We are at the precipice of ecological collapse. There are no two ways about it. And despite what you hear, it is about far more than just catastrophic climate change. In a nutshell, our current biological predicament is the result of overuse of natural resources beyond their capacity to regenerate, the creation and mass production of never-before-known (often toxic) substances, and the accumulation of massive amounts of waste and pollution.
Exploitation. Over-production. Over-consumption. Waste. Pollution. Greed. Opulence. Excess. Power. These vices constitute the origins of our ecological problems, including anthropogenic global warming. Not coincidentally, poverty, extreme inequality, racism, sexism, and militarism also stem from these same sources. And of course, they all form the roots of the tree of capitalism. But if we can sum up the fundamental cause of our existential crisis in one simple phrase, it is this: our way of life. It is a way of life predicated on the desire for more – more energy, more products, more technology, more synthetics, more manufactured goods (i.e., bads), and more manufactured wants. Yet, our insatiable yearning for more has left us with less of the one thing upon which our entire lives depend: the natural world.
In biology, the radicle is the embryonic root of a plant. Likewise, its homophone, radical, means relating to or affecting the root, origin, or fundamental nature of something. To be radical, therefore, indicates that one seeks to get to the root of problems. This prospect tends to be frowned upon in America, where we like to do all we can to gloss over, circumvent, and deny our issues until they become too large of a burden to continue to ignore or obfuscate.
Consequently, we find ourselves faced with ever-increasing levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide with no signs of abating, despite the plethora of drugs dispensed by the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry and despite the increased use of psychological treatment which is no longer stigmatized as it once was. We continue to die mainly from heart disease and cancer and pour millions of dollars into painful and/or risky treatments like statins, radiation, and chemotherapy, though we know from studies of remote indigenous cultures that cancer could be rare, or at least, greatly reduced and that heart disease can be virtually non-existent in non-industrial populations.
We are deplorably unsuccessful in healing (rather than simply mitigating and condoning) our physical and mental illnesses for the same reason that we have not come close to healing our planet – because we have yet to address the root cause our all these ills.
The (New) New Deal
By now, most people know the historical context of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. FDR’s administration passed fairly sweeping economic reforms for the benefit of workers in order to quell the enormous upswell of socialism at the time, but also to maintain capitalism. Sure, the robber-barons (industrialists and entrepreneurs) did make some concessions – none of which amounted to any sacrifice at all to them – but the New Deal legislation still secured their standing as plutocrats. Moreover, massive environmental degradation and deleterious human health effects stood as externalities to the assumed economic necessity of capitalism and industrialism, just as they remain today. All in all, while providing some moral and crucial short-term economic relief for people, the New Deal left a hole wide open for corporate capitalism to stage a dramatic comeback. And so it has over the past half century, leaving wholesale environmental and economic catastrophe in its wake.
Enter the Green New Deal (GND). The recent version (not to be confused with the original, which emanated from the Green Party) outlines an ambitious strategy to eliminate our use of fossil fuels for energy in order to reduce carbon emissions while attempting to foster greater economic equality and prosperity. The low-carbon, more equitable future sought by the GND resolution is undeniably a good one; however, its foundation based on our current paradigm of prosperity – i.e., more energy, more production, more industry, more technology, more consumption – renders it insufficient to effect the radical changes we need for a sustainable future.
Impractical, Unreasonable, Infeasible, Pie in the Sky
Those who tend to ignore the truth or the totality of our environmental dilemma dismiss the GND as not politically or economically feasible. Somehow feasibility is never an issue when it comes to funding corporate interests (including the military-industrial complex). The reality is that continuing on our current trajectory is politically and economically infeasible and unreasonable, because without a livable planet, politics and economics do not even exist. Therefore, their dismissive arguments are hardly worth mentioning. We have never, ever prioritized environmental concerns, which is why we find ourselves in this precarious predicament in the first place. Without fundamental changes, ecosystems will continue to deteriorate all around us to the point where our species is permanently imperiled. Humans have spent the past several centuries (at a minimum) despoiling the planetary ecosystem on which we all rely for life. The idea that it is impractical to attempt to deal with our ecological crises is frankly, insane. It suggests one must be either too obtuse to comprehend the simple scientific realities of our time, or too self-absorbed to care.
What is pie in the sky about the GND is imagining that high-tech innovation and increasing economic development based upon increasing industrialization will save us. In recent interviews, Bernie Sanders repeatedly stated that we have 12 years to transform to a sustainable energy system. But energy is one small part of the issue. In reality, we have likely less than 12 years to transform to a sustainable world-wide societal system. To reduce our environmental problems and remedies to carbon emissions is to focus on a symptom not the disease. Climate change may be the most glaring symptom right now, but there are many others. We don’t need just sustainable energy. We need sustainability.
We have not only disrupted the global carbon cycle, resulting in catastrophic climate change, we have disrupted the global water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur cycles, to name a few. In the U.S., we are close to exhausting our landfill space, which houses the useless garbage from our production/consumption lifestyle. Most politicians and many academics have insisted that environmental solutions should be market-based, but markets always fluctuate. Now we see the obvious folly of their philosophy, as the market for recycling (not to say recycling itself is at all a solution) has collapsed since China stopped importing the recyclable bits of our disposable products. Thus, in many places our “recyclables” are now being incinerated into highly toxic pollutants like dioxin. In addition, we have deforested the majority of the planet and poured toxicants (especially pesticides) into our air, food, and water, all of which have contributed more to our other prominent crisis of species extinction than climate change has, or maybe ever will.
When confronted by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes about the GND, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex asked, “What is the problem with trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible?” Well, the problem is that many of these high-tech innovations rest precisely at the root of our problems to begin with. It doesn’t help that Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff originates from Silicon Valley, one of the most extractive, consumptive, wasteful, toxic, and exploitative industries imaginable when viewed from cradle to grave.
In her formal announcement of the GND resolution with Congressman Ed Markey, Ocasio-Cortez stated, “Climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life.” But our way of life is the threat, and if her suggestion that the GND legislation exists as an attempt to preserve our way of life, then it will surely not succeed in preserving our life as a species. Here, she acknowledged that our challenges comprise more than just climate change, but how much does she, or any politician, truly figure the entirety of these environmental challenges into their thought processes and policies?
What troubles me is that many look to the GND as a move toward a futuristic techno-utopia, as Kate Aronoff envisions in her piece in the Intercept. That viewpoint is what is unrealistic about the GND. Aronoff imagines a semi-socialist bourgeois existence on a technological path toward becoming more like the Jetsons. To maintain a livable planet, we probably need to start thinking about a future scenario more in line with the Flintstones. We can still strive to “have a yabba dabba doo time,” but we might have to enjoy ourselves in manner closer to “modern stone-age” rather than a high-tech.
We love to believe that high-tech innovations will fix everything. To produce all of our fanciful technology, many of the raw materials are derived from exploiting other people’s land (Africa, South America, Asia), and the manufacturing comes at the expense of other people’s health and livelihood. Let’s hope eliminating this sort of environmental racism figures into the GND platform. Beyond that, thus far in the course of humanity, our technology has only further amplified all of our detrimental ecological issues. It involves over-consuming natural resources and over-producing more of what we don’t need, while leaving us with less of what we do – organisms and ecological systems.
Policy Change and Personal Change = Paradigm Change
While it is way past time for comprehensive environmental legislation incorporating social and environmental justice and equity to reach the halls of Congress, we should be aware that given our multiple ecological (and economic) crises, the GND in any form will never be a panacea. We certainly need to put an immediate end to fossil fuel consumption, but we also need to drastically reduce all consumption. To combat climate change along with widespread ecological degradation and inequality, we need more than reductionist policy ideas. We need a massive mobilization of action in challenging and fundamentally changing our way of life.
Social, economic, and environmental justice are undoubtedly vital goals. Incorporating these aspects of equity into GND is not just commendable but essential. However, this prospect need not be predicated on jobs, which are often frivolous (see: Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber) and unsustainable (a topic that I have delved into here and here) and which leave us all in indentured servitude to the oligarchs and plutocrats. Instead, it might better focus on providing provisions for basic human necessities and dignity.
Essentially, the idea of everyone having more, and continuing to produce and consume more is unrealistic. Granted, many people in this country and throughout the world do need more of the necessities – ownership of affordable clean housing, nutritious fresh food, clean water, and high-quality durable clothing. Everyone should be entitled to these basic human rights. But many others need far, far less. Of course, I’m speaking primarily of the millionaires and billionaires, whose ecological footprints are completely off the charts. Yet the ecological footprints of even most Americans with modest incomes are way too large to be sustainable as well.
Yes, the people at the top of the economic ladder are by far the worst offenders when it comes to ecological destruction and contributing to climate change. They are the worst offenders, period (as I’ve outlined before). The more you have, the more you contribute to all our problems. But these people will never change. Their lives are built on more. They created this paradigmatic mess to economically and materially benefit from it. They are willing to let every organism on the earth die rather than relinquish their money and power. Their psychopathy is evidenced by the fact that they would rather waste their billions building underground bunkers for what they perceive as either an upcoming revolution of the 99% or ecological catastrophe, than sacrifice one single iota of their opulence to help build a sustainable, livable planet for us all. (By the way, good luck with that, billionaires. Too bad you didn’t pay closer attention in biology class. You may have to hide in those bunkers for a very long time, in which case you might like to learn about the Biosphere 2 experiment…)
For this reason, it is up to us. We have to force their hands and seize their ill-gotten purses and power. More importantly, we must reject and replace their psychopathic paradigms about how to live if we want to save the planet. Psychopaths have no empathy. The rest of us must.
No, individual actions will not make a difference in seclusion. And no, they alone will certainly not avert ecological doom. But personal changes are as imperative as policy changes to produce new paradigms that get to the root of our ecological problems. Green policies should enable and support the collective personal changes necessary for an equitable and sustainable future.
Personal changes are important because they are part and parcel of systemic change. As an example of negative collective action, our car culture exists because millions of individuals bought and continue to buy automobiles, prompted by legislation (in collusion with the auto and gasoline industries) facilitating the fateful and foreboding transition from other forms of transportation. On the positive side, after decades of propaganda, obfuscation, and outright scientific fraud from the tobacco industry, governmental policies were enacted to curb tobacco use. But when it comes down to it, lung cancer death rates decreased dramatically in recent years due to the cessation of smoking by large numbers of individuals. Boycott and divestment campaigns are another good example of collective individual actions which, along with institutional ones, support systemic change. And then there is Bernie Sanders. Whatever his faults, his 2016 Presidential campaign brought a number of more obvious, moral, and even radical ideas to the fore of American discourse. His campaign could not have been accomplished without the small monetary contributions of millions of individuals. Likewise, the collective contribution of millions and billions of individuals is vital to supporting changes needed for a livable planet.
President Jimmy Carter recognized the need for collective personal as well institutional conservation in his famous (or infamous) “malaise speech.” Regardless of its flaws, his lecture does contain some nuggets of wisdom: “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” Nor does it satisfy the requirement of a sustainable global ecosystem for survival.
Renowned climate professor Kevin Anderson also views collective actions at the individual level as crucial components of battling the climate crisis. Thus, he not only talks the talk about the necessity of reducing consumption, but also walks the walk by using low-emission forms of transportation among many other personal actions.
Forging a livable planet means abandoning our bourgeois consumer aspirations and replacing them with mature, wise exemplars for life. No more equating adulthood with working to buy fancy clothes, fast cars, and a huge house. No more fascination with lavish luxuries. No more dreaming of diamonds. No more fantasies about flying all over the world. No more infatuation with fatuous gadgetry. No more preoccupation with products and purchases. No more somnambulant staring at screens. No more appetites for vapid materialism. No more conspicuous consumption. No more extravagance; no more excess. (On a sustainable planet, a monstrosity like this can never exist.)
A change of social norms and social values is imperative. Our new paradigm must value intangibles like simplicity, communication, community, nature, and empathy over commodified “things.” Sustainability requires becoming global citizens who can thrive with less stuff, rather than global consumers who constantly crave more.
Radical is Sustainable
Indeed, so many before have written radically about the roots of our ecological crises. E.F. Schumacher considered some of the same issues in Small is Beautiful. John de Graaf, David Wann, and Thomas H. Naylor tackled consumerism in Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic. Annie Leonard examined the economic, psychological, and environmental effects of our consumer treadmill with The Story of Stuff. But perhaps the best, most simple yet accurate portrayal of our predicament was outlined in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. A sustainable archetype for society cannot keep “figgering on biggering and biggering and biggering and biggering.” As long as the GND continues to do so, it will surely fail future generations as it perpetuates the root causes of our ecological issues.
People are saying the Green New Deal is impossible. What is impossible is saving our planetary ecosystem while preserving our current way of life. For any GND legislation to be successful, it must work to conserve more rather than produce more. Moreover, it must facilitate collective radical personal changes to our way of life that fundamentally change the underlying paradigms of our existence. Otherwise, it will be as fleeting as the original New Deal, and ultimately much more deadly.
When it comes to a Green Deal, the only sustainable policies are radical ones. And when it comes to a sustainable global environmental paradigm, unless you are talking about the natural world, less is always more.