Movement building

Ecosocialists debate the Green New Deal (continued)

Continuing our discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the Green New Deal proposal, and how the left should respond.

Previous contributions have included:

This article is reposted, with permission, from Louis Proyect’s blog, The Unrepentant Marxist. Louis also administers the Marxmail discussion list.


A Peaceable Kingdom (Edward Hicks)

by Louis Proyect

This is a report on debates within ecosocialism about the feasibility of a Green New Deal and other growth oriented perspectives that I obviously can’t pretend to be neutral about. As should be obvious from the articles I cite, there is a growing polarity between those who advocate policies identified with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and those who are far more pessimistic about the possibility of resolving the environmental crisis even within the context of a “democratic socialist” framework.

Jasper Bernes

Recently Commune Magazine published an article titled “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” by its managing editor Jasper Bernes that begins by identifying the “rare metals” that would be essential to the manufacturing of “alternative energy” generators that are critical to the Green New Deal. A mine in Inner Mongolia, China is the primary source of such ore that has contaminating the surrounding area. Bernes refers to “death villages” surrounding the mine that display “Chernobylesque” cancer rates.

Over on FB, Leigh Phillips, the Jacobin contributor who believes that the Green New Deal should include nuclear power, took exception to Bernes’s article, claiming that it “exaggerated” the environmental costs. When I asked him for a citation to back that up, he cited an article by a couple of Chinese scientists who concluded that there was only “a moderate potential ecological risk”. However, if you read their article, it only mentions soil samples and not the lake close to the mine that is clogged with toxic waste. Furthermore, it is focused on the presence of heavy metals in the soil near the mine when the bigger problem is the by-products of refining ore that uses huge amounts of carcinogenic chemicals.

Citing Vaclav Smil, Bernes states that replacing current US energy consumption with renewables would require at least 25-50 percent of the US landmass being devoted to solar, wind, and biofuels. Considering the encroachments on land by ranchers, farmers, timber companies, home developers, et al, it appears that capitalist growth—even made kosher by renewables—will hit a brick wall before long.

At the heart of the Green New Deal, there is a Sisyphean contradiction:

“The problem is that growth and emissions are, by almost every measure, profoundly correlated. The Green New Deal thus risks becoming a sort of Sisyphean reform, rolling the rock of emissions reductions up the hill each day only to have a growing, energy-hungry economy knock it back down to the bottom each night.”

My only quibble with Bernes’s article is its amalgamation with the Green New Deal and Leon Trotsky’s transitional demands:

“Many socialists will recognize that mitigation of climate change within a system of production for profit is impossible, but they think a project like the Green New Deal is what Leon Trotsky called a ‘transitional program,’ hinged upon a ‘transitional demand.’ Unlike the minimal demand, which capitalism can easily meet, and the maximal demand which it clearly can’t, the transitional demand is something that capitalism could potentially meet if it were a rational and humane system, but in actuality can’t.”

I wish that he had named the socialists that think the GND is something like a transitional demand. I suppose he is referring to an article by the anarchist Wayne Price whose critique of the Marxist Richard Smith’s article in defense of a Green New Deal hinges on its impossibility of being realized under capitalism. Since Smith doesn’t mention Trotsky in his article, it makes Bernes’s claim questionable. From him to Wayne Price to Richard Smith, the connection to Trotsky sounds like something that might have sprung from Telephone, the children’s game. In my view, Smith is a bit of an outlier on the GND. Most of its advocates are pretty settled on it being a policy not much different than those that have largely been accomplished in Western Europe and even in China, if you believe Dean Baker.

Without using the term “de-growth”, Bernes’s conclusion certainly is consistent with what Jason Hickel and others have written. I find it to be eminently reasonable:

“We cannot keep things the same and change everything. We need a revolution, a break with capital and its killing compulsions, though what that looks like in the twenty-first century is very much an open question. A revolution that had as its aim the flourishing of all human life would certainly mean immediate decarbonization, a rapid decrease in energy use for those in the industrialized global north, no more cement, very little steel, almost no air travel, walkable human settlements, passive heating and cooling, a total transformation of agriculture, and a diminishment of animal pasture by an order of magnitude at least.”

Thea Riofrancos

Thea Riofrancos, who co-authored an article for Jacobin titled “The Green New Deal’s Five Freedoms” that responded to Bernes in a “comradely” fashion on Facebook. (Since some of my readers are not on FB, I include her entire reply at the bottom of this post.)

Riofrancos does not get into the details of rare earth mining but does mention that she has “spent the past three months in Chile researching lithium.” I, for one, am looking forward to her insights from this excursion but in the meantime still wonder whether a trip to Chile would provide any overarching answer to the problem of the environmental costs of extracting the ore.

She also is not bothered by a Rorschach-like character that some might impute to the GND:

“The central ambivalence running through the essay is whether the Green New Deal is too radical to be implemented (given the exigencies of capitalist growth, capital’s capture of our political system, and the balance of class forces) or, on the contrary, it is not radical enough, a mere ornamental reform that allows pretty much all of the aforementioned to continue uninterrupted. On the one hand, the Green New Deal ‘leaves growth intact’; on the other hand, in order to achieve the economy-wide decarbonization it proposes, it would elicit a ruthless response of the ruling class (‘you should expect the owners of that wealth to fight you with everything they have, which is more or less everything’). But is the Green New Deal win-win green growth or all-out class warfare? Is it too reformist to meet the scale of the climate catastrophe or too radical to be thinkable let alone realizable in the current conjuncture?”

This is a question for Bernes to answer but I would only venture my own. The GND is akin to the projection of a Swedish-style social democracy in the USA that the DSA/Jacobin milieu advocates. It is both not radical enough and too radical to achieve in the USA. In 2017, the Guardian reported that almost 90% of new power in Europe came from renewable sources in the previous year. This is happening because these nations have operated on a social democratic basis for decades and have powerful trade union movements.

However, all of them are dependent on imperialist extraction of natural resources from Africa, Asia and Latin America that make such a relatively progressive system to function. If China had imposed the same kinds of regulations on mining that are typical of Sweden, for example, the transition to alternative energy might have been too costly. We are talking about capitalism, after all.

Even if the Western European GND standards were adopted by a majority of politicians in the USA, there would be overwhelming forces opposed to their adoption by energy, transportation, petrochemical, and banking interests. In fact, the same array of reactionary forces would block the evolution of the USA into a Swedish-style social democracy. Unlike Western Europe, the USA is an imperialist hegemon that would resist all attempts at a New Deal of any sort, either Green or FDR-redux.

Those are the realities we are dealing with and the naïve hopes of the DSA/Jacobin left will crash up against them on day one of a Bernie Sanders presidency. And those who hope in neo-Kautskyist fashion that this will precipitate a general strike and other revolutionary measures are just kidding themselves.

Matt Huber

In the DSA magazine for Winter 2019, Huber’s article “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” took aim at the “de-growth” current within the ecosocialist movement that he described as a dire threat “to scare us into action.”

“Our dystopian future is seen as a product of industrial civilization. For many ecosocialists or left green thinkers, the science is so dire the only option is a wholesale rejection of industrialism This, I would argue, leads to some fanciful (even utopian) ideas of what comes next. Degrowth theorists imagine a ‘decentralized’ future society, ‘where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming…’

“Richard Smith argues for a socialist program of ‘managed deindustrialization’ without fully explaining what that would actually mean. Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called ‘egalitarian eco-austerity’): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).”

The Richard Smith mention above is, of course, the same Richard Smith that was described above as a crypto-Trotskyist. As for what he means by “managed deindustrialization”, I found his explanation fairly clear (it is too bad that Huber does not provide a link to what Smith wrote. It is something like this:

“Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable.”


Oh, don’t let me forget. Here’s the first cruise ship to be shut down after a socialist revolution


As for Troy Vettese, his article is not behind a paywall at NLR and I urge you to read it. His take on E.O. Wilson does not provoke the same reaction in me that it does in Huber:

“The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100.

“The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe. Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.”

I happen to hate sociobiology but this has nothing to do with it. Instead, it is an urgent call to action against a looming extinction of wildlife that implicitly threatens us as well. After all, the incursion of mining and ranching companies into the Amazon rainforest will hasten climate change as well as destroy thousands of animals that are native to the region.

There’s not much else to say about Huber’s article except that it reads like Living Marxism circa 1985. He believes that nuclear power can be a part of the GND, just like Leigh Phillips who he quotes favorably: “Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!” As if such a technocratic formula has anything to do with socialism. Worst of all, he has a poor understanding of what John Bellamy Foster has referred to as “the metabolic rift”:

“Today, virtually every ‘input’ into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the ‘work’ of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.”

Giorgios Kallis

Although Huber does not mention de-growth advocates Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis, who have written an important article titled “Is Green Growth Possible?”, Kallis took the trouble of answering him on the Uneven Earth website.

Kallis, like Bernes, has an entirely different notion of a feasible socialism than the Swedish-style socialism that has seduced so many of the Jacobin intellectuals. At the extreme pole, you have someone like Leigh Phillips writing a book about Walmart that makes the case that its mastery of information technology can help us achieve a growth-oriented socialism of the future. It is not computer control of inventory, however, that accounts for its success. It is it control, both automated and by threat of firing, that accounts for its vast economic empire.

For Kallis, the vision of a more carefree and human world is what socialists should help spread:

“I live in Barcelona, and our mayor Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence. Colau wanted to stop evictions and secure decent housing for everyone, she did not have to promise air-conditions and cheap charter flights for all (I am not saying that Huber advocates these, but Leigh Phillips, a provocateur who Huber for some reason enthusiastically cites twice, does).”

“Third, Huber implicitly assumes that what workers want is fixed, and that desires cannot be shaped through reflection and dialogue. This leaves no space for new ideas or new desires and makes one wonder, how is it that workers come to want what they want, and how does this ever change in time? If we follow Huber’s logic then we can only cater to what exists, never shape the possible – this to me seems a quite restricted view of the political.”

Let me conclude with a few words about the possible outcome of this debate in the future as economic reality will bring things to a head. In my view, there is an element of truth in Huber’s claim that workers will resist a ceiling on consumption. After all, with television ads 20 times an hour urging you to buy a car or a trip on Norwegian Cruise ship, it becomes a form of brainwashing.

I suspect that a combination of ecological ruin, war, and deepening alienation of the kind that has produced an opioid crisis will eventually turn quantity into quality. Human beings are susceptible to baser temptations that an advanced capitalist economy can produce but the promise of a more peaceful life that offers leisure time and spiritual fulfillment will convince workers that giving up 5,000 square foot homes, SUV’s and meat every night of the week is worth it. A Peaceable Kingdom, so to speak.


Tia Riofrancos’s Facebook post

A comradely critique of Jasper Bernes‘ “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” in Commune Magazine.

First, let me start with where I agree with Jasper, beginning with the politically parochial and ascending to the systemic and global scales. First, “legislation,” narrowly conceived, is, on its own, insufficient as a response to the climate crisis. So is a “transition” that replaces hydrocarbons with low to zero carbon energy, without touching how much energy is used, what it is used for, and who controls the energy system. Second, the root causes of climate crisis can’t also be the solution to climate crisis. As I’ve written elsewhere, these causes are “profit-seeking, competition, endless growth, exploitation of humans and nature, and imperial expansion.” Third, and relatedly, the already occurring energy transition, unfolding under the logics of green capitalism and the enormous “clean tech” industry, reproduces and expands the extractive frontiers of capitalism. Carbon accounting that begins and ends at the electricity grid, or at the point of final consumption, is an ideological mode of profound mystification, a fetish akin to that of the commodity form. For precisely this reason, I’ve spent the past three months in Chile researching lithium.

It is from these broadly shared points of departure that our analyses of the political terrain–its contours, stakes, opportunities and limits–diverge quite sharply.

1/ Too Radical or Not Radical Enough?

The central ambivalence running through the essay is whether the Green New Deal is too radical to be implemented (given the exigencies of capitalist growth, capital’s capture of our political system, and the balance of class forces) or, on the contrary, it is not radical enough, a mere ornamental reform that allows pretty much all of the aforementioned to continue uninterrupted. On the one hand, the Green New Deal “leaves growth intact”; on the other hand, in order to achieve the economy-wide decarbonization it proposes, it would elicit a ruthless response of the ruling class (“you should expect the owners of that wealth to fight you with everything they have, which is more or less everything”). But is the Green New Deal win-win green growth or all-out class warfare? Is it too reformist to meet the scale of the climate catastrophe or too radical to be thinkable let alone realizable in the current conjuncture?

Now, one could of course argue, as I think Jasper does, that this ambivalence inheres not in his critique of the Green New Deal, but in the policy vision itself, a vision that contains something for everyone, a mirror in which both the anti-capitalist and the venture capitalist can see their own desired future reflected. Jasper seems to argue that this form-shifting quality is the unique cunning of the Green New Deal, its ability to seduce us into (cruel) optimism. But I would argue that it is precisely this indeterminacy that provides a historic opening for the left. Perhaps inadvertently, Jasper alludes to this potential: as he writes, for supporters of the Green New Deal, “its value is primarily rhetorical; it’s about shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis. It’s more big mood more than grand plan.” I’ll have a bit more to say on the contrast between a “mood” and a “plan” below, but for now I want to pause and reiterate: “shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis.” If, through the vehicle of the amorphous Green New Deal, left forces might achieve these three tasks, that strikes me as an exceedingly important development; not an end in and of itself, of course, but it’s unclear to me how a pathway to radical transformation wouldn’t pass through these three crucial tests of political capacity.

2/ Vagueness and Deception

In keeping with the charge of ambivalence is the charge of vagueness (“The Green New Deal proposes to decarbonize most of the economy in ten years—great, but no one is talking about how.”). This is, on the face of it, not true. From green capitalist policy wonks to agroecology enthusiasts to proponents of public banking, there is, in fact, currently an effloresce of proposals for how to decarbonize the economy. I have never had so many conversations about the architecture of our electric grids, the relative contribution of distinct sectors to overall emissions, or the dilemmas of carbon taxes as I have had in the past few months. This is not to suggest that these myriad proposals will get the job done, nor to downplay the sharp contrasts between a proposal to expropriate the fossil fuel industry and a carbon price based on a high discount rate, but rather that (1) many people are, in fact, talking about how to decarbonize and, (2) the battle over these distinct pathways will emerge as a key political, and class, conflict of our moment.

Jasper’s charge of vagueness, however, soon slides into a more serious accusation: deception. Socialists, like myself, that mobilize around the Green New Deal know full well that “the mitigation of climate change within a system of production and profit is impossible, but they think a project like the Green New Deal is what Leon Trotsky called a ‘transitional program,’ hinged upon a ‘transitional demand.’” For such socialists, Jasper argues, it is precisely the combination of technological feasibility and systemic impossibility that makes the Green New Deal a radicalizing demand: if capitalism could, but won’t, save humanity and the planet, then the masses will rise up against the true obstacle to progress. Not only is this strategy fundamentally patronizing and deceptive, as he points out, but it is self-defeating: “the transitional demand encourages you to build institutions and organizations around one set of goals” and then convert them to another. In this case, organizations designed to “[solve] climate change within capitalism” and, when that fails, are expected to “expropriate the capitalist class and reorganize the state along socialist lines.” Institutions, however, “are tremendously inertial structures” — once designed for one purpose, they can’t be transformed. This strikes me as a very odd statement. In the social sciences, “path dependency” is more or less the mantra of mainstream institutional theory. A historically-grounded, critical view of institutions sees them always as live, provisional, crystallizations or resolutions to class conflict, in need of ongoing reproduction and legitimation. They are the social arrangements through which violent domination is transmogrified into hegemony. This is a lesson the right knows very well, displayed in its maneuvers into every nook and cranny of institutional life; it would behoove the left to learn it, too.

3/ This World, But Better

It turns out, however, that advocates of the Green New Deal are not just deceptive but themselves duped. In their fever dreams of rosy futures, “The world of the Green New Deal is this world but better—this world but with zero emissions, universal health care, and free college.” For these green dreamers, reality will be a rude awakening: “The appeal is obvious but the combination impossible. We can’t remain in this world.” Nothing short of “completely reorganiz[ing] society” will do the trick.

It’s not only the green new dealers who have dreams. Jasper too conjures “an emancipated society, in which no one can force another into work for reasons of property, could offer joy, meaning, freedom, satisfaction, and even a sort of abundance.” I have to be honest, this sounded pretty familiar; it is quite close to my own radical horizon. Okay — how do we get there? For Jasper, “We need a revolution.” But seriousness swiftly returns: “a revolution is not on the horizon.” This sober appraisal accords with the overall tone of the essay. He is merely stating the facts; telling the truth instead of lying (“Let’s instead say what we know to be true”; “But let’s not lie to each other”). These exhortations figure the author as above the fray, cool, and objective and his targets as confused, deceptive, duped, and, to return to the aforementioned quote, seduced by the Big Mood of the green dream. But isn’t the “ambient despair” that Jasper describes as the inevitable affective register of his reality check a mood, too?

How the new world is born out of the old is of course the vexed question of any project of radical transformation. What kinds of programmatic demands, organizational forms, and institutional designs can be proposed, mobilized, and assembled under present conditions but that would, once set into motion, violate the sanctity of growth, property or profit? What tactics of disruption are available to us? What nascent coalitions might weave solidarities across the dispersed supply chains of the energy transition? What financial crises might be on the horizon? What fractions of capital ascendent or descendent? Where are the cracks in hegemony? We are living in a moment of profound turbulence; predicting or foreclosing the future seems less analytically rigorous than actively intervening to shape it. Ruling out the possibility by fiat is avowedly realist but functionally conservative.

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