'Tis the Season for Books About the Green New Deal
Sierra reviews books by Kate Aronoff, Naomi Klein, Jeremy Rivkin, and others
It's difficult to believe that barely a year has passed since the Green New Deal dropped with a bang into US political conversations. What started as a bare-bones policy sketch from the newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has now become the very center of American environmental activism. Journalists, activists, and academics have responded with a raft of books that seek to explain the promise, and potential pitfalls, of the Green New Deal idea. Here are four new books that illustrate why many US activists have come to see the Green New Deal as one of the best ways to address the climate crisis.
On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal
By Naomi Klein
Simon & Schuster, 2019
Do you know anyone who could use a box set of author-activist Naomi Klein’s columns, essays, and speeches? Maybe your mom, an erstwhile armchair liberal galvanized by Donald Trump’s election, who is now spending her nights working with Indivisible? Or perhaps a teenage nephew who joined the historic September 20 climate strikes and is looking for new ways to get involved in the climate justice movement? Or, say, a roommate who is only now realizing the scale of the environmental crisis and is peppering you with constant updates about fires in the Amazon, rising sea levels, and the disappearance of birds and insects?
If so, then get yourself to your favorite independent bookstore and buy your friend or loved one a copy of Klein’s latest book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. Klein, who is a partisan of the climate justice movement and a chronicler of it, has been a leading voice in progressive politics for 20 years, and On Fire provides an essential dose of historical context. Such perspective is a bracing antidote to the amnesia that characterizes so much of the mainstream media; for all of their pretense of sophistication, many reporters seem unable to remember much beyond what has happened since the last 30-second commercial break. Klein performs an important public service, then, in delivering the long view.
“We are part of a long and complex collective story,” she writes toward the end of the book. “By looking decades backward and forward simultaneously, we are no longer alone as we confront our weighty historical moment. . . . Because there is nothing more disorienting than finding yourself floating through time, unmoored from both future and past.”
Exhibit A, and the axis on which On Fire spins, is the proposed Green New Deal. When newly elected representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of the Green New Deal last December, many members of the national media treated the proposal as if it had sprung straight out of AOC’s forehead like a kind of policy-laden Athena. As Klein carefully details in a 53-page introduction, the principles, values, and political strategies that form the Green New Deal have, in fact, been bubbling among the green-left for years. “The Green New Deal’s roots-up approach to the climate crisis is not itself new,” Klein reminds us. “This kind of ‘climate justice’ framework (as opposed to the more generic ‘climate action’) has been attempted locally for years.”
What made the AOC proposal seem new, Klein argues, was its timing. The idea for an equity-based, economy-wide environmental transition exploded into the public consciousness because a critical mass of people had finally come to recognize the emergency of the climate crisis. “There is a different quality to that urgency now because it just so happens that we are all alive at the last possible moment when changing course can mean saving lives on a truly unimaginable scale.”
Klein, famously, has been among those who have laid the intellectual foundations for the Green New Deal. On Fire allows readers to see how exactly that foundation was constructed, brick by brick. While readers who have closely followed Klein’s writing may find some of this compendium redundant, it succeeds by offering a glimpse into the mental machinations of a thinker working out ideas in real-time. Take, for instance, Klein’s acceptance speech for the Sydney Peace Prize, prepared and delivered just days after Trump’s presidential victory. That “hot take on a hot planet” has some lines you’d expect from Klein (“there is no climate change breakthrough without justice”) along with some flashes of real prescience. “We can and must take the profits from the dying days of fossil fuels and spend them on climate justice”—a line that seems especially oracular as the tort lawsuits against the carbon barons pile up.
On Fire is meant to be a kind of organizers’ backgrounder briefing for the Green New Deal (the book ends with an 11-page “capsule case” for the proposal), and in that it succeeds. But Klein is most fiery when she aims her prodigious critical powers at the political opponents of the Green New Deal. Her diagnostic of the specter of eco-fascism is especially trenchant, an important warning about how the stresses of an overheated planet could, if things go badly, lead to what she calls “climate barbarism.”
“In the rough and rocky future that has already begun, what kind of people are we going to be?” Klein asks. “Will we share what’s left and try to look after one another? Or are we instead going to attempt to hoard what’s left, look after ‘our own,’ and lock everyone else out?”
One quibble. At times, Klein’s exhortatory prose slips into the passive voice: “There are many more connections to be drawn. . . . There are plenty more connections to be made. . . . There is a grand story to be told here about the duty to repair.” But who is going to make the connections and tell the story?
Perhaps the imprecision is just a function of a writer working on an impossibly tight deadline. But maybe it’s calculated—Klein’s strategic way of avoiding a royal “we” when the responsibilities for rising temperatures depend on one’s national citizenship, class, and age. Or it could be (and this is just a guess) that the passive voice and the absence of a subject is a deliberate, if subtle, way of suggesting that the author herself doesn’t know who will do this work or how exactly it will be done. The future, thankfully, remains unfinished.
Who knows—maybe the person who will play the role of subject to tell the stories and make the connections will be some reader who, with On Fire, is discovering the ideal of climate justice for the first time.
The Case for the Green New Deal
By Ann Pettifor
Several months before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, a member of her campaign team approached a London economist named Ann Pettifor to ask for advice. Over a decade earlier, as the global economy was collapsing, Pettifor and a group of other environmentalists and economists had developed what they thought was a quite sensible plan to restore the global economy and fix climate change all in one fell swoop. They released it in July 2008, under the name A Green New Deal.
Two months later, the economy tanked even more. The global investment firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, leading to a $700 billion government bailout, which left no money for any New Deal, green or otherwise. This only proved the points that Pettifor and her collaborators had made in their report, and in her new book, The Case for the Green New Deal, Pettifor makes it again: You can’t fight climate change without fixing our current global economic system. As she puts it in her introduction:
“Financial deregulation” had in our view facilitated the creation of almost limitless credit. With this credit boom have come irresponsible and often fraudulent patterns of lending, creating inflated bubbles in assets such as property, and powering environmentally unsustainable consumption. We were also clear that the high, real rates of interest had driven the need for excessive rates of return on investment necessary to repay costly debts. Hence the compulsion to strip the forests, empty the seas and exploit labor in order to generate the returns needed to repay debts.
If you look at that quote and think, “Wow, this is going to be a wonkish book,” you are absolutely correct. It’s been a long time since I read this much about John Maynard Keynes, Nixon’s dismantling of Bretton Woods, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the end of the gold standard. But The Case for the Green New Deal is also a quick read—about as long as a generously sized pamphlet, and written in a clear, amiable style.
A month after she was first sworn into office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) released a resolution that outlined what their own version of the Green New Deal would actually look like. Pettifor, who also helped Ocasio-Cortez frame the “how to pay for it” section of her version, post-victory, seems delighted to see these ideas catching on again across the pond, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt once worked to pass legislation that would not only stabilize the economy but landscapes like the Dust Bowl that had been devastated by unrestrained financial speculation. The Civilian Conservation Corps, founded as part of the Green New Deal, was responsible for over half the reforestation done in the history of the United States.
What still distinguishes Pettifor’s thinking about the Green New Deal is the way that it tackles not only the climate crisis but also the financial system that helped create it. “You can’t deal with one without dealing with the other,” Pettifor said recently in an interview,
You can’t have a capitalist, carbon-belching economy, or delusions of exponential growth, and believe you can achieve ecological targets within that. We argued that finance, economy, and the environment are integrated—and that you need a joined-up policy that deals with all three. When I studied the history of Roosevelt’s New Deal, I saw how he did the same thing; he met the challenges of unemployment and economic collapse, fixed the Dust Bowl, and had to subordinate the financial system to the interests of the democratic state.
Roosevelt studied history and economics in graduate school, but he later said of that time, “Everything I was taught was wrong.” Pettifor makes a persuasive case for taking a similarly contrarian look at the economic theories that might look good in a textbook but haven’t done well by the biosphere that we literally depend on to survive.
The Green New Deal
By Jeremy Rifkin
St. Martin's Press, 2019
Can the levers of industrial capitalism be pulled in response to a climate crisis that capitalist industry and its most zealous ambassadors precipitated in the first place? In what way will the radical transformation of industrial economies to draw emissions down to zero play out across demographics of class and privilege? Can these transformations benefit all in a just transition so no one is left behind?
These are just some of the complex, and essential, questions that a national dialogue around a Green New Deal has the potential to catalyze, and ultimately, answer. Unfortunately, Jeremy Rivkin’s spirited but flawed The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth does more to flatten those questions out, while leaving others altogether unanswered. To be sure, the book is full of concepts for what a Green New Deal could be, all of which are delivered with unflappable optimism (we can use all the ideas and optimism we can get these days). But Rivkin’s prescriptions are at times based on premises and assumptions that get deployed as fact while eliding their inherent puzzles and problems. That’s where Rivkin’s project, admirable as it is, starts to get into a bit of trouble.
According to Rivkin, there have been not one but three Industrial Revolutions since the 19th century. The first was driven by steam-powered printing, the telegraph, and the abundance of coal, and the second driven by centralized electricity, the television, and cheap oil, among other industrial developments. We are now in a Third Industrial Revolution, Rivkin argues, one that is driven by a digitized Communication Internet and a Renewable Energy Internet that is transforming societies and economies around the world. In this Third Industrial Revolution he finds a prescription for a Green New Deal that not only can decarbonize economies in time to avert global climate catastrophe but is doing so already. Internet companies are decoupling data centers from fossil fuels, he asserts. The national electric grid is moving away from a fossil-fuel-based centralized system. “In the new system, every business, neighborhood, and homeowner becomes a potential producer of electricity, sharing their surplus with others on a Smart Energy Internet that is beginning to stretch across national and continental masses,” he writes.
This Third Industrial Revolution, he predicts, will force the collapse of fossil fuel capitalism and its hegemonic, climate-polluting infrastructure by 2028 (the date feels arbitrary, with little in the way of explanation for why this date and not any other). He argues that a combination of a tax on the super-rich, reductions in military spending, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and the mass mobilization of pension funds around the world can in part finance this revolution.
Rivkin’s ideas for how to finance the Green New Deal are a start, but they aren't new and lack specificity, which is a surprise given the granular detail in other sections of the book, such as on smart infrastructure. His explanation of how global pension funds can be mobilized to fight the climate crisis also leaves more questions than answers. Meanwhile, who exactly are the homeowners and businesses that Rivkin is talking about as becoming producers of electricity? We don’t get a clear sense of whether everyone can participate in and benefit from the ideas laid out here, including frontline communities and poor and working-class communities.
Where things get more problematic is the way in which Rivkin, a longtime adviser to the European Union and the People’s Republic of China, regularly cites economic and infrastructure advances in those territories as models for a Green New Deal in the United States. “We are not totally in the dark and without possibilities,” he writes. “There is a way forward. A path has been laid across the European Union and the People’s Republic of China.”
In a book that has plenty to offer in the way of (well-deserved) criticism for slow progress in the United States and Canada to decarbonize their economies, there is no critique to be found here of China, the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, in conspicuous flourishes that toe the line of boosterism, he regularly cites statistics showing for example that China leads the world in the manufacture and installation of solar and wind technology, with the country accounting for more than 45 percent of global investment in renewable energy. “China is following a similar path with a short-term push in natural gas production to accompany the phase-out of coal, and a simultaneous increase in solar and wind energy production, with the goal of eliminating virtually all fossil fuels from the energy mix over the next several decades,” he writes.
Such encomiums punctuate the book throughout: “Is it possible that the energy companies and power and electric utility companies and for that matter countries around the world are oblivious to the Great Disruption that has unfolded in the EU and the People’s Republic of China? Doubtful!”
The reality is far more complicated. A newly released report by Global Energy Monitor directly contradicts Rivkin’s rosy analysis, finding that China, far from being a renewable energy leader, is “driving the continued growth of the global coal fleet.” “While much of the world is moving away from coal, China continues to grow its coal fleet,” the report states:
The year 2018 marked a milestone: for the first time since China’s coal-building boom began in the 1980s, the coal fleet outside of China shrank. From January 2018 to June 2019, countries outside of China decreased their total coal power capacity by 8.1 gigawatts (GW), due to steady retirements and an ongoing decline in the commissioning of new coal plants. Yet over the same period China increased its coal fleet by 42.9 GW, and as a result the global coal fleet overall grew by 34.9 GW. As more countries turn away from coal and retire their plants, China’s continued pursuit of coal is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world, and is now effectively driving the ongoing expansion of the global coal fleet.
A new United Nations report backs up that analysis, affirming that China expanded, not reduced, its carbon foorprint last year. Furthermore, a separately released Production Gap Report by leading research and academic institutions has found that the biggest fossil-fuel-producing nations around the world—including China, the United States, Russia, India, Australia, Indonesia, and Canada—are "planning to produce 50 percent more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C and 120 percent more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C." It's unclear why, given this bleak data, we should accept Rivkin's proposition that the fossil fuel civilization is posed to unravel by 2028, or why we should accept the thesis that a path for a Green New Deal to help bring about that unraveling has been laid across the People’s Republic of China.
Equally troubling is how Rivkin tends to lionize capitalist growth as a solution to the climate crisis. He advocates for a kind of utopian capitalism that will unite the world in what he calls “an army of ‘little capitalists.’” The pursuit of limitless growth in human industry, and the ministry thereof, is precisely why we are in the midst of a climate crisis that poses an existential threat to the planet. While some kind of blueprint for a green economic and infrastructure revolution will be mandatory for global climate action—and the Green New Deal is one of the most exciting proposals yet for achieving one—Rivkin maps onto that blueprint formulas of capital, prosperity, and growth in a way that fails to recognize a fundamental tension between capitalism and the climate crisis. Is it a tension that more capitalism, as opposed to less, is able to resolve? Rivkin dodges the question.
Rivkin does provide a useful chronology of Green New Deal movements outside the United States dating back to 2007—an important history demonstrating that the idea of a Green New Deal (and the green infrastructure revolution it prescribes) was forged long before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her allies proposed such a plan for the United States. In 2008, for example, a Green New Deal Group in the UK published a 48-page declaration titled A Green New Deal: Joined-Up Policies to Solve the Triple Crunch of the Credit Crisis, Climate Change, and High Oil Prices. One year later, a foundation affiliated with the German Green Party published a manifesto along the same lines titled Toward a Transatlantic Green New Deal: Tackling the Climate and Economic Crisis.
Those histories demonstrate that movements are already underway to craft Green New Deal blueprints for the climate crisis. We should study and learn from them, as Rivkin enjoins us to do. But real transformational change will have to be equity-based and driven by environmental justice, not just from studying economic models.
“The Green New Deal infrastructure is as much about a change in consciousness as it is about a change in infrastructure,” Rivkin writes. On that point, he surely gets it right.
A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal
Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos
Verso Books, 2019
Beyond the few pages of principles laid out by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, what would a Green New Deal actually look like?
In A Planet to Win: Why We Need A Green New Deal, journalists and academics Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos suggest two possibilities. We might have a Green New Deal that seeks to change everything about our fossil-fuel-powered world without actually changing much at all. Or we might have a Green New Deal that’s truly green and truly new.
Such a “radical” Green New Deal would be unapologetically anti-capitalist, as the book’s title suggests. It would also be unapologetically ambitious: The book’s third chapter is called “Rebuilding the World.” And no, the authors aren’t going to tell you how they plan to pay for it.
“One simple argument structures this book,” its authors write. “An effective Green New Deal is also a radical Green New Deal.” They charge that a “faux” Green New Deal, with a narrow focus on energy policy and elite-friendly solutions, would suffer the same fate as the doomed 2009 cap-and-trade legislation: watered down until it no longer attracted enough of anyone’s enthusiasm to pass. “Who will march for green austerity?” the authors ask.
In contrast, a radical Green New Deal rests on “viscerally beneficial” policies that make themselves felt in ordinary people’s lives, like building and retrofitting millions of units of public housing. Making decarbonization compatible with the good life would “mobilize political energies to break the status quo” of intransigence toward climate action, Aronoff and company argue.
Even if a faux Green New Deal got through Congress, the authors doubt it could achieve the scale and scope of the emissions cuts required at this point in time. Such legislation wouldn’t directly attack fossil fuel companies and other architects of destruction but use market nudges, like taxing carbon, to steer companies to better behavior. On this point, the authors paraphrase the journalist David Roberts: “The United States didn't defeat the Nazis by taxing factories that didn't produce planes and tanks for the war effort.”
A radical Green New Deal wouldn’t nudge but would embrace industrial planning and public, democratic ownership of major sectors of the economy. It would “euthanize” the fossil fuel industry “as soon as possible,” and guarantee jobs to former industry workers at comparable pay. It would transform a production-and-consumption economy centered on “cheap, carbon-rich crap,” and replace it with “communal luxury.”
The authors argue that the outcome of a faux Green New Deal is likely to be at least 3 degrees Celsius of warming, while a radical Green New Deal wouldn’t accept more than 2 degrees of warming. That’s an enormous difference, especially for people in the Global South. A faux Green New Deal “saves the world today” but leaves justice and equity for tomorrow. A radical Green New Deal seeks them at once.
Among other methods, it could do so by remaking international trade law to safeguard communities where the materials for clean energy are mined; breaking the system of intellectual property protections, lest rich countries hoard decarbonization technologies; and rewriting labor law in workers’ favor. A radical Green New Deal would institute a four-day workweek and job guarantee. It would string “elegant necklaces” of wind turbines across democratically selected hillsides.
No matter how ambitious you feel when it comes to climate policy, A Planet to Win will probably leave you at some point wondering, is this all realistic? Isn’t this just another “green dream, or whatever,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it last February?
With a future this uncertain, no one can say. The authors of A Planet to Win place their faith in the power of collective action to create change, just as collective action has won so many other once inconceivable changes—from universal suffrage to civil rights to the eight-hour workday.
In the past two years, we’ve seen how quickly grassroots action can shift what’s possible on climate policy. In 2016, Bernie Sanders pushed for a carbon tax. Now he has a $16 trillion plan to decarbonize the US economy. It’s not just lefties like Bernie: According to Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy for the think tank Data for Progress, all of the Democratic presidential candidates have “moved in a Green New Deal direction over the past year.”
This kind of collective power, the authors write, is built “strike by strike, election by election, meeting by meeting, potluck by potluck.” What’s most powerful about A Planet to Win is that it offers visions of change that will keep people passionate about the long, difficult struggle for a future on a habitable planet. The book casts ordinary people as the primary engines of climate action. It celebrates our appetite for change and refuses to paint humanity as too selfish or shortsighted to care about our planet’s future.
Just the opposite. The authors do not hesitate to identify the people—the fossil fuel executives, and their accomplices in government and private utilities—who are responsible for this mess. By 2030, the book reminds us, a few hundred rich men are expected to be responsible for nearly 6 million climate- and pollution-related deaths per year. Those rich men are our enemies, the writers argue. We should treat them as such rather than hope they one day come to the bargaining table for serious climate action.
Perhaps most importantly, A Planet to Win helps us imagine life under the umbrella of a radical Green New Deal. We would work less, and the work we did would be oriented toward one another and the earth. There would be “milk-white turbine blades rotating slowly on the horizon of Vermont’s Green Mountains,” and more time for “eco-friendly hedonism,” like long dinners with friends fueled by organic wine and legal weed. There would be ferocious storms, but we would be prepared to withstand them, and we could prevent worse ones from coming.
That seems like a life worth fighting for—strike after strike, election after election, meeting after meeting, potluck after potluck.