justice and environmental sustainability. This would mean that the tenets of the Green New Deal—from healthcare and education to healthy food and sustainable energy—would become structural components of a just and sustainable economy and not simply regulatory mechanisms of an extractive capitalism.

The Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending.

This is a huge difference! By avoiding a discussion of a nationalized money supply, the Green New Deal, as currently written, is an end-of-pipe regulatory framework that relies upon taxing bank-created money to finance social and environmental spending. A nationalized money supply would transform government spending into the monetary creation mechanism and embed justice and sustainability as hallmarks of how we manage our national economy.

Joe Ament, PhD, is an ecological economist at The University of Vermont whose research explores monetary theory and policy in the context of socio-ecological equity.

A just food transition

Abandoned homestead on a farm in Iowa. Image:
Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND

by Caitlin Bradley Morgan

Why include food and agriculture in the Green New Deal?

Our food system is inextricably linked with the climate crisis in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Agriculture is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and the result, climate change, goes on to disrupt reliable food production. To combat climate change, we must shift how we produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. To adapt to climate change, we must build agricultural systems that are resilient to disruption. The timeliness of this move was evident recently as a national coalition of farmers and ranchers endorsed the Green New Deal.  

The Green New Deal mentions food in broad strokes. Its focus is on consumers obtaining food, which the bill says can be supported “by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food.” The bill’s strength is in its acknowledgement of systemic injustices wrought on marginalized groups, and its goal for a “fair and just transition” to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. If these strengths are built into eventual policy mechanisms, they should influence not only food quality and access, but all levels of the food chain.

A Green New Deal must address capitalism’s food problems through goal-oriented, stakeholder-led process

Underlying many ills of our food system is the sometimes unexpected truth that a rational agricultural system is incompatible with capitalism. This is because the goals of healthy agriculture and the goals of capitalism are diametrically opposed. When capitalism’s logic governs agriculture, it affects all manner of management systems, making it difficult or impossible to implement ecological or humane practices that might decrease short-term profit margins. It also results in the kinds of outcomes the GND seeks to remedy: hunger surrounded by abundance, unnecessary waste, the systemic injustice of farmer displacement, labor abuses, and fossil fuel use.

Therefore, GND food policies should begin with identifying the overarching goals, because the goals of a system are some of the most powerful leverage points for change. All policy mechanisms should be guided and tested against the vision of a “just transition,” and it would be useful to identify sub-goals that support a just transition—for example, climate change mitigation; climate change resilience; an adequately fed and nourished human population; pay parity and economic justice for farmers; healthy and diverse agroecosystems; etc. 

Does “efficiency” change if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields?

Similarly, during policy discussions, it is useful to question goals we might accidentally take for granted. For example, why do we need highly “efficient” agricultural production as it relates to labor? Does efficiency in this sense compete with goals of reduced fossil fuel use, biodiverse agriculture, or widespread employment? Does “efficiency” change if we alter the timescale, i.e. if we think about resource efficiency in terms of decades or centuries, rather than single-year yields? This process point can help avoid implementing policies that recreate problems driven by assumed, rather than intentionally adopted, goals.

Finally, GND policy discussions must incorporate, not ignore, the historical context of our current food system. Our food system is built on systematic wealth accumulation and the dispossession and cultural erasure of marginalized people in the United States. For GND policies to be “just,” they must account for and begin to reverse these patterns. To ensure that outcomes have integrity, and that mechanisms are well-crafted, policies must be developed directly with farmers, food systems workers, sustainability experts, and social justice advocates. As the Agroecology Research-Action Collective reminds us, “…the Green New Deal will only succeed if it helps rapidly eliminate the fossil-fuel economy, and transforms industrialized agriculture into agroecological, regenerative agriculture, with special attention to rural communities and inclusion of historically marginalized, and socially disadvantaged groups.”  

One goal-aligned solution: Basic Income for farmers

One solution, in line with a just transition in food and agriculture, is basic income for farmers. “Universal basic income,” recently brought into mainstream debate by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, is a monthly stipend provided by the government to all citizens. While there is a compelling argument for UBI for everybody, basic income may be critical for especially for agriculture. Proponents of UBI argue that one of its essential functions is allowing people freedom to make choices based on what they truly want or need in life, without potential financial crisis dictating their options. For people who work in agriculture, that freedom is the freedom to farm.

Farmers in the United States are in historic levels of debt. In order to make enough money to continue, many farmers have to expand their farms—regardless of whether it is a sustainable or desirable choice—which usually means building or purchasing expensive infrastructure and equipment. The result is a race to increase profit margins and pay down debt, often prohibiting farmers from making choices based on land stewardship or care for workers. Over half of American farms earn negative income, losing more than they make, and rely on off-farm income for survival.

There is increasing recognition that agroecology, the science of farming in tune with local ecosystems, is one way forward for just and sustainable food systems. But in the United States, where land is expensive, industrial agriculture subsidized, environmental regulations minimal, and parity pricing absent, it can be economically untenable for people to start agroecological farms in a rabidly capitalist system. Young farmers interested in raising sustainable, healthy food cannot make enough money to do so. 

Thus, a basic income would be a way for people to produce food without needing to exploit themselves, their employees, or their land. (India recently announced that it will be providing UBI for farmers, expecting it to double farmer incomes.) Anyone working in agriculture should be eligible for this support, without making distinctions between farm owners and farm workers. Because up to half of farmworkers are undocumented, this policy would likely necessitate a corresponding reform in immigration policy, at least for the food sector, as put forth recently by the Sanders Campaign’s Green New Deal plan. It is also possible that another aspect of food justice—access to fresh and healthy foods, mentioned in the GND—would also benefit from basic income for farmers, by supporting agricultural livelihoods without astronomically raising the cost of their products.

Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.

Furthermore, a basic income begins to address historic injustice. Reversing the trends of land theft and ongoing dispossession in the food system is difficult for many reasons, one of them being that farmers from marginalized communities do not have access to the same wealth, credit, and financial safety nets of more privileged farmers. Basic income would be one step toward creating safety for people who want to farm but lack financial security.

Yang’s UBI proposal, the “Freedom Dividend,” is $1,000 per month. This might not be enough for farmers. The Freedom Dividend is designed with the idea that it will encourage people to find jobs to supplement UBI that alone keeps them at the poverty line. But farmers already have jobs. We need a debate among stakeholders about the benefits of parity pricing—ensuring farmers are paid enough to cover their costs and living expenses—versus basic income, in terms of allowing farmers to stop overproducing to cover their debt, and make both environmentally and socially sustainable management choices. A just level for farmers might instead be the living wage for their area.

Other social programs that could make farming, and sustainable farming in particular, a more viable option: free childcare, free health care, free education, and a guaranteed farming pension. The latter could allow farmers to keep their land in agriculture, rather than selling it to cover retirement costs.

The bottom line: anyone growing food for other people, especially if they are growing it in ecologically-sound ways, should be able to provide for themselves and their employees. If we want to make sustainable farming desirable, viable, and just, we must support it by reorienting policy to support such worthy goals.

Caitlin Bradley Morgan is a doctoral candidate in Food Systems at the University of Vermont, studying the intersection of on-the-ground efforts and wider systems change.

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.