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Excerpt: "At the end of 2018, the Green New Deal (GND) was suddenly on the tip of everyone's tongue thanks to everyone's favorite new congresswoman from the Bronx, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (photo: Getty Images)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (photo: Getty Images)

A Green New Deal to Win Back Our Future

By Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos, Jacobin

09 February 19

How quickly, how intensely, and how democratically we decarbonize will be the economic story of the century — only a Green New Deal can save us from climate apocalypse.

t the end of 2018, the Green New Deal (GND) was suddenly on the tip of everyone’s tongue thanks to everyone’s favorite new congresswoman from the Bronx, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the Green New Deal isn’t a new idea. It’s been bandied about by United Nations economists, Barack Obama, the US Green Party, and even New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (who claims he coined the phrase — Friedman’s version was so unabashedly capitalist that he pitched wind and solar on the grounds that “the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature is Father Greed”).

Now the GND is back. This time around, Father Greed is a lot less popular, and Mother Nature looks a lot more dangerous. In the past few years, extreme weather has battered the US, with 2017’s Maria, Irma, and Harvey, and now apocalyptic wildfires in California, topping a long list of disasters. And the fall 2018 climate science report, on our tight window to decarbonize, focused minds across the country.

Today’s GND is wildly popular, with the idea polling over 80 percent support in both parties — among those who have heard of it. Just as many respondents haven’t.

Support for action on climate has long been broad but shallow. So what exactly would a GND entail? What should it entail?

This Jacobin series takes up those questions from a left perspective and with no illusions about the climate science. Time’s running short: this is the moment to start a broad debate on the practical challenges and possibilities of fast, transformative change. The Left can’t afford to sit out the biggest debate in half a century over how to restructure the economy. And we can’t leave saving the species from climatic catastrophe to a handful of politicians, their congressional staffers, and allied think tanks, however good their intentions.

We can draw on a rich history of radical ideas, like the vision put forth by workers and communities in the Just Transition movement of the 1980s, which sought to counter the Reagan-constructed dichotomy between good jobs and environmental protection. But what will determine how the GND plays out is more than ideas — it’s who has the power to implement them.

This time, the GND’s most visible and compelling champion isn’t a cliché-spouting columnist, but a democratic socialist with the political savvy to match her principles: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Within just a few weeks, AOC has reshaped the political landscape, putting everything from the GND to a 70 percent marginal income tax on the table. Her draft vision of a GND calls for a massive increase in federal government spending, paired with a job guarantee, to decarbonize the entire US economy by 2030. So far, so good.

But the details are still vague. Which makes it easy to sign onto: politicians from Cory Booker to Michael Bloomberg are signalling tentative support for a GND. We’ve seen the same dynamic with Medicare for All — including the inevitable backtracking. There’s new energy in the Democratic Party, but Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to grant a Select Committee on a GND real power reveals the party’s limits.

Growing but ambiguous interest in climate investment is no guarantee that the climate action we get will be big enough, fast enough, or egalitarian enough to prevent climate catastrophe and improve people’s lives in the process. Only a broad coalition built around short-term material gains for working people can muster the political power to force huge change and keep the planet habitable in the long term.

The good news is that after decades of political marginalization, the socialist left is gaining momentum. The task is to link the upswell of political mobilization across the country, much of which is implicitly advancing GND principles, to the political savvy of the new wave of insurgent Democrats and an explicit, fleshed-out GND agenda.

This January, teachers in Los Angeles struck and won major concessions that will improve their working conditions and students’ learning conditions — better pay, more teachers, more librarians, and more green space. Such achievements are central to a no-carbon good life for all: the “Red for Ed” movement is also green. Shortly after, air traffic controllers and flight attendants showed their disruptive power in forcing Trump to reopen the government — exactly the kind of militant worker organizing we need more of to build public power.

But a grand coalition for the GND will take more than simple red-green arithmetic, proclaiming that union militancy + wind power = eco-socialism. We must be more rigorous in identifying the campaigns, ideas, and projects that will win over unions suspicious of anything green after years of environmental scapegoating for job losses; mobilize the vast majority of non-union workers; and, connect to community- and issue-based campaigns around housing precarity, racial justice, gender equality, indigenous sovereignty, and more — and do it all fast.

The original New Deal offers both inspiration and cautionary lessons. As a set of policies, it created the foundation of the American welfare state as we know it. For the first time in American history, the government took responsibility for ensuring social welfare, in the process curbing the power of capital and recognizing labor’s right to collective bargaining. Huge new public programs undertook interventions in industrial policy and employed millions in work ranging from bridgebuilding to public art.

Today, the New Deal seems radical compared to the past forty years of neoliberalism. But for socialists, it saved capitalism from itself. Brokering a class compromise that ensured decades of labor peace, it recreated the conditions for economic growth and, eventually, an era of mass consumption that substituted the credit card for the union card.

Even the New Deal’s liberal promise of moderate equality was betrayed by the reproduction of gender and racial inequalities. Because the New Deal coalition relied on Southern Democrats, its labor protections excluded domestic and agricultural workers, reinscribing patriarchy and a racial division of labor. And New Deal housing policy laid the foundation for lasting segregation and the massive wealth gap that divides white and black Americans to this day.

Nor was the original New Deal an environmental model. Yes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal investment in the Civilian Conservation Corps helped restore forests and other ecosystems all across the country and should be revitalized today. Urban investments in public goods, from public swimming pools to experimental theatre in working-class black communities, are a model of sustainable urbanism. And a surprisingly democratic engagement with Puerto Rico, after a brutal 1932 storm, still stands as a model for post-disaster recovery.

But, along with the mobilization for World War II, the New Deal model yielded an unprecedented era of fossil-fueled growth, accelerating environmental devastation. The segregated suburbs that flowed from the New Deal were also an ecological disaster. White Americans fled the cities for a landscape of leaky homes, car-choked blacktop, and giant malls. Suburbs’ demography is today more complex, but their ecological costs are still daunting.

And yet, we find ourselves turning back to the New Deal example. Two of its core features stand out as particularly useful today.

The first was the spirit of bold, public experimentation, led by the federal government but responsive to militant mobilization, and often fostering local democracy. Looking to the original New Deal, we can appreciate how practical its efforts were in the very best sense: getting things done. Its second core feature was its scale. From massive landscape interventions through programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, to the millions or unemployed put to work by social service agencies, the New Deal went big.

It transformed American life in profound ways, from how people worked to how they grew old. It remade life in the factory and family and it reshaped forests and farms. It literally rebuilt the country, and a good chunk of the global economy along with it.

Not all of those changes were for the good. But today, facing down a merciless climate timeline, when “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are called for, a New Deal scope of ambition is what we need. The GND can’t just be a bill or two. It needs to be the framework for politics for the next few decades.

That fight starts now. It must be ambitious. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy isn’t enough if we leave untouched the patterns of production and consumption, housing and transit, agriculture and trade that fuel global capitalism. If you could press a button that decarbonized the world in an instant, we’d still be facing massive ecological crises: a great extinction, planetary deforestation, rampant freshwater pollution, plastic contamination of rivers and oceans, a wrecked nitrogen cycle, and mountains and islands of garbage.

We need to challenge a capitalist growth model premised on racial and gendered hierarchies, colonial extraction, and environmental destruction. That doesn’t necessarily mean pitching the GND as an anti-capitalist proposal, although Republicans will surely do that for us. There’s a huge amount we can do in the next few years to make climate progress under capitalism, while gathering strength to press for more.

But we do need to think creatively about the world we want to build in the long-term — and who will build it. The white male breadwinner and his family were at the heart of the original New Deal; the GND is a vision for today’s multi-racial working class — women of color working in the low-carbon care and education sectors, immigrant workers whose ranks will grow as climate change wreaks havoc across the globe, the growing number of people who can’t afford to live on meager wages.

The GND’s big ideas transcend what feels immediately feasible, offering a vision to expand the sense of possibility and motivate action: guaranteed jobs, ubiquitous wind and solar. But leaning into the nitty gritty helps refine both the world we hope to build and the political strategy for getting there.

That’s why we’re running pieces digging into the politics of what a truly transformative GND would look like. We’re at the beginning of a long and complicated fight. The series’ contributions reflect the scope of what it will take to win it — green energy and good jobs, to start, but also taking on the fossil fuel industry and green tech’s extractive underbelly, the significance of indigenous leadership and the revitalized labor movement, struggles for energy democracy and racial justice, demands for public goods from finance to housing to transit, and more. These days, all politics is climate politics.

Nothing will shape the lives of working people in the decades ahead more than climate change. Extreme weather is coming. But the greatest changes will come in how we respond. How quickly, how intensely, and how democratically we decarbonize prosperity will be the economic story of the century.

If billionaires steer climate investment to protect their wealth and private luxuries, it may be the last century we get. The alternative is to build another world on our one planet, harnessing wind, sun, and water to smash the hierarchies that oppress us and win back our future.

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-9 # Cowboy 45 2019-02-09 10:29
AOC is an unexpected gift to President Trump. She is forcing the democrat presidential candidates to support every stupid thing she says as they race to out crazy and out socialize each other to pander to the crazy left who now controls the democrat party. This is the stuff the independents are going to have none of as was evidenced by the overwhelming approval from independents to the SOTU address. Independents and a small % of the minority vote go Trump and he wins in a landslide.
+5 # tedrey 2019-02-09 12:20
Don't think you can use the threat of Trump's re-election any more. He won't last that long.
+3 # Wise woman 2019-02-09 14:45
Trump and everything and everyone will become completely irrelevant if we don't address climate issues. That's the plain and simple fact. Sorry cowboy.
-7 # Cowboy 45 2019-02-09 18:51
Sorry, but man made global warming is a myth.
+2 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-02-10 08:08
A total transformation of the US economy is exactly what is needed. But I think it would b better to phrase this as a transformation from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy. In this way, all the money the US spends of war each year -- about $1.5 to $2 trillion -- would be rolled over into transforming industries, cities, and jobs along the lines of green principles.

I'm not much in favor of holding out goals that won't be achieved -- total decarbonization of society by 2030. There will always be carbon fuel. Carbon is not the enemy; it is only a straw man. We can and must use it wisely, but we will not stop using it. There will never be electric airplanes. And many people heat their homes with firewood.

"But we do need to think creatively about the world we want to build in the long-term"

This is most important. The world we have inherited from capitalism, industrializati on, permanent war, and oligarchs -- Friedman's "Father Greed" -- simply cannot go on much longer. The earth is being raped and about half the population of humans is near starvation. Father Greed is the great de-humanizer.
+1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-02-10 08:11
continued ---

The Green New Deal is about a lot more than greener policies. It is about the fulfillment of the dream of democracy that has been around for nearly 300 years. It has always been an unrealized ideal. Now is the time to make it real. This will be the humanizing of society. This is exactly what Marx called for 150 years ago in his call for a re-humanization of mankind after its de-humanization and its alienation from nature under industrial capitalism.

It is very good to see politics with a vision. This is a vision that can also be shared as a cultural or epochal dominant. History moves through phases that are driven by a grand idea. That was well articulated by G.W.F. Hegel. Visionary ideas move and direct history. So we think of history in terms of "Ages": the age of capital, the age of reason (englightenment ), the middle ages, and so on. The 20th century was the age of total war. The coming age should be the Green Age. It will motivate people and movements.
+2 # DongiC 2019-02-10 17:17
There is a type of thinking that is really difficult to understand; the earth is flat, global warming is a myth, profits are more important than survival, immigrants should be prohibited, God favors one religion over another. But, as evolution continues, this kind of thinking becomes less and less and life becomes easier and people live longer. Progress does occur although at times it comes so slowly. The core reason is thinking. We do more of it and honor and respect it more. We highly value education and we emphasize reaching one's potential. We can succeed and often we do.

Basically, I am optimistic. We can and will solve our problems through our collective efforts. It, no doubt will be a struggle, but one where we can and shall prevail. If we keep thinking.

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