The Future of the Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is an idea whose time has finally come. But what will it really take to build the enduring structures, institutions and global cooperation that actually reconcile the core contradictions between markets and the public good, between dignified work and robots, between the laws of nature and principles of social and justice and economic democracy? 

Following is a conversation among visionaries in economics, systems change, policy and environmental planning: Greg Watson of the Shumacher Institute for New Economics; Paul Hawken of Project Drawdown; Vien Truong, former ED of Green For All; and David Orr of the State of American Democracy Project.

Learn more about the history of the Green New Deal in our related media collection.

GREG: So what is the Green New Deal? This conversation is an attempt to characterize it. There are different versions out there, but in essence, the various versions of the Green New Deal result in a common vision: an important, government-led, society-wide effort to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and quickly shift the U.S. economy to be less carbon intensive. 

Here are the major points:

The plan wants to cut net greenhouse gas emissions; meet all power demand through clean, renewable energy; address pollution in agriculture and the potential for soil carbon sequestration; upgrade infrastructure; guarantee jobs with a family-sustaining wage; and a number of issues around welfare and social justice. These last points have been applauded by a number of people, and have also been criticized by some who feel that it’s trying to do too much. 

Different estimates exist for what various versions of the Green New Deal are going to cost. Of course we’re weighing those costs against the cost of climate change and extinction. 

The original New Deal addressed a global financial crisis, and it was felt across the board. I mean, there are stories of corporate leaders jumping out of windows. The crisis was widespread and it was deep.Everybody felt it and it was immediate so  leaders were able to galvanize a response. The Green New Deal is addressing climate change, which a lot of people view as way off in the future, so we don’t have that same driving sort of motivation.

The New Deal was an imperfect bill. It did some good things, but it was clearly imperfect. An alphabet soup of agencies was created to implement it: relief and welfare, public works, arts and culture, and it was very confusing, probably intentionally so. The New Deal also had to strike some Faustian bargains. In order to gain the support of Southern politicians to vote for the New Deal, FDR and others said, “We will turn a blind eye to Jim Crow.” They awarded the National Association of Manufacturers and Chambers of Commerce, and a lot of businesses and trade associations, overriding authority on how it would be administered and how codes would be written. Unions were relatively weak and most important consumers were ill informed.

Importantly, however, the New Deal also covered government-funded research and development. If you look at the post-World War II federal R&D, here’s what they worked on: computers, semiconductors, software, fiber optics, transistors, you go down the list. Nearly all the core technology to characterize a digital age came out of that, and almost all of them were throwaways from military R&D. Imagine DARPA, that is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, mimicked as the Green Advanced Research Projects Agency. We might have ecological designs, offshore wind, floating platforms, we’d have more healthy soils research, we’d have electric vehicles

It’s important for us to understand how the original New Deal was created, what was behind it, what it did well and where it fell short. It can help and inform us in developing a Green New Deal, if that’s in fact where we think things should be headed.

David Orr, Vien Truong, Paul Hawken and Greg Watson

VIEN: When I see the excitement and the people coming together now pushing for the Green New Deal, the presidential candidates that have come on board to support it, I think “How exciting, fantastic.” I celebrate it. And then, because I’m a policy wonk and because I grew up as the youngest of 11 kids, where there’s always a lot of excitement and action happening, I think, “Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?” Because if you don’t plan for what it’s going to look like, once we get there, it’s going to be too late.

When I think about the Green New Deal, I think about who’s going to pay, who’s going to be benefitting, who’s at the table, and who won’t be? We’ve got to think about how we’re baking this now before we see the next president. And hopefully there will be a different president coming in.

I grew up in Oakland, in a refugee family. My parents came from Vietnam. I was born in a refugee camp. I think about how very few conversations around policy and the ecological crisis come from backgrounds like mine. How are we making sure that we’re not repeating the mistakes of the first New Deal? Who are the ones suffering first and worst from climate change? Who is going to be at the table? Who are going to be the ones shaping the solutions and the decisions?

It’s especially important for me, as a refugee, now that I think about the UN estimating that by 2050 we’re expecting to see over 200 million climate refugees. How do we plan for that in a way that doesn’t repeat the mistakes of this administration tearing families apart, turning people away, trying to build up walls? How do we make sure that we’re beginning to look at building communities together; how do we make sure we’re looking at strengthening the democratic fibers of this country; how do we make sure that we’re investing in and supporting a regenerative economy that is supporting diverse economies throughout this country? 

PAUL: What I loved about the New Green Deal was there was a manifesto. It cast a light on this totally corrupt, oligarchical political system we have right now. People may say the Green New Deal isn’t going to happen. Why isn’t it going to happen? The manifesto says it’s because of the way we’re organized or disorganized as a political near tyranny in this country. 

The climate movement, or the climate scientists, always focused on future existential threat. But human beings don’t respond to future existential threat. The brain doesn’t work that way. It’s a guaranteed way to disengage almost 99% of all people on Earth.

What we do respond to is need. Human need. And the climate movement has to respond and meet current human needs, or it will never happen. I felt the intention in the Green New Deal. But I just didn’t see it elaborated in a way that connected human need. 

DAVID: First, the original New Deal failed. The historical record is much shabbier than what I think the public perception of it might be. It failed partly because of the piecemeal response to a systemic crisis of capitalism that had broken out in the ‘20s and then reached fever pitch in ’29, the Depression of the ‘30s. It was a very experimental period in American history, but it essentially failed. 

It failed partly because it left a lot of people out. To make the thing pass through Congress and the Senate, Roosevelt struck a deal with white Senators and Representatives from the Southern confederate states and others. It left out African American farmers. The FSA, the Farm Security Administration, was canceled in the late ‘30s due to right wing pressure. 

To the extent that we look back and think about that as an era of prosperity, what rescued the economy was Adolf Hitler and Japan. It was war-time spending that actually rescued the U.S. economy. The elephant in the room in all these conversations is the trillion dollars that we spend as a country on military spending and the roughly – somewhere between 800 and 1,000 – military bases around the world. That seldom gets discussed. 

To make this work, we’re going to have to have a rebuilt capacity to do things at that scale, and some of that can happen in the markets, some can happen just to activate citizens, but a whole lot of it is going to take federal direction. And that is what has been decimated. 

For the past several decades, and particularly the past several years, if you work in federal agencies, you’re demoralized. You’ve been defunded. You’ve been disparaged. In this government “of, by, and for the people,” the people part has been decimated. I think it has to be resuscitated.

We don’t do systems very well for many reasons. The New Deal was a patchwork across a whole series of agencies and issues. I think we’re in agreement that something big has to happen. It can happen piecemeal at the market level, individual level, mass social change and so forth, but it’s going to need some direction up high. The economist Herman Daly called this macro control and micro variability. There should be some control up high on the big issues: security, economy, taxation, justice, and fairness; and lower down, lots of flexibility. We’re going to have to have something like a systems approach.

The public response to creating these systems of change is incredibly good. There is a constituency for this. If you put the Green New Deal or Drawdown before the public, do they want it? You bet they do. And not by a little bit, by a major margin.

Now here’s the problem. Think of this as the Grand Canyon. On this side we have our opinions as people, across the political spectrum. We have people who want major chunks of the Green New Deal, however you define that. But we can’t get from here to public policy and regulation and law, because the bridge that ought to connect what we want as people and what we get as citizens  is broken or has been turned into a toll bridge.

For any of this to be successful, we need a public that works and a government that works. 

VIEN: I completely agree, and I want to pick up where you left off about how we can’t have a Green New Deal without really looking at how to fix our democracy. Given what we’re looking at today with just ten years left for us to turn this climate crisis around, can we wait for democracy to be fixed? How do we do it simultaneously, not just thinking about the democratic crisis and the ecological crisis, but also the economic one?

In 2016, Oxfam reported that 62 people had as much wealth as half the world’s population. A year later in 2017, they reported eight people had as much wealth as half the world’s population. In America, we have three people with as much wealth as half the country – three. We’re looking at a country right now where half the population does not have $500 in their savings accounts. 

At the same time, we’re looking at a problem of accelerated automation. The economy from the New Deal era is not here anymore, and we don’t even know how to understand the economy that’s coming at us at warp speed. Half of the job duties in America can be automated. 

We’re looking at a crumbling educational system and a crumbling workforce development system. It’s not preparing our kids for the technological future, much less the jobs of the future. We’re looking at a federal system that is eviscerating our public safety nets, our Social Security, our healthcare systems. These days, millennials are increasingly going on contract work, so we don’t have our own healthcare, or our own pension plans that we’re saving for. 

What happens when all of these trends are happening at the same time? I argue we cannot wait for democracy to be fixed, nor anyone to fix these problems at any one level. We have to begin thinking about what solutions actually make sense for us to begin threading together. 

I want to point to a bright spot in our very own backyards in California. If you want to see a mini version of a Green New Deal happening, there’s a program in California called the Transformative Climate Communities program.

We have a program in California called cap and trade, that makes polluters pay. Polluters have to clean up and pay up. That’s what the Green New Deal is calling for. A group of friends and I came together, and we got legislation passed requiring that 35% of the cap and trade pot of money goes to the poorest and most polluted communities. It’s called California Climate Benefits. Thus far, $1.5 billion from big oil has gone to the poorest and most polluted census tracts. That’s good news. Even better news, there’s an additional $6 billion, half of which is supposedly going to the poorest and most polluted communities. It’s been the biggest fund in history to go into communities to green up, and it’s not taxpayer money. It’s from big polluters and big oil. 

After that law was passed, we worked with Governor Brown to direct $140 million of that money into a program called Transformative Climate Communities. Here’s where we begin threading together these problems. 

We don’t have a democracy that works, that listens to the people. We don’t have an economic system that works. Transformative Climate Communities, which was implemented into law by our good friends at the Greenlining Institute and Asian Pacific Environmental Network, says that the smartest people on local problems are the people in the community. What if we actually gave them money to organize themselves to create their own community vision and their own community plan on what the future of the economy should look like? Because urban people do not know what rural communities want. Rural people do not know what urban communities want. Oakland does not know what Long Beach wants, and vice versa. 

How do you give money to the community to create their own vision? The visions that have the best triple-bottom-line benefits are the ones that get implementation funds. Fresno, Ontario, and LA County got the first batch of funding. Now we’re in the fourth round. We’ve given millions of dollars out to community organizers to create their climate action plans. Once they show that they’re going to have plans that don’t gentrify the community, because green policies can sometimes do that, once they show policies that actually develop and accelerate affordable housing, support public transportation, support local diversified jobs and local businesses, they can get the funding.

I would argue that if we are doing the Green New Deal right, we can actually begin looking at the economic, the ecological, and the equity problems and supporting a stronger democracy by having the community lead on the vision.

We have had an extractive economy, where we have taken from and excluded investment into the very communities that have been paying for pollution with our lives and our lungs. We now need to begin thinking about whether and how the Green New Deal is regenerative instead of extractive around our economies.

Think about it like gardening. We would never plant something in a garden when the soil isn’t right, or the air or temperature aren’t right. Same with communities. The local culture in the community will best know what it actually wants and doesn’t want. How do we then provide the seeds, the water and the resources the local communities want?

If we’re going to do this Green New Deal right, it has to be led by the community, then supported with resources and funding. 

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