Time to breathe, time to change

4 November 2020

In the first of a three-part series, Alexander Perry discusses the prospect of a Green New Deal in the wake of the pandemic

Alexander Perry

The Covid-19 pandemic has been many things. A tragedy; a scathing indictment of indecision; a tangible revelation of the weaknesses of a globalised world society. The human cost cannot be downplayed, or the suffering undergone by so many, and nor should they be. But among the reams of negative descriptors that can rightly be attributed to it, the pandemic is also one more thing: an opportunity.

As we find ourselves in the midst of a second phase of lock-down restrictions, the notion of a swift return to “business-as-usual” is increasingly being supplanted by the acceptance that we will have to live with this virus for some time yet. In this highly unusual time, during which the seemingly boundless growth of the collective economies of the global North has been stymied, we have a choice to make. We can attempt to return to life-as-it-was, replete with our accustomed habits of consumption, exploitation, and collective disregard for the non-human (and, as it happens, for a great deal of the human too). Or as the inhabitants of an undeniably warming world, we can look upon this temporary pause in growth and “progress” as a singular chance to amend our behaviours, and to attempt to establish a different sort of normalcy in the post-pandemic world.

This latter option can be broadly construed as being in line with concepts of a Green New Deal. What is the core tenet of such an undertaking? Simply put, it is a project aimed at resolving issues of both economic inequality and harmful climate change[1]: it aims to follow the constructive usage of coordinated action that characterised the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, and to use this potent force to build, adapt, and recycle both physical infrastructure and intangible bureaucracy in order to “[limit] energy use while simultaneously improving quality of life”.[2] Rather than pioneers of resource extraction and product propagation, the Green New Deal would resituate humans as stewards of the earth and its resources. This project therefore has the twofold concern of not only the human subjects of exploitation, oppression, and injustice, but also the way in which these issues pertain to the non-human biosphere.

Part of nature, but a most unusual part of it, our species has left more of a volitional mark on the planet than any other creature. This is most apparent when we consider our history of consumption and industrialisation. Unlike other creatures, the sheer disparity in our social hierarchies is of a scale hitherto unknown in the history of conscious matter. It is no secret that it will be the poor and marginalised of the world who will bear the brunt of the coming storms that the rich, consumptive few have contributed towards: the catalogue of ills waiting to befall these individuals includes drought, floods, crop failures, higher incidence of disease, and destruction of habitable and arable lands, to name but a few.[3] Added to this will be the socio-economic challenges faced not only by the climate refugees who seek to flee such drastic consequences, but also to those states that find themselves at the forefront of an ecological refugee crisis.

The chief cause of these effects is the gradual warming of the planet as CO2 levels increase and trap heat within the atmosphere. The most overt cause of the release of CO2 is the usage of fossil fuels. As argued by Andreas Malm, the Industrial Revolution in Britain is the indisputable ancestor of the widespread “fossil economy” that governs much capitalist practice today: the effects of fossil-powered mass industry and the consumption of the resultant products have formed the foundation of our pollutive ways, for the simple reason that it is cheaper to pollute whilst returning a profit on commodities than to invest in measures to process resultant waste products.[4] As long as it is more economically viable to pollute than to not pollute in the quest for ever increasing returns, and as long as there is a consumer base that does not prioritise holding producers to account, then the consequence of damaging the biosphere in the pursuit of profit will always win over any environmental concerns.

A Green New Deal would seek to reverse this way of thinking.

What might the constitutive strands of this project look like? Far too many items to cover in any appreciable detail here, the outline can nevertheless be sketched. Elements of the Green New Deal might include: degrowth projects aimed at both the local and national levels; the dismantling of the fossil fuel industry and a transition to green energy, in both usage and employment; cooperative ownership and control of local resources; proactive efforts to abolish any form of economic injustice, which would involve a substantial redistribution of wealth; and measures put in place to ensure a sustainable, non-exploitative relationship with the non-human world.[5]

I hasten to add that there is no single, fixed conception of a Green New Deal, and I do not advocate a predetermined, budget-ready set of bureaucratised policies in my references to it; rather, I emphasise that this article appeals to the core ethos and goals of a Green New Deal. In contrast to some, the loose conception that I espouse here does not seek solely to consume our way out of planetary crisis by doing essentially what we already are doing, only in a “green” manner – it makes no pretence that there is an easy fix by slightly altering our consumptive habits to more “eco” goods or services. As a marked contrast to such regimes that fear the instability of breaking entrenched inequalities while taking gradual, profit-maximising action against climate change (such regimes have been termed the “faux Green New Deal”[6]), this version of the Green New Deal places a greater emphasis upon radical action that breaks our consumptive habits entirely and challenges deeply held norms and conventions, while retaining the redistributive elements commonly found within most proposals in this vein.

For the next instalment in this series click here.

[1]   For this article, we can satisfy ourselves with the decidedly non-technical conception of climate change as the result of “anthropogenic modification of the chemical composition of our atmosphere”; Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (Verso, London and New York: 2020), 13.

[2]   Aronoff, Battistoni, Aldana Cohen, and Riofrancos,  A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (Verso, London and New York: 2019), 103.

[3]   Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (Verso, London and New York: 2020), 224-225; Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (Verso, London and New York: 2020), ix, 13.

[4]   Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (Verso, London and New York: 2016), 13, 254.

[5]   Aronoff, Battistoni, Aldana Cohen, and Riofrancos, A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (Verso, London and New York: 2019), 111; Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate (Simon and Schuster, New York: 2014), 253-254.

[6]   Aronoff, Battistoni, Aldana Cohen, and Riofrancos, A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (Verso, London and New York: 2019), 17.