Green growth or a Green New Deal?

Ann Pettifor at The World Transformed, Liverpool, 2018. Kevin Walsh. Creative Commons. 

The third in a three-part interview on capitalism and climate breakdown from Political Economy for the End Times.

You have to find ways of pushing back against the ruling class that is doing nothing on environment issues, but also develop programmes that can appeal to large numbers of people.

Javier Moreno Zacares (JMZ): Somewhere in between left accelerationism and de-growth lies the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’ now being championed by social-democratic forces in different countries. Despite its different incarnations, what unites all these Green New Deals is the idea of rolling out large-scale public investment to engineer a transition toward a more environmentally-sustainable society.

This is the most likely strategy to be implemented, so let's explore it in a bit more detail. Are the Green New Deal proposals being floated around any better than the alternatives put forward by growth-boosters, or do they fall into the same pitfalls?

Gareth Dale (GD): The Green New Deal proposal has transformed the landscape of debate around the question of climate breakdown and made a radical politics around climate much more real for many people. So we have to thank its early theorists, like the New Economics Foundation, Larry Elliot of The Guardian, Ann Pettifor, and many others. And then of course, the fact that it was taken up by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, easily one of the most inspiring politicians in the world, by the left of the Democratic Party, and now by Momentum and the Labour Party.

The Labour Party passed a motion on the Green New Deal at its last conference – a huge number of constituency Labour parties submitted proposals on this issue, more than for any other motion. It was backed by the trade unions, such as the fire brigade union and the communication workers union. It was a radical motion, targeting 2030 for net zero carbon, and arguing for climate refugees to be accepted as well; and for a soaking of the rich - for radical redistributive policies.

There was a commitment to nationalising the fossil fuel industries, which is not necessarily a solution (many of the big oil companies are nationalised), but a necessary step nonetheless. So, it was a very inspiring moment and gives us a glimpse of the kind of policies needed. 

But the Green New Deal is a contested field. There’s a spectrum: from the far left, which see it as a way towards a socialist transformation of the world, through to people like Thomas Friedman, the rightwing New York Times columnist, who coined the term ‘Green New Deal’. And all points in between. This has been discussed by Thea Riofrancos in a piece for Viewpoint magazine, which is well worth reading, where she discusses the Green New Deal as a terrain of struggle. 

Take the Labour Party motion as an example: it initially included a call for an end of airport expansion. This was not to shut down all airports (which I think is necessary, unless they are used for dirigibles for rather slower long-distance travel), but only to curtail expansion. Yet even thus was nixed by a couple of reactionary union leaderships (of the GMB and Unite). So there’s conflict there. Yet despite the loss of that aspect it was a very positive development and in a diluted form entered the Labour Party manifesto.

The implementation of any Green New Deal programme would meet robust resistance from business and would need huge support from grassroots movements, such as the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion, and others that will spring up. It is unlikely such a radical proposal would have been discussed at the Labour conference had it not been for social movements pushing from the outside. If global heating is going to be mitigated meaningfully under capitalism it’s going to require a lot more of those movements.

I’ve been circling around your question – are Green New Deal proposals any different to those put forward by green growth boosters? Yes there’s a clear overlap. Even the Labour party’s proposal tended to focus on growth, increase, investment, and not on shutting down coal production and oil production and so on. That’s an inevitable tendency considering the Green New Deal is being put forward by parties that appeal to voters, in a capitalist system where most of the world is owned by businesses and we depend upon businesses for our jobs.

So, it’s useful to think of the detailed consequences of some of these demands. Take for example high-speed rail. Broadly, it’s an attractive and rational proposal that should, I suppose, be rolled out around the world—do you think? But there might be a catch. If you connect up all cities over, say, the size of New Orleans, that’s 50 cities in the US, add up the links between them – whatever the map you use, the network topology, that’s a lot of track.

You’ll agree, I hope: the rest of the world deserves prosperity and capacities at the same level as the USA. So the Salvadorian would need to rapidly get to events in Manaus, and the Muscovite to Omsk and so on. Where are you going to extract all these materials?

This will be a colossal construction project, even on top of the other projects we’ve been discussing (passive houses and so on). Can we even do it without burning the planet to a crisp? Maybe, but you could reach a stage where so much cement has been manufactured and so much iron ore dug for all this construction that, say, the breakneck expansion of material throughput that we’ve recently seen in China appears a little burp of emissions by comparison.

To build the planned 100 miles expansion of new high-speed rail track in England, 20 million tonnes of concrete will be poured. To produce a tonne of concrete releases the same tonnage of CO2 under present technologies. Of course, these proposals need to be developed, but also consider the material details: the materials and energy required.

Similarly, we could carpet the world with wind farms, and we probably should, but bear in mind that although turbines are powered by thin air, they are not made of it, but of concrete, steel, copper, glass fibre, neodymium, etc. Much of this requires highly pollutive mining, with mines surrounded by toxic lakes and workers and neighbourhoods suffering and so on.

Of course, under capitalism, these expansive proposals are the ones that are going to filter to the top, because they can bring to agreement among radicals, unions and the businesses that will profit from them. And those who instead advocate shutting down the mines, decreasing consumption, and tackling the rich directly, will face the power of business. 

There is, then, a dilemma. I accept that the overturning of capitalism is unlikely in the next thirty years, but that’s the same time we have for the world to act very rapidly – so that’s a conundrum. Capitalism is a system where competitive accumulation is threaded into inter-state competition, so that states want to foster rapid capitalist growth in their territories in order to outcompete the rest. Yet, these states are really the only powers capable of mobilising the resources and manpower necessary for mobilising a Green New Deal! 

JMZ: The next logical question is one of political strategy. There is no way around the fact that people’s lives and social reproduction are currently structured around fossil fuel infrastructure and that attempts to dismantle this infrastructure are likely to prompt a backlash.

For example, rising transport costs have been a common theme in many of the mass protests that have recently broken out around the world, from the Gilets Jaunes in France, to the uprisings of Chile and Ecuador. How can a Green New Deal strategy work around this problem?  

GD: This takes us back to a previous point: there is enormous scope for improving the quality of life of pretty much all people while radically reducing carbon emissions. Of course, the rich would lose a lot of their toys, but I’m not sure those make them so happy anyway. (I even think the rich could be won over… not entirely peacefully perhaps, but ultimately to the idea that their quality of life can be improved too.)

That would have to include social reproduction issues, as you said, such as the costs of housing and transport. These have become major themes in recent mass protests, the Gilets Jaunes being the classic example. The obvious solution to that is free public transport, powered by renewables.

That would take a lot of investment and quite a lot of construction, and there are problems we’ve been discussing in that regard, but it is certainly possible, and would improve lives. It’d mean less auto congestion, much cleaner air, improved insulation on houses so old people don’t suffer from cold and fuel poverty, and so on.

And then there’s the whole issue of jobs – the Green New Deal and climate jobs campaigns offer ways of reaching out to people to argue that if you are unemployed or underemployed there is the potential for jobs for all in the transition to a decarbonised economy. This is going to take an enormous collective global human effort.

I was involved in the One Million Climate Jobs campaign, which included people like Jonathan Neale, John McDonnell, and trade union leaders in Britain. Those sorts of campaigns are becoming standard repertoire in left-wing parties.

When we’re talking of jobs and climate change, we’re thinking of specifically climate-related jobs, such as in tidal or geothermal energy. But also, in what some are calling ‘pink’ jobs, jobs in the care industry. I’m thinking here of the work of Alyssa Battistoni and other Green New Deal advocates on the US left, such as Tithi Bhattacharya, who wrote a piece in Jacobin on the role of jobs in care as a central plank for reorienting the economy around human need—including for a habitable planet.

There’s also been a lot of talk about retooling technologies involved in war settings to face up to the climate challenge. The American economy in the Second World War, for example, was able to turn around at incredible pace to retool factories from producing cars to producing tanks and planes and so on. That’s an argument that only partially applies to the climate challenge, because in the war the American state was able to gain the backing of corporations because this was a war from which these corporations where going to profit.

There is going to be much more resistance from the corporate sector towards efforts to seriously confront climate change. Nonetheless, the idea of unifying society towards a shared threat that confronts us is certainly there. And it doesn’t need to just be the retooling of factories, but also applies on the social reproduction front, or the ‘home front’ as Mike Davis called it in a very illuminating essay, where he talks of how Americans during the war transformed their lives. There was a ditching of the car for the bicycle, people tore up the concrete in their yards to plant cabbages. Nowadays you could imagine agro-ecology in the suburbs, with tearing up lifeless lawns and growing vegetables. 

All of this would, as you say, encounter a backlash by capitalist interests but also from individuals who see themselves as losing out, as the Gilet Jaunes perfectly understandably did, since Macron’s carbon tax was not an environmental tax at all and there was no attempt to first provide public transport for the people affected by these taxes. So, that’s a reminder of how this is a class question.

You have to find ways of pushing back against the ruling class that is doing nothing on environment issues, but also develop programmes that can appeal to large numbers of people, who are increasingly seeing that the lives of their grandchildren, and even themselves, are imperilled, while showing that But also, that addressing climate change involves improving lives. 

These Authors

Listen to the full interview with Political Economy for the End Times. Read parts onetwo and three now. 

Javier Moreno Zacares is a Leverhulme research fellow at the University of Warwick. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyMurenow. He runs Political Economy for the End Times with Jack Copley, a lecturer in political economy at the university of Bath. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackCopley6. 

Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University. He is a co-editor of Green Growth (Zed, 2016). His articles are available here. Follow him on Twitter @Gareth_Dale.

Image: Ann Pettifor at The World Transformed, Liverpool, 2018. Kevin Walsh, Creative Commons.

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here