The Green New Deal has attracted perhaps the greatest attention of any proposal for decades. It would guarantee Medicare-for-All, Housing-for-All, student loan forgiveness and propose the largest economic growth in human history to address unemployment and climate change.
But the last of these hits a stumbling block. Creation of all forms of energy contributes to the destruction of nature and human life. It is possible to increase the global quality of life at the same time we reduce the use of fossil fuels and other sources of energy. Therefore, a “deep” GND would focus on energy reduction, otherwise known as energy conservation. Decreasing total energy use is a prerequisite for improving human existence.
Recognizing True Dangers
Fossil fuel (FF) dangers of are well-known and include the destruction of Life via global heating. FF problems also include land grabs from indigenous peoples, farmers, and communities throughout the world as well as the poisoning of air from burning and destruction of terrestrial and aquatic life from spills. But those who focus on climate change tend tend to minimize very real danger of other types of energy production. A first step in developing a genuine GND is to acknowledge the destructive potential of “alternative energy” (AltE).
Nuclear power (nukes). Though dangers of nuclear disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are horrific, problems with the rest of its life cycle are often glossed over. Mining, milling, and transporting radioactive material to supply nukes with fuel and “dispose” of it exposes entire communities to poisoning that results in a variety of cancers. Though operation of nukes produces few greenhouse gases (GHGs), enormous quantities are released during production of steel, cement and other materials for building nuclear plants. They must be located next to water (for cooling), which means their discharge of hot water is an attack on aquatic life. Since radioactive waste from nukes is kept in caskets for 30-50 years, they threaten to poison humanity not for decades or centuries, but for millenia (or eternity), which makes nukes at least as dangerous as FFs. Inclusion of nuclear power as part of a GND is not the slightest bit green. The only way to address nuclear power is how to abolish it as rapidly as possible while causing the least harm to those who depend on it for energy and income.
Solar power requires manufacturing processes with chemicals which are highly toxic to those who work with them. Even before production begins, many different minerals must be mined and processed, which endangers workers and communities while destroying wildlife habitat. Additional minerals must be obtained for batteries. Once solar systems are used, they are discarded into large toxic dumps. Though few GHGs are created during use of solar panels, large amounts are created during their life cycle.
Wind power creates its own syndrome of nerve-wracking vibrations for those living next to “wind farms,” along with even larger issues with disposal of 160-foot blades. Like solar farms, wind farms undermine ecosystems where they are located. The life cycle of wind power includes toxic radioactive elements to produce circular rotation of blades.
Hydro-power from dams hurts terrestrial as well as aquatic life by altering the flow of river water. Dams undermine communities whose culture center around water and animals. Dams destroy farms. They exacerbate international conflicts when rivers flow between multiple countries, threaten the lives of construction workers, and result in collapses which can kill over 100,000 people at a time.
Several problems run through multiple AltE systems:
- Despite claims of “zero emissions,” every type of AltE requires large amounts of FFs during their life cycle;
- Every type of AltE is deeply intertwined with attacks on civil liberties, land grabs from indigenous communities, and/or murders of Earth defenders;
- Many have cost overruns which undermine the budgets of communities tricked into financing them.
- Transmission lines require additional land grabs, squashing of citizen and community rights, and increased species extinctions; and,
- Since the most available resources (such as uranium for nukes, sunny land for solar arrays, mountain tops for wind farms, rivers for dams) are used first, each level of expansion requires a greater level of resource use than the previous one, which means the harvesting of AltE is increasingly harmful as time goes by.
Taking into account the extreme problems of the life cycle of every type of energy extraction leads to the following requirements for a genuine GND: Nuclear energy must be halted as quickly and as safely as possible with employment replacement. FF extraction should be dramatically reduced immediately (perhaps by 70-90% of 2020 levels) and be reduced 5-10% annually for the next 10 years thereafter. Rather than being increased, extraction for other forms of energy should be reduced (perhaps 2-5% annually).
Since honesty requires recognition that every form of energy becomes more destructive with time, the critical question for a deep GND is: “How do we reduce energy use while increasing employment and the necessities of life?”
The Naming of Things
But before exploring how to increase employment while reducing production, it is necessary to clean up some greenwashing language that has become common in recent years.
Decades ago, Barry Commoner used the phrase “linguistic detoxification” to describe the way corporations come up with a word or phrase to hide the true nature of an ecological obscenity. One of the best examples is the nuclear industry’s term “spent fuel rods” which implies that, once used, fuel rods are not radioactive, when, in fact, they are so deadly that they must be guarded for eternity. An accurate term would be “irradiated fuel rods.”
Perhaps the classic example is the way agribusiness came up with “biosolids” for renaming animal sewage sludge containing dioxin, asbestos, lead, and DDT. As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton describe in Toxic Sludge Is Good for You (1995), industry persuaded the Environmental Protection Agency to reclassify hazardous animal waste to “Class A fertilizer” biosolids so they could be dumped on fields where food is grown.
Rather than preserving traditions of early environmentalists, many current proponents of AltE use the terms “clean” and “renewable” to describe energy which is neither. AltE is not “clean” due to the many GHG emissions throughout the life cycle of all types of energy in addition to assaults on ecosystems and human health. Though the sun, wind and river power may be eternal, products that must be mined are very much exhaustible, meaning that no form of AltE is renewable.
An honest GND would never refer to AltE as either “clean” or “renewable.” Such a GND proposal would advocate the reduction of FFs but would not suggest a goal 0% of FFs by such-and-such a date because it is unattainable. Every type of AltE requires FFs. While it may be possible to produce some steel and some cement by AltE, it is impossible to produce massive quantities of energy for the entire world with AltE. Instead, a genuine GND would explain that the only form of clean energy is less energy and specify ways to use less energy while improving the quality of life.
A genuine GND would never imply that FFs are the only source of monstrously negative effects. Privileging AltE corporations over FF corporations is stating that environmental problems will be solved by choosing one clique of capitalists over another. This means that (a) if FFs should be nationalized, then all mining, milling and manufacturing processes to produced materials needed for AltE should be nationalized; and, (b) if FFs should remain in the ground, then all components for operating nuclear plants, dams, solar facilities and wind farms should also remain in the ground.
A Shorter Work Week for All
The greatest contradiction in current versions of the GND is advocating environmental improvement while having the most massive increase in production the world has ever seen. These two goals are completely irreconcilable. A progressive GND would address this enigma via shortening the work week, which would reduce environmental damage by using less energy.
It is quite odd that versions of the GND call for Medicare-for-All, Housing-for-All, Student Loan Forgiveness-for-All; but none of them suggest a Shorter-Work-Week-for-All. The absence of this old progressive demand could be due to the incorrect neoliberal assumption that the best way to solve unemployment is via increased production.
Increased production of goods cannot create a long-term increase in employment. (It was WW II and not Roosevelt’s New Deal that consistently increased employment.) US production increased 300-fold from 1913 to 2013. If employment had increased at the same pace, everyone would be working at dozens of jobs today.
Unemployment increases from recent economic disruptions like the 2008 financial crisis and Covid in 2020 were due to the inability to shift work from some areas of the economy to others. A planned shrinking of the economy would require including the entire workforce in deciding to shift from negative to positive employment.
As the work week is reduced, every group of workers should evaluate what it does, how labor is organized, and how jobs should be redefined so that full employment is preserved. The only part of this idea which is novel is making changes democratically – job categories continuously change, with some types of work shrinking (or disappearing entirely) and other types of work expanding or coming into existence. Just as economic growth does not guarantee increases in employment, economic shrinking need not worsen unemployment if the work week is shortened.
However, a shorter work week will not accomplish environmental goals if it is accompanied by an “intensification of labor” (such as requiring workers at Amazon to handle more packages per hour or increasing class size for teachers). This means that a genuine GND requires workers’ forming strong unions which have a central role in determining what is produced as well as working conditions.
Producing According to Need Instead of According to Profit
If a core part of a GND becomes a shorter work week (without speed-up), the question naturally arises: “Will lowering the amount of production result in people going without basic necessities of life?” It is important to understand that production for profit causes the manufacture of goods that have no part of improving our lives.
Current versions of the GND are based on the neoliberal assumption that the best way to provide for necessities of life is through increased payments for purchases (ie, market economics). A progressive GND would advocate that the best way to provide the necessities of life is by guaranteeing them as human rights. This is often referred so as replacing individual wages with “social wages.” For example, the neoliberal approach to healthcare is offering medical insurance while a progressive approach is to offer medical care directly (without giving a cut to insurance companies). Likewise, a neoliberal GND would offer cash for food, housing, transportation, education and other necessities while a progressive GND would provide them directly to people. Green economics must be based on making dollar amounts less important by replacing individual wages with social wages.
Current versions of the GND seek to provide necessities by increasing the quantity of products rather than focusing on creating things that are useful, reliable and durable. A massive increase in production is an unnecessary attack on ecosystems when there is already much more production than required to provide essentials for everyone on the planet. Needs are not being met because of production which …
- … is negative, including war materials, police forces and production which destroys farmland and habitat (all of which should be reduced immediately);
- … is wasteful, which includes both (a) playthings of the richest 1%, and (b) things which many of us are forced to buy for survival and getting to work, the most notable being cars;
- … requires unnecessary processing and transportation, the most notable example being food which is processed to lose nutritional value, packaged to absurd limits, and shipped over 1000 miles before being consumed; and,
- … involves planned obsolescence, including design to fall apart or go out of style.
One important aspect of reducing production is often ignored. Each product manufactured must have a repairability index. At a minimum, criteria for the index should include (a) availability of technical documents to aid in repair, (b) ease of disassembly, (c) availability of spare parts, (d) price of spare parts, and (e) repair issues specific to the class of products. The index should become a basis for strengthening production requirements each year. A durablility index should similarly be developed and strengthened annually. Since those who do the labor of manufacturing products are more likely than owners or stockholders to attain knowledge of how to make commodities that are more reliable and durable, they must have the right to make their knowledge public without repercussions from management.
There will always be differences of opinion regarding what is needed versus what is merely desired. A progressive GND should state is how those decisions would be made. A major cause of unnecessary production is that decisions concerning what to manufacture and standards for creating them are made by investors and corporate bosses rather than community residents and workers manufacturing them. A genuine GND would confront problems regarding what is produced by involving all citizens in economic decisions, and not merely the richest.
Perhaps the issue which is least likely to be linked to the GND is reparations to poor communities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia who have been victims of Western imperialism for 500 years. This connection forces us to ask: “Since most minerals necessary for AltE lie in poor countries, will rich countries continue to plunder their resources, exterminate what remains of indigenous cultures, force inhabitants to work for a pittance, jail and kill those who resist, destroy farmland, and leave the country a toxic wasteland for generations to come?”
For example, plans to massively expand electric vehicles (EVs) undermine the vastly more sustainable approach of urban redesign for walkable/cyclable communities. Plans would result in manufacturing EVs for the rich world while poor and working class communities would suffer from the extraction of lithium, cobalt and dozens of other materials required for these cars.
Africa may be the most mineral-rich continent. In addition to cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for EVs, Mali is the source of 75% of the uranium for French nukes, Zambia is mined for copper for AltE and hundreds of other minerals are taken from dozens of African countries.
If there are to be agreements involving corporations seeking minerals for AltE, who will those agreements be with? Will the agreements be between the ultra-rich owners of the Western empire and its puppet governments? Or, will extraction agreements be with villages and communities which will be most affected by removal of minerals for the production of energy?
Discussions of relationships between rich and poor countries make much of having “free, prior and informed consent” prior to an extraction project. Such an agreement is far from reality because (a) corporate and governmental bodies are so mired in corruption that they contaminate bodies which define and judge the meaning of “free, prior and informed,” (b) no prediction of the effects of extraction can be “informed” since it is impossible to know what the interaction of the multitude of physical, chemical, biological and ecological factors will be prior to extraction taking place, and (c) affected communities are typically bullied into accepting extraction because they fear that families will die from starvation, lack of medical care or unemployment if they do not do so. Thus, the following are essential components of a socially just GND:
- Reparations which are sufficient to eliminate poverty must be paid prior to signing extraction agreements; and,
- Every community must have the right to terminate an extraction agreement at any stage of the project.
This is where the other meaning of “deep” comes in. When people hear “deep green,” they often think of how industrial activity deeply affects ecosystems. “Deep” can also refer to having a deep respect for poor communities whose lives are most affected by extraction. Respect is not deep if it is unwilling to accept an answer of “No” to a request for exorbitant, profit-gouging extraction. Peoples across the world may decide that since they have received so little for so long, then it may be time for rich countries to share the wealth they have stolen and dig up new wealth much, much more slowly.
A New Green Culture
Just to make sure that it is clear and not forgotten, the fundamental question regarding extraction of material needed for AltE is: “Will rich countries continue to plunder minerals underneath or adjacent to poor communities at a rate that corporations decide? Will they expect poor communities to be satisfied with a vague promise that, for the very first time, great things will happen after the plundering? Or should reparations be fully paid for past and current plundering, with poor communities deciding how much extraction they will allow and at what speed?”
Essential for building a New Green World is the creation of a New Green Culture which asks all of the billions of people on the planet to share their ideas for obtaining the necessities of life while using less energy. Such a culture would aim for one idea to spark to many ideas, all of which strive more toward living together than on inventing energy-guzzling gadgets.
In order to build a New Green Culture which puts the sharing of wealth above personal greed, several things that must happen:
- To bring billions of people out of economic misery, every country should establish a maximum income which is a multiple of the minimum income, with that multiple being voted on (no less than every five years) by all living in the country.
- Every country should establish a maximum possession of values which is a multiple of the minimum possession of values, with that multiple being voted on (no less than every five years) by all living in the country.
- Global reparations, including sharing wealth and technological techniques between rich and poor countries, is essential for overcoming past and ongoing effects of imperialism. Establishing maximum incomes and maximum wealth possession within countries must be quickly followed by establishing such maximum levels between countries.
A core problem of current versions of the GND is that they proposes to solve employment, social justice and energy problems with increased production, which is not necessary to solve any of these. Attempts to solve problems by increasing wealth feeds into the corporate culture of greed and become a barrier to creation of a New Green Culture. Increasing production beyond what is necessary increases environmental problems that threaten the Earth. It tells those who are already rich that they should grab more, more and more. It tells those who are not rich that happiness depends upon the possession of objects. The survival of Humanity depends on the building of a green culture that prizes sharing above all else.
(A webinar at 7 pm CT on May 5, 2021 on “Envisioning a Greener New Deal” will explore concerns with alternative energy, the need for global reparations and ask how to create a better world while using much less energy. Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.)
A version of this article appeared on Green Social Thought.
Teaser photo credit: Drawing by Priti Gulati Cox.