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The Green New Deal: Breaking New Ground?

by Ashish Kothari

Within a few months of each other, the Labour Party in United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders, the Democrat presidential hopeful in USA, issued ambitious manifestos, both called the Green New Deal. Both marked a refreshing change from the usual political party manifestos promising development and employment and prosperity, in that they focused heavily on global climate and ecological crises, and on the need to ensure justice for the working class in the transition to a low carbon economy.


Labour lost, and Sanders has just dropped out of the race to be the Democrat's presidential candidate. Nevertheless, it would be instructive to examine their visions, both because they represent a new trend of the ‘greening’ of mainstream politics in powerful countries, as also because they will remain in the background ready to spring back should the opportunity arise.


They are also useful tools for civil society and peoples’ movements demanding a change from the status quo, and who knows, some of their elements may well influence politicians who do come to power in these and other countries.


I will focus here on Sanders’ GND, though what I say about it could partly also apply to the Labour Party’s version.


With its sharp focus on both ecological and social justice issues, the Sanders vision is one of the most far-reaching manifestos for systemic transformation in recent times, to have emerged from the stable of a mainstream political party.


The climate crisis runs like the dominant thread across all its sections, which itself is path-breaking. Major parts of it read like what climate justice activists would have wanted to write. There is a strong attack on the fossil fuel industry, targeting the profiteering associated with its greedy CEOs, and a pitch for complete transition to clean renewable energy.


Most welcome is its insistence that such a transition must be fair and just, in that it must enable the working class and other marginalised sections (including low-income, ‘people of colour’, children, aged, and the disabled) to switch to dignified, ecologically oriented jobs.


Several other aspects of the Sanders’ GND are progressive. It prioritise global peace, promising that the USA (possibly the world’s biggest military aggressor for decades) will lead the world to a ‘wholesale shift away from militarism”. The money thus saved would be used to tackle the climate crisis.


It stresses putting the transport infrastructure and energy systems in public (including worker cooperative) hands, rather than controlled by CEOs of the fossil fuel industry. Also proposed are measures for conserving public lands, for ‘ecologically regenerative and sustainable agriculture’, and ecological restoration, all of which would also create millions of jobs.


The renegotiation of international trade deals to “ensure strong and binding climate standards, labour rights, and human rights” is also promised.


Unfortunately, the GND suffers from some fundamental defects that may render it much less effective and even internally contradictory. A shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy is welcome, but even the latter needs mining (e.g. for silica and metals), space (witness the enormous landgrabbing by wind and solar megaprojects across the world), and other resources with their own impacts.


Without a central focus on the reduction of demand, especially from elite and luxury consumers (even as the legitimate demands of the ‘poor’ have to be met), renewables too will be ecologically unsustainable and socially disruptive.


Without a focus on their decentralised production and local community control, they could also simply shift economic reins from fossil fuel CEOs to renewable energy CEOs (and the two are not necessarily always different; notice for instance how British Petroleum is investing so heavily in renewables).


The same issue bedevils solutions like electric cars replacing petrol/diesel ones; Sanders promises very cheap electric cars, which means hundreds of millions of them, each requiring its own metals, rubber, electricity and other inputs that have to be extracted from somewhere on earth.


This is the general problem with looking for technological solutions to problems that are not necessarily, or not only, technological; energy is as much (or more) a cultural, social issue (with modernity having made us addicted to wanting more and more of it), as a technological one.


The GND does not recognise this. It does have a welcome focus on aspects like public transportation, but every American family having an electric car is simply not compatible with prioritising the streets for buses.


Linked to this is that the predominant focus on climate, and that too on carbon emissions, means the GND sidesteps many other ecological crises, including of biodiversity and ecosystem loss. These will continue if consumption levels in the global North are not drastically reduced. And while Sanders commits to holding corporations accountable to domestic climate goals and labour standards, he does not explicitly state that they will also be held accountable globally.


This goes to another fundamental problem; while on some aspects the GND promises American leadership in solving global problems (a bit patronisingly, but okay, at least its there), in others it retains elements of America-centredness that borders on a ‘green’ form of imperialism. Without a drastic reduction in the country’s consumerism, it will continue to extract cheap materials and labour from around the world, while posing to be green in its growth pattern.


Even on inequality, the GND has strong language on ending it in the USA, but precious little on how American role in perpetuating global inequities will be tackled. In these and other ways, it also does not explicitly challenge capitalism, in itself or in conjunction with its cronies patriarchy and statism.


Finally, and this may well be their undoing even if by some miracle Sanders becomes President in the USA and the Labour Party comes back to power in the UK, there is a fundamental flaw in how they view democracy itself.


Both have become popular at least with large sections of their electorate (especially, it seems, amongst the youth) on the basis of grassroots campaigns, and linking with many civil society movements. But neither have clear visions on how to translate this into radical democracy, where people on the ground are empowered and capacitated to take their own decisions or be part of forums where crucial issues impacting their lives are decided upon. Democracy, after all, is about power of the people … not power concentrated in the people we elect, which is a distorted form of liberal democracy that we have all succumbed to.


Failing this kind of mass empowerment, of the kind that Gandhi’s notion of swaraj or some forms of Marxist eco-anarchy envisioned, in which the state becomes far less powerful in our lives, even the progressive elements of the GND could remain nice words on paper. Without changing mindsets, hearts, and the ground conditions in which we all live, not even the most powerful and progressive of presidents and prime ministers can achieve the long-term transformations they may dream of.


Having said which, I still hope for the miracle of a Sanders and a Corbyn sitting on their country’s highest seat. The GNDs they advocate are better than anything else I’ve seen coming from people at their position, and surely, by many a mile, preferable to the complete lack of ethics and imagination (and worse) displayed by their right-wing opponents.


The above critique is offered, therefore, as a nudge to make their visions even more pathbreaking, and for all of us as close or distant sympathists or supporters to make our own campaigns more transformative.


Ashish Kothari is the founder-member of Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh, Ashish taught at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, coordinated India’s National Biodiversity Strategy & Action Plan process, served on Greenpeace International and India Boards, helped initiate the global ICCA Consortium.


This article first appeared in the Wall Street International magazine. Reproduced with permission.

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