We Need a Deep Green New Deal

Progressive green policy should consider the true social, labor, and ecological injustices of ceaseless economic growth.

A version of this article appeared in Green Social Thought.

The Green New Deal has attracted perhaps the greatest attention of any proposal for decades. It guarantees Medicare-for-All, Housing-for-All, and student loan forgiveness, and proposes a version of economic growth that addresses both unemployment and climate change.

The harvesting of all forms of energy contributes to the destruction of nature and human life, and is increasingly harmful as time goes on. Photo courtesy of Tom Brewster Photography / Bureau of Land Management.

But the last of these hits a stumbling block. Creation of all forms of energy contributes to the destruction of nature and human life. Problems with fossil fuels, nuclear power, and alternative energy (which here means solar, wind, and hydropower) are well-documented. However, a serious danger tends to be overlooked: The most available resources (such as uranium for nuclear, sunny land for solar arrays, mountain tops for industrial wind turbines, rivers for dams) are used first, so each level of expansion requires a greater level of resource use than the previous one. This means the harvesting of energy, including alternative energy, is increasingly harmful as time goes by. “Clean” and “renewable” are terms that should be dropped. Energy use that assaults ecosystems and human health is not “clean.” Though the sun, wind, and river power may be eternal, products that must be mined for them are very much exhaustible, meaning that alternative energy is not “renewable.”

But it is possible to increase the global quality of life at the same time as we reduce the use of fossil fuels and other sources of energy. To get there, the Green New Deal should strive for a deeper shade of green. A “Deep Green New Deal” would consider social justice, the limits of economic growth for the sake of growth, and the true cost of the transition to other forms of energy.

A Deep Green New Deal would focus on energy reduction, or energy conservation. Decreasing total energy use is a prerequisite for securing human existence. The greatest contradiction in current versions of the Green New Deal is advocating environmental improvement while continuing to increase production. But these two goals are completely irreconcilable.

One way a Deep Green New Deal could address this enigma is by shortening the work week, which would reduce environmental damage by using less energy. Alongside Medicare-for-All, Housing-for-All, and Student Loan Forgiveness-for-All, we could push for a Shorter-Work-Week-for-All.

The absence of this old progressive demand in current versions of the Green New Deal could be due to the incorrect assumption that the best way to solve unemployment is via increased production. Spikes in unemployment from recent economic disruptions like the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic were due to the inability to shift work from some areas of the economy to others. A planned shrinking of the economy would require including the entire workforce in deciding to shift from negative to positive employment.

As the work week is reduced, every group of workers should evaluate what it does, how labor is organized, and how jobs should be redefined so that full employment is preserved. The only part of this idea that is novel is making changes democratically — job categories continuously change, with some types of work shrinking (or disappearing entirely) and other types of work expanding or coming into existence. Just as economic growth does not guarantee increases in employment, economic shrinking need not worsen unemployment.

However, a shorter work week will not accomplish environmental goals if it is accompanied by an “intensification of labor” (such as requiring workers at Amazon to handle more packages per hour or increasing class size for teachers). This means that a genuine Deep Green New Deal should require strong workers’ unions which would have a central role in determining what is produced as well as working conditions.

But if a core part of a Deep Green New Deal becomes a shorter work week (without speed-up), the question naturally arises: Will lowering the amount of production result in people going without the basic necessities of life? It is important to understand that production for profit causes the manufacture of goods that have no part of improving our lives.

Current versions of the Green New Deal often assume that the best way to provide for the necessities of life is through increased payments for purchases (ie, market economics). A Deep Green New Deal would advocate that the best way to provide the necessities of life is by guaranteeing them as human rights. For example, a neoliberal Green New Deal would offer cash for food, housing, transportation, education, and other necessities, while a progressive Green New Deal would provide them directly to people. Green economics must be based on making dollar amounts less important by replacing individual wages with “social wages.”

Current versions of the Green New Deal also seek to provide necessities by increasing the quantity of products rather than focusing on creating things that are useful, reliable, and durable. A massive increase in production is unnecessary when the current industrial system is destructive of soil and ecosystems, wasteful and rampant with inequality, and encourages products planned for obsolescence or designed to go out of style.

On that last point, according to a Deep Green New Deal, each product manufactured should have a “repairability index.” At a minimum, criteria for the index should include (a) availability of technical documents to aid in repair, (b) ease of disassembly, (c) availability of spare parts, (d) price of spare parts, and (e) repair issues specific to the class of products. The index should become a basis for strengthening production requirements each year. A durablility index should similarly be developed and strengthened annually. Since those who do the labor of manufacturing products are more likely than owners or stockholders to attain knowledge of how to make commodities that are more reliable and durable, they must have the right to make their knowledge public without repercussions from management.

There will always be differences of opinion regarding what is needed versus what is merely desired. A Deep Green New Deal, then, should guide how those decisions would be made. A major cause of unnecessary production is that decisions concerning what to manufacture and standards for creating them are made by investors and corporations rather than community residents and workers manufacturing them. A Deep Green New Deal would confront that problem by involving all citizens in economic decisions, and not merely the rich.

Reparations would be another key element of a Deep Green New Deal. Perhaps the issue which is least likely to be linked to the current iterations of the Green New Deal is reparations to poor communities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia that have been victims of Western imperialism. This connection forces us to ask: Since most minerals necessary for alternative energy lie in poor countries, will rich countries continue to plunder their resources, exterminate what remains of Indigenous cultures, force inhabitants to work for a pittance, jail and kill those who resist, destroy farmland, and leave the country a toxic wasteland for generations to come?

For example, plans to massively expand electric vehicles (EVs) undermine the vastly more sustainable approach of urban redesign for walkable and cyclable communities. Manufacturing EVs for the rich puts the burden of the extraction of lithium, cobalt, and dozens of other materials required for these cars on the poor.

Africa may be the most mineral-rich continent. In addition to cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for EVs, Mali is the source of 75 percent of the uranium for French nuclear power, Zambia is mined for copper for virtually all types of energy, and hundreds of other minerals are taken from dozens of African countries.

Discussions of relationships between rich and poor countries make much of having “free, prior and informed consent” prior to an extraction project. But this ideal of consent is far from reality. Corporate and governmental bodies are so mired in corruption that they contaminate bodies which define and judge the meaning of “free, prior and informed consent.” No prediction of the effects of extraction can be “informed” since it is impossible to know what the interaction of the multitude of physical, chemical, biological, and ecological factors will be before extraction takes place. Affected communities are also typically bullied into accepting extraction because they fear that families will die from starvation, lack of medical care, or unemployment if they do not do so.

Thus, according to a Deep Green New Deal, reparations sufficient enough to eliminate poverty must be paid prior to signing extraction agreements, and every community must have the right to terminate an extraction agreement at any stage of the project.

This is where the other meaning of “deep” comes in. When people hear “deep green,” they often think of how industrial activity deeply affects ecosystems. “Deep” can also refer to having a deep respect for poor communities whose lives are most affected by extraction. Respect is not deep if it is unwilling to accept a “No” to a request for exorbitant, profit-gouging extraction. Peoples across the world may decide that since they have received so little for so long, it may be time for rich countries to share the wealth they have stolen and to dig up new wealth much, much more slowly.

Just to make sure that it is clear and not forgotten, the fundamental question regarding extraction of material needed for alternative (or so-called “green”) energy is: Will rich countries continue to plunder minerals underneath or adjacent to poor communities at a rate that corporations decide? Will they expect poor communities to be satisfied with a vague promise that, for the very first time, great things will happen after the plundering? Or should reparations be fully paid for past and current plundering, with poor communities deciding how much extraction they will allow and at what speed?

Current versions of the Green New Deal propose to solve employment, social justice, and energy problems with increased production, which is not necessary to solve any of these. These attempts to solve problems by increasing wealth only feed into the corporate culture of greed, while enabling the rich to grab more, more, and more. But a Deep Green New Deal should reflect our need for a new green culture, one that prizes sharing above all else.

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