Tom Hayden – A Global Green New Deal: History, Context and Future

In 2014, the legendary activist, progressive movement strategist and long time California State Senator Tom Hayden (1939-2016), gave a poignant, moving and incredibly prescient address as part of a Climate Leadership symposium that Bioneers hosted. In his remarks, Hayden delved into the history of the New Deal, the movements and drivers that presaged its development and the pressing need for a modern version, a Green New Deal, to be enacted to deal with climate change, the major existential crisis of our time.

His remarks below are essential contextual reading for understanding how we’ve reached the moment we’re in today, where a Green New Deal is making national news, lead primarily by an active and engaged youth movement of newly elected, next-generation policymakers along with vibrant movement activists. 

Watch a video version of this talk or listen to Spirit in the Air: Reform, Revolution and Regeneration, an award-winning episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature podcast featuring Tom Hayden.

I learned during a couple of experiences in my life a kind of an answer to the complicated question of where ideas come from. In this movement we’re prone to think ideas come from scientists, and that is correct up to a point. I’ve always thought that ideas came from listening. A lot of people listening to each other is what we’ve been doing today, and it’s not easy to immediately synthesize what you’ve heard, because the listening is a process. We have to be open-minded and remember to not tell people your story unless you’re willing to hear theirs. From an organizer’s viewpoint, you’re always trying to detect: What are people feeling, thinking? What words do they use? It’s a very unscientific approach to language, but it’s been a very powerful force in social movements like liberation theology in Latin America.

The Port Huron Statement

The first of the two experiences I want to discuss is the Port Huron statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, which the history books say I wrote. It was 27,000 words long. It tried to express a vision of our generation in 1961-1962. We had come through the freedom rides and the beginning of what would become the Free Speech movement. About 62 people gathered in Port Huron, Michigan, thanks to the UAW that gave us a room. I wrote the document, it’s true, but in order to write the document, I interviewed tons of people. I wrote it and then it was somehow rewritten in a five-day period. Looking back, I certainly get credit for having set the typewriter and pounded it out and made sure that it was in the mail and all that, but the way I feel about it in retrospect is that the Port Huron statement wrote us – that there was a spirit in the air, it was a consensus in the air. James Joyce said the same thing about his writing 50 years earlier. James Joyce said that what he was trying to write was the unwritten consciousness of his generation.

So, the knowledge, the feeling, the mix is in the generational experience. It’s not in the writer’s head. That’s an old left model where the organizer comes and tells you the line and tries to make it narrow enough to rally you to a certain demand and then moves on. This is more about attempting to get at the actual feelings that people have not yet articulated. I think we’re in the process of articulating those feelings.

Today is one day, a few hours in a process that has been going on since I first heard of solar energy from someone in the Brown administration 40 years ago. It goes way back. It’s deep. There are many ancestors and many previous attempts to express it. I’ve learned that these things do take time and there’s no rushing them even though we have to do things urgently.

The New Deal

The other example that I think is a good one is my reading of the New Deal. The reason I think of the New Deal is because I am a writer first and foremost, a movement activist, a twenty-year participant in the legislative process and I was born at a moment when the New Deal saved my family.

What happened is that my grandfather died in a cannery accident, the fault of the Carnation Milk Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He fell in a vat and was chopped up. He left my grandma with eleven kids. This was during the Depression and she survived and took care of those kids. During that time she was sustained by a $5,000 check from the company with regret for the death of her husband. There was no pension, there was no Social Security, there were no rights for organized labor. Her world fell apart in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s, and I don’t remember all that much about her, but I remember her as being sort of the quintessential nanny, the grandmother and all these kids.

What they were doing in the Depression was huddling up together like students do today, five to an apartment, living through a semester at NYU or wherever. They were selling apples and they were doing odd jobs together and pooling what little they made every day in order to buy food and pay the bills to get to the next day.

They were not political. This is a key point in my sharing with you. I believe, along with C. Wright Mills, that we have to reach people who are in their personal milieu and their problem is that they’re detached from history and social structure; they don’t know what has happened to them; they are in a catastrophe and they are prone, if they’re working people, to think there’s something wrong with them – their ethnicity, their class, their lack of education. They’re not prone to automatically blame an outside aggressor. That would take a level of pride and insolence and insubordination, so to speak, a mutinous mentality that they don’t have. They’re survivors, and they know a lot. I’m not saying they lack knowledge. They know a lot. I learned that too, after leaving the university and going to Mississippi and Georgia and Newark. I learned that poor people know a lot that middle class people do not know unless they come from that background.

In the middle of this process of the collapse of capitalism, the collapse of what government we had, there were the stirrings of the New Deal. There were social movements, Communist Party-led organizing drives in manufacturing plants. Got nowhere. People got fired, got clubbed down, beat up, shot. Anarchists tried to do it in their horizontal way, to borrow the current language of the current movement. Trotskyists kept attacking everyone on both sides for not following the correct line. Farmers – I don’t remember if they picked up pitchforks – but they went to work against the banks and the grange.

This started a period of turbulent working class expression and middle class expression at having been sold out by somebody. It began with finding ways to make enough to buy food to eat, and it ended up with doing everything possible to obstruct the business as usual unless they were fed, unless their children were fed, unless they could go to school, unless there was somebody to say there was hope on the horizon, to borrow a more recent phrase.

I remember my mom went through this, the orphan of a father she hardly knew. When I was growing up at the end of the ‘30s and the beginning of the Great War, I remember sitting on her lap a lot, and she’d always talk to me about how she loved Roosevelt. I didn’t know who Roosevelt was. I just thought, “Roosevelt, that’s God. My mother loves God and Roosevelt is taking care of us.” She would keep saying that, because by that time, after the revolutionary inciting of working people and average everyday people, they had achieved Social Security. I can’t tell you what that would have meant for my mother when she was thinking about Grandpa.

They achieved bargaining rights for organized labor. Unheard of. Seemingly impossible. They achieved pensions and all the rest of it, and they had achieved what was known as the New Deal. Now, at the time it was being built, they did not call it the New Deal. They called it the movement. It didn’t have a name. They didn’t announce, “Now we are starting a movement for a New Deal.”

What happened was this strange mix of a revolutionary impulse on the one hand, a liberal impulse from do-gooders who wanted a better government, people in the center who were very frightened at the possibility of social disorder and were timid about raising their head, and then people on the right like my priest, Father Charles Coughlin, who was busy organizing an anti-Semitic response to the very same conditions, working closely with Henry Ford on the idea of a new Nazi party based in my hometown of Royal Oak or Hamtramck.

The people on the far right thought Roosevelt was a Communist. I don’t remember if they questioned his place of birth. But he was leading us to a Soviet America. Some of the people on the left thought that was a great idea – a Soviet America – and they were in little discussion circles constantly reading textbooks from Marx and Engels about the future of Soviet America. Most people that I would identify with were organizers. They were selfless people who didn’t work for much money, didn’t think far ahead, to the careers that they would hold as future labor bureaucrats or Democratic party administrators. They wanted to know if they’d have their heads crushed by a policeman’s baton. They were willing to do that. There’s sort of a lost generation there in history.

There was another group, maybe a little like some people you know or today’s climate scientists. They were known as the brain trust of the New Deal and they were a very eclectic group of people who were brainy intellectuals. They were probably part of the most important American tradition that I’ve ever studied and I consider myself part of, the American pragmatic tradition. I know that pragmatism is now a dirty word, but if you look under it, it means: listen first, see how far people are willing to go, and improvise a step forward, a program that will take you a little bit towards survival or a little bit towards a better life as rapidly as you can.

The New Deal brain trust invented all these amazing programs. One parallel today would be like if somebody said, “We need a Renewables Work Administration, like the National Recovery Administration. We need to put every person in this country and on this planet who’s out of a job or under-employed into a great employment project, publicly funded, privately funded, but it has to happen, because there’s a great work to be done.” The great work was to save us from the Depression in those days. The great work today is to save us from climate catastrophe and the end of civilization as we know it. No one had the idea for The New Deal in 1929. They were gripped with that idea by 1937.

The whole idea of industrial workers being organized, the whole idea of old age pensions, of delivering people Social Security, having to sit at a table and argue about whether we could also do healthcare, being told by the president we don’t have the votes, we can’t do that, some future generation will fight for healthcare – that’s how the New Deal was pounded out.

It was improvised by very creative people who dared to take it on and who simply believed that their current lives were unlivable and they didn’t have to be poor to know that. It was just an unlivable situation with fascism approaching and with the Depression never seeming to end. And out of that pragmatic determination they decided the government had to hire people, the government had to protect people, the government is what saved my mother, and why she loved Franklin Roosevelt.

It was a close call. We could have gone to the right. We could have gone into chaos. The answer to what might have happened we’ll never know because then came World War II, and everybody thought, “Problem solved.” Everybody’s working down the street in the empty plant. They’re building planes and tanks and trucks and jeeps and cars. The car industry was formed out of that experience.

My father went to work as an accountant for a car company. Detroit was booming. My mother loved Roosevelt for those reasons, not ideological. When we come to that point when people aren’t trapped in ideology but are willing to do what works, that’s the time when I think we’ll have the equivalent of a New Deal for the climate catastrophe.

From A New Deal to A Green New Deal

There are people who argue that there’s no climate problem. There are people who are fascistic in their inclinations. There are people who, unfortunately, are ideologically driven – they believe in a market even though there really is no pure market, it’s all government supported through incentives or taxes or mandates. They’re mad. They’re really angry, but there’s a madness that’s ideological; they don’t have a picture. And I’m talking about the Tea Party and people that I thought would fade away, but seem to get more ferocious as the threat grows.

There were people who said, “Okay, we’re going to invest in the rebuilding of America and, after the war, in a Marshall Plan for the world.” They cut a deal without a handshake, as far as I know. The finance capitalists were divided over whether their obligation was to reform the system in order to stabilize their profit or crack down on these insurgents and stop them in their tracks and go all the way to drive them off the political map towards God knows what kind of system we would have had.

On the other hand you had labor and social movements and populist movements where the argument was, “Should we take the right to collective bargaining or go all the way to Socialism?” It was kind of like 1919 when the Socialists told the Suffragists, “All the way with Socialism first, then you women will get your right to vote.” And the women said, “Not taking that offer, thank you very much; some of us are Socialists, some are not, but we all want the right to vote.” And we’re at a similar crossroads. If you read Naomi Klein’s excellent new book, This Changes Everything, she outlines a similar debate today.

I come from experience, not ideology, not theory. I do my reading. I try my best. But my sense is the most we’re going to accomplish here is a global Green New Deal, which is quite a lot when you think of the state of the planet. We need the green billionaires and we need the younger generation.

However, somebody has to cut a deal. Unless you believe that we have to have revolution first and then save the planet. If you believe that, I advise you to listen. Just go to meetings in your community, in your PTA, in your neighborhood and ask—get up, actually, and say, “I want a revolution first, what do you people think?” You’ll see that they’re not there now. They might be thinking about it, but it’s a simple fact that we need to have this green infrastructure, a green financing mechanism, and at the same time, just as labor needed to be organized and respected in their dignity, we need all the people of color, the disenfranchised communities of California to feel that they have been invited to the table and that they’re going to get somewhere.

We need to double the rate of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. We need to get the brain trust to understand that that is necessary because if we don’t do it, it will even get worse. We need to go to at least 50% or 60% solar and renewables as part of our electrical system. We need to reject the idea that the grid is some holy place like a medieval church that needs to be respected.

Remember that it took people power to knock out the nuclear plant in Sacramento. We were told if there was no nuclear plant built in Sacramento we’d be dead, because it’s so hot there. Go to Sacramento now. Last time I was there it was one-hundred and ten degrees and they had an electricity surplus. A surplus. Why isn’t that model a larger part of our story? One-hundred and ten degrees and running an energy surplus through a publicly owned utility whose board members are elected, with investors still making lots of money off it.

We need to put out of commission this infernal Dracula of the nuclear power lobby that seems to continue running on fumes. Where is capitalism when it comes to nuclear power? They never stop. They say we have to have a robust nuclear industry to achieve our climate goals. It comes from madness, arguing that it’s either a Chernobyl future or a climate catastrophe future.

California’s a very precious place, not because somebody designed it that way originally but be- cause we are an advanced economy with 199,000 jobs in the clean energy industry, and we’re getting rid of coal and getting rid of nuclear. There are a lot of people that don’t want to see that. They used to say, “Well, Governor Moonbeam, who listens to him?” They can’t call him Moonbeam any longer, but they can wait him out. He’s only got one more term, and they can try to avoid the California model, the idea that you can have an advanced economy run on 100% renewables, step by step, without nuclear and without coal. They don’t want this idea floated out there, because some of them think their interests would be harmed. They don’t know that it may really be in their best interest.

Nobody knows what the California story is. It could be because people in California are too busy with their projects to identify where they’re going or the governor’s afraid of Republicans. It’s not that the story is perfect. We know from today that we need to be on all out alert to stop fracking, and we need to tell the governor if he wants climate leadership on the planet, fracking will be his Achilles heel.

I think it’s a complicated course that we have to navigate, and we need organizers. We need people to drill down on this. I think we have had enough of the science elite. They have delivered us such great material on how to get to 100%, but they don’t know how to get to it politically. You know, the desert is covered with giant parabolic collectors, and the Sierra Club is worried about birds, and you say that’s the only way we can get to 100% renewables? By destroying a desert and the wildlife? That leads you into endless committee hearings and litigation and the only thing that can avoid that confusion is more consensus, more dialogue. How are we going get there?

We have precious little time to get there, but we know from the science that it is inevitable that things will get worse. It is also inevitable based on my experience that people will fight back. It’s all one step at a time. The starting point is to combine the notions of reducing emissions and achieving jobs and environment justice. The finance capitalists will have to accept the jobs argument and the empowerment of poor people. That’s not in their normal picture. The environmental justice advocates will have to convince themselves that this emissions catastrophe is real and is really going to wipe us out, and that we have five or ten years to get through it as safely as we can.

There are 33 states that are controlled by coal interests. There’s only about 25, 26, 27 states where we’ve got a shot. But that’s the green bloc that has to be organized state by state, community by community, to have such power that they can push back until the inevitable gets worse and we see the investments flowing. The investments have to flow in an equitable way, in a fair way. That’s what happened with the New Deal. The poor got better off. The workers got rights. Business got rich by stabilizing capitalism. That’s where we are and I think that’s where we probably have to go.

If you read Thoreau’s book of essays that was published after his life, The Dispersion of Seeds, it’s about the growth of communities and the rise of new generations. At one point, Thoreau says, and I’m quoting: “We find ourselves in a world that is already planted, but is also being planted as at first.” That’s the transition we’re in. That’s the planting and cultivating that we’re doing. We see in these panels today, we see in these presentations, a new world rising that has been cultivated but is again being planted as at first.

The title of Thoreau’s essay was I Have Faith in a Seed. So do I.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.