I also want to mildly praise the resolution’s anti-incrementalism — because there are virtues in trying to offer not just a technical blueprint but a comprehensive vision of the good society, and virtues as well in insisting that dramatic change is still possible in America, that grand projects and scientific breakthroughs are still within our reach.-–Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, The New York Times
Without question, the rollout of the so-called “Green New Deal” in early February was less than elegant. Not long before the actual resolution proposing the idea was submitted into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), a set of policy “talking points” were released by a member of Ocasio-Cortez’ staff. It contained references to “farting cows” (code for methane reductions in agriculture), the elimination of air travel, and a guaranteed income for those unable or “unwilling” to work.
Though none of this language is included in the actual resolution, its release by the still “green” (in the sense of political experience) AOC provided quick fodder for her many enemies on the right, especially the pundits at FOX News. And while more than 70 Democratic members of Congress quickly signed on to the resolution, House speaker Nancy Pelosi rather perfunctorily dismissed the wish list of primarily left-wing ideas for combatting both inequality and climate change as a “green dream,” and liberal senator Dianne Feinstein berated a group of young people who came to her office asking for support.
On the other hand, some conservatives, including New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, did not rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Surprisingly, perhaps, while President Trump predictably condemned the wide-ranging resolution as a step toward Socialism, Douthat praised the Green New Deal explicitly for its sweeping approach. Meanwhile, as expected, dozens of environmental and social justice groups quickly endorsed the measure.
It is important to understand that the current resolution is merely aspirational (and, I would argue, inspirational), its short 14 pages offering only a set of reasons for reform and a set of goals to guide policies. I want to look carefully at what is actually contained in the Green New Deal resolution and suggest, as Jeff Bilbro put it to me in an email, that the GND may be simultaneously too ambitious and not ambitious enough. Then, I want to delve into the history of the original New Deal to see how its successes and mistakes might help guide this new effort at comprehensive change.
What Is In The Green New Deal?
House Resolution 109 begins by outlining the impacts of climate change as reported in the National Climate Assessment of 2018, offering a depressing litany of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, “and an increase in wildfires, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life, healthy communities, and critical infrastructure.” It argues that the United States, by virtue of its role in producing 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (a figure ignoring the offshoring of many of them), has a special duty to take the lead in combatting climate change. It also claims that public policies over the past four decades have led to enormous inequality, and that environmental destruction and inequality have disproportionally decimated certain “frontline and vulnerable” Americans, including “indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
Like the original New Deal, the resolution suggests that a Green New Deal can correct these injustices while mitigating the climate crisis, and that it can and must create millions of high-wage jobs for those left out of our current affluence, attain “zero net emissions” of greenhouse gases in the next decade, and secure “clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment” for all Americans. No small feat indeed.
It calls for large-scale investments into new zero-emission technologies and sustainable infrastructure, including a new energy grid and high-speed rail travel, while, perhaps in an effort to win business and rural support, “spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States,” and “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”
The resolution also addresses other forms of pollution, recommends “science-based” solutions, and suggests the sharing of new more sustainable technologies with other nations. As introduced, the Green New Deal would provide health care, affordable housing, a safe environment, and higher education for all, while guaranteeing family wage union jobs with benefits and paid vacations as well.
Simultaneously Too Ambitious and Insufficient?
It’s undoubtedly a sweeping concept, and though the document calls for democratic dialogue down to the local level on policy specifics—there are no specific recommendations like carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, and nothing, not even nuclear power, is deemed off the table—opponents are likely, as the President already has, to deem the whole thing a massive Federal power grab. Moreover, the costs of such a program would dwarf previous budgets as a share of the economy, and much of it may not be achievable in the ten-year time frame recommended, whatever the investment.
The attention to agriculture, a major producer of both CO2 and the even-more-heat-trapping methane, strikes me as a welcome aspect of the resolution, which I feared might stop with subsidies for wind, solar, and other primarily technological fixes. Both agriculture and its sister, forestry, can either contribute to climate change, or when carefully managed, sequester carbon. Current agribusiness and corporate forestry practices tend toward the former, small farms and reforestation toward the latter.
Yet, even in its comprehensiveness, the Green New Deal may not be sufficient to the task it sets out to achieve—climate stability and resilience in a context of far-greater economic equality. In my view, the most glaring omission in the GND is its lack of any challenge to consumerism and our current obsession with economic growth. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. spending goes to consumer goods, an increasing share of which are made abroad. We are not blamed for the carbon emissions embodied in those imported goods during the mining, manufacturing, and transport stages. They are charged to the countries where the goods are produced, yet we, as the ultimate consumers, should be held liable for these real carbon impacts. Our global economy allows us to outsource much of the pollution and toxic waste produced by our insatiable consumerism.
Some studies suggest that production of consumer goods, whether domestic or foreign, may account for up to 60 percent of carbon emissions, more than either transportation or temperature regulation in buildings, the other leading culprits. In my view, there is simply no way to seriously reduce our carbon footprint without reducing our penchant for consumerism, and yet we are going in precisely the opposite direction. Abetted by instant-gratification marketers like Amazon and planned-obsolescence producers like Apple, our consumption levels continue to rise dramatically.
Bill Rees, the University of British Columbia economist who developed the concept of the “ecological footprint” suggests that the world is already in “overshoot,” consuming at least 60 percent more resources and dumping far more wastes than nature can process, and that countries like the United States are consuming at rates that would require multiple planets to sustain. Moreover, recycling doesn’t offer a way out—most of it can no longer be sold to the Chinese or elsewhere, and our waste is simply dumped into vast methane-emitting landfills.
At the same time, almost as if they lived on a different planet where none of this was happening, economists left and right beat the drum for even higher rates of economic growth—the 4 percent rate that President Trump hopes for would mean a doubling of American consumption in only 18 years! It is hard to imagine a Green New Deal which accomplishes the goals it sets forth without challenging the gospel of consumerism and growth.
Lessons From The Older Green New Deal
But like Ross Douthat, I’m not about to abandon the Green New Deal simply because it’s not yet where I want it to be. I consider it a bold step in the right direction, an aspiration that can finally get us talking as a nation—and across partisan lines—if we care about the future we are leaving to our children. What seems clear to me is that we cannot solve the problems that face us—from climate disasters to environmental degradation to poverty, racial division, rural despair, inequality and economic insecurity, anger, the opioid crisis, increasing mortality rates, the stresses of overwork, and the loss of meaning in our lives—silo by silo, as if they are disconnected. For all its current weaknesses, the GND is an effort to “solve for pattern” as Wendell Berry recommends. Surely, what we face is what William James referred to as the moral equivalent of war, a multi-faceted existential crisis brought about by our refusal to live responsibly and within limits.
The term Green New Deal harkens on an earlier New Deal, which was a response to problems remarkably similar to our own. While we aren’t dealing now with massive unemployment, the income and wealth divides are once again as wide as they were then. In that period, too, the nation faced an environmental crisis, its soils washing and blowing away, its mountains stripped of forests, fires and floods widespread, its wildlife decimated—in less than a century, bison numbers had been reduced to such a degree they had to be bred in the Bronx Zoo and released in the wild; only 15 Trumpeter Swans remained out of millions; bighorn sheep had been reduced from two million to seven hundred, and most waterfowl populations had shrunk by an order of magnitude. And when it was first advocated by FDR, the howls of “socialism!” from Republicans were deafening.
Though it was rolled out piece by piece, the New Deal was as ambitious as today’s GND. And, in its early days, as historian Douglas Brinkley shows clearly in his opus, Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, the old New Deal was also, first and foremost, a green New Deal, with programs like Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act arriving later. While the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the New Deal’s first, largest and most popular program (launched in 1933), was a massive jobs program for unemployed men—with more than three million members overall—it was, even more importantly, an environmental project. Working from hundreds of camps, spread to every state to increase local support, the CCC planted hundreds of millions of trees (including a “shelterbelt” that saved midwestern soils), helped restore damaged landscapes and wetlands for wildlife, and created hundreds of state and national park facilities that visitors enjoy to this day.
The CCC provides a clear model for a national service program for young Americans—my best friend from childhood, now a conservative Republican opposed to “welfare,” told me he could readily support such a program. It might also be extended, for example, to unemployed coal miners as GND climate policy requires a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. Much as CCC members did in the 30s, the miners could restore a wounded Appalachian landscape. There are now some 530 cutoff mountaintops in that part of the country. Imagine unemployed miners able to earn a family wage by staying where they now live, working outdoors and restoring those mountaintops, not with a quick sprinkling of exotic grasses as we now term “reclamation,” but with a full and diverse canopy of carbon-sequestering trees.
The next great New Deal environmental initiative, the Soil Conservation Act passed while its pages, in the hands of members of Congress, were literally turning brown from soil blown all the way to the Capital from the Midwest and southern Dust Bowls. What followed was the establishment of Soil Conservation Districts in every U.S. county, where farmers, ranchers, academic extension agents, and local leaders came together to negotiate better care of soils and water. Such districts, now sometimes called resource conservation districts or simply conservation districts, remain vital to this day and might well be used to engage local input regarding Green New Deal agricultural policies and their local application—I had the opportunity to keynote the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts’ annual meeting last November. Part of this, as the GND resolution indicates, means reverting large agribusiness holdings to sustainable small farms and training the many young Americans who want to farm to do so, while making land affordable for them by redirecting agribusiness subsidies.
Curt Meine, a biographer of ecologist Aldo Leopold, tells me he believes the Green New Deal must begin with agriculture and rural America, both because modern food production is fossil-fuel intensive but also because a sustainable food system is the basis for everything else. The opportunity to enhance the lives of small farmers and other rural Americans, who feel neglected by urban liberals, seems an essential aspect of winning bipartisan support for the GND, as it did with the old New Deal. Rural Americans, initially skeptical of FDR’s grand schemes, were won over by direct improvements in their own lives.
Another Missing Element: Work-Time
As Brinkley chronicles brilliantly, the original green New Deal also saved millions of acres of land for National Parks and wilderness areas, state parks, and wildlife refuges. But not all of it was about conservation. Perhaps the first vision of the New Deal was the creation of new jobs, not by government programs, but by shortening and sharing working hours. As early as 1930, the Kellogg’s Cereal Company, in Battle Creek, Michigan, had cut its workday to six hours (while paying for seven). The result was an immediate gain of 300 jobs for the unemployed. Workers used their extra free time to look after the community (crime dropped precipitously), get more outdoor exercise, volunteer in the community and its schools, take up new hobbies, and grow their own vegetables. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, thought the idea could work at the national level.
With the backing of Perkins, Roosevelt, and organized labor, a bill capping the American workweek at 30 hours (anything more would be charged as overtime) overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate on April 6, 1933, only a few weeks after Roosevelt’s inauguration. But facing strong opposition from the National Association of Manufacturers, Roosevelt backed down, in return for support of the CCC and a later jobs program, the Works Progress Administration. The bill never went to the House. Five years later, Congress passed the 40-hour workweek bill. At a time when a third of the country was ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed, as Roosevelt put it, expanding the economy to create jobs rather than shortening hours made sense. A better distribution of poverty wouldn’t have won hearts and minds.
But today, we don’t suffer from too little production. Today, continued economic expansion as a jobs program is a recipe for environmental suicide, not a healthier, happier society. Cities like Seattle, where I live, suffer from too much wealth, rather than too little. Our vast wealth has led to displacement, homelessness, congestion, and palpable community anger rather than happiness. Today, a reduction in working hours—it’s been 80-years since the 40-hour week took effect and we are many times richer—could offer a way to increase employment opportunities without increasing consumer spending, while improving our health, strengthening our communities and giving us more choice in a society where both conservative and liberal Americans have noted the stresses of overwork and our rush-rush culture. A Swedish study showed that a ten percent reduction in work-time would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 to 8 percent. Policies shortening and sharing working hours are essential for the Green New Deal but, with the exception of vacation time, these have, so far, been overlooked. For the poor, higher minimum wages and a basic income guarantee, which has also been suggested by GND supporters, could make up income losses from shorter hours.
The original New Deal needed a way to measure its progress in increasing national output and reducing poverty. In 1934, economist Simon Kuznets came up with a single index for such a purpose, the Gross National Product. Revised slightly, and now called the Gross Domestic Product, it is a tally of “the final market value of all the goods and services produced in a country in a given year.” When we talk about economic growth, we mean growth of the GDP. But, as even Kuznets pointed out, the measure is simply one of economic output; in no way does it indicate the full welfare of the nation, and in fact, as Italian economist Stefano Bartolini points out, it may well do the opposite. GDP counts what is paid for. The costs of accidents or oil pollution or climate disasters often count as plusses but are actually remediation of the effects of earlier growth. Faster growth may increase work-time and decrease social connection, or destroy the natural commons, leading to poorer health but greater expenditures, and thus a bigger GDP. Meanwhile, many aspects of life that produce real satisfaction are not counted at all—housework, the value of nature, and the value of leisure, for example.
So just as the New Deal needed an index of success, so does the Green New Deal, but it requires a different one. We need to measure things that contribute to quality of life and the restoration of the environment and subtract those that do not. We cannot say whether this will mean growth, or de-growth—it depends on what we measure. What is clear is that material throughput cannot continue to expand. But without a new measure, the Green New Deal has no real way to be judged accurately.
As Curt Meine and others point out, the original New Deal, and even its green components, was not without unintended consequences from which we must learn. Perhaps the most serious was its reliance on big dams. Grand Coulee, Bonneville, and other massive hydroelectric projects were wonders of the world in their day, but some of them have destroyed salmon runs and others are silting over. Straightening of rivers has led to new destructive flooding. These mistakes, which might have been avoided by smaller construction, do not condemn the New Deal, and they vastly improved many lives, but they sound a cautionary note we would do well to heed. Which technologies, seen as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, may bring similar reasons for caution—nuclear power, large-scale wind farms?
But the call for caution is not a summons to inaction. In my view, the Green New Deal is an exciting and hopeful prospect, especially because of its ambition. There will be big fights over how to fund it, as there were over the equally-expensive (for its era) old New Deal. Surely that will require some forms of carbon taxes, taxes on inequality and financial speculation, on extreme wealth and on market externalities like pollution, and on consumption and advertising. Surely, as it is without question a security measure—the Pentagon has called climate change America’s greatest security risk—it will require a transfer of funds from a bloated and dangerous military budget. There will be fights over application at the local level; here, as much as is possible, the principle of subsidiarity should take precedence and every effort must be made to engage ordinary citizens in the development of policy, in part through the conservation districts that already exist.
But the stakes are too great to do nothing, and our children and theirs—who are already fighting for this—will not forgive inaction. It is exciting to see high school and college students leading the way in this effort and filling the offices of members of Congress to demand that they not turn a blind eye to these existential threats. It is exciting to see Minnesota high schoolers come together to create a draft plan for a state Green New Deal and present it to their governor, Tim Walz. So join them; add your own ideas, criticize where needed, but affirm as much as you can. Talk to friends left and right and center, asking only that they be respectful as you will be. Surely if Thoreau and Muir and Carson and Stoneman Douglas and Leopold and the Roosevelts could, they would be at the doors of Congress with the new children’s crusaders. Think of what they once did and vow that we can do no less.
We will need local models. In my upcoming film, Green New City, I’m exploring how the diverse and economically-challenged port of Vallejo, California might become an urban model for the Green New Deal, as it seeks to reduce its carbon footprint, develop through attention to nature, beauty and environmental restoration, and fully engage its citizens in planning for the future (including participatory budgeting).
When past times tried our souls, Americans did not retreat to rabbit holes. When sacrifice was demanded for the public good, they responded willingly to rationing and hardship and found a way forward. I, for one, intend to take the concept of the Green New Deal to every forum I can, to criticize and seek to improve but not dismiss this bold idea, to act as if our very future on this planet depends on what we do now, and indeed, it does.