Beyond a Green New Deal: book review

Beyond a Green New Deal

Essay review: Max Ajl, “A People’s Green New Deal”, Pluto Press, 2021. Paperback £14.99 or open access download.

Mark H Burton

If you’ve read our commentaries then you’ll know that we have major reservations about the various Green New Deals (GNDs) that vie for the attention of liberal and left governments. We have been critical of them as a Keynesian approach that seeks to use investment in green sectors to both control greenhouse gas emissions and restore, and actually expand, a working economy that provides for jobs and livelihoods. On first sight, it’s an attractive idea, a win-win deal, that is easy to understand and explain. While not all Green Deals are equal, they must all face a number of key issues, which we have summarised in terms of six problems, or questions, that have yet to be answered. In summary they are,

1) Material flows and extractivism.

Increases in economic activity are associated with increases in the throughput of energy and materials, and these increases have involved increased pollution, including, critically, the increased emissions of greenhouse gases, resulting primarily from the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. Those flows also start with extraction of fuels and minerals, and this has devastating impacts on ecosystems and communities, especially in the global South.

2) The multiplier doesn’t care about the climate.

Other things being equal, there is no control over where the economic stimulation of the GND, its multiplier effects, have their impact. So the desired, clean, growth of the economy has undesirable implications in terms of additional resource and energy use. Clean begets dirty.

3) The inherent constraints of renewable energy.

So far the increased deployment of renewable energy has added to, rather replaced, fossil fuel burning, and anyway, it is doubtful whether renewables can provide the scale of concentrated energy used by the current global economy, especially if growth continues.

4) Diminishing return on investment due to resource scarcity.

As mineral resources become scarcer, the cost of their extraction increases. This causes systemic shocks to the economic system long before depletion. Yet GNDs rely on massive use of things like rare earth minerals and metals such as copper and cobalt, all of which are depleting.

5) The other planetary boundaries.

GNDs focus on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, but while central, that isn’t the only ecological system emergency confronting the world, and GNDs make little mention of or provision for resolving these other threats.

6) The GND and the capitalist growth imperative.

However financed, the GND requires a return on the investment and that requires the ongoing expansion of capital, the modus operandi of the capitalist system (founded on the expropriation of surplus value in the labour process), which we know as economic growth. We know that economic growth does not decouple (absolutely and sufficiently) from its material impacts – pollutions and increasing resource usage.

Enter Max Ajl, with his intervention “A People’s Green Deal”. The book is in two parts, “Capitalist Green Transitions” and “A People’s Green New Deal”. The first part of the book is a cogent analysis of the world ecological crisis and its roots. He examines in turn the various “solutions” on offer, firstly the Green Transitions of the global elite,

Amidst rising awareness of the capitalism-climate nexus, it is only natural that the ruling class would seek to avert a climate crisis which could imperil their power, to displace blame from fossil capitalism to a faceless and structureless humanity, and to make the poor pay the costs of transition……
“Green social control aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worst consequences of the climate crisis”.

Such plans mean ramping up the security sector, itself a massive user of fossil fuels and other resources, drawing excluding boundaries around peoples (a “Fortress North”), matching up people’s assets such as pensions and public resources with new technology to harness natural energy flows and commodify them. Market mechanisms are never far away with prices set to commodify and trade pollutants and commons.

He next turns to the ‘ecomodernists’ and their vision of airliners running on biofuels, the circular economy recycling every last atom, digital agro-industry and the mirage of clean nuclear power. He provides trenchant critiques of the left versions of this (‘accelerationism’ and the foolish fantasies of ‘fully automated luxury communism’) that, like the ecomodernist mainstream, seek to grow forever, using that destructive expansion to avoid the hard choice of fair distribution. Such nonsense is scientifically illiterate as Ajl shows through an examination of the favourite shibboleth of these writers, the impossible decoupling of economic expansion from material and energy flows.

Those were perhaps easy targets, but what of the green social democrats, the New Green Dealers? Ajl also subjects their programmes to a withering critique. Ajl uses the left liberal icon, US Congress member Alexandria Ocasio Córtez’s proposals (co-authored with US Senator Edward Markey) as a case study. As he points out, this proposed “non-binding legislation” has served as an often unexamined reference point for swathes of a once radical, internationalist, green movement. He highlights two passages. In one, the national security of the United States is described as under threat, in language that could have come from the Pentagon. The other promotes “the international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding, and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action”. This is all consistent with what Ajl diagnoses as the fundamental flaw in the social democracy of the global North. It has its good side, that which we can look back to with nostalgia for the post war years that brought free health and social care, relatively low levels of inequality, public housing and improved infrastructure, along with rising trade union membership. But that was all dependent on a,

…barely tamed capitalism which continued to hunt and feed on the periphery throughout its short lifespan. …. It is distinguished by four traits. One, it is a class compromise between capital and labour in the imperial core. Two, to compromise, social democracies require constant growth, in order to create a bigger pie – the larger piece for capital and the smaller for labour. Three, they survive vampirically off value extraction from the periphery. Four, European social democracies were a prophylactic against the Communist contagion then spreading amongst a devastated and war-weary European working class. Each trait is critical for understanding contemporary climate talk”.

Ajl knows the US context better than our own, so much of his critique is about the set of North American GNDs. However, the argument also applies to the UK and the rest of Europe, such as the Green Industrial Revolution of Rebecca Long-Bailey and the Corbyn period in UK Labour, the Transición Ecológica of the Spanish Labour Party, the PSOE, and its more radical but still social democratic critic and ally, Podemos. Those two are prominent but they are not the only proposals on (or off) the table. For all these, Ajl’s conclusion is devastating:

There are four problems with green social democracy. First, it is not achievable through current strategies. Two, even if it were possible, it would be imperialist and rest on devastating the South. Third, it is being marketed as something it is not, eco-socialism, or the conversion of the core of the world to non-commodified and non-hierarchical self managed social and economic relations, with convergence between the core and the periphery., and permanently sustainable scientific management of the environment. Four, it limits our political imaginations.”

Ajl concludes the first, diagnostic, part of the book with the question that sets the scene for the whole second part: what would an eco-socialist People’s GND look like?

Firstly, in the chapter before the one on green social democracy, he does cover the fundamental question of energy use and degrowth. With regard to the latter, Ajl is sympathetic, noting that degrowth is a political-ecological call for sufficiency, and that the critique of growth as such has been successful in shaking the faith in growth that has served as a kind of ideological glue, containing people within the consensus of “the Western capitalist pseudo-welfare states”. He goes further though, as I do, in noting that some degrowthers focus more on growth than accumulation and power, and that there is sometimes something of a silence about (actually existing) imperialism. He goes on to identify the way in which massive energy use has become embedded in the Western social and political systems. “From highways to the automobile industry to the current farming system, an entire world has been built in the core countries on economically ‘cheap’, physically dense, and easily storable forms of power.” That means a massive downsizing of current energy use, currently stated to be 12,00 kWh per person in the US, 7,150 in Japan, and 4,928 in France, compared to just 571 in Nicaragua, 268 in Sudan and 91 in Yemen. Like us, and campaigners like Larry Edwards and Stan Cox, he endorses the idea of a cap on energy use in the wealthier countries. As Edwards and Cox put it, that means a combined approach of an annually reducing cap and a policy framework to adapt to the reduction: Cap and Adapt. Work has been done, by, Millward-Hopkins, Steinberger, Rao and Oswald, in a study cited in the book, to show what a globally equitable and sustainable level of energy allocation would look like. If the critics of degrowth are right and we’d all be living in caves, then those caves would have “highly efficient facilities for cooking, storing food and washing clothes; low energy lighting throughout, 50l of clean water supplied per day per person, with 15l heated to a comfortable bathing temperature”. Each household could have one computer, connected globally, and warmth of 20°C year round, and so on.

In the second half of the book, then, Ajl sets out the main parameters of what he calls the People’s Green New Deal. In my view, this isn’t really a Green New Deal at all, and in a recent interview by Manchester based GND Pod, he explained that the term had such resonance and recognition that it seemed wise to use it and try thereby to recover a renewed, radical ecological meaning. I find this section harder to summarise because the visionary utopian dimension is so intertwined with considerations on political strategy – and that is a good thing. Along the way I re-encountered many of my favourite thinkers, and many new ones, a majority from the global South, or with strong connections there. Essentially the argument is that there can be no viable Green Deal without linking together the agendas of fair energy and material use, ecologically safe food production (agro-ecology) resting on land reform, financial transfers to those lands and peoples that have been pillaged by imperialism and the imperial mode of living of the global North, and the key role of national self-determination in the anti-colonial struggle, as exemplified in the Palestinian struggle and the Cuban revolution. Also noteworthy are such varied exemplars as Kerala, and the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, as well as islands of alternative development and ecological restoration, often led by indigenous or black heritage groups, in the global North.

Max Ajl’s book is perhaps the best I’ve read on the interconnected global ecological emergency, false solutions and possible alternatives. I have no problems with its overall thrust. Inevitably there are some reservations, which for the sake of completeness and in the spirit of constructive comradely criticism, I’ll state here.

There is little said specifically about women, half of all humanity, yet their labour, their organisation and their struggle must be central to any convincing account and to any political movement for change. Indeed the feminisation of politics is at the heart of the radical municipalism that can be seen as an allied movement in the movement of movements for eco-socialism. At times I thought that Ajl was uncritical of the Latin American pink tide governments, such as the Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorian, which usually talk a good talk on the rights of mother earth etc. but whose ecological record is at best equivocal, and in the Venezuelan case utterly destructive. Yet I agree with him that Cuba is probably the most ecologically advanced country in the world, as shown in a report by Jason Hickel and colleagues and elsewhere. In the book and elsewhere he has been, in my estimation, unfairly critical of the critics of extractivism in those countries (e.g. Svampa, Acosta, Solón, Gudynas, and Lander, in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela, respectively). These critics are writing from the eco-socialist position that he espouses and have been allied with degrowth and indigenous activists. Finally, the narrative doesn’t always quite convince – largely due to the huge ground covered and the inevitable gaps in what has to be in places, a rather schematic argument. These, though are relatively minor quibbles about a very impressive and broadly very sound piece of work.

Finally, what does the book mean for the prospect for Green New Deals here in Manchester and similar places? Ajl teaches us that a seriously ecological, liberatory and internationalist perspective is essential. This is a logical development of the oft-cited counsel to “think globally, act locally”. A Green New Deal that does not take seriously the geopolitical, physical and ecological realities that, thankfully, limit the greening of complacent reformism, is not worth the time of day. However, our proposal for sector-specific green deals within the local bioregion could be consistent with such an aware and committed orientation. Radical, yet selective, re-localisation is the other side of what Samir Amin, one of Ajl’s key references, called delinking, a concept that could do with rigorous further exploration in relation to a post-growth economy. By reforming the way our local economy works, through place-based, multi-sectoral projects, we can reduce reliance on exploitative global supply chains, building resilience, economic and social justice for us here, and indirectly, for those our economy exploits beyond our places.

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