As background material for our event with Ann Pettifor on 17 October, we examine what a Green New Deal might entail.

In his Vox piece, ‘The Green New Deal, explained’, climate journalist David Roberts argues:

As the GND [Green New Deal] brand spreads, traditional advocacy and policy groups are likely to break off more manageable chunks under the same rubric. After all, the GND is so sweeping that virtually any climate policy can claim to be part of it.

The broad-tent nature of its brand is both the Green New Deal (GND)’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On the one hand, it has allowed a worldwide ‘pond-hopping’ of ideas and initiative: think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s excited tweet, having failed to get her GND resolution through the US Senate in March this year, about UK Labour’s recent adoption of the GND as official policy. Much of Ocasio-Cortez’s own legislation drew heavily from the 2008 report of the UK Green New Deal Group – of which economist and Festival of the Future City speaker Ann Pettifor is a core member. And in turn, the Labour adoption was the result of a grassroots push whose inspiration is largely credited to… Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement activists associated with her. Such connections demonstrate the snowball power of the GND movement, as it currently stands. Inspiration can cycle rapidly worldwide and ideas that failed to gain ground in one place might be enthusiastically revived in another.

On the other hand, the movement’s broadness means inevitable fault lines. Unsurprisingly, one of the first to surface is money. How exactly do we fund something as ambitious as the GND? For Pettifor and the Green New Deal Group the answer lies primarily in traditional economic methods such as tax reform (including major windfall taxes on fossil fuel companies) and government bonds – strategies that have previously sustained economies through wartime. For others, including the think-tank Positive Money and a number of prominent US Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, a better solution is found in the controversial Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – of which Pettifor has been a vocal critic. In simplified terms, proponents of MMT argue that because governments have a monopoly in issuing their own currencies they cannot run out of money. It is possible, in other words, for governments to run a continuous deficit, meaning a GND could be funded effectively by central bank money-creation. MMT’s critics deride it for an apparently utopian response to problems of inflation and international markets, and for its radical break with prevailing economic common-sense – but for some GND activists this is, of course, precisely its appeal. Radically new environmental challenges mean radically new solutions – right down to how we think about the cheque that the solution is written on.

Bigger still than the question of how to fund is, of course, what to fund, and – perhaps surprisingly – whether to fund. Most of the policy circle associated with the GND, whether pro- or anti-MMT, still subscribes to a broadly Keynesian economics insofar as they relate the problem of environmental sustainability to problems of economic growth, especially employment. Like its obvious forebear, Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez’s GND includes two clauses:

(1) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States;
(2) to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people in the United States.

Likewise, the Green New Deal Group talks of creating a ‘carbon army of workers’ and points out that:

The advantage of the massive required scale of this energy transition will be that millions of jobs can be created. Thousands of new and existing businesses and services will benefit, and a large increase in tax revenue will be generated for the government from this new economic activity.

Appealing as this sounds, there are those though who argue that ‘this new economic activity’ is precisely the problem – and that economic growth measures like employment need to be abandoned altogether. This is the de-growth camp, and, as Stephen Graham of the UK socialist group rs21 explains it, they regard greater employment as a problem from an environmental perspective, because it produces greater consumption. More employment means more wages which means more opportunity to spend on environment-costly goods and services – something that will eventually outbalance whatever gains are to be made by the switch to green technologies.

This attitude chimes with concerns in the scientific community about what constitutes greenness. In their paper ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, J Rockström et al argue that we need ‘to recognise multiple ecological “boundaries” for human operation, of which climate change is just one threshold’. Most versions of the GND emphasise ways to de-carbonise the economy – but this arguably draws attention away from the major challenges still to be faced in other areas:

ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, biogeo-chemical flows (interference with phosphorous and nitrogen cycles), global freshwater use, and system change, biodiversity loss, and chemical pollution.

While renewable technologies play a part in addressing all of these, some scientists warn that a narrow overemphasis on lowering carbon emissions can produce an unrealistic techno-optimism, when solving the complex of different environmental dangers we face must really entail some kind of de-growth: in GDP, consumption, population, or living standards.

All these discussions have an obvious bearing on city policies. Cities, as a rule, have been places of growth: they are where people go to find work and to find things to spend their earnings on. Is there a way to green the city? Or do most well-meaning initiatives focus on carbon emissions to the expense of the wider problems that cities represent – an accusation that has been levelled at the Siemens Green City Index, for instance? What role, if any, can cities have in an ecologically-sustainable future? The answer is still unclear, but what is certain is that it will greatly depend on which of the many visions of the GND eventually triumphs.

Works Cited/ Further Reading:

Graham, Stephen. ‘”Green Capitalism”: A Critical Review of the Literature.’ rs21, 16 Mar. 2019.

Green New Deal Group. A Green New Deal: Joined-up Policies to Solve the Triple Crunch of the Credit Crisis, Climate Change and High Oil Prices. 2008.

Hail, Steven. ‘Explainer: What Is Modern Monetary Theory?The Conversation, 31 Jan. 2017.

Roberts, David. ‘The Green New Deal, Explained.’ Vox, 30 Mar. 2019.

Rockström, Johan. ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity.’ Ecology and Society, vol. 14, no. 2, 2009.

(blog cover illustration: Jack Goddard, 2015)

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