Care and Repair: Left Politics in the Age of Climate Change

Care and Repair: Left Politics in the Age of Climate Change

The Green New Deal will need to be subject to constant vigilance and pressure—from experts who understand exactly what it will take, and from social movements that have decades of experience bearing the brunt of false climate solutions.

Members of the Sunrise Movement rally on August 13, 2019 outside of the DNC headquarters. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2019, right-wing luminaries set their sights tightly focused on two targets: the Green New Deal and democratic socialism—for them, one and the same. “Its a watermelon,” ousted Trump White House adviser Sebastian Gorka summarized with his usual theatrics. “Green on the outside, deep, deep communist red on the inside. . . . They want to take your pickup truck, they want to rebuild your home, they want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”

Like climate change deniers’ claims that global warming is a Marxist plot to steal American freedom, the idea of a Green New Deal is nothing new. And both are experiencing a revival.

In late 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark report informing us that global emissions need to be slashed roughly in half in less than twelve years, a target that simply cannot be met without the world’s largest economy playing a game-changing leadership role. Once Democrats took back the House that year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi let it be known that her plan for meeting this historic moment was to convene a toothless committee to further study the endlessly studied crisis. Shortly after the midterm election, but before the swearing in, young climate activists with the Sunrise Movement let it be known that they weren’t having any of it. Demanding a Green New Deal, Sunrise invited 200 people to stage protests on Capitol Hill, where they were supported by several incoming members of Congress, including Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib (who spoke at one of the Sunrise rallies), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—like Tlaib, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America—who famously visited their sit-in of Pelosi’s office.

Riding the tide of momentum, and working with Sunrise, Ocasio-Cortez’s office made Pelosi a counteroffer for how to meet the climate challenge in 2019: rather than expending all their political energy on a carbon-pricing scheme that was sure to be politically unpopular while failing to bring down emissions with anything like the speed required, the new Congress should have a select committee on the Green New Deal that would, over the course of a year, create a detailed plan to get off fossil fuels in the United States by 2030, taking full advantage of what the proposal called the “historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States.”

That select committee was not created. Yet within four months, more than 100 members of Congress and virtually every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful had joined the call for a Green New Deal, an economy-wide mobilization for decarbonization along a science-based timeline. After decades of either silence or cautious moderation on climate change from Democrats, young activists and lawmakers had rewritten the rules of the possible in a matter of days.

To those outside the climate justice movement, the speed seemed dizzying. Yet the ground for this momentum has been prepared for decades—with models for community-owned and community-controlled renewable energy; with justice-based labor market transitions that make sure no worker is left behind; with a deepening analysis of the intersections between systemic racism, armed conflict, and climate disruption; with improved green tech and breakthroughs in clean public transit; with the thriving fossil-fuel divestment movement; with model legislation driven at the state and city level that shows how carbon pricing—if progressively designed—can fight racial and gender exclusion; and much more.

What had been missing until 2019 was the top-level political power to roll out the best of these models all at once, with the focus and velocity that both science and justice demand. That is the great promise of a comprehensive Green New Deal in the largest economy on earth.

Which is why the CPAC crowd is right to worry. Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t actually coming for their hamburgers, but the Green New Deal was a true threat to their half-century-long ideological project. No wonder Gorkas speech came with a full-throated call to arms: “You are on the front lines of the war against communism coming back to America under the guise of democratic socialism.”

The climate-change-denial movement that spawned these talking points is a creature of the ideological network that deserves the bulk of the credit for redrawing the global ideological map over the last four decades. A 2013 study by Riley Dunlap and Peter Jacques found that a striking 72 percent of climate-change-denial books, mostly published since the 1990s, were linked to right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, a figure that rises to 87 percent if self-published books are excluded.

Many of these institutions were created in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when U.S. business elites feared that public opinion was turning dangerously against capitalism and toward, if not socialism, then an aggressive Keynesianism. In response, they launched a counterrevolution, a richly funded intellectual movement that argued that greed and the limitless pursuit of profit were nothing to apologize for and offered the greatest hope for human emancipation that the world had ever known. Under this liberationist banner, they fought for such policies as tax cuts and free trade-deals and for the auctioning off of core state assets from phones to energy to water—the package known in most of the world as “neoliberalism.”

At the end of the 1980s, after a decade of Margaret Thatcher at the helm in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States, and with communism collapsing, these ideological warriors were ready to declare victory: history was officially over, and there was, in Thatcher’s often repeated words, “no alternative” to their market fundamentalism. Filled with confidence, the neoliberalsnext task was to systematically lock in the corporate liberation project in every country that had previously held out, which was usually best accomplished in the midst of political turmoil and large-scale economic crises, further entrenched through free-trade agreements and membership in the World Trade Organization.

It had all been going so well. The project had even managed to survive, more or less, the 2008 financial collapse directly caused by a banking sector that had been liberated of so much burdensome regulation and oversight. But to those gathered at CPAC and similar confabs, climate change is a threat of a different sort. It isn’t about the political preferences of Republicans versus Democrats; its about the physical boundaries of the atmosphere and the ocean. If the dire projections coming out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are left unchallenged, and business as usual is indeed driving us straight toward civilization-threatening tipping points, then the implications are obvious: the ideological crusade incubated in think tanks like Cato and Heritage will have to come to a screeching halt. Nor have the various attempts to soft-pedal climate action as compatible with market logic (carbon trading, carbon offsets, monetizing natures “services”) fooled these true believers one bit. They know very well that ours is a global economy created by, and fully reliant upon, the burning of fossil fuels, and that a dependency that foundational cannot be changed with a few gentle market mechanisms. It requires heavy-duty interventions: sweeping bans on polluting activities, deep subsidies for green alternatives, pricey penalties for violations, new taxes, new public works programs, reversals of privatizations—the list of ideological outrages goes on and on. Everything, in short, that these think tanks—which have always been public proxies for far more powerful corporate interests—have been busily attacking for decades.

If the free-market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue even for one more decade, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the surge in climate change denial among hard-core conservatives: no, they have not lost their minds. They simply understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of markets.

Here’s my inconvenient truth: I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the moderates in the so-called center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil-fuel companies. The deniers get plenty of the details wrong (no, its not a communist plot; authoritarian state socialism, as we will see, was terrible for the environment and brutally extractivist), but when it comes to the scope and depth of change required to avert catastrophe, they are right on the money.

Fossil fuels, and the deeper extractivist mindset that they represent, built the modern world. If we are part of industrial or postindustrial societies, we are still living inside the story written in coal.

Ever since the French Revolution, there have been pitched ideological battles within the confines of this story: communists, socialists, and trade unions have fought for more equal distribution of the spoils of extraction, winning major victories for the poor and working classes. The human rights and emancipation movements of this period have also fought valiantly against industrial capitalism’s treatment of whole categories of our species as human sacrifice zones, no more deserving of rights than raw commodities are. These struggles have also won major victories against the dominance-based paradigm—against slavery, for universal suffrage, for equality under the law. And there have been voices in all of these movements that identified the parallels between the economic models abuse of the natural world and its abuse of human beings deemed worthy of being sacrificed, or at least uncounted. Karl Marx, for instance, recognized capitalisms “irreparable rift” with “the natural laws of life itself,” while feminist scholars have long recognized that patriarchys dual war against womens bodies and against the body of the earth was connected to that essential, corrosive separation between mind and body—and between body and earth—from which both the Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution sprang.

These challenges, however, were mainly in the intellectual realm; Francis Bacon’s original, biblically inspired framework for the extractive economy remained largely intact—the right of humans to place ourselves above the ecosystems that support us and to abuse the earth as if it were an inanimate machine. The strongest challenges to this worldview have always come from outside its logic, in those historical junctures when the extractive project clashes directly with a different, older way of relating to the earth—and that older way fights back. This has been true from the earliest days of industrialization, when English and Irish peasants, for instance, revolted against the first attempts to enclose communal lands, and it has continued in clashes between colonizers and indigenous peoples through the centuries, right up to the indigenous-led resistance to new fossil-fuel projects (pipelines, coal mines, export facilities) that have delivered the climate movements most significant victories in recent years.

But for those of us born and raised inside this system, though we may well see the dead-end flaw of its central logic, it can remain intensely difficult to see a way out. And how could it be otherwise? Post-Enlightenment Western culture does not offer a road map for a way to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal relationship with nature.

This is where the right-wing climate change deniers have overstated their conspiracy theories about what a cosmic gift global warming is to the left. It is true that many climate responses reinforce progressive support for government intervention in the market, for greater equality, and for a more robust public sphere. But the deeper message carried by the ecological crisis—that humanity has to go a whole lot easier on the living systems that sustain us, acting regeneratively rather than extractively—is a profound challenge to large parts of the left as well as the right. Its a challenge to some trade unions, those trying to freeze in place the dirtiest jobs, instead of fighting for the good clean jobs their members deserve. And its a challenge to the overwhelming majority of center-left Keynesians, who still define economic success in terms of traditional measures of GDP growth, regardless of whether that growth comes from low-carbon sectors or rampant resource extraction.

Its a challenge, too, to those parts of the left that equated socialism with the authoritarian rule of the Soviet Union and its satellites (though there was always a rich tradition, particularly among anarchists, that considered Stalins project an abomination of core social justice and collectivist principles). Because the fact is that those self-described socialist states devoured resources with as much enthusiasm as did their capitalist counterparts, and spewed waste just as recklessly. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance, Czechs and Russians had even higher carbon footprints per capita than Canadians and Australians. Which is why one of the only times the industrialized world has seen a precipitous emissions drop was after the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Mao Zedong, for his part, openly declared that “man must conquer nature,” setting loose a devastating onslaught on the natural world that transitioned seamlessly from clear-cuts under communism to mega-dams under capitalism. Russias oil and gas companies, meanwhile, were as reckless and accident-prone under state socialist control as they are today in the hands of the oligarchs and Russias corporatist state.

And as I wrote in This Changes Everything, too many recent left governments in Latin America failed to diversify their economies away from fossil fuels and other raw commodity extraction when prices were high, leaving them intensely vulnerable to right-wing attacks when commodity prices collapsed, putting their laudable poverty-alleviation programs in dire jeopardy. From Brazil to Venezuela to Ecuador to Argentina, these left governments claimed they had no choice—that they needed to pursue extractive policies in order to pay for programs that fought dire poverty and inequality. And they have a point: the transition to post-carbon diversified economies should have been radically subsidized by wealthy economies in the Global North, as part of our collective climate debt. Forced to choose between poverty and pollution, these governments chose pollution, but those should never have been their only options.

Let’s acknowledge these difficult facts, while also pointing out that countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition—like Denmark, Sweden, Costa Rica, and Uruguay—have some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world. Scandinavian-style social democracy has undoubtedly produced some of the most significant green breakthroughs in the world, from the visionary urban design of Stockholm, where roughly 74 percent of residents walk, bike, or take public transit to work, to Denmarks community-controlled wind-power revolution. From all this we can conclude that socialism isnt necessarily ecological, but that a new form of democratic ecosocialism, with the humility to learn from indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanitys best shot at collective survival.

These are the stakes in the surge of movements and movement-grounded political candidates who are advancing a democratic ecosocialist vision for the United States, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of our natural world. These movements and candidates, whether or not they identify explicitly as democratic socialist, are rejecting the neoliberal centrism of the establishment Democratic Party, with its tepid “market-based solutions” to the ecological crisis, as well as the Trumpian all-out war on nature. And they are also presenting a concrete alternative to the undemocratic extractivist socialists of both the past and present.

The Sunrise Movement and its supporters in Congress chose to model the Green New Deal after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic raft of programs, understanding full well that a central task is to make sure that this mobilization does not repeat the ways in which its namesake excluded and further marginalized many vulnerable groups. For instance, New Deal–era programs and protections left out agricultural and domestic workers (many of them black), Mexican immigrants (some 1 million of whom faced deportation in the 1930s), and indigenous people (who won some gains in the New Deal era but whose land rights were also violated by both massive infrastructure projects and some conservation efforts). That is why “frontline” groups are mentioned repeatedly in the original Green New Deal resolution: this mobilization has to right the wrongs of the last one or it has no chance of catching fire.

Some deeper challenges about New Deal logic remain to be tackled. For instance, so far much of the emphasis has rightly been on industrial transformation and job creation. Not nearly enough has been on the outsize role that consumption plays in what used to be called “the American way of life,” or the way that a culture of overwork fuels cycles of disposable consumption (stressed and overworked people need fast and easy everything). Our leading emission-reduction experts tell us that if we are going to hit the targets demanded by science, we in wealthy countries dont just need to consume green stuff; we need to consume less stuff, with a higher premium placed on activities, like caregiving and the arts, that are inherently low carbon.

Despite these challenges, I have written before about why the old New Deal remains a useful touchstone for the kind of sweeping climate mobilization that is our only hope of lowering emissions in time. In large part, this is because there are so few historical precedents we can look to (other than top-down military mobilizations) that show how every sector of life, from forestry to education to the arts to housing to electrification, can be transformed under the umbrella of a single, society-wide mission.

Which is why it is so critical to remember that none of it would have happened without massive pressure from social movements. FDR rolled out the New Deal in the midst of a historic wave of labor unrest: there was the Teamsters’ rebellion and Minneapolis general strike in 1934, the eighty-three-day shutdown of the West Coast by longshore workers that same year, and the Flint sit-down autoworkers’ strikes in 1936 and 1937. During this same period, mass movements, responding to the suffering of the Great Depression, demanded sweeping social programs, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, while socialists argued that abandoned factories should be handed over to their workers and turned into cooperatives. Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author of The Jungle, ran for governor of California in 1934 on a platform arguing that the key to ending poverty was full state funding of workers’ cooperatives. He received nearly 900,000 votes, but having been viciously attacked by the right and undercut by the Democratic establishment, he fell just short of winning the governor’s office.

All of this is a reminder that the New Deal was adopted by Roosevelt at a time of such progressive and left militancy that its programs—which seem radical by todays standards—appeared at the time to be the only way to hold back a full-scale revolution.

It’s also a reminder that the New Deal was a process as much as a project, one that was constantly changing and expanding in response to social pressure from both the right and the left. For example, a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps started with 200,000 workers, but when it proved popular eventually grew to 2 million. There is plenty of time to improve and correct a Green New Deal once it starts rolling out (it needs to be more explicit about keeping carbon in the ground; about nuclear and coal never being “clean”; and about the connections between fossil fuels, foreign wars, and migration). But we have only one chance to get this thing charged up and moving forward.

The more sobering lesson is that the kind of mass power that delivered the victories of the New Deal era is far beyond anything possessed by current progressive movements, even if they all combined their efforts. That’s why it is so urgent to use the Green New Deal framework as a potent tool to build that power—a vision to both unite movements and dramatically expand them.

Part of that involves turning what is being derided as a left-wing “laundry list” or “wish list” into an irresistible story of the future, connecting the dots between the many parts of daily life that stand to be transformed—from healthcare to employment, day care to jail cell, clean air to leisure time. The Green New Deal has been characterized as an unrelated grab bag because most of us have been trained to avoid a systemic and historical analysis of capitalism and to divide pretty much every crisis our system produces—from economic inequality to violence against women to white supremacy to unending wars to ecological unraveling—in walled-off silos. From within that rigid mindset, its easy to dismiss a sweeping and intersectional vision like the Green New Deal as a green-tinted “laundry list” of everything the left has ever wanted.

Now that the call for a Green New Deal is out there, however, the onus is on all of us who support it to help make the case for how our overlapping crises are indeed inextricably linked—and can only be overcome with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation. This is already beginning to happen. For example, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one of the leading architects of the Green New Deal, has pointed out that just as thousands of people moved for jobs during the Second World War–era economic mobilization, we should expect a great many to move again to be part of a renewables revolution. And when they do, “unlinking employment from health care means people can move for better jobs, to escape the worst effects of climate, and re-enter the labor market without losing.”

Investing big in public healthcare is also critical in light of the fact that no matter how fast we move to lower emissions, it is going to get hotter and storms are going to get fiercer. When those storms bash up against healthcare systems and electricity grids that have been starved by decades of austerity, thousands pay the price with their lives, as they so tragically did in post-Maria Puerto Rico.

And there are many more connections to be drawn. Those complaining about climate policy being weighed down by supposedly unrelated demands for access to healthcare and education would do well to remember that the caring professions—most of them dominated by women—are relatively low carbon and can be made even more so. In other words, they deserve to be seen as “green jobs,” with the same protections, the same investments, and the same living wages as male-dominated workforces in the renewables, efficiency, and public-transit sectors. Meanwhile, as Gunn-Wright points out, to make those sectors less male dominated, family leave and pay equity are musts, which is part of the reason both are included in the resolution.

Drawing out these connections in ways that capture the public imagination will take a massive exercise in popular education and participatory democracy. A first step is for every sector touched by the Green New Deal—hospitals, schools, universities, and more—to make their own plans for how to rapidly decarbonize while furthering the Green New Deals mission to eliminate poverty, create good jobs, and close the racial and gender wealth divides.

My favorite example of what this could look like comes from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which has developed a bold plan to turn every post office in Canada into a hub for a just green transition. Think solar panels on the roof, charging stations out front, a fleet of domestically manufactured electric vehicles from which union members not only deliver mail, as well as local produce and medicine, but also check in on seniors—all supported by the proceeds of postal banking.

To make the case for a Green New Deal—which explicitly calls for this kind of democratic, decentralized leadership—every sector in the United States should be developing similar visionary plans for their workplaces right now.

We have been trained to see our issues in silos; they never belonged there. In fact, the impact of climate change on every part of our lives is far too expansive and extensive to begin to cover here. But I do need to mention a few more glaring links that many are missing.

A job guarantee, far from an opportunistic socialist addendum, is a critical part of achieving a rapid and just transition. It would immediately lower the intense pressure on workers to take the kinds of jobs that destabilize our planet, because all would be free to take the time needed to retrain and find work in one of the many sectors that will be dramatically expanding.

This in turn will reduce the power of bad actors like the Laborers’ International Union of North America, who are determined to split the labor movement and sabotage the prospects for this historic effort. Right out of the gate, LIUNA came out swinging against the Green New Deal. Never mind that it contains stronger protections for trade unions and the right to organize than anything we have seen out of Washington in three decades, including the right of workers in high-carbon sectors to democratically participate in their transition and to have jobs in clean sectors at the same salary and benefits levels as before.

There is absolutely no rational reason for a union representing construction workers to oppose what would be the biggest infrastructure project in a century, unless LIUNA actually is what it appears to be: a fossil-fuel astroturf group disguised as a trade union, or at best a company union. These are the same labor leaders, let us recall, who sided with the tanks and attack dogs at Standing Rock; who fought relentlessly for the construction of the planet-destabilizing Keystone XL pipeline; and who (along with several other building trade union heads) aligned themselves with Trump on his first day in office, smiling for a White House photo op and declaring his inauguration “a great moment for working men and women.”

LIUNA’s leaders have loudly demanded unquestioning “solidarity” from the rest of the trade union movement. But again and again, they have offered nothing but the narrowest self-interest in return, indifferent to the suffering of immigrant workers whose lives are being torn apart under Trump and to the indigenous workers who saw their homeland turned into a war zone. The time has come for the rest of the labor movement to confront and isolate them before they can do more damage. That could take the form of LIUNA members, confident that the Green New Deal will not leave them behind, voting out their pro-boss leaders. Or it could end with LIUNA being tossed out of the AFL-CIO for planetary malpractice.

The more unionized sectors, like teaching, nursing, and manufacturing, make the Green New Deal their own by showing how it can transform their workplaces for the better, and the more all union leaders embrace the growth in membership they would see under the Green New Deal, the stronger they will be for this unavoidable confrontation.

One last connection I will mention has to do with the concept of “repair.” Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markeys Green New Deal resolution, introduced in the House and Senate in February 2019, called for creating well-paying jobs “restoring and protecting threatened, endangered, and fragile ecosystems,” as well as “cleaning up existing hazardous waste and abandoned sites, ensuring economic development and sustainability on those sites.”

There are many such sites across the United States, entire landscapes that have been left to waste after they were no longer useful to frackers, miners, and drillers. It’s a lot like how this culture treats people. It’s what has been done to so many workers in the neoliberal period, using them up and then abandoning them to addiction and despair. Its what the entire carceral state is about: locking up huge sectors of the population who are more economically useful as prison laborers and numbers on the spreadsheet of a private prison than they are as free workers. And the old New Deal did it too, by choosing to exclude and discard so many black and brown and women workers.

There is a grand story to be told here about the duty to repair—to repair our relationship with the earth and with one another, to heal the deep wounds dating back to the founding of the country. Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mindset—a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview, a transformation from “gig and dig” to an ethos of care and repair.

If these kinds of deeper connections between fractured people and a fast-warming planet seem far beyond the scope of policy makers, it’s worth thinking back to the absolutely central role of artists during the New Deal era. Playwrights, photographers, muralists, and novelists were all part of a renaissance of both realist and utopian art. Some held up a mirror to the wrenching misery that the New Deal sought to alleviate. Others opened up spaces for Depression-ravaged people to imagine a world beyond that misery. Both helped get the job done in ways that are impossible to quantify.

In a similar vein, there is much to learn from indigenous-led movements in Bolivia and Ecuador that have placed at the center of their calls for ecological transformation the concept of buen vivir, a focus on the right to a good life as opposed to more and more and more life of endless consumption.

The Green New Deal will need to be subject to constant vigilance and pressure from experts who understand exactly what it will take to lower our emissions as rapidly as science demands, and from social movements that have decades of experience bearing the brunt of false climate solutions, whether nuclear power, the chimera of carbon capture and storage, or carbon offsets.

But in remaining vigilant, we also have to be careful not to bury the overarching message: that this is a potential lifeline that we all have a sacred and moral responsibility to reach for.

Naomi Klein is Senior Correspondent for The Intercept, a Puffin Writing Fellow at Type Media Center, and the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author, most recently, of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.

This essay is adapted from the author’s chapter in We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style, a new anthology edited by Kate Aronoff, Michael Kazin, and Peter Dreier and published by The New Press.