The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can
(City Lights, 2020)
Is it weird that it would be the pen of a plant breeder who specializes in perennial sorghum, Stan Cox of The Land Institute, that would give us the most concise, careful, and politically serious action program for responding to the climate crisis so far published? For those who know Cox’s previous work, on air conditioning, rationing, and unnatural disasters, it is not very weird at all. His deft pen seldom fails to sketch out problems and solutions for human societies with economy and grace. His latest, The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (San Francisco: City Lights, 2020) will surely add to that reputation.
The last year has seen a bumper crop of literature on Green New Deals (GNDs), ranging from the conversational and superficial to more serious engagements with macro-economics and investment strategy. Cox’s book shows with disarming simplicity a critical missing element in much of this literature. What, after all, are we talking about when we talk about climate change? In technical terms, the incineration of tremendous quantities of hydrocarbons and adding gigatons of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide to the atmosphere. In layman’s terms, burning up coal and oil and natural gas, deforesting, and in so doing, causing the greenhouse effect. How to stop doing it? One must, minimally, stop burning those three substances. One can have or not have the political will, and one can have or not have the needed alternative technologies to replace the carbon-powered-and-forged technostructure. But one thing is for sure: without a carefully planned program to actually eliminate the consumption of fossil fuels, we are going nowhere fast, and we without the means to hole up in Antarctica and space stations are going to purgatory fast. The book’s iron core is precisely a how-to guide for how to ensure those blocks and liquids stay where they are instead of becoming CO2 and threatening to disrupt the lives of billions, and to do so in a way which makes the lives of the planet’s poor better, not worse.
Cox constructs his argument against competing notions which dominate the GND debate on the very broad—too broad, one can even say—green liberal-left, which now often is shellacked with eco-socialist coating. Yet the inability of the liberal-left ecological discourse to face up to capitalism militates against it being genuinely ecological. The uniform pale green of the dollar overtakes the shamrocks, emeralds, and pear greens of the forest pretty fast. Increasingly, Keynesian programs for investment based on tremendous state-led growth in renewable energy infrastructure dominate discussion. Such programs are not just Keynesian in the popular sense of government spending but are Keynesian in the deeper sense of seeing the 1930s–1940s efforts as replicable. They imagine that wealthy economies can grow out of poverty and recession and fossil-fuel burning perdition. And they imagine that much more difficult questions do not need to be posed, let alone answered.
We do not, according to such green Keynesianisms, sometimes decorated with anti-racist sentiment, have to question, let alone reject, anything more fundamental.1 For example, an economic system based on unequal accumulation, leading to endless growth of the things that make up the economy. And we do not need to reckon with, let alone offer reparations for, the colonial and neocolonial looting that has made our planet a divided world.
Keynesianism, of course, was never meant to be a system for eliminating private wealth. It has been a system for protecting that wealth. If one calls for eliminating such wealth, people will attempt to muzzle and suppress you, and if you do not mention it, then you may be offered a platform and plaudits. Such strategic silences in the draft legislation from Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez account for the seemingly sudden, miraculous, and mainstream coverage of her proposal, which in its skeletal form had not anything to do with eco-socialism (if one reads the bill, it calls for sending government money to the private sector). Instead, as Cox observes, the AOC GND’s “proponents managed to steer it clear of approaches that are viewed by the corporate sector as threats to wealth accumulation and economic growth.”
It did, to be fair, start a conversation about the ecology within certain social layers which had until then more or less ignored ecological issues. But as always, the question which arises when we hear the buzzword of a change in the discourse is: is the new discourse any good? And the next question is: how can we make it better and bridge the gap between vaguely anti-racist and pro-capitalist green Keynesianism and true systems change?
Such a bridge has to start by identifying problems with current proposals and move on to new ones. Cox’s ecological criticism of green Keynesianism is where the book begins to break new ground. As he points out, most GNDs are mute on the most important question of all: what is to be done to and with the fossil fuels so that they begin, more and more, faster and faster, to stay in the ground? In fact, there is a good reason for this. They were or are stimulus plans. Many of the GNDs, even that of the now-dead letter Bernie Sanders, which although severely flawed was the best of the bunch, were basically jobs-for-all recovery programs, a rust-red of labor mixed with some green. But stimulus—indeed, the entire notion of macro-economic management coupled with class peace—and growth as the way such impulsions play out under capitalism, need to go. It is very clear that a large number of sectors of what is called the economy need to shrink, very fast. Such shrinkage means that Keynesianism, which historically meant a sweeping expansion of the US industrial plant, has to go too.
What is supposed to shrink? Cox speaks plainly of confiscatory expropriations from the richest third of the US population. With a parry so gentle and sure that one hardly sees it, he makes clear that the book is not an argument for austerity based on compressing and ripping into the incomes of those already suffering and—in the wake of COVID-19 and the Depression-level economic torture—sure to suffer yet more. He argues for a changed, but not worse, life for the poor of the US and of the world.
And although the New Deal is frequently summoned up as the preferred all-American brand for economic reconstruction, he reminds us of the bad in it along with the good: the systemic racism of housing discrimination, the exclusion of much of the Black workforce from benefits. But he also points to the good, in particular that the later programs of the long New Deal in at least one way offer an example of agreement, more or less, by all members of the country to limit certain kinds of material consumption for a common and greater purpose, namely the war effort. Rationing worked because people felt they were doing something together. Why would people not accept rationing, Cox urges us to ask, if it meant gifting a decent world to all the people who come after us?
How and why and with what program to do so? This is the book’s centerpiece, a proposal which alone makes this small gem of a book a must-read for anyone concerned with popular ecology in Europe and the United States. Cox argues we need to do three things at the same time: sharply reduce CO2 emissions in a way that allows no wiggle room for polluters; make sure people, especially poor people, are able to have good lives during this huge and daunting transition; and adapt US society—this is a book primarily targeting the US—to a smaller overall energy supply. To do so, Cox suggests not merely the nationalization of the oil, gas, and coal corporations, but also a hard limit on the hydrocarbons those based in the US may take from the ground each year. If you want to stop such extraction, you need to control the flow precisely at the tap. Such hard limits would be decreased each year, targeting zero use of such fuels by 2030. The direction of the energy produced from ever-smaller pools and piles of hydrocarbons would come under common and democratic control, since the nationalized energy monopolies would become commonwealth utilities. Such utilities could allocate the use of an ever-decreasing hydrocarbon energy supply where it is most needed, in industrial and consumption sectors, for example, building up the truly staggering new industrial plant needed for a great transition, including initially CO2-intensive rotor blades and photovoltaic panels. Meanwhile, families would receive democratically distributed energy ration credits. In this way, laws of ecology and justice would replace laws of value, accumulation, and efficiency. This idea is different from the popular idea of carbon pricing, which is blind to the difference between using CO2 to heat a home in Harlem, or to install passive solar heating, on the one hand, or to haul off to Aruba for a vacation, on the other. As some arithmetic makes clear, putting in place such hard caps would immediately slice off the portions of GDP which the energetic flow from hydrocarbons helps create. There is just no other way to get to zero by 2030, since the pace of construction of renewable energy will not be fast enough to replace all the decommissioned carbon-burning power plants. Even if it were fast enough, questions of storage and ecological consequences have not been seriously addressed. And even such domestic number-crunching hardly accounts for the US duty to provide clean-tech to the Third World which it has so voraciously looted for so many years.2
Cox is also clear, if a bit too brief, on the international aspect of emissions reductions. The US needs to be able to measure the carbon-quantity of any and all imported goods, and to auction off ever-declining quantities of import coupons to those shipping companies which bring them into the US. Rising cost and disincentives around paying for shipping itself and the price to bring in CO2-laden goods will slowly but surely reduce the carbon content of imports.
Finally, there is the kind of world which will be built, or which we wish to see. Cox is also a bit brief here, and this will not be the go-to book for how to design an ecological civilization in North and South alike. Perhaps the relative paucity of attention given to agriculture will be disappointing, given that Cox is that rare chimera, a practicing plant scientist deeply versed in questions of green transition. While his suggestions for urban gardening and CO2 sequestration through agro-ecology are unimpeachable, the kind of shifts in production needed to make the US a society of husbandry, care, ecology, equality, and grace may have needed more attention for people who are aware of how CO2-dense energy sources are the blood of modern capitalist society. People will understandably wonder what a drastic change in their lives would look like. While the book sketches out new urban infrastructures, the role of organic materials is less present. Without CO2-laden production processes, at least some of what is currently procured through or from the land through mindlessly short-sighted industrial technologies will have to be gotten otherwise, whether as the material stock for new building materials based on fungi, or through those age-old, beautiful, and ecologically sound materials of human construction since time immemorial: wood, its cousins like bamboo, or rammed earth, stone, and clay. A great transition is entirely possible, but given the ambition of such a project, many will want more detail before they step into the unknown.
Furthermore, the book has a deliberately limited scope. This a book for a US and implicitly First World audience. It is an attempt to politically intervene in that geopolitical context. Cox’s relative quiet about the Third World is mostly the fruit of a focus on fixing up the mess at home. However, he does make two fundamental points. One is that existing modeling around a shift to 100 percent clean energy more or less accepts that it is possible only by assuming the Third World will maintain its current levels of per-capita energy use. Whereas the US now uses around 9000 Kilowatts per capita, South America uses 1413, Africa as a whole, 625 KW, and India, 755 KW. Those kinds of disparities are clearly intolerable, which is part of why, alongside ecological counter arguments, Cox does not take calls for a renewable-energy cornucopia very seriously. In order for everyone to live well, living well will have to be done at lower uses of energy. This is even more the case given that the goal ought to be to reduce CO2 emissions at the fastest possible pace. Defending the US way of life would leave others very little with which to live.
Although Cox clearly calls for a heavy US contribution to the estimated global transition budget—ballpark $100 trillion—I would have liked more engagement with the theory and practice of climate debt. While we are in a moment when mass radical politics seems imaginable on a scale not seen since the 1960s, it has gone alongside the quiet suppression and erasure of the very clear demands around climate debt for which the Bolivian state radicalized under Evo Morales was the loudest international standard-bearer. Clearly, that is a theory of systems change which accounts powerfully for the colonial legacy and the imperial present, and it is one which contemporary climate rhetoric, increasingly captured by the Democratic Party and para-Democratic organs like Data for Progress, New Consensus, and 350.org will not come up with on their own. Nor will the intellectuals circling in their orbit come up with it.
The question of the Democratic Party and an agenda for transition is the book’s other major absence. Cox gestures at the myriad movements which drove the original New Deal, and he is very clear that it is direct action which delivers the goods. Nor is he shy about pointing out how Bill McKibben’s 350.org has built its program on notions of a full grid transition which are unrealistic for the First World and would doom the Third World to low-energy futures, thus amounting to a new colonialism based on unequal access to energy. What is needed, then, is to go beyond that, and be able to identify clearly the uneasy constellations of interest among 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, Ocasio-Cortez, and most of the left-liberal Green New Deal advocates.3 There’s lots of colorful and distracting pageantry: alluring anti-racist rhetoric, lip service to the evils of settler-colonialism, and even extractive capitalism. But such groups present no clear program even for keeping the carbon in the ground, let alone for honoring universal rights to food, water, and energy. There are no calls for acknowledging climate debt and paying climate reparations – programs for anti-colonialism in action rather than in words; no real plan for material transition to collective and un-alienated and ecological production in the core. In fact, much of this literature pantomimes eco-socialist politics while running cover for political forces, like Ocasio-Cortez, who are concerned with what has been the basic task of the Democratic Party for a very long time: managing capitalism and the empire.
In contrast, Cox has laid out a serious program for domestic action within which poorer inhabitants of the US can find common cause with the poor peoples of the Third and Fourth Worlds. Such an alliance is implicit in the book, as Cox’s horizon of justice goes well beyond the US national territories. It is very clear, furthermore, that such an alliance is absolutely necessary to take on the petroleum companies and the financial institutions which profit from processing their incomes. In speaking of massive suppression of the wealthiest people’s incomes and holdings, Cox suggests, although without stating outright, that alongside going beyond Keynesian Green New Deals, to solve the ecological crisis in a way that serves most of humanity, we must eliminate capitalism. In doing so, we would make one world big enough for everyone. In designing the socio-technical keystone of such a project, Cox has made an important contribution, one that is more than enough for one small book bursting with commitment and energy.
1. In this respect, the Ocasio-Cortez legislation was exemplary: https://ocasio-cortez.house.gov/gnd/resolution
2. It is telling that the flagship Robert Pollin program for a Green New Deal does not actually aim at zero emissions by 2030, though even if we stopped emissions today we would risk 2.5, 3, or even 3.5 degrees of warming. Pollin also argues for maintaining international energy use disparities, which no internationalist can accept.
3. Angela Mitropoulos, “Playing With Fire: Securing the Borders of a Green New Deal,” New Socialist, January 12, 2020, https://newsocialist.org.uk/playing-fire-securing-borders/.