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The Green New Deal and the Failings of Western Environmentalism

By Kwaku Aurelien

The Green New Deal — is it sincerely designed to eliminate from American society the environmental evils that confront our planet and its living creatures? In answering this question, it is imperative to understand that there are currently two Green New Deals: one is the brainchild of U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the other of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ iteration is objectively the more progressive of the two, aiming to completely cease the burning of fossil fuels and eschewing “false solutions” such as carbon capture and geoengineering. However, there are reasons to be skeptical. One thing that has to be stressed is that Bernie Sanders, whom Ocasio-Cortez endorsed in the Democratic presidential primaries earlier this year, is a social democrat in the same vein that Franklin Roosevelt was a social democrat in the 1930s and early 40s.

All social democracy means is to implement welfare state policies — universal healthcare and tuition-free college among other things — to improve material conditions for American citizens whilst maintaining the capitalist system. The Green New Deal borrows its name from the program designed by FDR and Vice President Henry Wallace for the purpose of stimulating economic recovery from the Great Depression. But unlike its namesake, this program, as it was originally intended, had the legislative means to impede American imperialism and militarism if it were ever implemented. It is not a commonly known fact, however, that the Green New Deal was originally designed by the Green Party as far back as 2006, and it called for a 50% reduction of the U.S. military budget. This is significant given that the U.S. military is the biggest polluter in the world, its bases replete with freshwater sources contaminated with perchlorate and elements of jet and rocket fuel. In addition, the Green Party’s Deal called for “an alternative economic system based on ecology and decentralization of power, an alternative that rejects both the capitalist system that maintains private ownership over almost all production as well as the state-socialist system that assumes control over industries without democratic, local decision making (social democracy).” Therein lies the difference between social democracy and socialism; under social democracy, the state is controlled by capital and disproportionately benefits capitalist interests. Marxist theorist Vladimir Lenin coined it by another term – social imperialism – in his essay Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: “The leaders of the present-day, so-called, “Social-Democratic” Party of Germany are justly called “social-imperialists”, that is, socialists in words and imperialists in deeds…” (Lenin 41). Socialism, meanwhile, entails democratic ownership and control of the state and of the means of production in society. This must be properly understood because the Green New Deal, relieved of its anti-militarist and anti-imperialist language, will function in the same way as environmental statues already on the books, in that it will not account for how and where environmental benefits and harm will be distributed. One of the major criticisms of the mainstream environmental movement in the United States today is that it does not take into account the poor, working and middle class people who live in communities plagued by environmental issues, instead centering bourgeois “experts” whose ability or lack of ability to be leaders on these issues is immaterial because they generally do not interact with specifically affected communities. In his article “The Green New Deal Must Be Centered On African American And Indigenous Workers To Differentiate Itself From The Democratic Party,” CounterPunch staff writer Andrew Stewart states that a Green New Deal must “allow for [these] communities of color to define and develop on their own terms the structures of self-government by which they desire to live and thrive.” Presently, this is not the case, as the Democratic Party omitted its immediate fracking ban, a major tenet of the Green Party’s Deal. This marks a significant exclusion, as it is poor communities and communities of color who disproportionately bear the brunt of water and air contamination that arises as a result of fracking.

In addition, it is important to note the imperial and neocolonial logic which exists within the current iteration(s) of the Green New Deal, namely how Ocasio-Cortez aims to “create affordable public transit available to all, with the goal to replace every combustion-engine vehicle.” While this would be ostensibly beneficial, such an initiative would require super-exploitation of the Global South, i.e., the economically disadvantaged regions in Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania, i.e., the dark-skinned world. Super-exploitation is defined by Brazilian economist Ruy Mauro Marini as the systematic devaluation of wages for workers in the Global South below the value of their labor power, while increasing the surplus value of capital. Marini was among the creators of the Dependency Theory, which posits that underdevelopment in the Global South is the result of developing countries providing raw materials to economic powers that have industrialized to where they can refine those materials into finished goods for the developing countries to then buy at high prices, exhausting capital they could have otherwise used towards shoring up their own capacity to produce. Marini noted that during Karl Marx’s lifetime, foodstuffs and other goods produced by the British Empire’s colonies contributed to the increase of surplus value in the mother country, making it so that it didn’t have to lower its exorbitant levels of consumption. This must be properly understood because present American levels of consumption are unsustainable, whether it is produced by carbon-based fuels or green energy. The amount of resources needed to convert America’s grid to green energy will have inescapable consequences for the Global South and the Third World. Tesla, for example, reported in May of 2019 that they expect a shortage of electric vehicle battery minerals such as lithium, copper, nickel, and more, thereby making it impossible to replace every internal combustion engine in this country with an electric battery. Even if it were feasible, doing so would require approximately a 1,000% increase of rare earth metal mining, thereby causing the environments of the exploited countries to suffer tremendously. For an example of how this is playing out contemporarily, we can look to Bolivia, where President Evo Morales was ousted in a coup backed by the Organization of American States (OAS), headquartered in Washington D.C. The 2019 coup was executed primarily for control of Bolivia’s supply of lithium, an essential element in electric car batteries. Morales surmised that the coup was done because of his plan to nationalize Bolivian lithium and put the profits in the hands of the Bolivian people. While Bernie Sanders condemned the coup, he made no comment with regards to imperialist resource extraction. Norway, a country Sanders has said the United States should aim to emulate in part due to its environmental program tied to social democracy, is also guilty of exploiting the Global South for its natural resources vis-a-vis Norsk Hydro and other such renewable energy corporations. Norsk Hydro utilizes surplus amounts of aluminum for construction of hydroelectric dams, wind turbines and solar panels. Aluminum is derived from alumina, which is derived from bauxite. Bauxite mining is a terribly dirty practice; the dust blown from open-sky bauxite mines and dislodged from the roads on which the ore is transported can directly cause or exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Just this past August, Norsk Hydro announced the closing of its alumina refinery Alunorte in Brazil amidst accusations of serious environmental damage. Moreover, the Dependency Theory is invoked here; one of the major tenets of the Green New Deal is providing jobs with a minimum hourly wage of $15, but this obviously would not occur in the Global South due to the expense. Workers would have to be paid significantly below the value of their labor power. As Ghana’s first President and Pan-African revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah succinctly noted in his book Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, the distinction morphs from one of poor and rich people in individual countries to poor and rich countries:

“By abandoning these two principles [subjugation of the working classes within each individual country and the exclusion of the State from any say in the control of capitalist enterprise] and substituting for them ‘welfare states’ based on high working class living standards and on a State-regulated capitalism at home, the developed countries succeeded in exporting their internal problem and transferring the conflict between rich and poor from the national to the international stage” (255).

It is for these reasons that the Green New Deal as proposed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is untenable. Additionally, as its namesake had done, the Green New Deal would work to stifle socialism, in this case eco-socialism, in America. What the Green New Deal amounts to is Keynesianism at best, in that it is a call for the federal government to ramp up spending on green infrastructure and increase consumer demand for green energy sources to spark economic growth. It is not ecosocialism, of which a fundamental principle is democratic ecological planning, not looking to the market for solutions. In this sense, the Green New Deal is a reformist policy. Black revolutionary George Jackson observed in his book Blood in my Eye how fascism is adaptive, undergoing reforms – small changes – to protect itself against resistance whilst not transforming completely.

“We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be ‘reform’” (118).

Fascism, as defined by Guyanese activist Walter Rodney in his book The Russian Revolution: A View From the Third World, is "an attempt to rescue the essence of the capitalist exploitative system while pretending to be representative of all interests" (355). As it is an example of such a reformist policy, the Green New Deal can quite easily be used towards fascist ends despite not being outwardly fascist. A scenario in which the next Republican president supports solar energy, the cheapest electricity in history, and super-exploitation of the Global South to push forward renewable energy initiatives in America cannot be dismissed out of hand. Besides the imperialist extraction of natural resources in the Global South, however, the consequences of capitalism are felt here at home. For example, the United States consumes more food per capita than socialist Cuba, but Cuba managed to eliminate child malnutrition in 2012, being the only nation in the Caribbean and Latin America to accomplish this feat. By contrast, in the United States, 25 percent of children went hungry in 2012 despite the country boasting the largest economy in the world with a GDP of $15.6 trillion. Sources of renewable energy are needed, but consumption has to be addressed first. It is not an accident that citizens of the United States and the Western world take their consumption habits for granted, and it is by no fault of their own; commodities are cheap in this part of the world relative to poorer nations as the direct result of the exploitation of the Global South. It is also imperative that a Green New Deal reflect popular political and social concerns. In his piece “Why Ecosocialism: For a Red-Green Future,” Brazilian sociologist Michael Löwy details how essential goods and services can be freely distributed throughout the community under eco-socialism, sans intervention from the state or big business: “Society itself, and neither a small oligarchy of property owners nor an elite of techno-bureaucrats, will democratically decide which productive lines are to be privileged, and how resources are to be invested in education, health, and culture.” What the present Green New Deal proposals amount to, essentially, are policies designed to placate and make concessions to an increasingly restless population, without having to address endless capitalist accumulation and extraction. Rather, what is needed is a Green New Deal by the people rather than by the state, one that will put power in the hands of the people and one that dictates the end of capitalism in America and the unsustainable practices inherent to it.

Works Cited

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About the Author:

Kwaku Aurelien is a junior at the University of Connecticut majoring in English with the intention of going into law school and subsequently becoming a practicing environmental lawyer fighting on behalf of oppressed and marginalized peoples in the United States and throughout the world. To this end, he is often reading and watching the news to heighten his awareness. He seeks the delicate balance between human rights activism and law. It is a hard path, but he has the utmost confidence he can pull it off. Be sure to follow Kwaku on his social media pages:

Twitter - @The_Earthquake3

Instagram - @quake_aurelien


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