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The Return of the Green New Deal: Ecosocialism in the USA

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As it stands, the United States will effectively withdraw from the Paris Agreement on November 4th 2020, one day after the upcoming presidential election. Thankfully, in the US as around the world, resistance to fossil capitalism is growing. In a country where three billionaires – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett – own more wealth than half the population, the inequality and climate crises are increasingly seen as one and the same and the Left has seized on the Green New Deal as the answer. We spoke to Alyssa Battistoni and Daniel Aldana Cohen, two of the authors of A Planet to Win 1, about their vision for a better, healthier, more equal way of life in a post-carbon society.

Green European Journal: How did the Green New Deal (GND) get back on the agenda in the US? How have different social movements come together around this vision?

Alyssa Battistoni: A resurgent left-wing politics and an increasingly militant climate movement had been operating on parallel tracks for a few years in the US. The climate movement was focused on “keeping it in the ground” and stopping new fossil fuel extraction projects in places like Standing Rock or along the Keystone XL pipeline, while the Democratic Socialists of America [a socialist organisation active inside and outside of the Democratic Party] and the trade unions concentrated on political projects away from the climate. But over the past year, these forces have come together in quite an organic way. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), probably the politician most associated with the GND, ran for office because she went to Standing Rock and was inspired by the Sunrise Movement. Immediately after she was elected in November 2018, she joined Sunrise Movement protests and opened up a new discourse around the GND. Its revival allows the growing Left to flesh out a broader programme that’s not just about stopping carbon-intensive infrastructure but thinking about what to build in its place.

Daniel Aldana Cohen: The Sunrise Move­ment consciously fuses two strands of American social movements: structured movements like labour unions and community groups, and explosive street protests such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Sunrise’s effort to combine the strengths of each tendency has paid off. In two or three years, they’ve come out of nowhere to become one of the most important movements in the country.

Environmental movements in the US have not always done a great job of working with other social movements. Sunrise, in comparison, has taken it upon itself to be an ally to labour and racial and community justice groups. When Sunrise occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018 and AOC gave the GND worldwide publicity, Sunrise was there with green jobs signs, not pictures of wind turbines or solar panels. It shows an increasing sophistication of political alliance-building.

How does this revived GND differ from the left-of-centre promise of green jobs that has been around for years?

Alyssa Battistoni: The core idea is the same, but the differences are scope and commitment. The GND would see the federal government guarantee a green job to anyone that wants one. Renewing the Civilian Conservation Corps from the original New Deal programme, a job guarantee would give people the opportunity to work in nature, on soil conservation or building hiking trails, to become a care worker, expanding the idea of a green job, or to work traditional green jobs in the energy sector. A large-scale commitment to jobs combats labour’s justified suspicion that green jobs will never materialise. Employment in green energy has been rising in the United States but the government has never been prepared to commit to more than the retraining offered under Obama. Fossil fuel workers that lose their jobs need retraining, but most importantly they need jobs. A federal commitment to major infrastructural spending and public works will generate those jobs at scale.

What role does housing play in the GND?

Daniel Aldana Cohen: Eviction from your home and climate breakdown are the two existential threats of our times for many people. Housing is the most expensive line item in most people’s budgets. Housing is responsible for a sixth of the emissions in the US and transportation by car, mostly to and from homes, is another sixth. Our overall vision is to reduce the use of energy and other resources while improving the quality of people’s lives. The idea is of housing as temples of public luxury: rebuilt infrastructure that will physically and concretely improve and decarbonise lives in the same places and at the same time.

A story about an affordable, comfortable, more modern, and better located home is inspiring.

Housing is not usually considered as a key piece of climate policy in the US but, once explained, it is an intuitive story that people can connect to. Concrete is responsible for 8 per cent of global emissions, but describing the most egalitarian way to decarbonise cement production will not strike an emotional chord. A story about an affordable, comfortable, more modern, and better located home is inspiring. For the third of Americans or the almost half of black Americans who cannot afford their energy bills, the GND for housing would make an immediate improvement to everyday life. To avoid future dependence on mining and extraction, the house, the home and where homes are located are central to a less resource-intensive version of prosperity.

The Republicans in the US and the Tories in the UK have built winning coalitions based outside of big cities. Can the GND appeal across the country and in rural areas?

Daniel Aldana Cohen: Quantitatively the Left has already won, as with the popular vote in the US, so geography is now the key: we have to win outside our urban strongholds. The result of the last UK election wasn’t so good, but the Left has the same basic problem of needing to do better with working-class people in disinvested regions outside cities. Building a more geographically extensive coalition will require concrete proposals and negotiations with the people who live in these places. The benefits of GND policies will extend beyond cities. Care work is a placeless concern. Housing matters in towns, suburbs, and rural areas as well as in cities. Flexible public transport that works outside of cities could overcome the fetish for denser modes of living and help people in rural areas move around in a far less expensive way, freeing up their mobility. And moving beyond a top-down model could help to overcome the resistance of rural communities to clean energy developments, which is a pressing political issue in the US.

Alyssa Battistoni: The GND plan for infrastructure spending will hit the ground across the country and the effects will be felt everywhere. The GND can also be used to imagine green sustainable agriculture and how federal funds can support that vision rather than subsidising environmentally destructive practices. Planting prairie grasses, for example, is critical for carbon absorption and the huge potential of the Midwestern states could be a boon for farmers.

Some have criticised the GND as productivist green capitalism, while others say that degrowth-type perspectives call for mandated eco-austerity. Is your call for “one last stimulus” an attempt to move beyond these positions?

Alyssa Battistoni: The GND has at times been used to greenwash public policy. 10 or 15 years ago, the phrase “Green New Deal” was used as a way for America to retain its economic dominance by becoming a leader in green tech. But while the more recent February 2019 GND Congress resolution does talk about developing technology, most of it is oriented towards people’s social needs and decarbonisation, not towards dominating a new growth area for capitalism.

The objective is to build a world that we want to live in and that we can live in for the long term. Then we can transition into a slower groove.

Degrowth advocates make a significant critique but it is imperative to avoid the belt-tightening green politics of sacrifice. At a time of extreme inequality, many people have been sacrificing for a long time already, while another small group of people get to live lavish lifestyles. More sacrifice to fix climate change is just not a winning political message, which is why a vision of public luxury and non-austere ways of living is important. We argue for what we call a last stimulus – that the GND will be an all-out push that will cost a lot of money, generate jobs, and stimulate industrial production. However, the objective is not to restart the post-war growth engine and re-embark on the 20th-century project. The objective is to build a world that we want to live in and that we can live in for the long term. Then we can transition into a slower groove.

Isn’t the GND a return to the 20th-century top-down bureaucracies that were often inefficient and unresponsive?

Daniel Aldana Cohen: In certain areas such as the electricity grid, the GND represents a truly national project. The most sophisticated electricity grids in the world are in Brazil and China: for decades, Brazil has been able to move the renewable energy its dams generate between regions. Managing intermittency requires national coordination and control of the electricity grid and the same is true for rail networks. But for the most part, federal investment will be targeted towards communities of colour and working-class communities through providing funds to local organisations. Democratic ownership can take many forms: worker cooperatives getting preferential contracts, local public banks, racial and community justice groups, or municipal government agencies. Fundamentally, the story is about federal financial resources feeding local self-control and autonomy as the most effective way to achieve a large expansion.

Affordability is often an effective right-wing attack line against progressive proposals. Why do you stress the importance of organising support over the question of financing?

Alyssa Battistoni: “How will you pay for it?” is an effective attack line because a wider narrative around public spending means that there will never be a convincing counter-argument, even if a plan is fully costed. Whether funded through taxes or monetary policy, spending on people’s social needs or environmental protection is always presented as impossible. But half the American federal budget is spent on the military and nobody asks questions. Let’s question that and organise around climate action to invest in communities and build resilience rather than spending billions responding to terrible disasters after they have happened.

When people think about the GND, steelworkers building windmills come to mind. Why do you emphasise organising workers in the education and healthcare sectors?

Alyssa Battistoni: We’re trying to reframe green jobs, as well as the whole growth debate, to make clear we can live good lives in ways that are less resource intensive than the status quo. Decarbonising does not have to mean that your life will get worse. Green energy cannot be ignored but, at the same time, the transition cannot only be about coal miners and oil refinery workers installing infinite amounts of wind turbines. We need to imagine the world that we want to live in once we have enough wind turbines.

The first step is getting the US’s own house in order. Climate change is a global problem, but it is too simplistic to say that the solution must be global.

Education and healthcare workers in the US have been at the forefront of a revitalised labour movement in recent years. Both sectors are low-carbon and oriented towards improving people’s lives. Teachers’ unions have been organising community support and linking traditional struggles around wages and benefits to improving services and the quality of education. The reason that Medicare for All is so popular is because America is in a crisis of care. Overdose and suicide rates are rising, and older people struggle to get the care they need. America currently has a very resource-intensive way of delivering a remarkably low quality of life to many people, and the GND is a political counter that offers a different direction.

A Planet to Win mentions that Sara Nelson, chair of the flight attendants’ union, is one of the GND’s most prominent supporters. What explains her enthusiasm for a transition that could put airline workers out of a job?

Daniel Aldana Cohen: Sara Nelson is one of the best things that has happened to the labour movement in the US in a long time. She understands the relationship between her workers, the broader working class, and the global political economy, and her arguments are all the more powerful because she is rooted in the concrete labour struggle. The next round of global investment is going to be green and she knows that. Instead of getting drawn into the long-term future of flight attendants, her response is to ask whether it will be the bosses or a movement from below that decides what that green transformation looks like.

The US does have an isolationist streak and, if it wanted to, it could impose the costs of transition onto the rest of the world. What does an internationalist GND look like?

Daniel Aldana Cohen: An internationalist GND would see the US slash its consumption of energy, both fossil and renewable, to make room for the rest of the world to enjoy prosperity. The first step is getting the US’s own house in order. Climate change is a global problem, but it is too simplistic to say that the solution must be global. Climate treaties, building on the Montreal Protocol, are based on the notion that every country could come to a sensible agreement, tweak the material substructure of energy, and everything will be fine. But the global economy cannot be reconfigured through negotiation in a room.

Organising along the supply chains of the really existing global economy is essential. Groups fighting over local energy utilities in Rhode Island in the north-eastern US need to forge alliances with the communities contesting lithium mining for rechargeable batteries in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, for example. Global solidarity campaigns such as the Via Campesina food sovereignty movement are precedents for this kind of action. Our view of internationalism is based on looking at how the economy is physically, economically, and legally organised and making interventions at every one of those points.

FOOTNOTES

1. Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos (2019). A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. New York/London: Verso.

This interview is part of Green European  Journal’s latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.


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