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 empowerplace-based governance.
Open questions about the remote ownership problem in
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 Atlas. The 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
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
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
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
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.
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 . 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].
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” .
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.
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 .
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:
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
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
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 .
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 . 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.
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).
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 . 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.
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 . 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.
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 .
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 . 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 beneficialmodels 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
Green New Deal must address capitalism’s food problems through goal-oriented,
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.”
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
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.