A Green Critique of the Global Alliance for a Green New Deal

There has been generally uncritical reception, not least in Green Party circles, of the launch of the Global Alliance for a Green New Deal. It needs a serious green critique. Here is a first draft of one.

This paper argues that we might be wise to hold the applause for the Global Alliance for a Green New Deal (GAGND). It seems to be another case of ‘cakeism’, the belief that we can have our cake and eat it: a long list of In reality, the available material on the GAGND suggests a severe case of pie-in-the sky thinking. Indeed, it offers comfort food for those reluctant and even unwilling to face the breadth and depth of the challenges we face.Indeed, it offers comfort food for those reluctant and even unwilling to face the breadth and depth of the challenges we face. (https://www.globalgreennewdeal.org)

There are, of course, many definitions of a ‘Green New Deal’ and associated policies (eg https://thepracticalutopian.ca/2019/09/27/ten-green-new-deals-how-do-they-compare/ ). All seem to be variants of some kind of turquoise Keynesianism, replete with woefully exaggerated hopes regarding what can be sustainably delivered by renewable energy, battery storage technology, efficiency gains and recycling. Some are based on pure mythology, not least the thermodynamically impossible 100% “circular economy”. Indeed, there seems to be a hidden assumption of the possibility for radical ‘dematerialisation’ and ‘absolute decoupling’ for which there is simply no evidence. It also appears that there is a conflation with electricity supply with total energy consumption, thereby skirting real barriers in fields such as agriculture and transportation (cf https://energyskeptic.com/category/energy/an-overview/ )

It might be remembered that the original New Deal did not deal with the problems it claimed to address. The then unemployment crisis in the USA persisted at a high level until the rearmament programme kicked in. It also inflicted severe ecological damage (dams etc) alongside, to be fair, some beneficial programmes of soil conservation and tree planting. Today, President Joe Biden’s New Deal is essentially an infrastructure construction package, one that will do immense ecological damage, both in terms of further encroachment on wildlife habitat and farmland as well as all the concrete and steel it will devour
(see: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/25/concrete-the-most-destructive-material-on-earth and  https://www.treehugger.com/steel-industry-responsible-for-11-of-carbon-emissions-5191639?utm_campaign=treehugger&utm_medium=email&utm_source=cn_nl&utm_content=24387048&utm_term&fbclid=IwAR3HhrYI_acDzdTy2aCyLwIVj1NbypYpkI3KdzpcpNkj8Dcy_dgoGyRj8ro

It might also be remembered that Biden’s action on, say, pipeline construction has largely been in the form of temporary halts, not radical change of direction. Indeed the ‘Financial Times’ deemed his plans to be a “boost” to the fossil fuel industry. They also include the false fix of carbon capture and storage (cf https://research.american.edu/carbonremoval/2019/11/13/jacobson-mark-2019-why-carbon-capture-and-direct-air-capture-cause-more-damage-than-good-to-climate-and-health/)

Similarly, the underpinning analysis on the GAGND website reduces the total crisis to one largely of excess carbon emissions (cf http://biophilosophy.ca/Teaching/2070papers/crist.pdf ). It largely ignores other GHGs, not least methane. In reality, global overheating is only one of many symptoms of ‘overshoot’. There are so many more: plastification (with current plans for massive expansion of plastic production), a lethal cocktail of air and water pollution, widespread and worsening toxic contamination, oceanic dead zones, soil denutrification and erosion, spreading crop and forest monocultures, aquifer depletion, massive overfishing, destruction of ocean beds, paving over of land by suburban sprawl and other construction ……

The website does talk of a “climate and nature crisis” but there is little sense of an appropriate ‘new deal’ for the rest of nature. The drastic decline in the richness and variety of non-human nature scarcely gets the prominence it deserves. Furthermore, the explicit linkage of “climate and nature” suggests that that global overheating and biodiversity meltdown go hand in hand. In reality there are far bigger drivers of extinction and endangerment (see diagram below), ones intimately linked to human numbers, not least the number of mouths to feed and people to house.{see: https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/A/bo31043560.html and https://islandpress.org/books/keeping-wild )

Indeed, many eco-crises could grow worse even if we created a ‘low carbon economy’ unless more radical steps are taken. In fact, some allegedly low carbon fixes such as HEP, electrification of the current vehicle fleet ( an estimated 1.4 billion and fast growing) and nuclear power (yes, yet another ‘new generation’ that will overcome intractable past problems). Some promoters of gas production claim to be offering a bridge to a low carbon economy as do the BECCS brigade (Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) Then there are the snake oil sellers of a ‘hydrogen economy’ (this is a rather tired old dream: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-05-21/a-concise-history-of-the-concept-of-hydrogen-economy/ ). It might be remembered that current renewable energy devices depend on fossil fuels for their fabrication and installation, thereby bringing a carbon price tag. Indeed renewable energy production has scarcely displaced that from fossil fuels, only adding to total energy consumption.

The GAGND Declaration has, quite rightly, some harsh words for the big banks, the IMF and the World Bank. To be sure, they are literally and metaphorically banking on disaster such are the ruinous projects they underwrite. Yet, even though the financial sector may push in certain directions, it basically just oils the wheels of a total economy. It rests on primary production, manufacturing, transport and retail, all ultimately driven by consumer demand. Bashing the bankers only takes us so far. The Declaration has little to say about ‘reformist’ measures such as Cap-and-Trade such as the EU Emissions Trading System. They are essentially worthless (http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/green-color-money ). 

The Declaration focuses on the use of Special Drawing Rights to ‘level up’ poverty-stricken regions outside the rich heartlands. It does not reflect on what this might mean in terms of an overall growth in human demands on ecological systems. It says nothing about the oppression and exploitation inflicted on poor peoples by forces within their lands. It is also silent (and seems set to remain that way) about cultures in the so-called ‘South’ that brutally oppress women (FGM, child brides, etc) or eat up local wildlife (eg https://news.mongabay.com/2017/04/illegal-bushmeat-trade-threatens-human-health-and-great-apes/). Nor does there seem be much awareness of the explosive growth of the “new middle class” across Asia, Africa and Latin America( eg https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/09/27/a-global-tipping-point-half-the-world-is-now-middle-class-or-wealthier/?fbclid=IwAR0oIHq-iTyOOnauAe-XgQVgl_IkbXoDTtpPd9LkPRQmFDVSRKh_reksf_g ; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-13845032 ; https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/ar/Documents/Consumer_and_Industrial_Products/Global-Powers-of-Luxury-Goods-abril-2019.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0OwN5lj7Rrc1Vwg1fYGxqKfSFZ53PUoZw0u3ek_tXiTG9tzH4jAKnY4AU

It is not stated explicitly but there seems to be a false assumption that everything is the fault of the ‘white west’ (and probably male and stale too!).

Mind the Gap

The GAGND website ducks the really big issue. It is growth, growth in the number of people and growth in the economy. Rather than face the reality of what, in fact, is a state of comprehensive overshoot, with a corresponding need for overall degrowth, it takes refuge in bromides claiming “we can all flourish’ (how many ‘we’? what level of per capita consumption flourishes?) and vague talk of a ‘just transition’. [For the sheer scale of overshoot, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=o3nCFwhV-9E&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR1LV16ZXiXPbCzocxmM152rJN–D7ZKn4xciaUtnifc0TKRoGsnkzwxTh8 ]

With regards to human numbers, current and projected, there is total silence. Yet every increase in the total human population automatically multiplies the effects of overconsumption and ‘malign’ technologies as well as brings direct impacts of its own. Even the most frugal lifestyle requires water, foodstuffs, heating, rudimentary shelter, and basic clothing. Most people prefer more: decent housing, assorted household appliances, health and social care, education, job opportunities, transportation, leisure facilities, and more, including unquantifiable things such as privacy and a degree of choice.

[See: https://ugapress.org/book/9780820343853/life-on-the-brink/ ; https://overpopulation-project.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2010_Ryerson_TheMultiplierofEverythingElse_PostCarbonReaderSeries5221.pdf ; https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781466813762]

Not having that extra child is by far the biggest single thing a couple could do to reduce their ecological impact. It dwarfs what can be achieved by using an electric car, not flying, consuming less meat, installing LED lighting, insulating the loft, and so forth. Yet the Declaration is deafeningly silent (actually it also says nothing about meat consumption, another area where big reductions in the human impact could be quickly achieved, not least by releasing land and resources for all those species now threatened with extinction)

The Declaration condemns only “growth at any cost”. What weasel words! But any overall increase in the use of energy, raw materials and sheer physical space in the human economy will worsen global overheating, biodiversity meltdown and all the other crises we face. The Declaration prefers to deal in warm sounding desiderata. Thus, it naively talks of expanding the ‘care economy’ as if that will be cost-free in ecological terms. Yet most care requires buildings, equipment, heating, transportation and more, all of which carry ecological price tags. On the website it is hard to find any indication of an appreciation of the ‘rebound effect’ and how that might cancel out gains in, say, efficiency and better management (https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/WEB_121022_The_Rebound_Effect-_Green_Growth_Unraveled_TSantarius_V101.pdf )

It also toys with the idea of ‘open borders’ and, it would appear, some sort of right to settle (final section). Yet, if liberally applied, that would mean no nature reserves, no national parks, no green belts, no tribal reserves, no protection of flood plains from settlement, no protection of the best farmland, no restrictions on overcrowding and more: all depend on enforceable borders. Thus, Amazonia is at risk precisely because there is such easy access for settlers as well as ranchers, miners and dam builders. The amazing Galapagos Islands are indeed under assault from vast Chinese trawling fleets but the deep threat comes from inward population movement from mainland Ecuador.

Declarations are, of course, brief and unavoidably vague statements. They cannot be detailed documents by their very nature. Yet some hard questions have to be asked about what exact policies are envisaged and what they will require, both in toto and in specific fields. Will they lead to further encroachments on already hugely shrunken wildlife habitat? Will they use more steel? Will they depend on more concrete production? How many more rivers will be dammed? Will they lead to more rare earth mining? (Remember: the most polluted place on Earth, Batou in China, is the victim of mining for key ‘ingredients’ of wind turbines, smart phones etc: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth ) Will there be more mining for copper, bauxite, silicon lead, chlorine, tungsten, magnesium, mercury, and all the other minerals now so destructively gouged out of the Earth? What will be the scale of refining and the spread of toxic tailings ponds? What consumption of solvents and so forth is entailed? How about use of composite plastic fibres, Teflon, etc? How about excavation of sand? [Nb: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191108-why-the-world-is-running-out-of-sand]  How many roads, railway lines, ports, etc will have to be built? How many more pylon lines and pipelines will there be? How much more shipping (and bunker oil burning)? Will overall consumer consumption go up? What level of government subsidies will be required?

Will it mean more projects like these?

https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-solar-bird-deaths-20160831-snap-story.html ; https://grapevine.is/news/2018/09/10/silicon-folly-the-failure-of-the-latest-industrial-trend/ ; https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/ff59f49e275c42628a72ed412245450f ; http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1661031_1661028_1661020,00.html ; https://www.earthworks.org/cms/assets/uploads/archive/files/publications/FS_Problems_BinghamCanyon_2011_low.pdf ;
https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-copper-mining-atacama-desert ; https://www.indmin.com/Article/3749529/Magnesia-Features/Dust-and-ashes-A-picture-of-Liaonings-magnesia-industry.html;
https://almonty.com/construction-of-the-worlds-largest-tungsten-mine-has-begun/#GmediaGallery_35-all-0 ; https://wwf.panda.org/discover/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/amazon/amazon_threats/other_threats/amazon_mining/;
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/29/the-river-is-dying-the-vast-ecological-cost-of-brazils-mining-disasters ;
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-44100654 ; https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/13/20962317/tesla-gigafactory-deal-reno-nevada-the-city-podcast-911-calls-model-3 ;
https://www.dominionenergy.com/projects-and-facilities/hydroelectric-power-facilities-and-projects/bath-county-pumped-storage-station https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/projects/fengning-pumped-storage-power-plant/ ; https://www.store-project.eu/documents/results/en_GB/environmental-performance-of-existing-energy-storage-installations ;
https://gizmodo.com/the-switch-to-outdoor-led-lighting-has-completely-backf-1820652615

Mining tends to be the sector most ignored by ‘decarbonisers’, ‘green growthers’ and assorted shallow environmentalists. Yet it devours huge areas of the planet (https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/extracted ) while associated refining and transportation add to the burden. Renewable energy devices are intimately linked to many of the activities pictured on the links above but those connections are often ignored. There are all too real problems about suitable sites, intermittency, low power density, fossil fuel subsidy, steel and concrete consumption, hazardous chemicals and so forth as well as side effects, not least on wildlife (eg https://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-11-21/the-limits-of-renewable-energy-and-the-case-for-degrowth/ ).

Technological recycling also has real constraints (https://www.treehugger.com/why-recycling-wont-save-planet-4856965). They come courtesy of the often high energy associated with both collection of waste materials and their processing as well as the chemicals sometimes used in those processes. Often collected waste are contaminated while recycling itself sometimes has low yields or ones of poor quality. Air and water pollution seem to dog recycling plants.

There is indeed a case for some recycling but it is the last option in the ‘R’s after refusal (ie no production in the first place), reduction (lowered inputs), reuse, repurposing, repair and regionalisation. Often recycling (or, rather, pretence to recycling or even just wishful thinking that ‘x’ will be recycled) is a cover for on-going production of materials such as plastic (https://www.npr.org/2020/09/11/897692090/how-big-oil-misled-the-public-into-believing-plastic-would-be-recycled ). It must also be remembered that some claims for recycling successes (as in the case of Sweden) actually include waste incineration. Yet incinerators generate hazardous air pollution as well as significant CO2 emissions as well as create a perverse incentive to generate more and more waste to burn (https://resource.co/article/incineration-proposals-incompatible-uk-net-zero-and-recycling-targets). Meanwhile, material substitutions tend to be a game of musical chairs and cannot deal with the sheer scale and variety of coming resource peaks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdXdaIsfio8 ). No technology can substitute on any meaningful scale critical life-support services provided by the Earth’s ecosystems (https://www.routledge.com/Human-Dependence-on-Nature-How-to-Help-Solve-the-Environmental-Crisis/Washington/p/book/9780415632584 )

GAGND supporters will claim they are realistic. In fact, they seem to be suffering from what Zehner calls “green illusions” (http://www.greenillusions.org ) But, realistically, their programme will do little to halt, let alone reverse the slide to ecological ruination. Greens used to talk about speaking “truth to power”. The GAGND ducks the truth. Instead, it offers sticking plasters when we face gaping wounds. The Green Party should take a principled stand of the politics of degrowth to a steady-state economy. It is indeed a hard message to sell but it faces reality.

In terms of all the other species with whom we share our finite planet, we need to think big (eg https://www.half-earthproject.org) In terms of human society, the primary message is ‘think shrink’!