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Thinking About the Green New Deal

The usual suspects weigh in on the Green New Deal with not a doubt in their military minds. One side delivers ringing endorsements of a visionary program that will bring "unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States" (Michael Brune, Executive Director, Sierra Club). From the other comes a barrage of grim warnings of a "wildly unrealistic" socialist agenda that "seeks to use the issue of the environment to impose a grand vision for a planned society — one with high taxes, and less choice" (David Ditch, budget and transportation associate, Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget, Heritage Foundation).

It will come as no surprise to those who come to this space regularly, or even from time to time, that my heart and my head are with the Green New Dealers. The urgency of the climate crisis can hardly be overstated. The call for a national mobilization on the order of the mobilizations during the Great Depression and World War II is warranted. The world we knew as children is gone forever. What lies ahead is uncertain even if drastic measures are adopted. It may already be too late to escape disaster. That does not mean we should not try.

My purpose here is not to get into a critique of the critics, nor to present another glowing tribute, but rather to take up a point or several that advocates for the Green New Deal do not typically address. Perhaps these caveats and quibbles are taken up elsewhere. They are not front and center.

If the climate crisis is of the magnitude many of us believe it to be, it seems likely, I would say highly probable, that all of us will have to change how we live in ways we do not wish. Yet nowhere have I seen a call for shared sacrifice. The goal of an equitable, clean energy economy rests on a quaint faith that the gods of technology will deliver it if only we have the national will to set them to the task. If history has taught us anything about these gods, it is that they are a capricious and fickle bunch. Their gifts are often accompanied by unanticipated, unintended, and undesirable consequences.

Too many advocates for the Green New Deal paint the rosiest of scenarios whereby policies and programs undertaken to mitigate the climate crisis will result in "unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States" (Brune), blithely oblivious to the irony that their claim is Trumpian in scope, Trumpian in substance. It will be wonderful if it all works out as they suggest, just as it would be wonderful if Trump's "beautiful tax cut" that benefits the biggest corporations and the wealthiest among us were to redound to the greater good when the dust settles at the end. Both are perhaps possible. Neither is likely. Somewhere, somehow, someone who is on the board with the Green New Deal should be taking stuff like this into account rather than leaving it to the usual suspects among critics to bring up points of this sort as they try to hammer the deal into its coffin.

The other point I want to address is the Green New Deal's "insistence that the policies enacted to achieve its goals be developed from the ground up and with the participation of 'frontline and vulnerable communities and workers'" (Brune). This "visionary aspect" of the deal lays out admirable commitments for (quoting from H. Res. 109) "transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses"; "ensuring that the Green New Deal mobilization creates high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers, offers training and advancement opportunities, and guarantees wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition"; and "obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples for all decisions that affect indigenous peoples and their traditional territories, honoring all treaties and agreements with indigenous peoples, and protecting and enforcing the sovereignty and land rights of indigenous peoples."

It would be reassuring if somewhere, somehow, there was a glimmer of recognition that buy-in from various groups, free, prior, and informed consent, &c., might not be so easily come by. What is to be done when groups and factions balk at sacrifice that they perceive to be demanded of them but not of others? What is to be done when factions, be they frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, or businesses, see this or that policy or program as an unjust imposition that conflicts with the interests of their people? We cannot count on the blithe presumption that everyone will see reason, as our group defines it, and everything will all fall into place.

Labor leaders in California have protested Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's "Green New Deal LA" plan, expressing the belief that all the Green New Deal "does is do what the Democratic Party seems to be very good at lately—which is export our jobs, while doing nothing for the end game, which is the environmental" (Robbie Hunter, president of the state Building and Construction Trades Council, quoted in Marinucci and Khan). Elsewhere commercial fishermen raise concerns about the impact of wind farms on their industry. Workers may not want to give up their jobs even if retraining and new employment are part of the deal. This may may not be altogether realistic or reasonable on their part. It is nonetheless a very human response that does not seem to be taken in account.

Only one thing is stupider than absolute pessimism and that is absolute optimism. —Albert Camus.

This is not an argument against the Green New Deal. This is a plea for sober assessment and honest presentation of the challenges likely to come with its implementation, along with acknowledgement that there will always be unforeseen challenges whose nature we cannot guess at the present time. Dramatic action to address the crisis is needed whether it brings about unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security or not. By all means deliver a positive message that will generate enthusiasm, rally the troops, and garner support that is as widespread as can be found. But failure to accompany that message with the message that we are all in this together and we may all be called on to make sacrifices is at best short-sighted. Absurd promises that create utopian expectations have a distressing tendency to come back to bite us where it is most unpleasant. We cannot afford that any more than we can afford the status quo on the environment.


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