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Between Salvation and Doom – Notes on the Green New Deal

At a time when their fall was certain –
On the ramparts the lament for the dead had begun –
The Trojans adjusted small pieces, small pieces
In the triple wooden gates, small pieces.
And began to take courage, to hope.

The Trojans too, then.

– Brecht


Despite the ambitious goals set out in the Green New Deal, the proposal is probably too little too late. Had this set of transformative actions been proposed, and acted upon, in 1988 when James Hansen (then director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies) had warned Congress that anthropogenic climate change had begun – such steps might have been enough. But it has been thirty years since that warning, and in that time there’s been a lot of fiddling, and not nearly enough acting.

To be clear, this is not to suggest we don sackcloth, begin whipping ourselves, and crying out to the heavens that all is lost. For all is not lost. Nevertheless, this is also not a moment in which anybody should give a sigh of relief and conclude that all will be well. For it won’t be. The Green New Deal is the most ambitious plan currently on offer and therefore it should be supported. Nevertheless, this support should be couched in a recognition that we are in a train speeding towards a collision – and even if the Green New Deal isn’t the emergency brake it is a concerted effort to reduce the speed. If reducing the speed buys us time to find the emergency brake, so be it.

After it was proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, the reactions to the Green New Deal (GND) have been largely predictable. The right has blasted it as a ridiculous government takeover. The center, which includes much of the media, has looked on with mocking curiosity while framing the proposals as being ultimately unrealistic. While the left (at least in terms of the left that has much of a platform) has been largely supportive, and for the most part has avoided accusing the plan of not going far enough. Arguably, many of these reactions have been in bad faith, insofar as they offer nothing in the way of an alternative to the GND (except, that is, for doing nothing). This is unsurprising coming from the right which has staked its ideological identity to denying that climate change is real, but it has proved more of a challenge for the center which wants to simultaneously claim that it believes the scientific consensus while still refusing to draw any conclusions about the need to act. This is not to suggest that the GND should not be critiqued, but it is to say that many of the critiques of the GND are couched in a desire to do nothing – or nothing significant.

Drawing on the findings from the most recent IPCC report, the GND sets out some ambitious goals to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. These include steeply reducing greenhouse gas emissions with a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. And the plan aims to achieve these goals by investing in building resiliency to protect against climate change related weather events, upgrading infrastructure (including existing buildings), shifting to renewable and zero-emission energy sources, overhauling transportation systems, and much else. What’s particularly interesting is that such goals are couched in a recognition that life expectancy is decreasing, wages are stagnant, and that the wealth gap is less of a gap and more of a yawning chasm. Thus, the GND seeks “to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States” and “to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity.”

While its predictable that certain people would react to any reference to addressing systemic injustices as being inherently a signal that the Green New Deal is actually the Red Takeover Plan – it’s much easier to see the GND as a plan to save capitalism. And in that way it bears a strong similarity to the original New Deal which addressed crises created by capitalism without actually replacing capitalism. Throughout the resolution there are frequent references to creating good jobs, spurring clean manufacturing, to economic growth, to raising wages, to investment – but there is no reference to nationalizing industries, or worker control. Even the points which could be accused as planning the economy are framed entirely around giving consumers more choices. The point here is not to engage in a lengthy debate about what qualifies as socialism (a debate currently consuming certain segments of the left), but trying to make capitalism greener while ensuring that the prosperity of the 1% is more broadly shared is really an attempt to save capitalism from itself. There are certainly some who would argue that tackling climate change requires dismantling capitalism, but those people are not the authors of the GND – no matter how much right-wing media tries to demonize them.

Of course, the best way to know what is in the plan is to read it yourself.

Granted, the resolution is just a first step, an opening bid, and there are reasons for optimism and pessimism.


Reasons to be optimistic

 Let us start with the positive. The idea of the GND has been floating around for a little while but until the resolution was released there was nothing real to point to. And there is much to be said for the resolution as it clearly draws a line that connects the GND to the need to redress growing inequality. Though the GND isn’t an attack on capitalism (alas), it still draws attention to the fact that those who are already suffering most from climate change (and who will suffer most in the future) are the impoverished and communities of color. It’s also good to see the GND base its call for action in the latest science, as this allows the proposal to claim that it is an earnest attempt to rise to the seriousness of the situation. Furthermore, the way in which the GND discusses risk and resilience deserves special praise as it recognizes that addressing climate change must also involve ameliorating and responding to the threats exacerbated by climate change. Indeed, the focus on resilience in the GND speaks to a recognition that even if these proposals are set in motion there will still be destructive hurricanes and horrific wildfires – and action must be done to mitigate these risks.

And, despite the argument that the GND doesn’t go far enough, it’s refreshing that it goes as far as it does. There was a risk that the GND would be little more than a renewed call for Cap and Trade, or a suggestion for a modest gas tax, or that the entire document would hinge on deluded fantasies about magical technofixes. On the one hand, you can criticize the GND for taking a “let’s do everything” approach – but at the same time, it deserves credit for recognizing that lots of different initiatives need to be explored.

Yet, perhaps the best reason to be optimistic about the GND (and this is coming from a professional pessimist) is the way in which it has shifted the conversation. While its certainly true that the GND has met with some mockery and resistance (even Speaker Pelosi had some rather derisive comments), the fact that everybody is talking about it instead of just ignoring it is in itself significant. Though the GND has not pushed the discussion nearly as far to the left as some on the right like to claim, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez still deserves credit for shifting the discussion on climate change. The GND is a far cry from Al Gore’s call at the end of An Inconvenient Truth that people just need to recycle more and bring reusable bags to the grocery store.  And frankly, that the GND is forcing us to have a discussion on climate change is itself significant. The IPCC’s recent report made a big splash when it came out, but relatively soon after it was released the only people paying attention to it were the same people who had been paying attention to climate change before it was released. But with the GND the discussion has been injected into mainstream discourse (how long it will stay there before it is pushed out by the latest scandal is another question). Furthermore, the GND is quickly picking up a fair amount of support in Congress, including from most of the candidates vying to be the Democratic party’s nominee in 2020. Even more importantly, the GND is earning the support of climate scientists. And thus the GND is not simply some fringe proposal, it bears the stamp of approval from much of one of the US’s major political parties. Which makes a good sort of sense: it’s an infrastructure plan, disaster preparedness program, and jobs program rolled into one. What’s more, the GND has sort of set the terms of the debate. It will be the proposal against which others will be measured.

In the last presidential election, climate change was scarcely mentioned. The GND means that the topic is claiming a spot in political discourse. Not as large a spot as it deserves, but a spot nevertheless. And for these reasons the GND deserves a measure of credit.


Reasons to be pessimistic

The GND resolution is not the bill that will be brought to a vote in either chamber of Congress, nor will it be that which awaits the President’s signature. On the one hand, this is obvious simply because this is a resolution and not a bill. But, on the other hand, the bill that will come up to a vote and then come to the President’s pen will have to wind its way through committees and amendments before it can emerge in a form that will actually be voted on. And to win passage it will need a majority in both Congressional chambers and a President willing to sign it. Meaning, for all of the talk about the GND right now, the chances of it being passed anytime soon is rather low – it’s doubtful McConnell would bring it up for a vote (unless he did it for the express purpose of letting it fail) and it’s even more doubtful to think Trump would sign it. So, the GND would need the Democrats to be in control of the House, Senate, White House – and they’d probably also need a strong enough hold on the Supreme Court to protect the bill. It’s possible the Democrats could hold the House, retake the Senate, retake the White House, and pack the Court in 2020 – but all it takes is one of those things not happening to dim the prospects of the GND significantly. Making this worse is the fact that the more time we spend fiddling about, the more drastic the steps to confront climate change will need to be (and to restate an earlier point, the GND is probably already too little too late). Despite the way it has often been framed, the IPCC was not saying “in 12 years the world ends,” but it was saying that we don’t have any time to waste – and the GND is not about to become the law of the land tomorrow.

Nevertheless, let us imagine that the Democrats hold the House, retake the Senate, and retake the White House. What kind of GND would actually get the votes needed to pass? There are certainly some fairly progressive members of the Democratic caucus (and even some democratic socialists), but there are also some very conservative Democrats. How watered down will the GND need to be to get passed? Obviously, the counter here is that the role of activists is to push their representatives into supporting the legislation – but many an elected official has a greater allegiance to the fossil fuel companies funding their campaigns than the people they are ostensibly supposed to support.

Thus, a major problem with the GND is that far from being too radical, it is not nearly radical enough. This is based on the way that political compromise generally works: you ask for the crust, and you just get crumbs. In fairness, the GND is asking for an entire slice, but that just means it will probably result in the crust being offered. A wiser move would have been to insist on the bread, the table, the chairs, the plate, the knife, and putting the bakers in charge of the kitchen – and then we’d probably at least get a couple of slices. If the GND is the opening bid, what parts will be discarded in the name of compromise? How much padding will be invested in the time scales? How many exceptions will be carved out for polluting industries? The danger is that we start with the GND and we wind up with Cap and Trade. Were the GND genuinely the far-left proposal that it’s being framed as – if it called for nationalizing and shuttering the oil and gas industries, called for firing the executives of those companies directly into the sun – than perhaps the final “compromise” bill that emerges would look like the GND as currently proposed. But there is a real danger that the thing which will eventually have the title “Green New Deal” slapped on it, will have little more than a passing resemblance to this resolution.

Here there is some cynical truth to the centrists who are saying “be realistic” – what they’re really saying is “that won’t get passed.” Granted, that particular appeal to being “realistic” makes the chances of a genuine climate catastrophe much more probable. A “realistic” reading of the climate science says that we needed something like the GND twenty years ago. The “realistic” alternatives that are floated, the “realistic” bill that gets passed, will – if we’re being realistic – not be good enough.

Indeed, the best counter to critics of the GND who say “be realistic” is to say “I agree, the GND isn’t nearly radical enough.”

In politics a refrain that is often used as a bludgeon against activists is that you shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But in this case it’s important to recognize that the GND isn’t the perfect, it’s already “the good enough” that we’re being told to settle for. That which will eventually be offered will be the mediocre. And it will be offered against a backdrop of climate catastrophe intensifying in real time while we continue fiddling.

And, of course, the most important thing to recognize is that climate change is not some looming threat to the distant future. Climate change is already here. It is already causing destruction and death. And many of the countries and communities being hit the hardest by climate change are those that bear the least responsibility for causing this crisis. Those people cannot wait for justice or for support – they need it yesterday.


Looking to History

Placing the Green New Deal into a historical context provides further reasons for measured optimism and dour pessimism. True, the GND is hard to map perfectly onto previous scenarios given that its proposals and challenges are of this moment, but there are still things that can be learned by looking backwards.

Most importantly, the idea of a dramatic mobilization of people and resources along multiple lines in a short timespan isn’t that difficult to imagine. Mass electrification, the development of the interstate highway system, the space race, SAGE, civil defense in the Cold War, the Marshall Plan, the Manhattan Project, the original New Deal – when it is decided that something needs to be done, the resources really can materialize. Of course, this is not to uncritically praise the aforementioned programs (far from it), and it must be noted that many of those represent the shifts that take place to quickly prepare a country for a war or for a lengthy standoff with an adversary. None of those initiatives involved shrinking the economy or arguing for people to reconsider the high consumption way of life – indeed, some of those took the preservation of precisely that way of life as a goal – and the same is largely true of the GND. What sets the GND apart from those earlier moments is that in the present scenario there is a lack of political agreement regarding the danger afoot – the right pretends there is no danger, while the center admits that the danger is real but refuses to take the required action. That the GND would be expensive is a banal point to make, faced with a looming threat the US government has historically found the funds for ambitious projects. Therefore, if you’re looking for a reason for measured optimism, it’s worth remembering that the sorts of mobilizations and transformations called for by the GND are possible. They’ve happened before. And they can happen again. The US hasn’t always been a country of cars, or planes, or computers – so the idea that it could be a country with high-speed rail and solar power isn’t that hard to envision.

But enough with the uplifting talk. For, if you look into some of history’s forgotten corners, it’s easy to conclude that the GND isn’t particularly new. Or, to put this differently, social critics have been arguing for something along the lines of the GND for most of the 20th century. Certainly, those calls to action weren’t always focused on climate change, the specific actions they proposed were different (and they weren’t resolutions proposed by sitting members of Congress) but, still, people warning that our allegiance to a high-tech high-consumption lifestyle was going to lead to a planetary emergency is nothing new. And neither are the attempts to map out a different way of organizing society so as to prevent these calamities. Granted, the present situation is a testament to the fact that such warnings have generally been ignored, with those who have advanced such claims being derided as “alarmists” and “prophets of doom.” However, now we find ourselves staring into the swiftly approaching calamity they warned us about, and we would have been better off had we taken their warnings more seriously. After all, had we started making the sorts of transitions called for by the GND thirty years ago, we would be in much better shape today.

So, can we do something like the GND? Can we mobilize workers, scientists, engineers, and everyone to work towards an ambitious transformation? Sure, it’s possible, it’s happened before.

But when we survey the present situation it is vital to remember that we aren’t here because the problem has suddenly appeared – we’re here because we’ve ignored the problem for far too long. Many things can be said about our present situation, but not that we weren’t warned.


We are not doomed and neither are we saved

Perhaps the main talking point that was generated by the 2018 IPCC report was the idea that we only have 12 years left to act. This was a comment that emerged based on the report’s warning that if emissions aren’t dramatically reduced by 2030, it will be extremely difficult to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This resulted in numerous frightened headlines touting “12 years left” – and that report serves as the introductory point for the GND resolution. It would be ridiculous to downplay the seriousness of the IPCC report. And in the months since that report was released there has been a steady flood of scientific studies suggesting that things are falling apart even faster than expected – meaning that the IPCC report may have actually been overly optimistic.

And yet it’s essential to recognize: it is not that if we hit 2030 without taking action that we will all suddenly cease to be. It may be tempting to engage in some good old fashioned dirge singing, but we aren’t six feet under yet – even if we’re still digging our graves. If we fail to act things will continue to deteriorate, we will see more powerful hurricanes, more droughts, more deadly heatwaves, more flooding, and more wildfires. The disasters we have seen are but a taste of the disasters to come. And a society in the midst of ecological collapse, battered constantly by worsening storms, is unlikely to be one that provides a home to a democratic form of governance. But the fight to mitigate the dangers and to help one another will be ongoing. We must keep warming below 1.5 degrees, but if we fail at that we’ll have to fight to keep warming below 1.6 degrees, or 1.7 degrees, or 1.8 degrees, and so forth. Though, as the temperature rises the chances of it triggering further disasters increases as well.

To be frank, the GND probably isn’t going to keep us below 1.5 degrees of warming. We’re still years away from the GND being implemented, and as was already argued whatever form the final GND takes will probably be less impactful than what is proposed in the resolution. What’s more we are not currently in a moment of stasis and stability, the environmental situation is getting worse in real time. The five hottest years on record were the last five years, and 2019 is likely to earn itself a place in that top five. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s rolling back of environmental regulations and its adoration for oil, gas, and coal means that we are just hurtling towards the catastrophe faster and faster. The GND resolution is a step in the right direction, but every day our society is taking several leaps in the wrong direction.

Nevertheless, we are not yet decisively doomed, but neither for that matter is our salvation afoot.

There is much that remains unknown still, but the thing that we need to begin to accept is that the future will look radically different from today. The question is in what ways it will look different. It may look like an ecotopia that results from a green great awakening, it may look like any number of works of dystopian fiction that entwine environmental collapse with the rise of authoritarian political forces, it may look like a society slowly coming apart at the seams as it is battered by disaster after disaster, and it may look many other ways. It is impossible to be sure exactly how it will look, but it is safe to assume that it will not look the way it does now.

The Green New Deal is an attempt to make that different future be one that is less dystopian. It is an attempt to make that future be one that is largely understandable from the present context as it is based upon ensuring continuity. It probably does not go far enough. It will probably be watered down even further before it is passed, but it recognizes that change is coming. We can take steps to change our society for the better now, or we can wait for the coming disasters to simply change it into ruins for us.

The Green New Deal is not an emergency brake. Rather it is an attempt to decrease the speed with which we are hurtling towards the catastrophe in the hopes of softening the impact. We need an emergency brake, but slowing down might buy us a bit more time in which to find that emergency brake.

And that’s better than nothing.


Related Content

The Apocalyptic Turn

“We’re Doomed, Now What?”  – a book review

The End of the World by Science

Notes Towards a Productive Pessimism

Prescience and Pessimism


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “Between Salvation and Doom – Notes on the Green New Deal

  1. David F
    February 11, 2019

    I like the GND, but I think we all know that it won’t get through the political process and that, lingering on the horizon, is the techno-utopian solutions of geoengineering. And of course, the usual suspects will make lots of money on techno-solutions, which will be taken from the public sector, because that’s what always happens…

  2. notabilia
    February 11, 2019

    Somehow, the “we are not doomed” mantra seems always to betray a very nervous boosterism- it’s okay to just slightly twist it and say, “Of course we’re doomed, any idiot can see that – just what kind of doom, when, and for how many billions is what the future will decide.”
    Trillions of barrels of oil in, trillions more in the literal pipelines, the massed weight of the global transnational fossil fuel industry and its institutional accomplices vs. the Wishhopium of the no-groundwork US “Green New Deal” – why does the left waste such time on trivial lameness? Anything short of shooting all the fossil fuel corporations en masse and starting over stands not the slightest chance of altering anything for the better.

  3. Pingback: “No one wants to see disaster coming, but those who look, do.” – A Review of “The Uninhabitable Earth” | LibrarianShipwreck

  4. Pingback: Be Afraid! But not that afraid? – on Climate Doom | LibrarianShipwreck

  5. Pingback: The Sky Isn’t Falling – Franzen still has much to learn | LibrarianShipwreck

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