Muddled, top-down, technocratic: why the green new deal should be scrapped
It’s a vision that unites the left, from Joe Biden to John McDonnell. The trouble is, it’s completely unworkable
Q: What binds together such disparate souls as Noam Chomsky and Keir Starmer, Yanis Varoufakis and Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Caroline Lucas?
A: They all want a green new deal.
Rightwingers pretend that today’s left likes nothing better than to pull down statues for a laugh before disinviting speakers from student unions, but they are off by approximately 180 degrees. Only one project truly unifies the mainstream left across Europe and America today: trying to limit climate breakdown by overhauling a noxious economic model. Ask the individual parties how and a hundred flowers duly bloom, but all will be branded with those same three little words.
Promising a green new deal helped clinch the Labour leadership for Starmer. It’s also how Biden keeps the Democrat base onside. It galvanises activists and anchors progressive conversation. Measured from the start of 2018 until this week, the phrase “Green New Deal” appeared in this newspaper and on our website almost as many times as “levelling up” and far more than “Narendra Modi”. Seeing as one of those is Boris Johnson’s signature policy and the other runs the world’s second-most populous country, that is quite the showing.
Such dominance should spur serious interrogation, yet what the green new deal has received so far is mostly explanation or celebration. So aren’t I, as a gainfully employed Guardianista, coming to join the joyous party? Sorry, but no. I like and respect many of the people working on it, and a few I count as friends – at least until they read this. I certainly agree with their top-line argument that the planet cannot afford this kamikaze capitalism. I just don’t see the green new deal as the answer.
The project itself – supposedly a stark, bold, urgent idea – is a conceptual fog. Like some kind of policy peasouper, it nestles densely around arguments of ecological limits, social justice and economic transformation, allowing only a glimpse of their outlines. That suits many on the left, as it serves to obscure all their disagreements and so keep the peace just a little longer. Rare is the bus that can keep on board both Sadiq Khan and John McDonnell, and take them to totally different destinations. But at some point the warm words and the broad coalitions lose their charm and you are left just as the delegates in Glasgow are: facing the grim reality of a planet on fire.
Truth be told, the thing was born in a haze. In 2007, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman took a break from cheering on the Iraq war and crowing about corporate globalisation to pen a demand for a green new deal. His gauntlet was picked up in London by a small group of environmentalists and economists (including Larry Elliott, of this parish), who spent the months after the collapse of Northern Rock writing a plan to tackle the “triple crunch of financial meltdown, climate change and ‘peak oil'”.
No such radicalism was on Friedman’s menu when he wrote: “I am not proposing that we [Americans] radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are – including a car culture. But if we want to continue to be who we are, enjoy the benefits and be able to pass them on to our children, we do need to fuel our future in a cleaner, greener way … The next president will have to rally us with a green patriotism. Hence my motto: ‘Green is the new red, white and blue.'”
Depending on which specs you had on, the green new deal either looked all-American and utterly painless – or it was internationalist and out for bankers’ blood. And down the years, the contradictions have only multiplied.
For AOC and today’s US left, it is about jobs (albeit “green” ones, a term far easier to deploy than to define) and infrastructure; for Lucas, Labour’s Clive Lewis and others currently pushing a green new deal through parliament, it includes citizens’ assemblies and a shorter working week. It is both “a green industrial revolution” in the north of England and debt cancellation for the global south; both low-carbon Keynesianism and nationalisation of the energy industry. It is, in other words, a big duffel bag stuffed with pent-up progressive demands and jumbled up with highly dubious history and tiresome war metaphors.
Why hark back to FDR, who entered the White House nearly a century ago, if you want to be a contemporary global movement? Why lean on Keynes as your crutch, when he set out to save capitalism not to scrap it? Most of all, why talk about a “moonshot moment” (an oft-deployed metaphor by green new dealers, invoking the space race)? The next few decades will not be about inventing entirely new things but substituting for what we already have. Installing heat pumps and ripping out boilers, using renewables rather than fossil fuels, relying on battery power over the internal combustion engine: moving to a lower-carbon future is not going to be a great, dramatic transformation – it will be slow and chronic, and frankly more expensive to societies reared on cheap food, cheap energy and the idea that the rest of the bill for both those things will be picked up by someone else, perhaps yet to be born.
This isn’t just a debate over words; it is a battle between rival visions of the future. When Ed Miliband enthuses in his recent (and good) book, Go Big, about moving to a wartime economy with a vast “carbon army” retrofitting draughty homes, he is talking about a green transition that is done to people rather than with them. And it turns voters off. Earlier this year, the polling firm Survation surveyed Britons on a scheme to employ a million people to insulate houses and asked: what should they call it? At the bottom of the list came green new deal. Almost as bad was green industrial revolution. Far and away the favourite was national recovery plan. A process not a product, common sense rather than radicalism.
At some point, the post-2016 left, radicalised by Trump and Brexit, will have to surrender its notions of a radical programme executed through a vast state machinery. Zombie Johnsonism or revived Trumpism will see them off. I hope what comes next is a more focused, locally rooted and inclusive politics based around asking people what they actually need in their lives, and working out how to fit those things within an environmental framework. That can be done with universal desires such as housing and food, healthcare and education.
This is not about green growth versus degrowth, and all those old dichotomies. It is about recognising that large swaths of Britain are now effectively post-growth, and that the proceeds of whatever growth we have had has been very unfairly divided. So let us stop haring after “British-owned turbine factories” and “dominating the industries of tomorrow” and all the other boilerplate of politics. Let’s get real.
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist