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Beyond the Green New Deal

The agrarianist Wendell Berry wrote once that modernity had bred a dangerous and close-to-fatal ignorance about ecology. In contrast to earlier ways of life, our social relations, which are our productive relations, do not force us to reckon with the consequences of what we consume in the course of making our lives, including making the people who come after we do. But modernity allows for exceptions. As Berry put it, there have always been those “exceptional people,” that man, or woman “who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.”1 Because people are not subject to statistical laws of distribution, exceptions can become the rule when exceptional ideas seize enough people. In the environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s, some slight mutation of this quotation was common currency. It became close to a cliché, although without managing to become common wisdom.

Still, the ecological movement did an enormous amount of good. To the extent our water and air are relatively clean, this is the work of the Green movement. To the extent that few will openly shrug at ecology—even the nuclear clerks justify their fission-fetish by claiming nuclear power is cleaner than the alternatives—this, too, is the fruit of the environmental movement.

Its urgency reflected the ethereal burden of a debt to those without the capacity to demand payment. And if we have borrowed from those yet to come, our debts are correspondingly climbing higher and higher. How high? Opinions vary. One assessment is the newly-released International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 interim report, which comes hard on the heels of the “Hothouse Earth” paper. Such papers, scientists’ way of ringing the fire alarm, come fast these days, as fast as the cascading catastrophes of which they warn: hurricanes hammering North Carolina, gouging out Georgia’s infrastructure, causing Portugal to shudder under suddenly seasonal 100-year or 500-year storms.

I want to say something about the report’s contents. I would also like to offer some tentative comments about what is to be done, a question asked a century ago in very different circumstances by a Russian radical. It is one which crisis imposes on us with all the urgency of a species heading towards a world which will not only not have room for many worlds—that wonderfully-wrought Zapatista slogan—but in fact is rapidly collapsing the world’s room for us at all. But the collapse is uneven. It is shattering the dens, the alcoves and atolls, the havens and homes, not of those most responsible for the collapse, but those least responsible for it. Therein may lie part of the problem. Because the problem lies there, so must any solution account for climate change’s spatial and social unevenness.

First, what is novel in this report? Let me start with what is not novel: the IPCC continues to ignore feedback mechanisms, what Gareth Dale calls “catastrophic nonlinearities,” or those events which once they compound and spiral into one another, could set off a runaway warming sequence (Some think that sequence is already in motion).2 For those of us without chalets in the Alps, which might be good living in such a course of events, I invite the following hypothetical. Imagine if we could have a collective decision-making process about whether we would have to drastically change our way of life or have a 10 percent chance of having not much of a way of life for the species in 50 years, and the choice was put in front of us without metric tons of oil money on the scales. The IPCC report, invested in probabilistic advising, does not mention those possibilities, although the possibility of a Venus outcome has been scientifically established for a while. I imagine that no one could reasonably dissent from taking the measures needed to make 10 percent 0 percent. Most humans agree we only have one home, and it is the one on which I type these words.

The report contrasts the litany of doom which would be the result of 1.5 Celsius versus two degrees of warming. Assuming the feedback avalanche is not already in motion, it is a big difference. Manageable versus unmanageable monsoons, deltas falling under the rising sea or remaining above them, Pacific Isles standing tall or falling under oceanic swells, watersheds collapsing or surviving, and cropping and harvesting in semi-arid and tropical zones remaining possible or not, thus avoiding—or creating—climate refugees. The report’s suddenly shortened time frame is also important. We have 12 years, according to its projections, to reduce emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels (things are not going the right way, news to no one).

Because of the sudden but still inadequately long timescale, what is newest is the IPCC’s slightly wonky call for something like a revolution—as close to socio-ecological systems change as scientists may slip into such reports. It suggests “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” and notes, “systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors.” It adds, “there is no documented historic precedent for their scale.” In other words: get to work.

With the IPCC’s customary awkwardness vis-à-vis political economy, they add that we live in an uneven world, with “different development contexts and systemic vulnerabilities.” The notion of climate debt has emerged to note that countries which have emitted the most per capita carbon are those best poised, relatively speaking, to ride out the storm, and that that fact is not fair. Climate debt, like much of the technical arcana of ecological economics, is a symbolic and moral-conceptual hack of prevailing languages of valuation. Such ideas, like putting price-tags on ecosystem services—that patch of ocean is worth two trillion dollars, those tidal flood-bulwark wetlands are worth $458 billion—are talismanic, means to disenchant economic valuation and remind us that we are not going to pull such sums from our piggy banks (ExxonMobil rejects such values even when the tissue paper of the U.S. judicial system imposes them, and spent two decades litigating and lessening its responsibility for its criminally stupid yet perfectly rational decision to move millions of gallons of poisonous liquid petroleum around by gossamer metal ships). The point is not that some wetlands are really “worth,” say, 1/30th of U.S. GDP. It is that they are unique gifts from the past, and ought to be preserved.

Likewise, there are no real mechanisms for poorer countries to force repayment from rich countries other than popular will in the richer lands. Correspondingly, although not inevitably, some—but hardly all—proposals to solve the climate crisis prefer to sidestep the maddeningly demanding language of climate debt. Instead, they sketch out schemas for national-level socio-ecological engineering, as with the IPCC interim report, along with vague non-enforceable gestures towards common but differentiated responsibility.

As scientists’ consensus shifts from sober scholarly dialogue into the wider plane of culture, there has been a need to find a framework upon which to hang popular understanding. An increasingly common move is to grasp for a (Global) Green New Deal. This move comes in many forms. I would like to start by dismissing the ones which deserve dismissal, and then dialoguing with those which do not. First to the trash bin is the disquieting embrace of nuclear power so that we can keep using the same if not more energy. If this is a shade of green, it’s one which glows in the dark (there is a reason insurers do not really insure nuclear power). Much more serious is the responsible if distant cousin of the high-energy fission-based deus ex machina: the move to draw all of our needed energy from lithium batteries and solar. One issue is that this tech seems to have an immaculate conception and does not require cutting into Western China, host of the rare earth metals needed for clean energy. This matter ought to be dealt with head-on, since there is a trade-off between carbon-neutral energy, and ecological devastation in Chinese mining sites and Malaysian ore processing centers.

Perhaps the larger issue is that the GND, even when fission-free, is frequently a coded call for a social-democratic U.S. plus Europe, but clean, which is then turned into a template transported to the poorer countries.3 We may wonder whether suburbs and exurbs and snaking concrete interstate highways can be so easily converted to clean-tech. Be that as it may, before touching on technical aspects and limits to what is being proposed, I wish to raise the political implications of the analogy’s socio-historical looseness.

We ought to remember two things about the New Deal, Mark I. The first is that it did not end the Great Depression. That was accomplished by the military-Keynesianism of World War II. The second is that it occurred in the face of a rising and red labor movement. There have been socio-political rustlings since 2008 and especially 2011. But the level of mobilization is not that of 1933. So whence the notion of a Green New Deal? It often seems to be of a piece with the current definitional dilution “socialism” is facing, as Ted Kennedy-type liberals like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez redefine the word to fit snugly along the left edge of the Democratic Party agenda. In this sense, the Green New Deal can often be a historical-analogical shoehorn to fit our moment back into the comforting clasp of the Fordist comfort zone, maybe a few degrees left vis-à-vis social distribution—Norway plus solar panels.

We ought also not forget that the original New Deal was social containment to avoid a world transformed. The dominant discourse also forgets the New Deal was only in the United States, and it took a World War and global decolonization to even begin to address the more widespread human consequences of colonialism, a condition which, after all, affected most of humanity, especially those lands now slated to suffer most under global warming. In taking stock of the climate crisis, then, we need to be honest enough to state that the notion of a GND hearkens back to the state social-engineering edifice of New Deal economic planning, seasoned heavily enough with nostalgia to make us forget that the New Deal did not do what it is represented as having done in popular memory. Furthermore, the GND discourse can slip into a certain silence regarding the mobilization needed to create that world with room for many worlds, an analytical gap which glares more and more as the Trump government steadily criminalizes protest.

Along these lines, we may recall that World War II and decolonization had something fundamental in common: they were violent. I am not arguing for a violent response to global climate change. But I do wish to note that capacity for politics-by-other-means rested on massive mobilization—in fact, depending on the country, total mobilizations, full-scale reorganizations of human activity—to achieve a common purpose. This is not to say that U.S. defense-industrial spending has much in common with the often-revolutionary effervescence which took over countries like Guinea-Bissau and China. But the “mass mobilization of human energy,” on scales equivalent to war-time social activity, to use environmental historian Colin Duncan’s analogy, which I am borrowing, speaks to what is needed.4

I would like to lightly push Duncan’s analogy. If we accept that total social change is the only way to ward off climactic collapse and extinctions, we may imagine many ways in which it can occur. I would like to present two, and to view them through the prism of the people’s wars of decolonization and the total war of the mid-twentieth century and the societies it produced. One would be green fascism, the reorganization of human society for survival, with surplus, luxury, and so forth going where they usually end up. Consider the 2013 film Elysium a distilled dystopia of this approach, although in that hellscape the wealthiest do not even anymore deign to live on Earth. In fact, command-and-control social planning through a public-private mélange—post-WWII Fordism—intercut with the Korean and later Vietnam Wars could be cast as an Elysium for U.S. citizens, laagered up in the continental island-fortress, alongside napalm and bombs for the global countryside (the Black and Native populations of the U.S. were and are not allowed much into Elysium and did not quite receive the treatment of the global countryside).

I do not wish to spend further time on Elysium except to note a danger in the command-and-control structures embedded in the domestic Green New Deal discourse, alongside their tactical quietude—or tacit acquiescence—vis-à-vis the status quo in the darker portions of the planet, and their non-committal attitude to popular participation. My concern is that in the wrong hands, it could easily become something closer to a marketing device than an accurate cartography of our current moment, which must necessarily offer a strategically useful contour map of a very uneven world. Such a set-up might easily be imagined, or might easily be repurposed, into a transmogrification of Elysium: green social democracy at home and militarized maritime and terrestrial borders, and beyond them, resource extraction for domestic clean-tech. Recall what is happening at the moment to immigrants or would-be-migrants whose bones litter the Mediterranean depths as their lands are made unlivable, even while “demography” and population control grace the Gates Foundation Africa agenda, and we realize that the plots of planners perch not as far as one would like from the fortress eco-nationalism I sketched above. This is no dream, or not a dream big enough for everyone, but a dream for some which would be a nightmare for most. We have every obligation to dream more inclusively.

Another form of “total mobilization” more closely parallels the daunting, democratic, ceaseless, and accountable labor of a people in motion the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral described: create schools and spread education in all liberated areas. Go to a rice field. Do political work amongst the people. Fight. Go back to the people. Create political life. Do it again. Find something else to do. “One can do more. We have to throw the Portuguese out.”5 Cabral was writing as perhaps the outstanding theoretician and practitioner of African people’s war, bringing the bulk of his country’s population into a mobilization based on boundless and bursting popular energy. Faith and trust in the people were its hallmarks. The guiding framework was complete submersion of political energy to a democratically agreed-upon horizon: Get the Portuguese out! Seize control of the nation’s productive forces. Return a people to its own history. And a steely confidence not that history was bending towards victory, but that there was a duty to win. My point is not to highlight the frenetic tirelessness of this approach, or to argue for voluntarism. Instead, I want to bring up the organic relationship between militants, intellectuals, the people, and the place of the latter in the struggle, and the difference between such an approach and the on-high wonkery-wizardry in which most GNDers traffic.

Cabral was an agronomist and author of commanding works on Guinea-Bissau’s soil structure, agrarian structure, hydrology, and climate.6 When he spoke of total mobilization, he knew different people could do different things, depending on who they were and where they were. Some land was suited to growing groundnuts, some land was good for rice. And some people could contribute to taking control of their lives from the alienating aggression of colonialism by picking up rifles, and some could do so by planting rice for soldiers. Everyone had their place and had a place, and agriculture had a central place. I am not sure the Green New Deal or even some eco-socialisms—Canada’s Leap Manifesto is an exception —think this question through. I think furthermore there may be an elective affinity between the Green New Dealers’ insufficient questioning of the relationship between productive structure, anomie, and quiescence in the face of the coming disaster, and the world we live in at home—home in the U.S..

If we are speaking of making a different world, especially one in which hydrocarbon-based forms of production are eliminated, delimiting the discussion to energy production misses large spheres of production which won’t exist in such a world. In particular, technocratic rhetoric misses the mark when it comes to both decarbonizing the food chain and the social implications of such a transition. How does a Green New Deal speak to the entire soy-feed-chicken-beef-consumer complex? This sector—combining land use, livelihoods, labor, production, and consumption—is central to systems-change.

We need to really take stock of what we are talking about: a socio-technical revolution which goes well beyond command-and-control halting of hydrocarbon incineration. In this sense, I worry, too, that much of the new eco-socialist rhetoric is only somewhat less parochial, technocratic, and technicist than the GNDers. Managerial discourse of a clean-tech evolution is important but insufficient. There is a labor question, or specifically an agrarian question of labor.7 The GND, because it is fundamentally about a rejiggering of global energy use and a low-key jobs program, fails to address far too many questions. Where are we supposed to get food, when entire patterns of urbanization have been built on dollar-cheap food lubricated by dollar-cheap energy? Will we keep using hydrocarbon-based fertilizers to plant corn, which anyway might be devastated by the next blight to which Monsanto’s monocultures are uniquely vulnerable? Where will we get new genetic stock? Is that simply the job of hard-working peasants on the Mexican milpa? Do we bear any substantive burden for the transition? Why does scarcely anyone talk about this?

Moving from North to South, I wonder what happens when we stop talking about the Green New Deal, or even some eco-socialist models which effectively mimic the muteness of the GNC on questions of sovereignty and agriculture, and talk instead about something knottier but better, because it is big enough for everyone. What if we replace, or minimally complement, talk of a GND with something like (although by all means let us find a more felicitous phrase) a green consummation of national liberation? Some may object that national liberation is a done deal, a political vessel foundered on the shoals of neo-colonialism. But for Cabral, national liberation always looked to the far horizon, its aims set well beyond setting hands on the colonial state’s machinery. It was a perpetual revolution. It was a human force governing, but governing as a liberation movement, a revolution in power, impossible to ossify let alone petrify.

We may contrast such popular mobilizations with the developmentalist dream. Its current state is certainly due to violent external counter-revolution. But it is also often due to the internal inability to democratize social and economic power—to turn people’s war into people’s democracy. We have the good fortune to know much better now the difficulties of dividing technology from social structure, especially in the countryside. And if we wish a democratic society, we need a democratic countryside, and that countryside needs to be democratic not through parliamentary procedures but through control over production. We have the even better fortune to be able to learn from the labor of those who learned the post-colonial or developmentalist governments made mistakes. This is what peasant-oriented anthropologists, agronomists, and ethno-botanists from Mexico to India to Tunisia realized: the laboring classes of the rural world were the keepers of the keys for permanently sustainable and effectively decentralized socio-economic production, using technologies perfectly adapted to place and averse to centralized appropriation.8

It is not even remotely a coincidence that the land-based technics which one finds in the latest IPCC report are not such indigenous technologies. Catastrophic bio-fuels figure heavily. Top-down developmentalism reigns. Consultation with rural smallholders—who produce at least half the world’s food, and most of whom are women—is non-existent. And the blind spot when it comes to the countryside endures.

Here we might begin by listening to the victims of the visions of modernizers in sketching a popular response to climate change. The peasant international Via Campesina has been raising its voice for years about the capacity of smallholders to cool and feed the planet. Zero Budget Natural Farming in southern India, enfolding hundreds of thousands of farmers, shows it is possible to scale up those techniques using a popular mobilization model.9 Cuban agriculture shows the use of state scaffolding in such a project. On the other side of the socio-ecological coin, we know such ways of farming can seriously absorb, mitigate, and reduce CO2 emissions. The Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA), in its report Missing Pathways to 1.5° Celsius, notes technologies and institutions like restoring resilient natural ecosystems, a full-scale shift to agro-ecology, streamlining food storage, shifting away from the over-processed foods that the wealthy avoid if they can, eating less dairy and meat in certain regions of the world alongside adaptive multi-paddock grazing, dropping input-intensive farming, and so many other ways of doing things can reduce agriculture-based emissions by two-thirds by 2050, and swing land-use-based emissions from 5 Gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent to -10 Gigatons.

Is this large-scale socio-ecological engineering? Sure, if we accept that planning is not the issue. The issue is that planning be democratic, sustainable, and responsive as opposed to the fruit of technocratic fiat. As CLARA adds, “This holistic, nature-centred approach is no less a complete vision of our future than that implied, but never explicitly stated, in models suggesting the need for planetary geoengineering and devoting large areas of land to bioenergy cropping.”10 If it is engineering, it is of the kind where every woman and man is an engineer and every engineering project is open-source, collaborative, and democratic. It welds a political vision to a substantively democratic reworking of the food and land systems. Such a solution means not authorizing rural peoples’ destruction through the hemlock of modernization. It means not converting lands to bio-fuels cultivation or REDD, REDD+, or any of the alphabet-soup of carbon-emission-evasions which spot and blot climate change politics. It means complementing calls for an overhaul of our energy system with calls for a bottom-up overhaul of our agricultural systems, and certainly finding a way to respect the calls for sovereignty which emanate both from First Peoples in these lands and the peoples of other lands.

Finally, then, maybe I ought to end with where I ought to have begun and note that one of the issues is not so much producing solutions as it is one of institutionalizing the capacity to listen and learn from those who already have good solutions, but whose solutions are almost always ignored. It is time to start listening. Not before it is too late. But precisely because it is already very late. We cannot know if it is too late until it is. That simply makes it ever-more-imperative to begin to get it right, right now.

Thanks to John Gulick and Anthony Galluzo for ongoing discussion on these topics.


  1. Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge (Shoemaker Hoard, 2006).
  2. Gareth Dale, “The Nobel Prize in Climate Chaos: Romer, Nordhaus and the IPCC,” The Ecologist, October 12, 2018, /2018/oct/12/nobel-prize-climate-chaos-romer-nordhaus-and-ipcc.
  3. Robert Pollin, “De-Growth vs a Green New Deal,” New Left Review, II, no. 112 (2018): 5–25.
  4. Colin Duncan, “The Practical Equivalent of War? Or, Using Rapid Massive Climate Change to Ease the Great Transition towards a New Sustainable Anthropocentrism,” 2007, .
  5. Amílcar Cabral, Selected Texts by Amílcar Cabral: Revolution in Guinea. An African People’s Struggle (Stage 1, 1969), 71.
  6. Amílcar Cabral, Estudos agrários de Amilcar Cabral (Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical, 1988).
  7. On the salience of such a question elsewhere in the food-chain, see Carrie Freshour, “‘Ain’t No Life for a Mother’: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Poultry Workers in the U.S. South” (Dissertation, Cornell University, 2018).
  8. Marco Antonio Díaz León, ed., Nueve Mil Años de Agricultura En México: Homenaje a Efraín Hernández Xolocotzi (México D. F.: CONABIO, 2009); Max Ajl, “Auto-Centered Development and Indigenous Technics: Slaheddine El-Amami and Tunisian Delinking,” Journal of Peasant Studies, 2018.
  9. Ashlesha Khadse et al., “Taking Agroecology to Scale: The Zero Budget Natural Farming Peasant Movement in Karnataka, India,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45, no. 1 (January 2, 2018): 192–219.
  10. Kate Dooley and Doreen Stabinsky, “Missing Pathways to 1.5°C” (Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance, 2018).


Max Ajl

is a post-doctoral fellow at Wageningen University and a researcher at the Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment. His book, A People's Green New Deal, is forthcoming from Pluto Press. @maxajl


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2018

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