News | Inequality / Social Struggles - Economic / Social Policy - Socio-ecological Transformation - Green New Deal - Climate Justice Green New Deals and the Potential for Genuine Social-Ecological Transformation

To solve the modern ecological crisis, we need a radical critique of the modern growth economy



Tone Smith,

Marchers gather in Sheffield to pressure politicians at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, November 2021. CC BY-NC 2.0, Photo: Flickr/Tim Dennell

Green New Deal (GND) proposals are embraced by many on the Left. Finally, a project that can revive the (popular) Left, create enthusiasm amongst ordinary people, while at the same time taking inequality seriously, addressing the need for more jobs, and saving the environment! The Left’s own version of win-win-win. And what is more — it’s politically feasible! So the story goes.

Tone Smith is an ecological economist and a freelance writer. She is active in the international degrowth movement and in Rethinking Economics Norway. This article is based on “How radical is the Green New Deal?”, which appeared in PROKLA

It might be true that the idea of a Green New Deal is realistic — politically. However, when it comes to environmental realism, it fares much worse. Further, underlying that lack of environmental realism we find a lack of willingness to address the increasingly obvious problems related to the modern growth economy. The fact that GNDs draw inspiration from Roosevelt’s original New Deal and Keynes’s policy recommendations for exiting the Great Depression might be exactly the reason it is so difficult to do so, as these policies are closely intertwined both with the modern growth economy and with attempts to repair or “save” capitalism.

The Need for Environmental Realism

Climate is the central environmental theme in most GNDs, although some also consider other environmental aspects. Still, what is rarely acknowledged is the extent to which modern industrial economies are based on easy access to cheap and large quantities of fossil fuels — a unique energy source with very high energy density. While on the one hand, access to this energy source has allowed increased production and wealth among a large share of the world’s population, it is at the same time the main cause of the current climate crisis. This understanding is at the core of ecological economics and the reason why it challenges conventional understandings of the economy and wealth creation.

But the climate crisis is not the only environmental problem the fossil fuel economy has created. This highly productive economy also has implications for living nature more broadly — and for the loss thereof (species, ecosystems, landscapes). The direct causes of biodiversity loss — land use change, industrial agriculture, over-harvesting of resources, pollution, and climate change — are all somehow linked to the fossil fuel economy.

A key challenge in terms of planning a green transition is that our current economy is energy-intensive and reliant upon high energy throughput. Believing that the climate crisis can be solved simply by shifting to renewable energy sources without any reduction in overall energy use is therefore naïve. We must realize that renewable electricity generation is not a pollution-free activity, hence is neither “green” nor “clean”. First, it relies on the input of a range of material resources that need to be extracted, i.e. mined (rarely a “clean” exercise). Second, energy-capturing installations need energy to be built, and in general the energy needed to produce (or capture) renewable energy is larger than the energy used to extract and refine oil or gas, which implies that the so-called “energy return on energy invested” (EROI) is lower for renewables. Third, renewable energy production also creates waste products (batteries, glass fibre from wind turbine blades, etc.).

All this means that shifting to renewable energy, if total energy use is not reduced, will create even higher pressure on a living nature already under high pressure.

Can’t We Just Increase Efficiency?

Efficiency improvements have for decades been the main rhetorical argument against limiting production or consumption as a way to address environmental problems. However, efficiency can only take us so far. Even a technology that could burn fuel with 100-percent efficiency would create waste products, and there is a maximum amount you can get out of it. Therefore, becoming more efficient is not a magical solution, and institutionalizing limits to resource extraction and caps on resource use will be unavoidable to limit further nature destruction and greenhouse gas emissions.

That said, these are exactly the issues that most GNDs neglect to touch upon. Instead, hope is built around the possibility of solutions in which wealth is more equally distributed and new (green), well-paid jobs are created, while improvements in public transportation allow everyone to move around more easily.

But apart from taking a bit from the rich and giving to the poor(er) within a national framework, there is little mention of the fact that even (some parts of) working-class living standards in the Global North are actually quite luxurious in historical terms. If we are to transition to a truly sustainable future including also global justice, we need some perspective on modern, Western lifestyles.

Global Solidarity: The Missing Element

Modern industrial growth economies (whether socialist or capitalist) always shift their costs onto nature or other people, often in a different location or into the future. This brings us to the issue of global solidarity. While GNDs have been applauded for highlighting justice and bringing inequality and distribution back on the political agenda, the dimensions of global inequity and global environmental justice are not particularly prominent.

Instead, focus is placed on national inequity in line with trade unions’ increasingly national focus in the last decades. Fortunately, there are exemptions, such as (original) UK Labour for a Green New Deal, which has picked up on the problems of net-zero claims in climate policy and its reliance on offsetting, simply moving the problem around in the system while allowing the Global North to continue with business as usual.

Still, explicit foci on unequal exchange and the general exploitative aspects of growth — both of people and nature — are missing from these understandings of what is wrong with our current economic system. This includes the international dimension of Western consumer society, as captured for example in the concept of “the imperial mode of living” and addressing the disproportionally high share of global consumption in of the wealthy Global North, including both products, resources, and environmental sinks.

Trapped in a Keynesian Growth Paradigm

At this point, a wide variety of GND proposals exist, making it hard to generalize about them. I have elsewhereanalyzed the differences between various GNDs, pointing out how the US Democrats’ proposal, which has by far received the most media attention internationally, is amongst the least radical ones. On the other end of the spectrum we find proposals such as Blueprint For Europe’s Just Transition initiated by the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25) and the UK Labour Party’s GND mentioned above, which definitely contain radical elements, including both transformative policy measures and proposals for institutional change.

My intention here has been to point out some problematic elements that they share, as even the most radical proposals for GNDs exhibit certain challenges that need to be overcome to figure as realistic programmes for achieving genuine social-ecological transformation. This brings us back to an element pointed out at the beginning of this text, namely that the New Deal was, by its very nature, an economic growth project due to its strong connection to Keynesian demand-side policy, productivity growth, and job creation. This Keynesian starting point might explain why even the more radical GNDs are not able to address the social and environmental problems associated with an economic system dependent upon economic growth in combination with livelihoods dependent upon wage labour.

There are indeed many elements in the more radical proposals for a GND that could form part of a transformational red-green strategy. These include the provision for universal basic services, the democratization of parts of economic production, concepts for alternative economic institutions, (public) investment in public transportation, concern for justice and inequity, concern for marginalized groups, ambitions to phase out fossil energy, exchanging GDP with other indicators for societal success, and critique of unregulated financial capitalism.

Nevertheless, the lack of a central critique of modern growth economies, and their dependency on exploitation of people and nature, is problematic. Hence, the core weakness of the GND is the unwillingness — or hesitation — to challenge the growth economy head-on. A deep social-ecological transformation would require that we start thinking of the economy as a system of social provisioning (again). For this purpose, the New Deal might not be the most relevant source of inspiration.