Post-pandemic green restructuring

6 November 2020

In the second of a three-part series, Alexander Perry asks if progressives can use this pause from business as usual, no matter how macabre its genesis, to breathe and re-evaluate the world and our place in it?

Alexander Perry

For the first instalment in this series click here.

Part of the appeal of a Green New Deal is that it does not necessarily revolve around the preservation of existing systems of exploitation and accumulation, and instead builds its policies on the foundation of a genuinely moral core. This differentiates a Green New Deal from theories that attempt to apply only a green veneer to existing capitalist practice given its genuine concern with justice and the well-being of people, as opposed to the accumulation of capital and profit in a perceived zero-sum game. It is a commitment to the people that constitute a society, be it in the form of a village or a nation-state, and to the health of the economy insofar as it is a means to promote the flourishing of those who live under its auspices. This requires a shift in our priorities from those of economic and security concerns to a focus on the lives that are lived in their own subjective ways. The tenets behind a Green New Deal may even not be the final stage of societal change geared around green principles – however, they are at the very least an important first step towards securing future society with equality and stewardship.

It goes without saying that those who have the greatest stakes in the current system of industrialised capital (and the exploitation and consumption that this entails) will be the ones who most vociferously oppose challenges to this status quo; this statement is hardly controversial, and is applicable to the beneficiaries of any historical status quo when it comes under threat. The existential challenge of climate change presents a major antagonism to our present-day beneficiaries – not only the physical impacts of climate change per se, but also the recommendations of change that follow the warnings from climate scientists, which, if adopted as policy, would have unavoidable implications for elites who constitute said beneficiaries. As such, the adoption of a Green New Deal would be the practical manifestation of the radical action that so terrifies the rich. In essence, the focus on justice and sustainability as opposed to growth that the ‘Green’ standpoint adds to the skeleton of the original New Deal calls not only for a raising up of those at the bottom, but also for the redistribution of the wealth of those at the top, and this is precisely why narratives that champion the status quo are prominent both amongst those who benefit disproportionally and also amongst those who lead a relatively comfortable existence – fear and a lack of motivation, respectively.

Indeed, Malm has noted that denial is often the chief weapon of those wishing to maintain extant social hierarchies: the more we require radical actions of mitigation and adaptation, both for our own behaviours and for the future consequences that our past actions have entailed, the more vehemently this old guard protests against the truth-claims made by those in the climate movement.[1] This is not always from a genuine opposition to climate change itself – as Mann and Wainwright have pointed out, it is the fear of unrest and upheaval to our elite-backed notions of civilisation, the threat of “the mob, the rabble, the climate refugee”, that provokes denial that anything is amiss.[2] When the facts are begrudgingly accepted in their full gravity, the answer, we are told by the elite, is not a radical overhaul of consumptive society, but to spend our way out of the crisis by continuing our current habits with a superficial “green” veneer.[3]

One aspect of this comprises the demolition of the fossil fuel industry. Inextricably linked with carbon emissions, and traditionally vehemently opposed to any sort of reform, this industry must be abolished not only for the sake of the biosphere, but also to rid our political sphere of the influence of rich oilmen. Truthfully, the only ones to lose out from the dismantling of the fossil industry are the ones who perch on thrones made from oil rigs and pumpjacks. Workers who lose their jobs in the fossil fuel industry can retrain and translate existing skills into jobs in a burgeoning green energy sector, the world will breathe a little easier with our skies no longer choked with fumes, and we will have taken one of the most important steps towards the path of responsible stewardship. Does that really seem so unjust?

I should acknowledge here that I speak predominantly from the perspective of a British citizen; yet the regime of a Green New Deal is not restricted solely to one country, and can be applied to the global arena. Indeed, if we undertake radical action to alleviate injustices solely within the borders of an arbitrarily-defined state, we would be falling short of our tenets if we then stopped at our borders.

What, then, has all this to do with a pandemic?

Across the world, the productive life of many has drawn to a juddering halt. Nominally in order to preserve lives, vast swathes of our economy – including factories, offices, and the hospitality sector – have been shut down or have been radically adapted for work in a locked-down world. The IMF predicts that the resultant recession will be the worst since the Great Depression. Borrowing and spending have increased dramatically as a result of costs associated with the pandemic: the UK public sector alone borrowed £62.1 billion in April 2020 – the figure for the same time one year prior was £11.1 billion. In the UK, seven months after the initial lock-down measures were introduced, everyday life is still inextricably touched by the effects of the pandemic; the easing and the re-implementation of some of these measures comes with the unspoken caveat of many more months of practical and social measures aimed at reducing any further resurgence of the virus.

When we come to fully reopen the doors of commerce, we have the ability to choose exactly how this should happen. Do we return to normalcy, with its accompanying destructive tendencies, both ecological and social? Or do we use this pause, however macabre its genesis, to breathe and re-evaluate the world and our place in it? The juggernaut of commerce has faltered, and has even halted: while undeniably galling in its human cost, this unprecedented state of affairs provides us with a singular opportunity.

Ever present is talk of “rebuilding the economy”, or discussion of how to let the economy “recover”. Implicit to such talk is the intention to let the economy return to the same state as before. There is nothing strange about this reconstruction being directed towards a prior state of affairs; when injured, we attempt firstly to ensure a return to our prior range of physical ability, or if this is not possible, to the closest possible approximation. But this is not the only route that we could take in this circumstance. With our usual way of life temporarily halted (or at best fumbling its way back to where it was), there is no overriding reason why we should return to the same, ultimately self-antagonistic and self-defeating habits. Carbon emissions fell in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, yet surged back at unprecedented speed as a result of carbon-intensive recovery spending. Following this pattern, the reduction in global carbon emissions for this year is predicted to be a record-setting annual fall of over 2 billion tonnes; a large figure, yet still paltry when compared to the 33 billion tonnes of global carbon emissions in 2019. The UK economy is estimated to have shrank by 20% in April; such a shrinkage will, as is our wont, provoke an attempt to claw that 20% back.

Where we dived headlong into carbon-intensive policies after 2008, this time we must not. We have a chance to fully acknowledge the damage that our consumption has caused to the planet, to realise that we do not truly need many of the trappings of pre-pandemic life, and to adapt our behaviours to align with a newfound creed of sustainability, restraint, and the stewardship of finite resources on a finite planet. For instance, car production in the UK fell by 24% – this should be framed as a positive thing! While the reason for this is more political than epidemiological, the breathing space that the pandemic can afford us afordss the chance to change how we perceive this statistic. Instead of pulling this figure back up, we could instead shift employment to sectors that represent sustainable industries: this could be as straightforward as prioritising the development of public transportation systems that run on renewable energy. Moreover, a lack of production is hardly a bad thing in terms of an actual need for cars: Cuba manages to keep cars from the 50s running despite the trade embargo, so it seems hardly far-fetched that the global North might be able to manage without an influx of new cars for a while (a prime example of the kind of change in behaviour that would contribute to a sustainable society). Our relentless pursuit of growth and “progress” has hit a stumbling block. Should we be so eager to go back to our blind sprinting when we could instead carefully map out the path ahead of us? To follow our prior direction, I contend, would be to callously throw away the chance for an alternate future that we have before us.

For the third and final instalment in this series click here.

[1]   Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World (Verso, London and New York: 2020), 134.

[2]   Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (Verso, London and New York: 2020), p183.

[3]   ibid p103.