A Green New Deal

While it has previously been regarded as utterly unrealistic both politically and economically to mobilise even a few billion dollars of public finance to begin the transformation to a low-carbon economy, in recent months governments have somehow found hundreds of billions of dollars to shore up the rotting financial system. Instead of hoping that a greed-driven deregulated financial system will somehow respond to long-term collective challenges like climate change, the Green New Deal proposes that billions of dollars be mobilised to provide the investments needed to create a low-carbon society. 

 

Creating the conditions for human societies to thrive indefinitely into the future is undoubtedly the most pressing challenge of our age. From time to time, sustaining our ability to achieve welfare and happiness for people, while at the same time maintaining our planet’s natural and cultural diversity, does appear as a prominent and fast-moving blip on the political and media radar. There is raised awareness of global interdependence, and modest actions sometimes follow.  But each time there is raised awareness, there is eventually an economic downturn that diverts attention. The last time this happened was in the early 1990s, after the Rio Earth Summit. The economy grew less, and the political and public emphasis on sustainability disappeared almost without trace. This is happening again now, but this time the stakes are much higher. We know, for example from the intergovernmental scientific process on climate change and from the findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, that our collective demands on natural systems are driving us towards disaster, and fast.  There is a familiar cluster of blockages that are always there, of course. From our predisposition to think short-term to our general over-confidence in the potential for technology to solve all our problems, and from our tendency to see Nature as inexhaustible to an ever-deepening separation of people from the ecological processes that enable them to live. There is, however, an even more serious flaw in our thinking, and it is manifest again now. It is linked to how we conduct economic development and our financial system. 

This is a profound problem, and in recent months we have been reminded how serious it is in blocking progress to a more sustainable world. The basic idea has been to expand wealth through growing economies via increasingly powerful free-market forces. The bigger the growth achieved by competitive enterprises, the more welfare would be spread around to the less well-off. Or so the story goes.  A core element in this modern globalised and deregulated economy is ever more access to credit. Because governments withdrew from regulating the financial system, it became excessively complicated, open to greed-driven abuse and further separated from the real economy – never mind the real ecology – that is the real source of people’s welfare. Banks’ lending policies became more and more reckless, in the process enriching a few, while leaving serious social consequences ranging from a massive burden of consumer debt to ordinary taxpayers being forced to take final responsibility for mistakes made by financial cowboys who were rewarded with obscene bonuses for their actions. Inevitably, and as numerous articles in Resurgence have pointed out would happen, the house of cards has come crashing down. The meltdown of the financial system is not the only economic pressure that has emerged in recent times, however. The fast-rising cost of energy has caused difficulties for ordinary people everywhere. While Western leaders, including George Bush and Gordon Brown, suggested that this particular crisis should be addressed via increased oil production, it has become increasingly clear that long-term supply constraints are the real issue, as oil output approaches a peak and then a decline. This emerging reality has already led to hugely damaging responses, including the increased production of oil from tar sands in Canada and government incentives to increase biofuel production. Some countries plan to encourage environmentally disastrous technologies that manufacture oil alternatives from coal. We are at present highly dependent on oil for our food security. In many Western countries it is estimated that for each calorie in our food, some ten calories of fossil energy was used to produce and deliver it. Part of the rising cost of food is also down to climatic impacts, including floods and droughts that have cut production. Recent assessments of greenhouse-gas emissions show how we are now polluting at a level above the worst-case scenario put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2000, placing us on a catastrophic trend that is projected to push up average global temperature by 5°C by 2050. The challenges posed by the financial crisis, peak oil and climate change are individually very serious, but unless they are addressed together in a manner that seeks more sustainable outcomes for society and the environment, they could in combination lead to even more disastrous consequences, with each compounding the impacts of the others. This is why a group of sustainability advocates joined together to publish a report in July 2008 that proposed a ‘Green New Deal’: a response to the present crisis that makes connections between finance, peak oil and climate change. 

The original New Deal was introduced by President Roosevelt in the 1930s, in order to end the Great Depression. He championed legislation and reforms that gained control of the financial system, reaffirming its role as a servant of society and not its master. Large-scale public finance was mobilised, in part to renew infrastructure and in so doing to generate renewed economic activity, creating jobs and demand. In those times the infrastructure was dams and roads, but now the economic renewal must be based on renewable power, sustainable transport and an energy- and materials- efficiency revolution. And this is what we must do now: regain control over finance and put it into the service of society, helping us to cut greenhouse-gas emissions whilst avoiding the worst effects of peak oil. A new ‘Carbon Army’ could reverse the job losses taking place across the economy, including in the financial sector, through massive public investment and inducements for private savings such as pension funds to provide incentives aimed at stimulating the emergence of a new zero-carbon and zero-waste future. Hundreds of thousands of jobs could come with this transition.  While it has been regarded as utterly unrealistic both politically and economically to mobilise even a few billions of public finance to begin the transformation to a low-carbon economy, in recent months governments have somehow found hundreds of billions of dollars to shore up the rotting financial system.  Instead of hoping that a greed-driven deregulated financial system will somehow respond to long-term collective challenges like climate change, the Green New Deal proposes that billions be mobilised from government funding, energy companies and a range of private savings schemes to provide the investments needed to create a low-carbon society that at the same time is far less dependent on oil. These investments, taking place over decades, would generate a vast number of skilled jobs. Certainly market forces and competition would play a role in the new economy – but as servants rather than masters of our destiny. Such a shift in emphasis, mobilising resources to solve collective challenges while creating jobs, is not so much about the detail of policy (although it will be vital to get that right): it is more a matter of whether any of our leaders will show sufficient courage to challenge what has in mainstream politics become a seamless consensus which holds that having free markets that are overseen by central government is the only way we can achieve a good society. The times we live in amply demonstrate the flaws of the old way. A different direction can now emerge, if only our leaders can muster the courage to see connections and opportunities and to inspire the emergence of a new economy assisted by a new financial system based more on sustainability, and less on greed.  We know we have to make big changes: so if not now, then when?  

 

For more information: http://www.tinyurl.com/greennewdealforuk 

Tony Juniper campaigns for a more sustainable society. He is a member of the Green New Deal group. 

 

This article was first published in Resurgence magazine: www.resurgence.org