Time to hope?

11 November 2020

In the third and final instalment in this series, Alexander Perry considers how can progressives catalyse change, and argues that a meaningful Green New Deal is a good place to start.

Alexander Perry

For the previous instalment in this series click here.

We cannot rely upon the elite to bring change about voluntarily. The very content of the oft-touted Paris Agreement make this clear: negotiated by world leaders with interests that subordinate the preservation of the world in favour of broad national economic and security concerns, no timelines were provided as a benchmark against which to measure the success of any resolutions, no discrete targets for individual countries set out, nor any infrangible enforcement mechanisms or penalties for violations stipulated.[1] The result was a round of self-aggrandising back slaps even as emissions levels steadily rose: the vested interest to bring about real change, even at temporary economic disadvantage, was simply not there. As Laurence Delina and Mark Diesendorf have noted, there is a lack of enthusiasm amongst governments for an effective response to climate change, even in the face of climate disasters that endanger life.[2] If we cannot rely upon those in positions of individual power, we must turn instead to those who have power as a collective – the great mass of humanity that comprises of ordinary people.

There are many examples in the last century of how the will of the many has forced change when the simmering resentment against the status quo felt by so many who feel voiceless has boiled over. I refer not to such phenomena as the rise of National Socialism in pre-WWII Germany, which might well fit the aforementioned description, but to those movements characterised by the pursuit of equality and the mending of past injustices, aimed ultimately at a better world for all. The American civil rights movement, opposition to the apartheid system in South Africa, and global campaigns for universal suffrage are prime examples: collective will won the day. The wave of protests currently taking place in the US is our most recent exemplar: with one final event in a string of galling deaths, those who have been marginalised, along with their allies, have used the method of civil disobedience to make their voices heard. In the UK, the questioning and re-evaluation of controversial statuary is taking place against the backdrop of long-standing sentiments of injustice and subordination.

We may disagree amongst ourselves about the manner in which the voice that protests against perceived injustices is expressed on both the local and national levels, ranging from vicious brawls with riot police to peaceful sit-down protests. However, the discussion of the permissibility of certain aspects of protest is one for another place. Whatever our quibbles regarding the ethical nature of micro-elements of protest, we cannot deny that these events represent the force of the public will, and its capacity to stand against established authority. Can this incredible reserve of human energy, this desire to change both the varied and common injustices faced by so many, not also be directed towards the overlapping spheres of environmental and socio-economic justice? I contend that it very much can.

Crucial to any endeavour reliant upon the power of the many is to ensure that the many are united in what they are wielding their power for. In this environmentally-oriented circumstance, a core part of this would extend to the propagation of accurate, non-biased information concerning the damaging practices that occur within the world, the consequences that they entail, and why it must be now, and not in the arbitrary future, that we act. This will inevitably lead to the dispersal of some uncomfortable truths about our lifestyle and attitudes: joined to this, a robust opposition to climate change denialism must be mounted. A movement will be dead on its feet if nobody cares enough to act; in this case, I suspect that it is not a lack of care that has so far restrained the many from explosive action, but a simple lack of understanding of the severity and inexorability of the consequences to come – and, indeed, of the actual value of current practice. We may question the feel-good factor of personal recycling when it is cheaper to produce new plastic than to recycle plastic waste.

It goes without saying that any such dissemination of information must be ever-vigilant to avoid paternalistic overtones: we must be careful to avoid any traces of condescension, and instead pursue the task as a plea to the latent power that lies within the collective of ordinary people. Short of strong-arming coercive force into the service of climatic reform, we must keep our appeals to the grassroots level as pleas.

Despite the challenges of motivation and mobilisation, we do have some points in our favour. Unlike many prior revolutions or projects of radical change, the baseline level of technological development necessary for such undertakings already exists. The Russian Revolution faltered and faded in no small part due a basic lack of mechanisation – we require, among other things, renewable energy systems for our Green New Deal, and behold! We have wind turbines, geothermal plants, solar farms; our widespread adoption of these technologies is only curtailed by the profit motivation, the economic stranglehold that fossil industries have upon current energy production, and a lack of cooperation in bold projects. Moreover, despite the greater weight of support needed, the grassroots activism that currently exists in many states is encouraging: the gradual shift of these movements into mainstream occurrence is a positive step towards the greater change that a Green New Deal would encompass.

The lull in activity caused by the pandemic provides an even field to raise voices, unite them, and bring them to bear on the structures that entrench injustice at both the societal and environmental levels. We cannot in good faith maintain the system of exploitation and labour appropriation in the exponential way that we have for the last half millennium, if we simultaneously preach the possibility of “things getting better”: to do so and expect actual alleviation of socio-economic inequality would be akin to the drunkard attempting to sober up be consuming ever increasing quantities of liquor. Contrary to the assertions of homeopaths and folk medics, the hair of the dog is rarely an effective treatment, least of all in the wake of a post-crisis capitalist hangover.

Will this mean some discomfort? Of course.

The elements of degrowth inherent to our Green New Deal will mean that societal changes will sometimes manifest as a loss of some of the conveniences that we are used to – out-of-season produce, for instance, or express delivery on goods that we purchase online – yet breaking our sense of entitlement to such conveniences is essential if we are to adapt to a lifestyle that is sustainable and ultimately carbon-negative. The transition to this world will not be some sort of Robin Hood affair, where by taking the wealth of the wealthy, the rest of us will instantly benefit. It will require work and sacrifice from all (and particularly from those at the top of the economic pyramid) to attain the state of responsible stewardship: yet the aspirations of justice inherent to a Green New Deal will minimise the sacrifice required from those who have little enough to lose in the first place, and place the onus mainly upon the resources (financial, technological, and logistical) of those who have them to spare. The acceptance of the climatic facts that give this project its Green flavour does not entail fatalist claims of doom for all: while a Green New Deal entails radical alterations to the concept and practice of progress and freedom, it does not have to involve any melodramatic notions of “learning to die as a civilisation”.[3]

If our project for a post-pandemic world is not green in character, then we will be setting ourselves up for much the same kind of disaster as we are currently living through. The only difference is, the cause will not be a mutation in a non-human virus. It will be famines, loss of habitable land to ever-rising seas, and herds of augmented hurricanes. And unlike a virus, a famine cannot be prevented with isolation, rising sea levels by social distancing, nor storms by hand washing.

If we fail to adopt and follow through the project of a Green New Deal, we will then have failed to seize a rare chance to bring restorative justice to both the environmental and socio-economic spheres: it is a chance that would allow us to mitigate the extant effects of our past injustices, both environmental and economic; to develop and install viable alternatives to fossil fuels, while lifting out of poverty the masses who have been placed there by the appetite of consumptive in the present; and to prepare adaptive policies for the climatic effects to come whose arrival is already a practical guarantee, while at the same time installing safeguards to ensure that no person will ever be found wanting in the provision of those things necessary not only for existence, but for a life in which all can flourish. If we do not begin this work now now, we will likely never again have such a chance to transform our relationship with both the world and the people within it. And we will, truly, come to regret that choice.

[1]   Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann, Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (Verso, London and New York: 2020), 36.

[2]   Laurence Delina and Mark Diesendorf, “Is wartime mobilisation a suitable policy model for rapid national climate mitigation?”, Energy Policy, 58 (2013), 377.

[3]   Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene:Critical Reflections on the End of a Civilisation (City Lights, New York: 2015), 24.