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Capitalism and the Limits of Greening

Photograph Source: Backbone Campaign – CC BY 2.0

The idea of a Green New Deal, including the one proposed by a group of Democrats led by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is hardly novel on the world scene, though potentially consequential for American politics. European Green parties, for example, introduced far-reaching policies in support of an ecological (sustainable) model of development as early as 1980. A few other European leftist parties later arrived at their own “greening” initiatives to mitigate climate disruption. The much-smaller U.S. Greens followed suit. Even the authoritarian Chinese government has introduced its own program to curb greenhouse emissions while theoretically reducing fossil-fuel consumption.

The American proposals could bring real change, assuming federal legislative consensus is within reach – currently not the case. The main goal is a 100 percent carbon-free economy by 2050, to be achieved by gradually substituting green energy sources (solar, wind, thermal) for oil, gas, and coal, a project that could mean restructuring of the U.S. (and global) economy. Huge areas of the natural habitat would be restored, from tree-planting to river protections, water renovation, and massive recycling campaigns. Most crucially, a vigorous Green New Deal – said by many to require wartime-level resource and labor mobilization – would demand a broader, revitalized public infrastructure. While initially costing several trillion dollars (estimates vary widely), the program would eventually generate new sources of economic growth, jobs, social programs, and environmental renewal – all worth celebrating.

Green New Deal sponsors have promoted their initiatives as both a moral and political imperative. After all, IPCC reports suggest the time frame for reversing the ecological crisis is narrowing rapidly, with perhaps no more than a decade to avoid the fearsome Tipping Point. While the U.S. Congress has been nowhere close to passing such legislation, with Republicans stuck in a know-nothing trance, strong green reforms have been advanced in nearly a dozen states and many cities across the country. New York state unveiled its Green New Deal in summer 2019, calling for rapid proliferation of solar panels, building retrofits, wind turbines, and electric cars, its target at least 70 percent electricity from renewable sources by 2030. According to the state Climate Action Council, the program would “fully transform the way New Yorkers work, live, and play”. In July 2019 Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced a Green New Deal replete with solar panels on every building, new water recycling systems, fully electrified public transport, and expanded public infrastructure. The plan would eliminate all carbon-based energy by 2045, simultaneously attacking poverty, homelessness, urban pollution, and a mounting public-health crisis. At present no fewer than 88 American cities have embraced some variant of a Green New Deal.

It appears that Bernie Sanders’ greening proposals are most robust among presidential candidates, at a projected cost of roughly $16 trillion over ten years. His hope is for 70-percent fossil-free emissions by 2030, made possible by rebuilding the American economy starting with the energy sector. He would enlist participation of labor, including the AFL-CIO with its millions of workers involved directly or indirectly in the fossil-fuel industry, although the U.S. labor movement has never favored a Green New Deal authored by Sanders or anyone else. There is fear of enormous job losses as important sectors are reduced or shut down: mining operations, utilities, oil and gas production among others. What disruptive impact might a post-carbon society have on millions of relatively good-paying jobs? Would alternative energy systems furnish enough new employment to compensate for massive losses? Those are questions nowadays central to labor organizations everywhere.

A Green New Deal for the U.S. would presumably follow in the tracks of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that brought American society nearer to the orbit of European social democracy. Many Democrats foresee a system both more equitable and sustainable than what exists. Yet, while proposals differ, none seem ready to challenge the basic firmaments of corporate power, including agribusiness and Wall Street – not to mention the military-security state. A decisive question, therefore, is just how far architects of a Green New Deal are willing to challenge the summits of power. To be sure, serious greening of the corporate-state system would be a much-welcomed step beyond familiar “carbon offset” plans such as cap-and-trade and direct carbon taxation. But a reform scenario as such could never begin to reverse the path toward ecological disaster. As formulated by Democrats, such greening could undoubtedly help alleviate the American carbon footprint, however slightly. If the transnational corporate order remains intact, however, it is hard to see how a fossil-fuel economy embedded in American capitalism will be materially weakened, given its many trillions of dollars invested in deeply-embedded modes of production and consumption. The sad truth is that global oil, gas, and even coal extraction is nowadays proceeding at record levels.

The problem runs deeper yet: in the U.S. greening proponents have mainly looked to a Democratic Party that, against all logic, is projected as the key instrument of sustainability. As the Dems remain wedded to corporate and military interests, all reforms are sure to be constrained by what ruling elites are prepared to tolerate. In the end, greening architects would be facilitators of an ecological Keynesianism, meaning new efforts to stabilize capitalism on more progressive footing – that is, a program of distinctly liberal reforms.

Naomi’s Klein’s recent book, On Fire, lays out an especially urgent case for a Green New Deal. Inspired by the emergent “youth climate movement”, Klein sees a revitalized green strategy as the last alternative of humanity to avert “climate barbarism”, a move bringing institutional leverage to the recent cycle of sit-ins, blockades, protests, and demonstrations drawing millions of people around the world. As with the Paris accords, her aim is for the U.S. (with other advanced industrial nations) to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Klein envisions a rising cohort of Democrats soon taking over the White House and Congress, rolling out a plan for “rapid decarbonization”, then implementing those reforms as a template for worldwide ecological renewal. Referring to AOC and her supporters, Klein writes: “If the IPCC report (of October 2018) was the clanging fire alarm that grabbed the attention of the world, the Green New Deal is the beginning of a fire safety and prevention plan.” A mixture of technological and “market” reforms will be crucial, departing from the belief in “free-market fundamentalism” and “market euphoria” she views as pervading the landscape. Klein believes these proposals are both novel and radical, though neither is true: as noted, more ambitious Green New Deals have been around the public sphere in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere for several decades.

While for Klein (as for the Dems) a Green New Deal signifies “sweeping industrial and infrastructure overhaul”, in fact there is no stated break with established power, in the U.S. or anywhere else. We have instead a litany of reforms perfectly compatible with neoliberal corporate globalism – in other words, a “greener” variant of social democracy. To be sure the fossil-fuel giants might have to be “confronted”, but the details remain elusive. With the Dems presiding, it seems worth asking just how the familiar capitalist pursuit of profits, growth, and expropriation of the natural habitat might be restricted, much less overturned.

One daunting roadblock to reversing the crisis – the U.S. military-industrial colossus – could be responsible for five percent of the global carbon footprint, a problem never systematically addressed by Klein or the Dems. In On Fire we find a call for 25-percent reduction in worldwide military spending, but that exhausts discussion of the matter. For many decades the U.S. military has served as protector of transnational corporate interests, none perhaps more crucial (to the U.S.) than fossil fuels. Future resource wars, bound at some point to involve U.S. armed forces, will surely involve reserves of oil and natural gas – further aggravating climate change along with the lethal environmental impact of warfare in all its dimensions.

In fact-Klein’s Green New Deal entirely skirts the larger issue of resources – that is, the extent to which the planet faces steadily-declining natural resources (above all water, land, soil, forests, oceans, scarce metals). Economic predictions indicate that leading industrialized nations (U.S., China, India, the EU, Russia, Japan) could easily double their GDP output within the next two or three decades. It is delusional to believe vulnerable ecosystems could endure such overburdening “development” very far into the future. One specter is that intensifying global resource competition, endemic to the logic of both perpetual growth and geopolitical rivalry, could be what most hastens planetary disaster.

Resource wars will proliferate through widening rivalry over precarious food sources – a topic Klein strangely evades in both On Fire and This Changes Everything. Environmentalists of all stripes know that the increasingly destructive, unsustainable global meat complex is responsible for massive greenhouse emissions (perhaps 30 percent of the total), owing to its vast reliance on fossil fuels, water, and land across every phase of economic activity. Meat and dairy products on average exhaust several times the amount of land, water, and fossil fuels utilized by plant-based foods – considerably more when the McDonaldized fast-food sector is taken into account.

Klein’s Green New Deal seems oblivious to the reality that ecological sustainability must clash with the logic of capitalist expansion. A liberal greening project might help reform the American economy, but Klein and the Dems are myopic in thinking such initiatives will do much to counter the global-warming trajectory. In fact, no government or corporate elite on the planet is likely to accept mandatory cuts in fossil-fuel consumption. Sustainable development is inconceivable without tranformative changes in production and consumption. One problem is that CEOs and corporate boards – not to mention banking operations – are scarcely accountable to society in general, or to any long-term ecological priorities. They are responsible to private shareholders obsessed with returns on capital investment, whatever its harm to the natural habitat. No corporate structure in the world will put its enterprise out of business in order to “save the planet”. Meanwhile, any systematic attack on the fossil-fuel sector would bring severe, perhaps irreversible worldwide economic collapse.

At a time when corporate behemoths are destroying the planet, “greening” programs like those envisioned by Klein and the Dems – no matter how urgently conceived – cannot offer durable solutions to climate change. No amount of policy, market, or technological measures can deter the headlong march toward global disaster. At present humanity has no choice but to find a path toward a post-capitalist ecological society.