by Jesse Goldstein and Natalie Suzelis
Over the past two decades, a proliferation of “Green New Deal” literature has promoted various strategies for changing the structure of the global energy system to combat climate change. While the term was first coined by the neoliberal economist Thomas Friedman, it has since been taken up by more progressive voices, from Keynesian social democrats to eco-socialists. Sadly, despite the promise of a new wave of climate-conscious legislation, from the European Green Deal and the UN Climate Agreement to the AOC-Markey legislation of 2019, each seems as unlikely as its predecessors to enact substantive change. At the recent COP 26 Climate Summit, for example, the United States failed to join 30 other nations in pledging to phase out sales of new gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040 worldwide. With the US federal government dominated by fossil-fuel friendly Democrats and climate-change denying Republicans, the chances of passing ambitious climate legislation appear bleak. In the absence of real political force, GND proposals often serve as blueprints that respond to a largely speculative question: what would we do if we were in a position of power to create meaningful, lasting, and necessary change?
Instead of offering another blueprint for an impossible future, Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal levels a critique at the genre itself, raising significant questions about the way that plans are proffered, and how most green futures implicitly accept the ongoing violence of capitalist imperialism. Ajl’s work engages critically with a wide spectrum of GND proposals, from policy documents like the European Commission and European Environmental Agency’s “European Green Deal” and Senator Ed Markey and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s House Resolution 109 to Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Batistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos. Such proposals generally offer pragmatic solutions that work towards a “sustainable” future while remaining “realistic” enough to credibly promise to break through political impasse. The political and ecological horizons of these proposals may vary, but they all position themselves on the progressive edge of an electoral landscape that is – or so the story goes – slowly pushing in the direction of eco-social democracy. Yet eco-social democracy is, as Ajl reminds us, not the same as ecosocialism. Accordingly, Ajl offers a compellingly simple provocation: if all of these visions are impossible in the current political climate, why not fight for the more radical vision of the future that everyone on earth deserves?
A People’s Green New Deal has given us an opportunity to think with Ajl about the current state of aspirational, state-centered green politics, and to reflect on the supposed “pragmatism“ that drives the most prominent GND legislative agendas. Ultimately, pragmatism is a question of political strategy: is it better (more pragmatic) to embrace a liberal social democratic horizon in order to build a base of support in the Northern core? Or is it better to push even harder from below and to the left, with visions centered by the climate politics of the Global South? Which people should the people’s climate movement mobilize, fight for, and center? If the answer is “everyone,” Ajl argues, then any blueprints for a “green future” must necessarily include the dismantling of uneven development, uneven exchange, and uneven climate catastrophe, full stop. Here we suspect that many of those whom Ajl targets for critique would agree, but the likely rejoinder is: how can we “push harder” if we have so little power in the first place? Again, the question comes down to strategy.
For Ajl, the problem with green social democracy is that it is at once impossible and boring.
Are left-leaning platforms that envision a socially and environmentally just Keynesianism a means of nudging the “Overton window” of sentiment in the global North away from self-serving, business-as-usual climate denialism? Are these truly, as their adherents seem to hope, the sorts of “non-reformist reforms” proposed by the French ecosocialist André Gorz? Or are they simply reformist reforms, meant to incrementally improve without fundamentally transforming underlying systems of power, privilege, extraction, and ecocide? Ajl squarely situates himself with the latter position. For Ajl, the problem with green social democracy is that it is at once impossible and boring. This kind of pragmatism limits our political imagination instead of opening up new horizons of possibility that galvanize real movement.
In order to build effective political support, GND advocates propose a “big tent strategy” based on the promise of green capitalism (promising “green jobs” and a boost to the economy). This vision fails to challenge, or even name, the unevenness that is necessary to sustain what has been termed the “imperial mode of living” of resource-intensive consumerism for predominantly Global North inhabitants. The result is a politics of “non-disruptive disruptions” that looks to techno-fixes that promise to change everything without changing anything at all. Implicit in the big tent strategy is a promise that the Global North can continue to benefit from uneven exchange and development, but in greener and cleaner ways. Here, Ajl draws upon classic theorists of dependency like Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Amílcar Cabral, Walter Mignolo, Ali Kadri, along with more recent theorists like Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, in centering ideas of “colonial drain” and unequal environmental exchange. This body of work illuminates how the integration of formerly colonized countries into the global capitalist economy positions them as appendages to imperial countries like the United States and United Kingdom through a systematic and ongoing drain of surplus. Left to accommodate environmental and economic harms –– including waste, seepage, exploitation, and exhaustion –– these countries are inevitably left out of any “deal” marketed as green, progressive, or environmentally sustainable. (For more discussion of this intervention see “A People’s Green New Deal Symposium” including A People’s Green New Deal – An Exercise in Just Knowledge Production, by Aravind Sakshi, Beyond Green Restoration: An Eco-Socialist GND, by Güney Işıkara, and Debunking the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” of the AOC/Markey Green New Deal, by Sheetal Chhabria.)
In addition to being consistently inadequate at addressing the causes of climate change, Ajl sees in this so-called pragmatism an implicit defense of the ways in which petrocultures have shaped consumer desires in the Global North. Pragmatism, he writes, is “the watchword of reaction and a talisman of oppression … a cipher for identifying sacrificial victims for a great society that is only capacious enough to hold so many” (12). The pragmatic stance says: we have to build a broad base of support amongst the Northern electorate for a domestic environmental agenda that would eventually trickle down to address the uneven exchanges of the global energy system. Directly challenging imperialist relations and privileges, however, is a non-starter in the halls of Northern power. This is precisely the problem that such pragmatism risks.
So what might this mean for another possible approach, or means of engaging with viable and necessary Green New Deals? If social democratic pragmatism is a problem, then what is a more effective path forward? A People’s Green New Deal argues that left climate politics would benefit from a more robust conjunctural analysis that remains attentive to the uneven positions that various movement actors find themselves occupying, and to develop revolutionary strategy accordingly. While we are not quite sure Ajl’s work delivers on this loftier challenge of revolutionary strategy (and here we point readers to our companion review by Vijay Kolinjivadi for some examples), he does provide some incredibly important pieces of a broader, conjunctural analysis, and how it might suggest important shifts in left climate politics. Although we feel that the question of revolutionary strategy – beyond rejecting big tent pragmatism and standing in solidarity with third world eco-socialism – stands to to be further elaborated, we focus on what the book successfully contributes to these discussions in what follows.
Social democratic pragmatism or climate imperialism?
Ajl’s critique of political pragmatism is leveled most sharply at advocates for social democratic GND agendas that operate within existing networks of power, influence, and money to promote certain green futures while sidelining others. He is unimpressed with how these proposals gesture to “frontline communities” (evidenced in even those most progressive of GND proposals) while leaving imperial relations unchallenged. As Ajl writes, “‘Frontline and vulnerable communities’ are not classes. They are clay-like concepts easily molded into the framework of capitalist diversity efforts… where they will be hardened into decoration on the imperial agenda” (83). His major example, the HR-109 legislation introduced by AOC-Markey in 2019, expresses concern for the legislation’s impact upon frontline and vulnerable communities, but never extends an invitation to these communities to play any substantive role in planning and envisioning their own green futures. Such concern disregards self-determination and sovereignty for these communities.
We need an internationalism built upon decentering the imperial core, not reconstituting its dominance in greener ways.
Against this “pragmatism,” a truly radical – or a Peoples’ – Green New Deal must be premised upon the dismantling of the U.S. military and must address the “sovereignty deficit” that has stripped peripheral nations of any meaningful sense of self-determination. Instead of a trickle-down internationalism, in which core nations provide new green technologies on their own terms (as we’ve seen with COVID vaccines), we need an internationalism built upon decentering the imperial core, not reconstituting its dominance in greener ways. This is why Ajl suggests a strategic engagement with calls for imperial countries in the Global North (chiefly the United States and the European Union) to take “personal responsibility” in paying back their global climate debt, which includes trillions upon trillions owed for the cheap extraction of energetic and material resources over the past several centuries. As Ajl writes, “it is not enough to acknowledge that the US is disproportionately culpable” if such an acknowledgement “isn’t followed up with explicit efforts to make good on climate debt” (85). Climate debt, ecological debt, and sovereignty debt – or as Ajl terms it, the “sovereignty deficit” – directly address the core problem of global capitalist extraction, and therefore the actual problems at the root of the climate catastrophe.
Here Ajl draws something of a line in the sand, arguing that decarceration, decolonization, and abolition are foundational blocks of any viable “green” future. We take these as crucial provocations for the climate left: what does it mean to not simply support decarceration, decolonization, and abolition, but to weave these political horizons into the very fabric of our climate politics? This is precisely the point made by the Red Nation in their powerful rejoinder to GND politics. To put this into terms of revolutionary strategy: vague gestures of support for and deference to “front line communities” don’t build the popular sovereignty needed to empower the most important transformations that GNDs promise to achieve.
Decolonization, decarceration, demilitarization, abolition – these are all big ideas that still need to be fleshed out with details, including the social and technological specifics of when, where, and how to move towards such liberatory horizons. In other words, what are the truly “non-reformist reforms” that take us down these paths, which might oppose an assimilitive reformism more likely to protect the status quo than to subvert it? These are large, movement-defining questions, and while Ajl helps frame their importance, he doesn’t evenly deliver on concrete visions moving towards their realization. However, where Ajl’s text – and overall work – most succeeds is in addressing the question of technology.
Agroecology: A sociotechnical blueprint against climate imperialism
Throughout his “Planet of Fields” chapter, Ajl reminds us that agroecology is a technologically sophisticated way of repairing human and nonhuman relations. His insistence on emphasizing the technological sophistication and sufficiency of agroecology is precisely a gesture along these lines – and one that he expertly pulls off, here and throughout his work. This is where we think Ajl’s voice matters most in global climate debates. Agroecology is not just a make-do set of vernaculars for the periphery. It is a robust and diverse platform of land management and food production practices that can – in a much more “feasible” or “pragmatic” way – take us far down the path of environmental rationality on a planetary scale. It is not smart “for them.” It is just smart. It is smarter. It is the cutting edge.
Technological change is a pre-occupation of most GND visions and debates: should we go for solar, wind or nuclear power? Electric vehicles or clean biofuels? Not only are most debates within GND discourses centered on technology, they are often preoccupied with questions of energy production. Ajl strongly critiques the current discourse around energy transitions, which remain mired in what he labels “ecomodernism.” Ecomodernism is not Ajl’s term, but a platform with roots in ecological modernization theory that has been resuscitated by the Breakthrough Institute’s extended network. Such ecomodernists create a strawman opponent of an antiquated left environmentalism that they paint as anti-technological and therefore out of step with progress, modernity, and everything that has made civilizational advance so bountiful. Their vision of a bright green future purports to use “humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene.” Ajl, instead, follows many decolonial and Marxist thinkers who have made abundantly clear that modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same coin. Modernity and coloniality cannot be decoupled because they are mutually constitutive.
Ajl’s critique of GND ecomodernisms has to do with their liberal sense of internationalism, which we would call a trickle-down green politics. This kind of internationalism sidelines questions of self-determination and sovereignty, conceiving of internationalism in such a way that situates the Global North in a leading position. For many GND ecomodernists, internationalism is predicated upon tech transfers from north to south, with the assumption that the halls of innovation and entrepreneurship in the developed world will have all the solutions. The problem however, is that these halls of innovation are providing solutions for a lifestyle that is itself the problem. Or in Ajl’s words, “the good life in the North … [has] been based on the bad life in the South” (54). The primary focus lies in protecting a highly energetic and resource-intensive “good life” enjoyed by a minority in the global North, promising to “green” these lifestyles and the industrial base they depend upon, and eventually share this green developmentalism with the rest of the planet.
The goal of a peoples’ GND should not be to accept and perpetuate capitalist imperialism in more sustainable ways, but to diagnose it as a core aspect of the crisis and to confront it accordingly. This means re-orienting our sociotechnical imaginaries away from those entrepreneurial innovators trying to sell us green capitalist lifestyles, and towards a different kind of innovation rooted in a vibrant and sustainable world of many worlds.
Ajl’s turn towards agroecology is an effort to call attention to the assumptions of developmentalism that still linger in progressive GND programs. He mentions, for example, how Cuba has shown how agroecological techniques ranging from vermiculture, soil conservation, innovation of intercropping designs, seed saving, recovery of local varieties, participatory plant breeding, and the improvement of local animal feeds and pastures have helped to boost food production in a manner that is nonetheless more energy efficient and sustainable. Here, Ajl shifts focus from energy to food, arguing that any truly radical GND proposal must begin with the foodways and food needs of the Global South, as opposed to starting with the food desires of the global elite. A People’s Green New Deal, then, must include the dismantling or nationalization of agricultural corporations like Monsanto, as well as planetary agrarian reform, including the breaking up of big farms and the providing of individualized farming space for small-scale farmers. Such plans would include introducing parity pricing, and providing green transition subsidies and placing public investment in infrastructures that can localize food systems.
Ajl’s turn towards agroecology is an effort to call attention to the assumptions of developmentalism that still linger in progressive GND programs.
To illustrate this point, Ajl takes to task questions of meat production, and criticizes what he sees as a false dichotomy between, on the one hand, an ecomodernist excitement about lab-grown meat, and on the other hand, advocacy for global veganism. Ajl is dissatisfied with both, and reminds us that the true problem is not animal-derived proteins, but the environmentally devastating (and morally bankrupt) ways that animals are industrially bred and slaughtered. Such a view “obscures the ecological, political, and social differences between Sahelian herders, Kansan artisanal animal husbandrymen practicing intensive rotational grazing, and those sitting atop pyramidal monopoly-capitalist cow plantations” (136). The category of meat is over-simplified in the climate discourse of the global North, which fails to accept the ways that meat can function sustainably outside of industrial agriculture.
Such conceptual blockages are due to the predominance of ecomodernist narratives which center development in calls to develop the underdeveloped world, or even to conserve or “rewild” the world from the top down. Take, for example, calls for “half-earth socialism” and mandated global veganism from environmentalists like Troy Vettese, which ignore the fact that low-impact livestock agriculture across the global south uses rangelands and pastoral agriculture to support landscape protection and carbon sequestration. The problem is that such policies purport to further the imperialist relationship between developed and underdeveloped countries to impose a global fix that keeps imperialist dynamics intact. Worse, they do not acknowledge that some of the most environmentally sustainable practices already exist within low-impact agricultural systems.
In this regard, lab meat and agroecology are two totally different sociotechnical possibilities addressing two totally different sociotechnical questions. They are interrelated, of course, but for the former it is a question of discovering new ways to feed (quite literally) imperial desires, and for the other it is about supporting and expanding existing ways of feeding the global majority. For Ajl, if we are to imagine an approach to climate politics coming from below and to the left, then it’s the latter, as opposed to the former, that needs to be centered.
From agroecology to food sovereignty: Ecological and social resilience through land reform and “Third World ecosocialism”
Agroecology is not new at all, and if implemented in the North, could entail silvopasturing (or integrating trees into pasture systems), planting forage under trees, alley cropping (which inserts trees into fields), windbreaks, riparian and upland buffers, and forest farming, which could absorb around eleven percent of 2019 carbon emissions. Lab meat, by contrast, is a perfect example of the inefficiency and environmental harm of “green” capitalist production, because it takes more energy to create artificial meat than it would to support agroecological pasture farming.
As many have pointed out, sociotechnical know-how matters, but it also matters where we look for it and who we empower as experts. That is both a function of sovereignty – in terms of land, labor, and resources – as well as in terms of knowledge and technocratic coordination. Instead of just a green technology transfer – from north to south – there needs to be reciprocal dialogues and transfers. Here Ajl pushes beyond some of the more radical GND proposals to envision new forms of abundance that are less dependent on resource-intensive patterns of production and consumption. Agroecology is one such form of abundance, where “animals can and should be a part of landscape management, helping store CO2 in soil, and enriching it and making it more resilient” (137).
This is why land reform takes such a central position in Ajl’s thought. It is what matters fundamentally to so many people on the front lines of the climate crisis, and why land back, reparations, and demilitarization are so important – and so intimately linked to self determination and food sovereignty. Food sovereignty, based upon radical land-to-tiller agrarian reforms, is “the cornerstone for Third World eco-socialism” (139). This is where Ajl turns back to the national question that decolonial thinkers were grappling with in the mid 20th century in reminding us that this question has not been answered and remains central today. In short, the climate question is still a colonial-imperialist question. As such, combating climate change means allowing for the ecological and social resilience that thinkers like Kyle Whyte call for in a true decolonial perspective of climate justice.
So what might it actually mean to locate the technological vanguard in the countryside of the global south? What does it look like when innovation is centered by rural agronomy as opposed to venture capital? To what extent do we really need more technofutures arising from the imperial core that have largely contributed to dominant understandings of viable and liveable futures? This is the medicine Ajl prescribes to the Northern climate movement.
Empowering, centering, and supporting the people and movements of the global periphery requires granting them power and autonomy to develop – on their own terms – and to give them resources to lead us into a socio-technical future that is neither new nor old (that’s a false distinction on a liberal timeline of progress) but simply otherwise. That “otherwise” is peaceful/anti-imperial, it is socialist/anti-capitalist, it is regionalized and rationalized with planetarily democratic input for the coordination and distribution of resources. This will only happen by fighting for and supporting sovereignty, self-determination, and national liberation via the acknowledgement of sovereignty deficits and ecosocialist reparations.
The Cochabamba Agreement: A blueprint for our planetary future
Drawing upon decades of decolonial liberation movements, Ajl urges us to support “a movement of movements” of sovereignty struggles against the imperial core. He reminds us of the Cochabamba agreement, an international climate accord from below and far to the left of what is currently circulating as the social democratic vanguard of climate politics. The 2010 Cochabamba Agreement, he writes, gives us the “planks of a southern platform for ecological revolution” that are “absent or underemphasized in most northern Green New Deals” (11). It shows how agrarian reform, combined with decolonial and national liberation struggles in Bolivia, demanded wide-ranging payments from the North to the South alongside a radical climate agenda.
As Ajl suggests, it may not be mere accident or oversight that this climate accord has been jettisoned for language built around the nostalgic concept of an early 20th century social democratic policy platform in the industrialized North. Ajl also points to the Red Nation’s Red Deal, which shifts questions of social democracy to questions of broken treaties and the need to fight for sovereignty for the dispossessed nations of this world. All of these interventions, from Ajl, Cochabamba, and the Red Nation, center the “national question” and decolonial/anti-imperial politics, as the crux of climate politics. Here, the three elements of ecological debt, demilitarization, and struggles against settler-colonialism meet in places like the “Land Back” movement. A new land-tenure regime and swift changes in land management that center (rather than pay lip service to) Indigenous sociotechnical knowledge are, for Ajl, the shift which “makes the world big enough for all of us” (162).
Ultimately, A People’s Green New Deal asks: should an ecosocialist Green New Deal govern capitalism or destroy it? In answering this question, Ajl’s book turns notions of social democratic liberalism – whether self-proclaimed eco-socialist or otherwise – on their heads. As he warns, “pragmatism and realism can become firehoses dousing in despair the flames of revolutionary hope” (4). Ajl argues that both should be dismissed as ideological counterinsurgency against those who not merely hope for, but need, a better world.
We’d like to thank Rut Elliot Blomqvist for helpful suggestions on this piece.
Jesse Goldstein is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Associate Director of VCU’s Humanities Research Center. His book, Planetary Improvement, explores the unrealistic prospects of entrepreneurial solutions solving the climate crisis. His new work looks critically at ways that student creativity is narrowly supported and channeled in the entrepreneurial university.
Natalie Suzelis is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Antioch College and Associate Faculty with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her work synthesizes environmental and economic history with cultural theory in order to investigate how elements of capitalist culture are negotiated in literature. Her work has been published in Shakespeare Studies, Mediations, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1800, and Law, Culture, and Humanities.