ahe revival of the Green New Deal framework (first developed in a report published in 2008) and popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats in the US, is a huge advance for green campaigners and, hopefully, for our threatened species. That is because it has a single radical ask: an ecological and economic transformation of the current system to end our addiction to fossil fuels and endless consumption of the earth’s finite assets.
The Green New Deal demands major structural (governmental and inter-governmental) changes (not just behavioural change) in our approach to the ecosystem. In addition, and as in the 1930s, such change to be driven by radical structural transformation of the finance sector, and the economy. It was developed on the understanding that finance, the economy and the ecosystem are all tightly bound together. Protecting and restoring the ecosystem to balance cannot be tackled effectively without transformation of the other sectors. Financing the transformation of the economy away from its dependence on fossil fuels cannot be achieved without a transformation of the finance sector.
Way back in 2009, before the Copenhagen conference on climate change, I watched in dismay as a “green” demonstration assembled in London’s Trafalgar Square. A relatively small group of people (I had witnessed many much larger demonstrations descend on that famous square) were there to demand that world leaders do something to protect societies from climate breakdown. But it was not at all clear what exactly was wanted of those leaders. This was because they, and their leaders had not arrived at a consensus behind an “ask” of the rich and powerful gathered in Copenhagen.
There was no slogan akin to “give women the vote”, “cancel poor country debt by 2000” or “repeal apartheid laws”. The reason why was plain to see. Like a football ground covered in advertising by competing brands, Trafalgar Square was covered in the banners and posters of many different non-governmental organisations – some green, some not. Despite all the “messaging” these organisations were preoccupied with their own survival and had failed to cooperate to unite behind a single demand of world leaders. Instead, like brands displayed in any football ground, they were involved in a competitive game of raising profiles to secure additional funding.
The green movement, dubbed the “largest movement on earth”, is vast, disparate, atomised and marginalised. As the ever-vigilant Paul Hawken notes, it “cannot be seen … by anyone”. It has failed to connect with movements against the “globalist” establishment – and against austerity and insecurity. One reason is that its advocates tend to focus on individual (“change your lightbulbs”) or community (“recycle, reuse, reduce, localise”) action. They have been weak at understanding and promoting the need for radical structural change across sectors and at a global and national level – change that involves state action. And such structural change cannot just be undertaken at the level of international negotiations on the environment. It has to embrace, as the Green New Deal does – the need for structural change to the global financial and economic system.
Its ambition is on a much grander scale than Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. (Recall that his administration also faced an ecological catastrophe: the dust bowl). The climate threats we face are on a scale beyond the imagination of New Dealers. Still we must learn from Roosevelt’s administration. To tackle climate change we need simultaneously to tackle the root cause of growing toxic emissions: a self-regulating, globalised financial system that injects exponential supplies of unregulated credit into the hands of speculators and consumers. Credit that is used in turn to inflate the prices of existing assets, and to fuel consumption of the earth’s finite assets extracted via the energy of fossil fuels. Only once we switch off, regulate and moderate the “tap” of “easy money” will it be possible to regulate and “switch off” the toxic emissions of fossil fuels.
The realism of the Green New Deal demand is precisely because it harks back to an era in which the global economy was transformed (almost overnight) by the revolutionary Keynesian monetary policies of an American president. These enabled his administration to deploy fiscal policy to transform both the domestic economy, but also the dust bowl. This was done by creating millions of jobs via the Conservation Civilian Corps, whose workers planted more than 3bn trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide during nine years of existence.
The experience and success of the New Deal – deeply flawed in many respects – nevertheless assures us that transformation is possible. After all, it has been done before, and within living memory.
And we know that can be done, because it was done before – by the popular will that backed Franklin D Roosevelt’s administration as it began (on the night of his inauguration in 1933) to dismantle the globalised gold standard system.
That is the broad, conceptual framework offered by the Green New Deal. An “umbrella” for mobilising and unifying the efforts of millions of people tackling climate breakdown, financial sector failure and globalised economic insecurity. An umbrella that will hopefully unite and inspire vast numbers of green activists across the world – and in turn trigger state action to subordinate finance to the interests of society and the ecosystem – and thereby ensure a livable planet for future generations.
- Ann Pettifor is director of Prime: Policy Research in Macroeconomics and a fellow of the New Economics Foundation