The Green New Deal
One of the reasons we’re killing the planet is because we prefer our delusions to what is real. For our own comfort, we convince ourselves we’re merely “developing natural resources” rather than understand we are committing ecocide.
Now that it’s become increasingly clear that the delusion we have told ourselves for 250 years, that digging up fossil fuels and burning them is okay as long as we make enough money, is so obviously wrong that it’s no longer sustainable as a delusion, many are desperately grasping for another delusion to replace it.
The Green New Deal is just the latest of these self-deceptions. In declaring a climate emergency, politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and non-profits like 350.org, Greenpeace, and the Sunrise Movement may believe they are defending the planet, but the plan they’ve laid out is not about that. The Green New Deal is about promoting a fourth industrial revolution. It will require securing trillions in public subsidies for multinational corporations, and in the end, will simply perpetuate the delusion that someone in charge is doing something to solve the climate crisis.
The highly publicised Green New Deal resolution has garnered the support of, among others, Al Gore (The Climate Reality Project), Naomi Klein (350.org), Sean McElwee (Data for Progress), Bill McKibben (350.org), Annie Leonard (Greenpeace), Michael Brune (Sierra Club), along with politicians Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Many of the disparate and desperate plans to save us from climate change (so-called clean energy, carbon capture and storage, geo-engineering, and more) have been pulled into the broad and sweeping Green New Deal, which is now beginning to look like a Democratic litmus test for the 2020 election.
How handy to put all the hopes and dreams for our future into one neat plan. However, despite its lofty ambitions, it looks like the main outcome of a Green New Deal, should the plan make it from committee into actual legislation that gets passed into law, will be to maintain our economic system and our capitalist- and consumer-based industrial civilization, and therefore, to continue killing the planet. In the plan, those in power see new ways to profit; the middle-class see jobs; and the poor see economic and environmental justice. And it will largely be paid for with public money. Unfortunately, despite some lip-service given to “ecosystems”, there is nothing there for the real, living world.
One could imagine some of the same language being used by fossil fuel developers in a “Black New Deal”, back in the early days of coal and oil. It’s all too easy to peddle the snake oil stories of how the wealth of industrialization will trickle down to everyone through jobs and benefit plans at the beginning of any new gold rush. But industry is still industry, doing what industry does — “developing natural resources”, meaning destroying natural communities — and the people with the power in industry always — always — take as much as they can at the expense of the rest of us. Why should we expect anything different from this plan, just because it includes the words “green” and “health care”, and its main champion happens to be a progressive woman democrat from New York? Once out of her hands and into law, good intentions get thrown by the wayside, the industrial machine takes over, and we’ve seen that story play out before.
A plan with everything you can think of
Anyone reading the latest revision of the Green New Deal might be forgiven for confusing it for their kitchen sink. The resolution, filed February 5, 2019 by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey (D-MA), includes a plan to achieve everything from net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, upgrading all existing buildings, constructing new buildings to maximal efficiency, restoring threatened ecosystems, overhauling our entire transportation system, to ensuring prosperity and economic security for everyone in the United States. And that’s just the highlights.
While the Green New Deal is ostensibly about climate change — the resolution opens with mention of the IPCC’s special report on global warming of 1.5C — it includes many ambitions that, while related to climate change, go far beyond simply replacing the nation’s power grid and transportation systems with so-called renewable energy sources. There is much in the Green New Deal that any good progressive will love: for instance, to seriously address economic inequality and environmental injustice would be a significant and welcome departure from American policy-as-usual. If we really could “secure clean air and water, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature and a sustainable environment” for all Americans, I would be over the moon, especially since we can’t do any of those things without dramatically reducing and eventually eliminating the extraction technologies (like open-pit mining) and use of fossil fuels that is destroying all those things. And we desperately need to restore threatened ecosystems, clean up hazardous waste, and identify pollution sources and eliminate them.
However, none of that is possible if we simply attempt to replace one industry — fossil fuels — with another — renewables. While just about everyone who’s not on the payroll of a fossil fuel company (directly or indirectly) agrees that fossil fuels have got to go, almost no one seems to understand that renewables are destructive to the environment too. By focusing our attention on CO2 emissions, Green New Deal proponents deftly ignore the devastating environmental implications of the plan, and everyone who’s desperate for a climate change solution does too, perhaps because it is simply too depressing to do otherwise.
Because of the resolution’s expansive scope, naysayers say it is highly unlikely the Green New Deal will make it into legislation looking anything like it does in its current form. In the media, the reporting is either breathless with optimism about the potential of the plan, or dismissive precisely because anyone who’s paid any attention to politics lately knows that proposed legislation based on this plan would have slim chance at making it from resolution into law, even if the Democrats take control of the White House and the House and the Senate in the near future.
Ocasio-Cortez and Markey are not stupid or ill-intentioned people. I applaud their vision — just putting this kind of plan into resolution for discussion is courageous in the current political environment. Yet they must know this plan is extremely ambitious. We could wish only in our wildest dreams that changes of such scale and scope were still possible in the US republic. Perhaps they created the most progressive plan they could think of on purpose as a way to shift the political possibilities, knowing it will likely fail, but knowing also that it could open up new conversations about climate change, and perhaps, just perhaps, hit the brakes ever so slightly on our headlong rush into global warming hell, led by fossil fuel companies, politicians paid by fossil fuel companies, and our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels. Shifting the conversation just a little might be the best many frustrated activists can hope for, and so they will rationalize that it’s better than nothing.
A plan for corporate capitalists to love
But let’s dig a bit deeper. While progressives salivate over the plan’s provisions for clean, affordable public transportation, cleaning up hazardous waste, guaranteeing access to clean water, and promoting justice and equity for marginalized communities, there’s also a lot there for the capitalists to love. “Investing in infrastructure and industry of the United States”, “building resiliency against climate change-related disasters by leveraging funding for community-defined projects”, and “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency” all sounds great if you’re a builder of any kind, if you supply materials or architects or project managers, or if you enjoy selling land to developers.
If you’re a corporation that owns mines or manufactures things, you’ll love the sound of “spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing”, although you might wonder, as I do, what “clean manufacturing” is. If the politicians could actually agree on a plan for “high-speed rail” and “overhauling transportation systems”, and then stick with that plan, you’ll see dancing $$ if you’re a car manufacturer or transportation engineering firm.
And if you’re a corporate investor, you will be loving the provision to provide and leverage “adequate capital” to government agencies and businesses working on the Green New Deal. If you happen to run a fund that invests in so-called renewable energies, you too will love the plan to make “public investments in the research and development of new clean and renewable energy technologies and industries,” and the investments coming your way to “spur economic development, deepen and diversify industry in local and regional economies, and build wealth.”
So, perhaps the Green New Deal plan could have some legs after all. If the Democratic capitalists can see the opportunities in the plan, then perhaps the Republican capitalists will too. Money is money and if there’s enough public investment and incentive for those currently profiting on fossil fuels to switch to something else, then maybe it’s doable. Perhaps the fossil fuel companies see the writing on the wall, and realize that making solar panels and wind farms plays better with the public these days. And, it’s not like solar panels and wind farms don’t require fossil fuels; they require a lot of fossil fuels. But since most people choose to ignore that fact, perhaps there’s money to be made for fossil fuel companies in a climate emergency after all.
A plan that fails the living planet
For those of us who prefer a liveable planet, one with clean air, water, and soil, and thriving, diverse wildlife, the Green New Deal plan is an utter failure of imagination. There is nothing “green” or “new” about investing in industry, even if that industry is mis-perceived as being “clean”. There is nothing positive about helping “other countries achieve a Green New Deal” when indigenous communities continue to be displaced to achieve Western ideals of progress. And nothing about this plan will solve the continuing destruction of the living world.
To illustrate the shortcomings of the Green New Deal, let’s focus in on two components of the plan:
H) overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing;
J) removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution, including by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as preservation and afforestation.
A recent article in Business In Vancouver quotes the International Energy Agency (IEA), which estimates that by 2030 installed wind power will double, installed solar power will quadruple, and the number of electric vehicles will explode — increasing by 1,389% to 125 million from 3 million vehicles.
The same article points out what should be obvious, that in order to make all that clean and green stuff, the demand for metals and minerals will also explode. Explode to the tune of 12 times current mining activities, or more if we aspire to do better than the woefully inadequate Paris goals. Copper, zinc, iron, metallurgical coal, aluminum, lithium, cobalt, rare earths and other virgin materials are required to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles (EVs). Just to produce 125 million EVs–a mere 10% of the current number of cars on the road–will require a 50% increase in copper production, 10 million tons more.
Picture a mine: a copper mine, a zinc mine, an iron ore mine (this should be easy: bring to mind the recent collapse of the tailings dam at the Vale iron ore mine in Brazil, and you’ll have a good sense of what one of these mines is like). Now, do these technologies seem “clean and green” to you? No? Right. Now imagine replacing all the cars on the road with EVs. In other words, 1.1 billion cars. 10 times the number of EVs will mean a 500% increase in copper mining. And that’s just copper.
Now remember that we here in the US dump 50 million gallons of mining wastewater into the environment daily, waste that will require treatment that will continue “indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years”. Then multiply that by the number of mines elsewhere in the world, and hopefully you’re now convinced that “clean and green” is not just a dangerous myth, it will mean the absolute destruction of what’s left of the living planet if we don’t question the premise of the Green New Deal.
Oh and don’t forget the roads. EVs need roads. We’ll need roads to the new mines we’re building to dig up all those metals and minerals, and roads to the new manufacturing plants building the batteries and the cars. We’ll need to maintain our existing roads, too. Roads mean concrete and asphalt. Concrete is one of the most energy intensive substances to make, requiring fossil fuels galore, and asphalt is made with… fossil fuels. New roads increase illegal logging and poaching, and the land for the roads is often stolen from indigenous groups and marginalized communities. Roads lead to erosion, run off, and allow new ways for predators to become out of balance with prey. Forest clearings for roads disrupt and fragment habitat. Roads are an environmental disaster, in other words. Once again from the IEA: we expect the world will add 25 million paved road kilometers by 2060, a 60% increase over 2010, and most of these miles (90%) will be in developing nations (meaning the impact on the environment will be heavy).
And how do you build new roads and mines? How do you dig out massive amounts of copper and iron ore and make steel and aluminum and lithium? With lots and lots of fossil fuels.
Removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere
A recent article in The Wrong Kind of Green, The Green New Deal has an AFL-CIO Problem, discussed how unions are jumping on board the carbon capture bandwagon. Already on that wagon are oil companies, coal companies, and gas companies. Why would these groups support carbon capture? First, because the captured carbon is used in enhanced oil recovery — in other words, it’s used to get more oil, which means more jobs for the union workers and more profits for oil companies. This is how carbon capture currently pays for itself.
Another reason to jump on the carbon capture bandwagon is because if we can figure out how to capture and store the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, then voila! We’ve solved our climate change problem and the fossil fuel companies get to keep digging up fossil fuels, we get to keep burning them, and the union workers again get to keep their jobs. Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg NEF research group in London is quoted in this Bloomberg article about carbon capture saying “CCS [carbon capture and storage] is a get-out-of-jail card and a great business opportunity.”
Does the Green New Deal plan mean carbon capture and storage (CCS) when it says we need to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere? Well, it doesn’t say. The plan does say we need to prioritize soil carbon storage and afforestation, but it certainly doesn’t rule out CCS, and the mention of “net-zero emissions by 2050” is a clue that the plan does indeed mean to include CCS. We can hardly rely on soil carbon storage as long we rely on industrial agriculture to feed the world, and we should likewise be skeptical of carbon storage through afforestation, especially since we’ll be tearing up the forests to build all those new roads and mines to supply metals and minerals for all those new “clean” technologies. Any entrepreneur looking for investment in CCS technology will be excited about this provision in the plan, since it clearly leaves wide open the opportunity to build new CCS infrastructure and get it paid for with public subsidies.
The main form of CCS currently being developed is CCS at coal-, gas-, and bio-mass-burning power plants, the latter for Bio-Energy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). CCS at power plants requires retrofitting or building new power plants to generate electricity while capturing CO2, liquefying that CO2, transporting the CO2 via pipeline or some other means, pumping the CO2 underground, and storing it indefinitely (forever, in human terms). The infrastructure required to build CCS to offset our emissions is estimated to be on the order of one to three times the current fossil fuel infrastructure currently on the planet. BECCS, which all IPCC scenarios to keep global warming below +2C assume, requires growing crops that can be burned to generate electricity. To implement BECCS will require an additional two times India-sized amount of land for growing those crops, plus a transportation system to harvest and move the crops to the power plants for burning.
Given that the CO2 must be stored indefinitely — either in trees, or in the ground — in order to effectively reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere, it is pretty clear that there is no way to pay for CCS other than with public money. Some CO2 can be used in greenhouses and in a few products, but not nearly enough to pay for even a tiny fraction of the infrastructure and storage required for CCS. So, the public pays subsidies to fossil fuel companies now, and gets to pay subsidies to CCS companies in the future to clean up the mess that the fossil fuel companies made. In addition, if CCS is used as a means to continue burning fossil fuels — and, because the plan makes no mention of fossil fuels at all, much less reducing or eliminating their use, we should perhaps surmise that’s the case — it is poor and indigenous communities that will continue to take the brunt of the impacts of fossil fuel development.
Where does the money come from?
It’s clear that the Green New Deal plan is more about investment opportunities and infrastructure than it is about anything else. Imagine if we actually took on “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency” and “overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.” It sounds good until you realize the sheer scale of this undertaking, which essentially requires replacing the entirety of our existing built environment. How do you do that without a boatload of money (more than I can imagine), and a whole lot of “natural resources” (that is, materials like wood, steel, aluminum, concrete, insulation, synthetic fibers, metals, minerals, and so much more, all of which requires mining, manufacturing, and do we know how to do that without a whole lot of fossil fuels?). I have no idea what that would cost in dollars, but I can well imagine what it would cost to the natural world.
And the question is: who’s going to pay for it? Most of the plan’s provisions will require public funding through subsidies. Building wind and solar farms, constructing high-speed rail and maintaining roads, upgrading buildings for energy efficiency, restoring ecosystems, cleaning up hazardous waste, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere — all of these ideas and others in the plan require public funding and, in most cases, corporate execution.
The public subsidizes fossil fuels to the tune of billions per year so perhaps some of those subsidies will be shifted to these new efforts. That will require many in Congress to change deep and ancient allegiances — that’s not impossible, but will take a lot of work and a miracle or two. Those billions will pay for some of the Green New Deal, but the plan will need a lot more.
Or, maybe Ocasio-Cortez and Markey will take some money from the military budget, especially since the US military uses profligate amounts of fossil fuels, and is responsible for most of the EPA’s superfund sites. Oh, wait, nevermind! The Green New Deal doesn’t mention the military at all, and no politician in their right mind would consider cutting the military even one iota.
Perhaps Ocasio-Cortez and Markey plan to pay for the Green New Deal by taxing the rich? This is where the plan is perhaps the trickiest of all, because US policy has been firmly in the neo-liberal, free-market loving, lower taxes camp now for years, under both Democrats and Republicans. Without a massive shift in attitude about taxes and public investment, this plan cannot possibly get out of committee and into law. Will the global money-making opportunities for multinational corporations as we “export US technology, expertise, products, and services to other countries” as outlined in the plan be enough to push it through? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, the plan acts as a moral hazard, taking time and energy away from the real work of reducing our use of fossil fuels. While the so-called environmental NGOs and progressive democrats work to push forward this corporate boondoggle, industry continues to burn more fossil fuels, build more infrastructure, and destroy more of the natural world.
What about the natural world?
And what about the natural world? What about the people and wildlife whose land the civilized continue to take and fragment and pollute and ultimately, destroy? Whether the US is implementing, and exporting to other countries, fossil fuel development or so-called renewable energy technology and its associated mines, manufacturing, roads, infrastructure, pollution, and jobs, the people and wildlife who live on the land always lose. Making people dependent on the jobs of the modern world, whether it’s digging coal out of the ground for power plants or digging cobalt and copper out of the ground for wind turbines and solar panels, is a crime. These jobs aren’t life-giving; they are misery-making and life-taking.
Elites like Bill Gates and Steven Pinker like to claim that things are getting better as modernization takes over the world; that poverty is decreasing, and education is increasing. The problem with that view of the world is that it completely discounts that indigenous people could live indefinitely on their land-base, in extreme poverty by our modern standards, but with the greatest of wealth as measured by the potential longevity of their cultures. As this recent article in The Guardian describes, civilized colonizers violently destroy subsistence economies, forcing people off the land and into factories and mines, where they are paid almost nothing for work they never wanted to do. They may be better educated in the ways of modern living, but they are quickly de-educated in the ways of living on the land. On balance, that is a massive and irreparable loss of vital wisdom about how to live well on this planet.
The article speaks of this colonization and coerced proletarianisation as happening primarily in the past, but we know of course that it continues today. Whether it’s indigenous people being displaced for a pipeline, for an airport, for wind farms, for mining, for industrial agriculture and logging, for bigotry, or for tourism, at the end of the day, the machine of modernity continues to strip them of their livelihoods, their land, and their culture. As the Atenco people say, “We want to work our land, not wash the airport’s restrooms for a living.”
Displacement of indigenous people for infrastructure is not the only displacement that happens when a new industry comes to town. Naomi Klein describes the many thousands of people who moved for jobs during the World War II-era economic mobilization, and says “we should expect a great many to move again to be part of a renewables revolution.” The elite seldom comprehend the impact of moving people from their communities, the land they grew up on, their support systems, their family homes. The people who can easily get up and move for a job tend to be the most wealthy in our societies, people who live in cities, people with no roots, no connection to home or to place, people who spend their vacations in far flung lands, but can’t name the trees in the park down the block from where they live, much less grow their own food. For the rest of us, moving can be traumatic. For the indigenous, moving is usually a life-shattering event.
And who speaks for the wild beings whose habitat we take for mines, for roads, for infrastructure, for “resources”? A fenced off solar farm, or a string of massive steel wind turbines sitting in a forest clearing on top of huge concrete bases, or a copper mine, or a power plant capturing CO2 — these aren’t “clean and green” to the wild beings. These are just more ways we civilized humans have of taking what’s theirs and never giving back.
The Green New Deal plan is the latest desperate and delusional attempt to keep the industrialized and civilized world as we know it going a little bit longer. Despite its lofty goals, the plan has nothing real to offer.
What is real? Massively reducing our consumption is real. Reversing population growth is real. Shutting down military imperialism and its attendant pollution and greenhouse gas emissions is real. Drawing down and eliminating extraction industries is real. Shifting to local, non-extractive, non-capitalist economies is real. Restoring natural communities is real. Re-educating ourselves about the natural world is real. Re-learning how to live on the land and be truly free again is real.
Politicians who are bought by corporations, and who subsidize those corporations with public money, will never solve the climate crisis, or any of the other myriad crises facing our world. The Green New Deal is just another head fake in service to capitalist elites while the world burns. Don’t let it distract you from the real work, the only work left that’s worth doing: dismantling industrial civilization.