green new deal

Brought back to life by Democrats in both the US Senate (Ed Markey) and House of Representatives (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), the Green New Deal (GND) resurrects a platform proposed by the Green Party in 2006. The proposal, in the form of a Resolution, aims at both the threat of global warming and economic inequality. The key elements are:

  • Guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.
  • Providing all people of the United States with – (i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.
  • Providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States.
  • Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.
  • Repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States, including . . . by eliminating pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as technologically feasible.
  • Building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘smart’ power grids, and working to ensure affordable access to electricity.
  • Upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification.
  • 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 – (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.
  • Spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry as much as is technologically feasible.
  • Working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.

I won’t comment here on the first three items. The response to the threats of global warming and climate change is primarily based on some form of eco-efficiency: reducing the impacts of a unit of consumption or production, whether from manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, or infrastructure. This is basically the same strategy that has been employed ever since pollution of all sorts began to be subject to regulatory controls starting in the 1970s. The focus still is on the source of pollutants, including greenhouse gases.

But while these sources are the proximate causes of the impacts and threats, they are not the root causes. Global economies and ecosystems (including the atmosphere) are complex in nature with many interwoven relationships that determine how the system performs. The Green New Deal is silent on the subject of economic growth and its practical equivalents, consumption and production. The more we consume (and produce) the larger the emission of pollutants will be unless the increase in eco-efficiency (a ratio) is larger that the relative increase in economic output. Another way to think about the tie between the output of undesirable wastes and pollutants is to use the term, decoupling, alluding to the ability to increase output (growth) without a concomitant increase in wastes and pollutants.

Good ideas, both eco-efficiency or decoupling, but only if they would work in practice, but that hasn’t happened sufficiently to balance economic growth, particularly in the rapidly developing nations, like China or India. But it also true here in the United States. Achieving the environmental goals of the Green New Deal depends on large gains in eco-efficency. Some are possible merely by substituting solar energy for fossil-based systems.

Much as I respect those who are promoting the GND, they fail to recognize the root causes, or, at least, make no mention of them. We cannot effectively address these brand classes of ills unless we first acknowledge their origin properly as arising from the cultural basket of beliefs and norms, which in turn, reflect an incomplete and incorrect worldview encompassing both the natural world and the human species. The political system is unlikely to offer or listen to any arguments that lead us to the roots. The ability to listen to any argument that departs from the already present ideologies has become scarce, as well, as any processes to prevent such ossification of discourse.

The GND falls into a familiar systems archetype, or pattern of behavior called shifting the burden. It is characterized by a continued effort to reduce the symptoms of some persistent problem, say, global climate change, while ignoring the root causes. This pattern can be found in many settings from family life to businesses to public policy. It is a common cause of breakdown because it allows the problem to grow in spite of efforts to deal with it. In our technologically optimistically, rational culture, it is a constant issue and a difficult habit to break.

Nonetheless, if we are to make any headway to cope with climate change and other growing environmental problems, including ones like adequate water availability or disappearing habitats and the species that contain, we cannot ignore these causes and address them along with any efforts to mitigate the symptoms. The fundamental traits that distinguish our species have allowed us to grow in numbers without limit, by modifying the world, have the potential to bring that very world to a point where all our smarts cannot prevent it from failing to provide a habitat for us, just as it does for other species that lack our capabilities.

One Reply to “A Green New Deal (But Not Enough)”

  1. Hello John – Thank you for your new post. These sentences are so elegant: “The GND falls into a familiar systems archetype, or pattern of behavior called shifting the burden. It is characterized by a continued effort to reduce the symptoms of some persistent problem, say, global climate change, while ignoring the root causes. This pattern can be found in many settings from family life to businesses to public policy. It is a common cause of breakdown because it allows the problem to grow in spite of efforts to deal with it.” Thank you for helping me notice this framing.

    I look forward to seeing you later this spring in Maine.

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