Review: Max Eastonon the Green New Deal

After the Charcoal Economy

It seems a lifetime ago but between 2008 and 2018 I spent most of my time studying and working in the loosely defined research field of Green Chemistry. Over that ten-year period, I looked at remediating oil spills in the Antarctic and worked on a carbon sequestration project in the Albertan tar sands. I worked on projects that looked to ‘green’ chemical reactions, co-invented a battery that turned into a start-up company, and grappled with making electrochemical devices from plastics extracted from prawn shells. I think I wanted to work in the green space as a way to help avoid the inevitable ecological disaster bearing down on us, but that was a little naive. Eventually the pressure got to me and I cracked, quitting everything to declare myself only half in jest as a ‘retired’ scientist.

I left the sector with an overwhelming sense of futility, and I was scarred by it; the words ‘green’ and ‘eco’ would send me into minor fits of panic. Then in 2019 I watched Bill Shorten fail to win an ‘election about climate change’ and months later, Australia caught fire. As the fires swept through my home state of NSW, I was snapped out of my self-indulgence, and it was only then that I decided to re-engage with the world of ‘green’.

Around the time of the fires, three books appeared with strikingly similar titles. Maybe most provocative for title and timing was Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. I noticed that Klein had contributed a foreword to another book, titled A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (written by Kate Aranoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos), and then while filling an online order for that, I noticed Ann Pettifor’s The Case For the Green New Deal.

I read all three under orange skies in Sydney, while ash fell into my garden. They spoke to my professional experiences in a way that eventually made me want to drop the jaded ex-scientist schtick and think about contributing again. So this essay is my first foray into writing about environmental action outside of the research journals – bear with me as I reflect on these three books in the context of the worst fire season I hope we ever witness.

Of course, these authors didn’t intend for their works to publish more or less concurrently at the end of a decade –  nor did Klein mean to be so provocative as to have a book titled On Fire reach Australian bookshelves as flames engulfed the nation, but I like taking stock of such coincidences. If our ‘burning case for a Green New Deal’ was the loss of countless acres of country then it’s worth hearing Klein out. Even as the memory of the fires fades in the Australian winter, and we’ve traded the fear of a burning fire for a fear of a burning fever, these volumes mark a crunch point for the contemporary green movement. They ask that all our efforts move from the demonstrated failures of the past toward a climate crisis plan known as the Green New Deal (GND).

While the concept of the GND has been gaining popularity in recent years, it was first devised in 2008 in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Developed initially by the Green New Deal Group (a working group that included Ann Pettifor), to ‘solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices,’ it was a multi-faceted approach from the outset. When a Green New Deal (GND) was later introduced to the US House of Representatives by Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in February 2019, her group’s wording echoed Pettifor’s. Re-worded as a ‘plan to solve three critical problems at once,’ namely climate change, poverty and inequality, and a closure of the racial wealth gap, it advocated for a bottom-up investment in technology and infrastructure of a transformative scale, inspired by the post-World War II programs of Franklin Roosevelt.

Rather than the kind of short-term economic stimulus we saw following the GFC or now see being implemented in response to COVID-19, the GND would provide a job guarantee in non-polluting sectors, key to the mobilisation of a workforce that for example, might work to secure clean air and water via regeneration projects. It differs from the ecological approaches we’re familiar with because it aims to be intersectional in its approach, aiming to treat root causes rather than their symptoms.

The broad picture that GND advocates hope to paint is evident in the differing approaches of the three books under review. Drawing on Ann Pettifor’s experiences as an advisor on GND policy to both UK Labour and Ocasio-Cortez, The Case for a Green New Deal takes a more formal and direct approach. An economist, Pettifor outlines the role that global financial markets have played in climate inaction, as well as the way they might be manipulated to contribute to the adoption of a GND. It is unique among the books because it costs the program methodically, all while running with this bold opening line as its ethos:

We can afford what we can do.

Good company for Pettifor’s financial approach, Aranoff’s A Planet to Win paints a utopian vision of a post-GND world. The authors focus on people and communities, and through techniques like futuring, describe scenes of a world that has adopted the principles of the GND, one where 100 per cent renewable energy, guaranteed jobs in non-polluting sectors and free public transport define the life of a community. Though its narrative approach may challenge the cynic, it provides one of the more convincing sets of critiques and strategies when it comes to approaching the GND as an outsider.

Unlike Pettifor and Aranoff’s books, Klein’s is not a tidy and precise volume, and thus may not be the most direct and useful contribution to understanding the GND itself. Rather, On Fire provides a long context for arriving at the GND as a point of action by outlining a decade’s worth of environmental catastrophes, pockmarked by stories of the ineffective efforts to curb it. The collection serves as something of a manual, listing symptoms of an underlying problem in need of a remedy. From the ill-fated corporate response to the Event Horizon oil spill in 2010 to the exploitation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico by disaster capitalists in 2016, or her personal experiences in the British Columbia wildfires in 2017, systemic problems are described from a number of angles. Klein’s prescription for the present is to reverse the impact of slavish deferment to profit motives and an obsession with the growth of economies and empires. It’s in her 2016 acceptance speech of the Sydney Peace Prize that she then hints at the root of our Australian ecological problem. Referring to the HMS Endeavour, she says:

It seems somewhat fitting that the ship that laid claim to New South Wales and Queensland started life as a coal vessel. Is it any wonder your government has an unnatural love affair with coal?

A widely circulated image of our current Prime Minister addressing the national Parliament with a lump of coal in hand no doubt comes to mind for many Australian readers. By naming the colonisation of Australia in 1788 by a converted coal ship as the commencement of our role in the climate crisis, Klein points to the broader imaginative scope required for effective green action.

The Green New Deal is presented as an intersectional approach – but this claim won’t hold if it erases the voices of Indigenous communities and people of colour. The green movement has often failed in this regard, via an approach that Klein describes in On Fire in these terms:

First we’ll save the planet and then we will worry about poverty, police violence, gender discrimination, and racism.

While the GND does mention working to repair racial inequalities among its talking points, it reads somewhat like an aside. In the renewed context of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement for immediate action against systemic racism, aspects of the GND feel already out of date. But rather than oppose the GND itself, a number of organisations in the United States have begun calling for the addition of supporting frameworks, largely as a response to the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on communities of colour. The Anti-Police Terror Project, and Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment are just two groups who have begun calling for a Black New Deal, with the latter outlining six tenets that take a more direct approach to costing the plan than Pettifor’s 200-page tome, beginning with: ‘Tax the wealthy and corporate class.’

From a First Nations standpoint in the United States, grassroots organisation the Red Nation have formed a framework for what they call the Red Deal, a proposed addition to the GND platform that ‘prioritises Indigenous liberation’, rather than treating it as an afterthought. With discussion of a GND in its infancy here in Australia, programs like the Red Deal and the Black New Deal must also be in the forefront of local discussions.

The crossover between the Red Deal and Naomi Klein’s On Fire can be extrapolated from the Red Deal’s first principle: ‘What Creates Crisis Cannot Solve It.’ We know this because the green movement has been trying to use the tools that built the crisis for decades. Klein acknowledges that we ended up with a climate crisis in spite of efforts to avoid one. With the renewed focus of the GND, Klein’s essays act as constructive criticism for a step toward a real plan for climate crisis aversion, highlighted by a point that may seem controversial to those who have been active in the green movement:

…professional environmentalists […] paint a picture of global warming Armageddon and then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying “green” products and creating clever markets in pollution.

The mention of ‘clever markets in pollution’ is salient for Australians who have watched the last decade of green political strategy revolve around the vocal storm that was the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and the ‘Carbon Tax’. Looking back at the Rudd, Gillard, Turnbull, Abbott years it becomes clear that the policy and the scheme were little more than a noisy distraction. Between 2007 and 2019, we watched the design, negotiation, introduction, response and then abolition of the ETS while the global climate system chugged away atop the teacup to eventually yield the violent bushfire season of 2019. With pause for reflection, the problem wasn’t so much that a particularly damaging set of egos all contributed to inaction, but the fact that so many political actors ever thought that an Emissions Trading Scheme should be the central preventative measure for avoiding a climate crisis.

The belief that issues such as climate change might be corrected by small manipulations and guidance of national financial markets instead revealed a strategy for inaction. Rather than striking at the root with an obvious fix – ceasing the burning of fossil fuels – the construction of a market system was the strategy chosen by all major political parties in Australia. It suggested that maybe, if heavy polluters were able to trade their emissions for tax rebates, and pay money to pollute via an additional tax burden, we might see an aversion of the climate crisis. I look back at those years and wonder: what outcomes did even the most progressive of the ETS advocates hope for? Did one of those scenarios involve Adani’s accountants reaching the end of the tax year and recommending a cancellation of their coal mine plans to take advantage of tax incentives to open a solar farm?

Market mechanisms demonstrably create evidence for excuses: they solidify an ecological status quo – and the ETS demonstrates that the most vocal environmental argument of Australia’s recent history was somewhere between a bluff and some sleight of hand to justify business as usual. The Green New Dealers advocate for a resolute departure from this kind of market-first compromise. Rather, they suggest a major, ongoing program to create a stable workforce that applies itself in the pursuit of a non-polluting future, one that in turn stabilises the economy from the ground up. In other words, they employ the labourers before they employ an accounting firm.

Australia has an obsession with and an expertise in creative accounting. Governments have for years declared that we’re too small a nation to contribute significantly to climate change, while crowing about our status as the world’s number one coal exporter. (Being both the world’s smallest continent and the world’s largest island might have given us the world’s largest chip on the shoulder.) We send our coal overseas  and claim that we’re no longer responsible for what happens to it. The logic is flawed, but it’s also embedded in us. We’ve ended up at a point where nation states make agreements about emissions targets and behaviours as though the atmosphere can read our maps. When it comes to international climate agreements, nation-by-nation targets are of course just another exercise in accounting for nothing during a crisis. As Klein writes:

A successful transition to a green economy cannot target numerical outcomes, but needs to target tangible outcomes in order for it to be embraced by the public and be effective.

While making agreements within land-based borders ignores a global problem, it’s the targets set within those borders that have been maybe the noisiest distraction of all. Because it’s not just governments, but climate scientists and the green movement who have dictated the terms in percentages, tonnes and degrees Celsius.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports calculations for how much poison the Earth can withstand in the form of carbon emission targets, setting arbitrary calendar dates that seem to be chosen by years that have a certain ring to them. 2020 has passed – so we can now wait until 2030? Rather than concrete commitments to immediate action (such as supporting non-polluting infrastructure), we bicker over numerical targets which always fall to a political compromise between ‘too ambitious’ and ‘ineffective.’ In the end, setting targets in this fashion is like reading the footy scores in the paper and hoping the results change if we stare at them hard enough.

We know that all that work calculating, setting, compromising on and then agreeing to targets of degrees Celcius and parts per million represented idle time proportional to long periods of inaction. As we saw by February, all of Australia’s numerical climate agreements (numbers that took some creative accounting to meet in the case of the Paris targets) became immediately redundant when the climate change-induced bushfires burned through Australia for six months, releasing double the amount of CO2 than a ‘usual’ calendar year. The Green New Dealers call for a shift to a commitment to practice over numerical targets – because the numbers are only important if you’re around to count them. 

One of On Fire‘s best entries is titled ‘Stop Trying to Save the Planet All By Yourself’. Klein emerged in 2000 as the author of the anti-branding bible No Logo, and it’s no surprise she has become perturbed by the rise of individual green action. In the decades since No Logo highlighted brand boycotts of Nike, Shell and McDonald’s for their myriad social injustices, we’ve seen a perverse evolution of consumer behaviour. Ethical consumerism has evolved from a moral stance to a boom industry. In the guise of green, new companies and divisions of branded corporates have filled the aisles with new products as staples of the ethical household. Reusable coffee cups, nylon shopping bags, bamboo toothbrushes, and stainless steel straws are introduced to replace disposable plastics, and buying them has swiftly become a part of a consumer identity. The sale of products with ‘green’ credentials is now cultivated by callous industries to allow for their own inaction. Indeed, taking advantage of people’s well-meaning consumer behaviour can be seen as a response to the rise of the ethical shopping movements highlighted by No Logo.

In On Fire, Klein puts this rise of consumer responsibility down in part to a sense of futility, suggesting it comes from ‘the idea that attempts at big systemic change have failed, [so] all we can do is act small’. As governments fail us on a policy level, we have developed an internal response to act so locally that a strategy to solve the problem of global climate collapse includes paying an extra $2 on a plane ticket to contribute to the plane ride’s potential carbon neutrality via the planting of a calculated number of carbon sequestering trees (rather than the airline engaging in the corporate responsibility, it is considered a choice of the individual passenger.) The problem of course is that the global climate system is so huge and complex that even though it may feel good to take ‘personal responsibility’ one mouse click at a time, we’ve witnessed the climate heat up as we engage with these well-meaning yet ineffective individual actions.

It’s no accident that highly polluting companies provide these options for us. By providing a checkbox and a small fee, we are provided with a kind of exoneration from responsibility. But the programs themselves are flawed. When Klein refers to carbon offset programs in her book, she digs deeper, and notes other ethical flow-on effects. Conservation organisations who are now able to run profitable carbon offset programs sourced from airlines and petroleum companies purchase land on the cheap and call it a ‘carbon sequestration zone’. The imagination it takes to create markets in conservation is particularly perverse when that land is bought and sold in colonised nations: a re-contextualising of stolen land under yet another ‘green’ response to a problem that might have been solved by simply returning the land to its traditional custodians.

When carbon offset programs like the planting of quick-growth forests are undertaken in the context of the climate crisis, we see the hamster wheel practice of fighting for neutrality while contributing to the problem. If the root cause of an increased length and intensity of a bushfire season isn’t addressed directly, we enter a situation of potentially planting more fuel for a fire: a carbon sequestration forest expelling tons of sequestered carbon back to whence it came. Carbon sequestration, like a carbon tax, is barely even a band-aid, but it’s just one form of this broken thinking when it comes to climate action. The idea that governments can’t be trusted to help, that we should take it on our own shoulders is far more pervasive than Keep Cups and checkboxes – but is present too in our collective actions.

In the climate marches of January 2020, tens of thousands of residents across the country came together to form a crowd that was demanding action to curb the climate crisis. I remember being uncharacteristically hopeful when taking the train into Town Hall for the first march, until I saw the list of demands headed by the hashtag #SackScoMo. That even a protest crowd can focus their efforts on removing a single person ‘in charge’, hoping that wiser minds will prevail is a symptom of this same obsession with individualism. As the Green New Dealers argue, the climate crisis goes beyond any individual actor, and in the Australian context, goes much further back than that most recent catastrophic bushfire season. Scott Morrison’s incompetence and inaction is certainly problematic, and so too were the distractions of the Rudd, Gillard, Turnbull, Abbott years. So too was the climate denialism of the Howard years, and the privatisation measures and neoliberal centre that Hawke and Keating created. All of those individuals fueled those fires – but it was the centuries of mismanagement that led to the climate conditions we are increasingly experiencing. If we were to be so bold as to draw a line back to a point where anthropogenic climate change was not in effect, Australia finds itself at a time before the invasion and colonisation of Aboriginal land, before the construction of financial markets and pollutive industry: and if colonisation and capitalism were the starting points for the long curve to where we sit today (on an island that was on fire for six months), then surely we can see a burning case for spinning back the dial.

So much has changed in the past twelve months. Take this prescient quote from Ann Pettifor’s summary to her Case for a Green New Deal written in 2019, that already feels uncomfortably dated:

…sooner rather than later the world is going to be faced by a shuddering shock to the system. I am not sure what that shock will be. It could be the flooding or partial destruction of a great city sited close to the rising seas. Or it could be (in my view, most likely) another collapse of the internationally integrated financial system.

I began writing this essay while the fires were still burning and have been struggling to find the ‘right’ time to complete it. A global pandemic and market collapse occurred in the months after the fire was put out by rain and flood, so it may seem untimely to discuss a Green New Deal. I admit to feeling that this essay had been proven irrelevant in recent months, but turning back to On Fire, A Planet to Win, and The Case for a Green New Deal instead alleviated some of that anxiety. The symptoms that these books collect all point to a broader problem and a related solution. The conversation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been so different to the conversation surrounding the initial stages of the bushfire season. First there was government denial to the seriousness of the event, then talk of protecting the economy, then small spending, then large spending, and inevitably: austerity and discussion of “returning the budget to surplus” will be ahead of us. But the lesson from that repetitiveness isn’t that we live in the groove of a broken record, but that the problems are closely related, meaning a holistic response may be available.

The strength of a GND-like platform is that its tenets are transferable: from a UK and US context to an Australian one, and from a climate crisis focus to a pandemic environment. The lost homes, lost towns, lost centres of employment and lost jobs are common to the post-fire landscape and the height of financial crisis; there is plenty of impetus for a localised GND. Even before the fires and COVID-19, the Green New Dealers were looking to the US post-war New Deal for inspiration, wherein a workforce was mobilised from people traditionally outside of it (Pettifor uses the huge numbers of women drawn into the labour force during WWII as a salient example). In 2020, this may comprise, for example, the semi-retired or aged to be given work in the training of young apprentices and workers. In a green rebuild, the opportunity to adopt green building codes, improved town planning for energy efficiency, and the creation of a multi-skilled workforce that can service those towns in the long-term. These are worlds that Aranoff and her co-authors imagine in A Planet to Win.

The fires and the pandemic are an opportunity not just to take stock of what has happened, but to futureproof the steps that come next. In spring and summer we are likely to face another difficult bushfire season. Beyond the rebuild from the last fire season there is a massive preparative agenda on the cards. So it would be nice if there were a few million unemployed people in the country looking to join a fairly paid workforce! A large-scale investment as a preventative measure, a bulk-spend giving guaranteed jobs to those who want them, to rebuild and prepare for each bushfire season, to provide the livelihood for health workers and firefighters needed for the likelihood of upcoming disasters. The ideas behind the Green New Deal sound a lot more promising than a one-off $6,000 reimbursement given to volunteer firefighters after an unprecedented bushfire season. For that example alone, the GND plan would suggest using the space in the budget found in recent COVID-19 stimulus measures for ongoing paid work for fire management services, and thus, an end to financial stresses faced by RFS volunteers as the likelihood of longer and more intense fire seasons increases. With Red Deal principles in place, it would also mean permanent work for Indigenous land care programs. If the recent stimulus measures (and increased military spending) showed us anything, it’s that Ann Pettifor was onto something in the opening line of The Case For a Green New Deal: ‘we can afford what we can do’.

Despite its best efforts, the green movement of recent decades has failed to prevent climate catastrophe. It has failed to influence a conversation beyond cleverly crafted distractions of inaction. This is where a Green New Deal may offer some hope – but there remains one aspect of the GND that I think needs to be accepted before Australia takes up the argument.

Here are some international truths: the GND was adopted as a platform for Jeremy Corbyn’s unsuccessful election campaign in the UK. It was one of many platforms for Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful run for the US Democratic nomination. And at home, Bill Shorten fell short in the recent federal election with action on climate change one of Labor’s core election promises: so the green movement is carrying with it a familiar weight of failure. That Greens leader Adam Bandt has recently made the GND a platform for the Greens, but has also discussed making peace with ‘green capitalism’, hardly a way of inspiring his potential progressive supporters. We look back at decades of concessions and compromises leading to a decade of failures of the left and the green movement. A win must come from dreaming of a future, and committing to a firm and uncompromising step in that direction. 

Australia needs something like a Green New Deal that is prepared to avoid the compromises that have befallen the green movement in the past. The guiding principles are all there for us to follow, and there is a mounting call for a GND at the right time for taking unprecedented action. Naomi Klein did not plan for On Fire to release months before the largest bushfire event in recorded international history. Ann Pettifor did not plan for The Case For a Green New Deal to be published less than a year before the coronavirus pandemic collapsed international economies. Aranoff’s utopian images of community in A Planet to Win didn’t conceive of a decade that would be defined by the term ‘social distancing’. Regardless, the three operate as useful unified texts, guiding principles by thinkers who have conceived of what to do next. They are thinkers who have conceived of the need, and its urgency, but were struggling with creating the landscape that would provide the impetus for that adventure. I think now we have the case for a Green New Deal, burning or not.