A Green New Deal could signal a fundamental shift away from neoliberalism

The idea of a Green New Deal has captured imaginations across the world. For many, it provides an overall narrative neatly stressing the urgency of the major crises of our time. What’s more, in seeking to combat injustice while stemming environmental breakdown, it recognises the interrelation between these problems. 

It has been astonishing and energising to witness the speed at which the idea has rocketed into the political mainstream, with many of those running for the US Democrat Party’s presidential nomination signing up to a Green New Deal, and the Labour Party in the UK increasingly adopting its language.

All this attention has seen debates over climate breakdown escape the confines of climate bloggers and environmental correspondents. Two questions – or lines of attack – are increasingly coming to bear in the ensuing debates. What is the Green New Deal and can we afford it?

The answer to the first question has three elements: we must define the major problems we face, set the overall objectives a Green New Deal seeks to realise, and develop a plan for reaching those ends. The problems we face are clear to anyone who wishes to see. The financial crisis and years of brutal austerity have accelerated the decades-long erosion of labour rights, increases in inequality and entrenchment of financialisation necessitated by the neoliberal project. 

In the UK, as elsewhere, the human cost has been high. Underemployment and precarious work blight the life chances of millions, rising poverty immiserates large sections of the population, including millions of children, and health and social care cuts have been linked to over 100,000 excess deaths. All the while the outweighed influence of economic elites has torn the country’s social fabric to breaking point. 

The devastation wrought by neoliberal politicians and corporate interests is eroding the resilience of societies at precisely the time that environmental breakdown has reached critical levels. We have been unequivocally warned that greenhouse gas emissions must be roughly halved over the next decade to avoid catastrophe. And it’s not just climate breakdown we face; soil is being lost, species are dying, oceans are destabilised. Forces beyond our control have been unleashed, threatening global stability.

Global leaders seem unwilling or unable to respond to these interconnected crises, shackled by a neoliberal political project that simultaneously argues these problems are unimportant or even non-existent while supporting the harshest possible response to their impacts. Unsurprisingly, school children are now showing a greater aptitude for understanding the world’s problems and articulating an appropriate response. 

One of the most effective and useful parts of the Green New Deal narrative has been to reconcile potentially abstract environmental concerns with the lived experience of those suffering under neoliberalism, weaving them into a resonant story of renewal. Its central objective is to limit environmental breakdown while improving social and economic outcomes, creating a more sustainable and just society. Crucially, in doing so, in seeks justice across a range of dimensions, including gender, race and class, recognising the historical origins of contemporary crises, born, as they were, from the toxic, extractive legacies of empire and the exploitative proclivities of capitalism. 

The next step in realising a Green New Deal is to develop the substance by which these overall aims are achieved. A myriad of subsidiary policies is needed, covering everything from how we eat to how we travel. Each require ambitious, detailed plans of their own. For example, every building across the UK will need to be retrofitted to minimise wasted heat – an enormous project in its own right, and one that should have been completed years ago. Only in war time, we are told, have such mobilisations occurred. So why not for peace and the making of a better world. 

Realising a Green New Deal will be the most extraordinary undertaking in human history. It is exciting to consider this. Anything less than an unprecedented transformation of our societies will lead to disaster, as the UN concluded last October. Some have argued that it cannot be done, with criticisms ranging from its supposed unaffordability to the very practical – like the lack of scaffolding needed to retrofit our homes in such a short space of time. But in the face of impending disaster, general concerns over practicability melt away.

Realising this can set us free to unleash the creative potential of our societies to undertake the unprecedented planning, focus and mobilisation of resources needed. A Green New Deal can spark new stories of inspiration to realise a promise that may at times seem beyond our reach.  

But can we afford it? This question is often used by those grasping for an effective attack against a concept that seeks to make people’s lives better while preventing global catastrophe. The answer has two dimensions. Firstly, we must think of the costs of inaction in stemming environmental breakdown and repairing social and economic hardship. In the case of the former, these are incalculably high; without fertile soil we cannot grow food, without clean air we cannot breathe. Moreover, the opportunity cost exacted by neoliberal policies grows daily. What could have been achieved if the energy poured into Brexit was channelled elsewhere? We cannot afford a world without a Green New Deal. 

Secondly, there is a technical discussion about the best way to finance the subsidiary policies and projects required by an overall Green New Deal programme. This will likely entail a mix of debt financing, tax and other fiscal policies, many of which, such as taxes on business activities that drive environmental breakdown, can also limit damaging behaviour. In doing so, a Green New Deal necessitates an epochal shift in the role of the state, resetting the current imbalance in which elements of the public sector are, in large part, diminished or strengthened to serve narrow vested interests.

In this way we see that a Green New Deal is not just a ‘policy’ or even ‘policy programme’ but the potential beginning of an overall shift in the political and economic ideas that dominate society, akin to the shift from the post-war consensus to neoliberalism in the early 1980s. Back then, ‘monetarism’ was the phrase synonymous with this shift, encapsulating neoliberal attitudes toward the state and economic policy. The Green New Deal could provide a modern equivalent, becoming an overall banner under which all sections of society can rally to speed the process of moving beyond the devastation of neoliberalism and realising a new political economy. 

Milton Friedman, a key architect of neoliberalism, developed monetarism and, in his words, kept it and other ideas “alive and available until the politically impossible [became] the politically inevitable.” As seas lap at unfamiliar shores and the social ills of neoliberalism breach reservoirs of hate the world over, it is possible to see how a Green New Deal must become politically inevitable.   

This article was originally published by Red Pepper.