A Green New Deal Between Whom and For What?

Edward Burtynsky, Lithium Mines #1, Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Chile

What would it mean to implement a Green New Deal? The question is not, what balance of forces would we need (as though we were playing some kind of board game). Not, what policies would we need – we already have truck-loads of plans and proposals. But what would the result of a Green New Deal be? To answer this we need to engage with the Green New Deal as both a specific set of policies and as a broader tendency. We need to go beyond questions of “what we can do with the State”, and work through a deeper material analysis, one attentive to the material world: energy flows, raw materials and mine sites, oceans, engines, roads, and lives. It means not being either ‘for’ or ‘against’ the Green New Deal, but rather engage with it in order to be clear about the radical transformations we need while blocking or resisting the worst aspects and outcomes of the Deal. We are no longer in an epoch of “fixing” climate change, nor are there very many good answers to ecological questions we face. We are in a period dominated by the politics of the least bad option.

Much ink has already been spilled on the Green New Deal, almost all of it focused on two things: what it should include and whether or not it’s possible. Debate has worked through the question of financing, of land reform and union power; on how to include the oceans, agriculture, how to foreground care and social reproduction, and efforts to constrain corporations and mobilize taxation on both them and the rich more generally to pay for the Green New Deal. This has reached a peak in Europe, with the foci of policy work around the Green New Deal being the UK, and the Labour Party in particular, where the party recently adopted the Green New Deal – or rather, what it also calls the “Green Industrial Revolution” – as one of its central platforms.

Debate has also asked if it’s possible at all. Whether or not the economic and material growth required within a capitalist world-system is possible, whether the ruling class (or fossil fuel corporations) will allow it, whether reactionary social forces (or even just existing trade unions) will oppose it, if there is a social actor that can drive it forward, and finally if there is the time and the raw materials to make it happen. 

The Green New Deal Tendency

Often both questions are framed in the same way – as though what was being debated was something yet to be adopted. As though the Green New Deal was a proposal, one yet to be sufficiently fleshed out or implemented as a strategy. But despite the resurgence in talk around the Green New Deal, as a tendency it has been in development for at least a decade now. The Green New Deal is not something to be chosen, but something already being implemented in an ad-hoc piece-meal fashion across a range of governing institutions around the world. Distinguishing the brand from the tendency is useful for two reasons. The first is that being clear on the character of the tendency means we can more easily distinguish actual Green New Deal proposals and policies from neoliberal greenwashing. The second means we can examine the trajectory of the idea and its implementation, and outline what the Deal is, who it is between, and what the Deal means politically. 

It sounds odd to set out the Green New Deal as not only a tendency but one already being implemented, but this is exactly what it is. It is an approach to making policy and framing politics that seeks to solve the problems of the on-going effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the socially damaging effects of neoliberalism and climate change, and is one of the core elements of the current neo-Keynesian political revival taking place. The promise of this broad tendency – one that is very much still a contested field and yet to be firmly defined – is that climate change can be used as a means of producing a socially just future, one built on social democracy as a social framework, where there is work and security for all. 

The idea of mobilizing a “green Keynesianism” in order to tackle environmental issues and produce sustainable jobs dates back to the mid-90s within policy circles, with a number of think tanks, economists and NGOs all producing detailed documents setting out how environmental limits could be reconciled with job creation and other social policies. It moved from the margins to the mainstream after the 2008 financial crisis where its emphasis on building new ‘green’ infrastructure was hailed as a solution to the Great Recession. From Deutsche Bank to Lawrence Summers, green Keynesianism became part of the broader economic policy debate. In the UK, a Green New Deal Group formed to campaign for the policy’s adoption, while the economist Lord Stern authored a key review of the economics of climate change for the UK government just prior to the government formally adopting legislation to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 that argued for a massive green Keynesian project as the best way to tackle climate change. Other iterations of the Green New Deal as a tendency can be found in UK government documents, UK’s then-opposition Conservative party policy documents, UK Trade Union Congress documents on the need for a ‘“Just Transition,” on to examples such as South Korea’s “green growth” strategy and Obama’s ‘cash-for-clunkers’ program, Spain’s PSOE’s Transformación Ecológica, and within the details of Yannis Varoufakis’s pan-EU party DIEM 25’s program.

How the Green New Deal as a tendency continues to unfold will be a consequence of the struggles, alliances, accidents and crises, and how human and non-human actors resist or engage with them. It will also be a question of how it unfolds within the context of a global economy that has yet to recover from the 2008 recession (and by many accounts is unlikely to any time soon), and the effects of already-existing climate change. It’s important to understand that even the most ambitious programs and policies for both a Green New Deal and “net zero” carbon emissions legislation aim to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2030. And while that sounds – and is, in policy terms – radical, this still means at least 1.5C of climate change. If what we end up with is a mix of all of the above, and some significant part of the world’s economy isn’t “zero carbon” by then, it’s far more likely we will end up with more than 2C of global warming, as holding climate change to 1.5C requires the entire world go zero carbon by 2030: to switch off most of our existing carbon infrastructure – cars, power stations, and so on – and just walk away from it. This possibility is profoundly unlikely if not near impossible to achieve.

Let’s not forget that 1.5C is the ‘danger’ threshold of climate change as set out by the IPCC and UN, and an amount of global warming that would result in more intense, and more frequent hurricanes, storms and weather events, increased flooding and droughts, reductions in crop yields, decreases in fish and seafood stocks (so less food all round), sea level rises that will force migration from low lying regions and island nations, increased extinction rates, and increased desertification. Climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths per year, as well as many of the effects described above, and 1.5C has been described as a death sentence for many indigenous and island nation peoples. 1.5C of climate change is a catastrophe and not some ‘acceptable’ level of global warming.

As the Green New Deal already exists as a tendency, we should approach it as a field of struggle, one more favorable to radical agendas than other contemporary political tendencies that engage with ecological crisis, such as various ‘net zero carbon emissions programs’ or the rise of climate apartheid regimes.1 This is not to say we should wholeheartedly embrace the Green New Deal. As it stands, the Deal promises to combine jobs for all with massive carbon reductions. But it can’t reconcile these as the “green growth” it relies on is impossible. Ultimately it may very likely deepen the exploitation of the Global South, intensifying the global extractive industry, while failing to produce either the jobs or the carbon emission cuts it promises. In what follows, I analyze the contradictions of the Green New Deal in order to navigate them, to distinguish between those elements that push in the direction of establishing a new, and, as I will argue, impossible regime of “green growth,” and those that are compatible with a just and not-too-catastrophic near future.

Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution

If we are to work our way through the implications of the Green New Deal as a set of policies, then we should do so starting with the most radical proposals we have, starting with the most ambitious rather than the most compromised vision. In the current moment that means the Green New Deal plan of the UK’s Labour Party.

The Labour Party adopted the Green New Deal as party policy at its annual party conference in September 2019, along with a raft of other progressive measures and plans for government. This comes off the back of numerous supportive statements by the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in favour of what he calls the Green Industrial Revolution. McDonnell’s framing is specifically focused on combining economic and environmental justice, on not treating “flippantly the fears of working-class communities whose past experience of economic transition has been overwhelmingly disruptive”.2 He argues that the transition to a green socialism must “reject the economic model which privileges economic growth ahead of sustainability, [but] also reject the grim Malthusianism creed that the alternative is to limit people or their living standards…There are environmental limits, but the limits to what we can achieve within them are principally political, not natural.” This contradictory combination of environmental measures and a rejection of limits, articulated as a defense of existing living standards in the Global North, runs throughout the Green New Deal tendency.

Whereas the Sunrise Movement has been instrumental in mainstreaming the Green New Deal in the US, the Green New Deal as a solution goes back further in the UK and Europe, to the Green New Deal Group that formed in 2008, and included members from the New Economic Foundation (NEF), the Green Party (who have long supported the Green New Deal and been instrumental in spreading the proposal across Europe and around the world), environmental NGO campaigners from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and a number of economists including a senior Guardian newspaper economist, Larry Elliot. The interconnections between this cohort, the Labour Party and a number of unions mean that UK and European iterations of the Green New Deal are far more well-developed as policies and plans than those in the US.3

The Labour Party Deal, while inspired in name by the US Green New Deal debate, is part of a longer tradition of political thinking attempting to tackle both environmental concerns and the legacy of neoliberalism and deindustrialization in the UK through a combination of investment, legislation on carbon emissions and job creation. The Labour Party has backed action on climate change since the mid-2000s, well before Corbynism, implementing legislation mandating emissions reductions of 80% by 2050, establishing a green investment bank, and adopting, in opposition, a raft of other strong policy positions. Since Jeremy Corbyn has become the Labour Party leader there has been an increase in policy traffic between left-wing circles and think tanks, most notably the NEF, as well as an infusion of social movement proposals and ideas via an influx of new members into the Labour Party and the cross-pollination of ideas between the Labour Party’s official annual conference and “The World Transformed” fringe conference that has taken place at the same time for the past three years. Over the past year the emergence of social movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the School Climate Strikes, and the network Labour for a Green New Deal, led to the Labour Party formally adopting the Green New Deal as a motion, in effect consolidating much of the pre-existing work into a singular, branded policy framework.

In spite of the concerted push from an established network of actors, the Labour Party’s climate plans revealed considerable internal party tensions. Numerous unions and party members attempted to block the adoption of the Green New Deal at the 2019 party conference using their votes and through direct physical intimidation tactics. Significant political differences within the Labour Party will make for radically different approaches to the GND’s implementation (or lack thereof). However, much can be learned by looking at the motion that the Labour Party adopted in order to see what it would mean and, critically, ask who the deal in the Green New Deal is between and what the deal actually is. 

Who Pays?

There has been a substantial amount of work on financing the Green New Deal, and what sort of institutions need to be created to realize it. The Green New Deal will be funded through a combination of finance and investment spending, progressive taxation of the wealthiest, including the “100 companies” most responsible for climate change. It will also involve nationalizing power and transportation companies. As important here is what is left unsaid – who pays for the deal with their jobs, with their land through decarbonization, and with their lifestyles.

While calling for a “greening” of existing jobs, there are many jobs that cannot be made carbon neutral or sustainable and will have to be abolished. Thousands of jobs will have to be phased out in polluting industries in order to reduce carbon emissions, affecting both workers directly and entire communities and regions dependent on these industries. These industries are not only ones such as coal mining or energy generation, but include haulage and logistics companies, airports and airlines, as well as all those industries and sectors that largely rely on the spending of the wealthy such as the luxury good sector which employ over 150,000 people directly. In the UK, the fossil fuel industry provides direct employment to 40,000 people, and indirect employment to 375,000. The aviation industry, another industry that can’t be made sustainable and must largely be phased out, directly and indirectly employs 500,000 people. We would also need to massively reduce the number of trucks carrying freight on the road in favour of rail and a reduced number of electric vehicles, meaning some of the 60,000 truck and lorry drivers’ jobs are at risk. The automotive industry employs 180,000 people directly and another 640,000 indirectly. Add all of this to some of the various batshit and bullshit jobs beyond those mentioned that should be phased out, and we are talking about hundreds of thousands if not over a million jobs directly affected, with many more indirectly affected. A “just worker-led transition” means existing jobs that are abolished will be replaced with other skilled, well paid “green” jobs, but it is far from clear that this is possible to do, especially given the sheer numbers of workers, communities and industries involved. One approach to this has been to suggest we need to replace high carbon jobs with low carbon jobs, especially those in the care and reproductive industries. While this is crucial, we also need to note that low carbon isn’t no carbon, and no carbon is where we need to go. The second thing to note is that it’s unlikely we can just swap out manufacturing jobs for care jobs. Not just because they are very different forms of work, or because of cultural or social barriers, but because given the scale of the transformation needed there likely aren’t enough green jobs to go around. Regardless, the main problem remains that even a switch from high to low carbon jobs still means carbon emissions will be increasing year on year. 

One way most iterations of the Green New Deal, both as tendency and actual policy plan, tackle the problem of employment is through the notion of “green growth”: forms of economic growth that do not cause environmental destruction or produce carbon emissions. This is clear from the Labour Party’s preferred title for their Deal, the Green Industrial Revolution, and from its clear emphasis on the creation of new industries and new jobs, alongside massive investment programs in both new infrastructure and expanded social services. There has long been an emphasis in Labour Party policy on green growth as a means of delivering both environmental protections as well as job creation, from the Climate Change Act policies to current Party environmental documents. Within proposals circulating within the US, hitching the Deal to green growth is often explicit, as with the work of prominent supporters such as Mariana Mazzucato and Robert Pollin, and implicit with the Green New Deal tabled by Alexandria Ocasio-Córtez.4 Ultimately they all suggest that we can grow the economy, creating jobs for all, while reducing its environmental impact, producing economic growth while reducing carbon emissions. 

Any program that relies on growth relies on the idea that you can decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. This is not possible. There is no such thing as green growth. It has never happened at a global scale and there is no credible evidence it ever could. While it has been suggested that economic activity in the Global North has been effectively decoupled,5 this ignores how the global economy has shifted manufacturing to the Global South, outsourcing the problem carbon emissions. In order to reduce carbon emissions, and deal with other pressing ecological issues, economic growth itself has to be targeted as a key problem.

While an immediate transition to a low carbon economy will inevitably negatively affect some workers, it’s clear who the Deal indicates will pay the most for the transition: the wealthy, through taxation and nationalization of privately held assets. They will also lose access to the most blatant luxuries of a high-carbon lifestyle, such as flying – in the UK the richest 1% of the population take 20% of all international flights, with the wealthiest 10% taking half. There is a massive disparity in consumption emissions between the rich and poor in countries like the US and UK, with the wealthiest 10% emitting five times as much per household as the poorest 50%, so targeting the wealthy will achieve huge reductions.

However, there are two issues here with significant ramifications. Even with an emphasis on the rich, everyday consumption in the Global North needs to be tackled to make the necessary carbon emission reductions to fulfill international climate justice commitments. Second, the development of and “bringing on-line” of renewable energy technologies requires the continuation and intensification of dangerous and environmentally destructive mining practices to secure the resources needed to undertake decarbonization.

Why does general and everyday consumption in the Global North (and within the richer demographics in some parts of the Global South) need to decline? After all, isn’t the problem the rich and their corporations? To a large degree yes. The world’s wealthiest people, the vast majority of whom live in the Global North, consume much more than anyone else. Around half of all lifestyle consumption emissions are produced by the wealthiest 10% of the global population, with the next 40% responsible for 40% of the remaining emissions. The poorest half of the world emits effectively nothing. This inequity is repeated within countries, where the richest 10% often consume three to five times as much per household as the poorest 50%. Targeting the wealthy and their emissions – which should be the cornerstone of any Green New Deal – would make a huge, immediate impact. Reducing their emissions to the level of the average European would cut around a third of current consumption carbon emissions, which, while significant, falls far short of what’s needed. 

However, the problem isn’t just the rich. Cutting the emissions of the next 40% - meaning most of the people living in the Global North – means tackling everything from transport emissions to the fashion industry (which is responsible for around 8% of global carbon emissions), agriculture and diets, and services. This latter catch-all category of “services”, everything from gym memberships to eating out, is responsible for around a quarter of household emissions. Getting to “net zero” as set out in the Green New Deal requires making cuts across the board. Getting to net zero in time, something that is crucial and really not negotiable, and having to do so with the scarce resources that we have, means reducing consumption within the Global North. 

At this point the argument appears as the standard environmental story of overconsumption: there is too much being consumed, both directly by household and indirectly through production processes. What needs to be stressed is that most people are “locked” into high-carbon social reproduction. The problem with stories of overconsumption is that consumption is made out to be a matter of choice. Discretionary income – the portion of your money left over after paying for everything you need – increases the richer you get. Most people’s discretionary income is next to nothing. Most people really don’t exercise choice over their consumption in any meaningful way. What they can choose from is largely determined by large transnational corporations. 

We can call this structural consumption. This focuses attention on what needs to change so people can live differently: those “100 corporations” mentioned in the Labour Party’s Green New Deal are the companies that actually determine how things are produced and what impact they have on the Earth’s biosphere. While this point is politically crucial and should inform our strategies, the reality is that levels of general consumption in the Global North still have to be reduced, while at the same time ensuring that those people in the Global South dependent on work that fuels the high-consumption lifestyles of people in the Global North aren’t further impoverished by any changes and reductions.

There is very little detail in any of the current Green New Deal proposals however to address consumption. If we look into the various statements and policy documents within the broader Green New Deal tendency, we find more discussion of consumption, though not much more detail on how it will be tackled. The focus has overwhelmingly been on reducing energy demand through efficiency and insulation programs for homes, electrification of transport and, more tellingly, through plans to increase public, rather than private, wealth. This latter point implies that there will likely be a reduction in individual consumption, but one compensated for by free and better public services, such as free public transportation. 

The reduction of individual consumption is often left understated, sometimes snuck in via a reduced working week which produces reductions through reduced consumption, both at work and at home, or through the progressive taxation regime, or through behavioral change which ignores structural consumption. All in all, what we find is a combination of non-disruptive changes coupled to what can only be called a kind of wishful thinking – that less work and more leisure time, coupled to behavioural change programs, will mean fewer emissions as people “choose” to consume less. It appears as though there is no faith amongst Green New Deal proponents (or environmentalists more generally) that a mass movement or electoral victories - both needed for the Green New Deal - can be built on the basis of a demand for a forced lowering of consumption. At best, lowered consumption can be snuck in through the backdoor, and it has to be coordinated with rewards like increased leisure time and improved public services. Given this, it’s unlikely that the vast majority of consumers in the Global North will be asked to pay very much at all in terms of reducing their consumption, not at least in the short term. 

Who Pays, Globally?

The Labour Party’s Green New Deal motion calls for a program of total electrification of the rail and road fleets. For the UK to meet only its electric car targets by 2050 – that is, excluding the transformation of energy production, public transport and logistical systems, and other manufacturing processes, and not counting the programs and efforts of every other country in the world undertaking the same process – for just the UK to meet its electric car targets global production of cobalt would need to double, the entire global production of neodymium, three quarters of the world’s lithium production and half of the world’s copper production would all be required. It would also require a 20% increase in electricity supply just to power the cars. Wind farms and solar panels require the same raw materials. Building enough solar panels to provide electricity for electric cars would require 30 years of current global annual tellurium production. If we consider for a moment other countries, there is simply not enough raw material to go around, and it is currently not being produced fast enough. Due to accelerating demand, the existing supply is becoming more expensive, provoking both a rush of investment and new forms of extractivism and an intensification of forms of neo-colonialism.6 There is, in all likelihood, not enough “carbon space” to enable a transition for everyone. Any transition that includes building up massive amounts of new infrastructure - electric cars for example, as called for by the Green New Deal, involves not only more production and more mining (itself very carbon intensive), but huge amounts of steel and concrete, all of which means more carbon emissions. At a certain point these new emissions effectively undermine the efforts at carbon reduction.

The answer to “who pays” here is less clear than the rich versus workers narrative would suggest. The Green New Deal would require an expansion in primary industries of mining and, if biofuels become ascendant, agriculture, two sectors which rely upon the exploitation of lands and peoples largely in the Global South. It’s not hard to see how this will play out as the climate crisis intensifies. Massive land and water grabs are already underway and there are innumerable conflicts taking place around access to resources. Biofuel production and drought played a critical role in the 2007-09 and 2010-2012 food price crises, both of which contributed to inciting the social movements, rebellions, and revolutions of that period. The real limitations of existing resource reserves are already leading to new more destructive mining processes including deep-sea mining, doubling down on the environmentally destructive legacies of extractivism. In other words, in addition to poor peoples and nations, nature will pay for the Green New Deal. The fact that the Green New Deal is designed to green the nations which implement it should not lead us to presume that it will green the planet in the process.

While there is some discussion in Green New Deal debates about what happens to people beyond the UK, much of this can only be considered wishful thinking. An increase in climate finance, technology transfers, and capacity building (education and training) are only useful if there are the materials available to build new renewable energy systems. There won’t be. Support for climate refugees is welcome, but given the Labour Party’s existing positions on limiting the freedom of movement of migrants and the rise of xenophobic far-right politics in the UK and globally, we should assume that this won’t translate into anything close to the opening up of the UK’s borders, let alone a sufficient program for dealing with the thousands (if not millions) of people, largely in the Global South, who are already being displaced due to climate change. While the Labour Party have committed to dismantling some of the worst aspects of the current brutal border regime, the immigration and border regime will continue.

Who Acts?

Who will bring about the Green New Deal? The Deal will be enacted by the state through a program of investment and regulation, as well as nationalization, focused on the energy system. It will also be a product of collaboration between “trade unions and the scientific community.” The entire document speaks to the idea of a worker-led just transition, one that gives existing trade unions a central role, as is to be expected in a party where trade unions still wield huge influence despite the best efforts of neoliberal elements within the party. In addition, the GND motion includes a clause that states the 2030 net zero emissions target should be put into law only “if it achieves a just transition for workers,” a result of pressure from some trade unions. Unions will only support Green New Deal policies if they involve job creation or the “greening” of existing jobs. 

We can also expect NGOs and think tanks to continue to play an influential role in shaping the Green New Deal, as they do with Labour Party policy more generally. What is missing is that there are few powerful social movements and non-state institutions that could act outside and against the state and capital to force particular changes or programs to be enacted. This marks out the Green New Deal as starkly different from the original New Deal in the United States and similar social democratic programs around the world, which counted on actors such as the IWW and the Communist Party to pressure the state. Indeed, while the Green New Deal is undoubtedly raising expectations, it is unclear whether it is helping bring about a combative constituency, a social power rooted in workplaces and communities, or whether it simply restoring faith in parliamentary politics and the effectiveness of voting. 

We can transform the question of who acts into the question of who are the parties to the Deal. The Green New Deal will be a compact between states and their citizens, a deal brokered by political parties, environmental NGOs, think tanks, and unions. It is not, despite the internationalist rhetoric, a deal among states at a global level, nor between the state and humanity more generally. It is between the UK government and UK citizens.

Crucial here is who is and is not included. This is not a deal resulting from massive social, labour or civil unrest, so it must include business as part of the parties to it in some way. And while business stands to lose out in the Deal, some businesses will potentially make huge profits: border, security and migrations industries, mining companies and international shipping companies will benefit substantially. So will industries producing renewable energy infrastructure and electric cars to ones manufacturing desalination plants and flood defenses and so too will everything from the insurance industry to a whole host of disaster recovery and management companies. In the absence of fierce class struggle, capital can assert its interests in the form of the transition to a greener regime of accumulation. But if capital can help enable a Green New Deal, it does not enable all aspects of it equally. A return to industrial policy and public housing? Perhaps. A radical reduction of work time, a vast program of taxation and nationalization and lowering of private and industrial consumption? Unfortunately much less likely.

The Deal is not a deal with other nations or peoples, so it excludes the question of international climate justice as driven by anything other than volunteerism. And it is not a deal with the more-than-human world. It is part of the new “environmentalism without nature” – a form of environmentalism that is focused not on “saving” the natural world but saving “us” from the ecological catastrophe produced by capitalism, a sharp break with the history of environmentalism. 

To Do What?

What is the Green New Deal aiming to do? At the center of the deal, we find a series of proposals that set out a broadly Keynesian social program nationalizing power production, rolling out programs of housing insulation, increasing renewable energy production, and essentially electrifying all road transport, all of which is meant to reduce carbon emissions and create jobs. There will be an increase in the provision of universal services, possibly including some kind of universal basic income, as well as an increase in the social wage (improving health care, public housing, free public transport, etc.). There will also be programs focused on tackling farming and agricultural practices. 

The essence of the Deal can be found in the overriding emphasis on jobs, and the weak commitment to tackling consumption emissions. The emphasis on the electrification of road transport is the cornerstone of trying to square the circle of jobs vs. the environment. Electrifying road transport seems like a way of protecting (and creating) a huge number of jobs, of not having to fundamentally alter too many aspects of the UK’s economy (including logistical systems, shopping and therefore retail patterns, how people get to work, etc.) and at the same time reducing emissions from the transport sector – the sector responsible for the largest share of carbon emissions. There are a number of problems here. The first is electric cars still embody a huge amount of carbon, both through the production process and due to the mining of the resources needed for them. The second is that electrifying all road transport will massively increase demand for electricity by anything upwards of 20% according to some estimates, increasing demand again for those scarce resources necessary for producing renewable energy sources. It also doesn’t address the huge amount of waste created by all of the processes involved in the production of cars, batteries, etc. The third is that it does nothing to address all the other ways car culture produces environmentally unsustainable ways of life – from urban sprawl and endless road building to particular modes of high-carbon consumption. It’s this latter point which is the most insidious. Electrification speaks to a desire to change as much as possible in order to change as little as possible. The reason to electrify cars and trucks is therefore to preserve the social and economic systems they enable and create. To maintain manufacturing as a key employment sector – or rather, to increase manufacturing – in order to preserve jobs despite the need to consume and produce less.

The hedging around the question of consumption, and the emphasis on the job creation aspect of the ‘jobs and climate measures’ part of the motion, tells us all we need to know about what the Deal is. The Deal is to maintain – as much as possible – the current economic system we have, and the current lifestyles, while taking some action on climate change to minimize it as much as possible without compromising living standards. The Deal is that people outside of the Global North, who live in countries who do not have the geopolitical or economic power to compete for what are scarce resources, will be left out of the transition to a low-carbon economy and will, in effect, be sacrificed for the new mines, biofuel plantations, etc. that will enable the transition to renewable power for the new green economic system.

Keeping Things the Same

Working with the best the Green New Deal has to offer makes it clear that the ultimate aim of the Deal is to try to keep things as they are as much as possible with one caveat - to change the current distribution of wealth, and return to something like the golden days of social democracy (that also happens to be the golden age of capitalism). It is a program of full employment, of renewably electrifying existing lifestyles, of making strong commitments to international climate justice while massively increasing resource extraction and maintaining strong-enough border controls. The Deal being proposed by the Labour Party is “vote for us and we will find a way to deliver better jobs and social security while tackling climate change.” But they won’t be able to do both effectively, and so the tacit agreement is that they will only introduce climate measures insofar as they can be made to reconcile with job creation.

As the contradictions between reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs mount, the tendency will be to produce jobs and protect lifestyles rather than reduce emissions. We can only hope and organize for ever-bigger, ever more militant climate movements, but this is far from given, and the political tendency within the Left will be towards addressing social and economic injustices as a priority, making it likely that the Green New Deal will become a field of struggle between ‘environmentalists’ and ‘the left’, rather than the terrain on which they meet.

Ultimately what we see is the base conflict between what is scientifically necessary and what is politically realistic. Part of the danger of the Green New Deal is that it is seen as the solution, rather than a partial attempt to remake an entire national political economy. The problem here is if it is seen as ‘the’ solution, the left will find itself caught up in a policy struggle, one where compromise and the creep towards more ‘realistic’ proposals comes to dominate as the struggle becomes one not to reduce emissions but to save the Green New Deal itself as a policy.

We need to be clear however, that insofar as the Green New Deal isn’t ‘the’ solution, it’s also not a stepping stone to one. Expanding and intensifying extractivism, deepening the exploitation of the Global South and implementing new forms of ‘green’ imperialism, further trashing the biosphere and continuing to emit carbon pollution – none of these can be understood as steps to a better future. Beyond the brutal political realism that would justify the further sacrifice of life and lives for a greened form of sustainable consumerism, the future promised by the Green New Deal isn’t one where climate change is arrested before becoming calamitous. 

Even though the Green New Deal isn’t the solution, this doesn’t justify ignoring or opposing it. The Green New Deal is both a policy and a tendency. As a policy, it is a raft of measures that can be engaged with or fought against, in the interest of moving it in a more positive direction. As a tendency, it needs to be engaged with in order to shape what form it takes but also in order to create something else, something that takes us beyond the limitations of efforts to reform the system we have and build something that ensures a rich and abundant life for all of us and all life in general.

There are two immediate tasks. The first is to work to expand those parts of the Green New Deal that enable or enact a degrowth agenda with justice.7 These include reducing working hours, increasing social services, decommodifying essential services: essentially working towards disconnecting income from work, and ensuring our reproduction is not precariously predicated upon waged labor. We also need to ensure above all else we abolish the rich and their privileges which will make a huge and immediate impact. And any assault on the rich will also have the effect of weakening their power to oppose us. 

But it will not be enough to push existing demands further. We will also need to militantly oppose and work to block the development of new and existing fossil fuel infrastructure and new extractivist projects, especially those in the Global South. There can be no just transition that relies on expanded neo-colonial extractivism. And there can be no rapid decarbonization without shutting down existing fossil fuel infrastructure. By blocking both, the state (as well as capital) will be forced to pursue other avenues for energy generation, decarbonization, and production. If the various histories of fossil capitalism have shown us anything, it is that energy and economic regimes are produced as much by our resistance and refusals as by the needs of capital and through technological innovation. 

We also need to be mindful that not all degrowth is equivalent. We need a radically egalitarian, communist degrowth. Recent years have thrown up numerous scientific papers all essentially calling for the end of capitalism. To some extent, science calls for nothing less than full communism. But not the communism of that part of the left that is only interested in communizing consumerism instead of ending it, of redistributing the profits and spoils of extractivism without changing the economic system it supports. And while desire and the values attached to consumerism as a form of life must be interrogated and politically transformed, ultimately the foundations of consumerism are structural, and there is no shift to a sustainable form of life without looking to build out new infrastructures and environments that enable our autonomy from the capitalist market.

Degrowth as a way of producing a radical abundance must become a core part of left politics. We can start by returning to the critique of consumer capitalism that flourished during the 1960s and 70s, and by acknowledging that consumerism mostly benefits the wealthy few. For the vast majority of the world’s population degrowth can and will only mean a better life. It is not enough to try to cut emissions while keeping everything else the same – the only possible way forward is to radically change everything. It’s the only realistic proposal at this point.


1 On this point see Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011) and Todd Miller, Storming the Wall: Climate Change Migration, and Homeland Security (San Francisco: City Lights, 2017).
2 John McDonnell, “A Green New Deal for the UK,” Jacobin Magazine, May 30, 2019.
3 This development has reached a crescendo with the recent work of the relatively new think tank Common Wealth, who have put together a comprehensive Green New Deal policy package.
4 See, for instance, “McDonnell pledges green revolution jobs,” BBC News, March 10, 2019, and McDonnell, “A Green New Deal for the UK.”
5 See, for instance, Nate Aden, “The Roads to Decoupling: 21 Countries Are Reducing Carbon Emissions While Growing GDP,” World Resources Institute, April 5, 2016.
6 See, among others, Asad Rehman, “A Green New Deal must deliver global justice,” Red Pepper, April 29, 2019, and “The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism,” The Independent, May 4, 2019.
7 On this, and the debate between degrowth and the Green New Deal, see Mark Burton & Peter Somerville, “Degrowth: A Defence,” New Left Review, II/155 (January-February 2019). For a nuanced discussion of degrowth see Chertkovskaya, Paulsson, Kallis, Barca & D’Alisa, “The Vocabulary of Degrowth: A Roundtable Debate,” in Ephemera 17 no. 1 (2017): 189-208.

Author of the article

is an environmental campaigner and researcher, and currently teaches at the University of Essex, UK. His current research focuses on climate change and logistics, climate migration and the politics of catastrophe.