The Green New Deal manifestos in the US and UK are among the most progressive proposals coming out of the industrialised world, but they remain flawed from the perspective of the colonised Global South, and fall short of the fundamental systemic shifts we need to save life on earth.
The year 2019 and the first few months of 2020 have brought linked ecological crises to everyone’s attention, to an extent that hasn’t been seen before. Even before COVID-19 hit, there were many catching global attention. Wildfires raging in the Brazilian Amazon unheard of summer temperatures in Antarctica, unprecedented floods in the American Midwest, Europe’s prolonged summer heatwaves, and the countless deaths of animals lost to Australia’s enormous bushfires: these and others have been headlining across the world.
At the same time, a spate of conflict flashpoints, violent coups, and increasingly visible evidence of utterly shameful inequalities in wealth have resulted in equally unprecedented demands for social change coming from Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere around Latin America, but also India, France, Lebanon, Haiti, Algeria, Sudan, and others. Across Europe and North America, youth movements have been amassing on the streets every Friday demanding climate justice and a future worth living in. India witnessed a general worker strike of 250 million on January 8th of this year, making it the biggest strike in world history. And now, the world is grappling with a scale of activity paralysis on a scale never seen before, due to a microscopic virus.
While the causes of these social and ecological crises are variegated and have emerged from context-specific geographies, there is a striking commonality to progressive responses to them: calls for autonomy from oppressive states and a growing resistance to profit- and-power hungry global elites constantly pushing people and nature beyond the point of tolerance. But the corresponding state response has been quite different, from crackdowns on and vilification of movements by right-wing parties and governments, to appreciative nods and a semblance of positive policy moves by a few left-wing or welfarist regimes. Only a few mainstream politicians have dared to say anything fundamentally different.
Amongst the most radical of these is the ‘Green New Deal’ manifesto of once US Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and parallel statements and manifestos by former UK Prime Ministerial candidate Jeremy Corbyn. The Green New Deal (GND), in its different variants, proposes an alternative to the social and ecological destruction of the mainstream development model and to some of its key architects such as the fossil fuel industry. They especially target the devastations being wrought, with much worse to come, by the climate crisis. Yet, a GND to transform economies in overly-developed regions of the world has implications for those lives, livelihoods, and natures in the so-called “developing” world.
In this piece, we examine the extent to which the GND, in its US and UK variants, works to address systemic forces that perpetuate inequality and ecological degradation in the Global South and in marginalised sections of society across the world that have, since colonial times, served as sacrifice zones for extraction and waste. Key to responding to this question is to examine what GND policies would imply for places like India and other regions of the Global South, that continue to shoulder the costs and prop-up “progress” for privileged urban populations in the West and increasingly for the upper middle-class in southern cities as well.
The Green New Deal as “cost-shifting” of capital?
The Torrent Power thermal power station in Sabarmati, Ahmedabad is one of the oldest coal-fired electricity generation plants in India. Ahmedabad, like many other Indian cities, has some of the world’s worst air pollution levels. The air in Delhi has been likened by Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as a “gas chamber” where simply breathing is akin to smoking upwards of 50 cigarettes a day. A transition to cleaner, renewable energy is needed more than ever not only to combat the daily plight of billions in rapidly “developing” countries dealing with intolerable pollution and massive displacement and dispossession for mining, power stations or transmission lines, but also in the global fight to reverse the tide on climate change.
Yet in a world embedded in global capitalism and statism (building on masculinity, racism, and casteism), “finance-rich, resource-poor” countries are increasingly looking to “resource rich” countries and regions in the Global South to secure both their food and energy needs. While traditional players (such as North America and Europe) that have been on the “frontier” of imperialist pursuits are still in the game, new players like India and China also want a piece of the pie. Indeed, the very notion of “national development” is becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era where state-backed transnational corporations have been active in dispossessing people of their lands and their food and cultural sovereignty domestically, regionally, and globally.
India, for example, is active both internally in ‘land grabbing’ strategies for biofuel, industrial development, business parks, and transport infrastructure, as also abroad in fueling the investment boom in mineral deposits or agro-industrial projects. Examples of the latter include Indian companies (backed by its government) involved in “green energy” production in Chile’s Atacama Desert under the aegis of so-called “sustainable development” in the mining sector, and in grabbing enormous amounts of farm and pastureland in Ethiopia, ostensibly to help the local economy.
Without paying attention to the broader political economy of globalized economic production that transcends national borders, a GND in Europe, US, Canada, or India will be mere window dressing to conceal an underlying imperialist quest for cheap nature and cheap labour to satisfy the (increasingly “eco-friendly”) demands of the wealthiest people. In other words, a GND must overhaul the “cost-shifting” culture that globalised development requires; this is very different than merely transitioning to a more efficient “green” energy economy.
In India, where solar energy generation has become the cheapest in the world, the transition to renewable energy generation could not be more of a blessing. But while decentralizing energy production to ensure clean energy sovereignty at the panchayat or urban municipal level is one ray of hope, transitioning entire coal-based mega-cities to maintain and enhance commerce and production through industrial renewable energy generation is an entirely different matter.
The move towards more efficient transport infrastructure like electric vehicles, and the proliferating digitization and use of wifi-enabled devices across all sectors of Indian society and the economy has offered opportunities to leapfrog away from dirty oil and gas industries. At the same time, it has spurred the quest to acquire land and mineral raw material domestically and abroad to secure such production. India’s plan to transition all vehicles to electric power in a decade will require an extraction-oriented race “on a war footing” with China to acquire critical lithium and cobalt reserves in places like the Congo and Bolivia and Chile.
Lithium-ion batteries, cobalt, neodymium, silicon, and coltan are crucial for electric vehicle car-batteries, computers, and mobile devices. Increasing demand for these products from the world’s largest companies, including Google, Apple, and Microsoft, has resulted in some of the world’s most deplorable working conditions, in which pregnant women are often powerless to prevent themselves and their children from also working in the mines. It has also directly perpetuated one of Africa’s longest running armed conflicts.
Harm reduction in India in its move away from polluting coal and unbreathable air towards a hi-tech society, fueled by renewable energy, means harm creation in the Congo where lives deemed less valuable are made to shoulder the cost. It also means harm creation domestically, in the grasslands of Kachchh and Andhra Pradesh, the coasts of southern India, and the desert of Rajasthan, where wildlife, farmers and pastoralists face ever-increasing takeover of the territories they depend on.
Racial capitalism, (eco)fascism, and the Green New Deal
This “no harm here is harm there” narrative reflects all the trappings of a global class war, with divisions taking place along racialized, class and gendered lines. Meanwhile, tightening border imperialism, justified along ethno-nationalist and xenophobic lines, is ensuring that the divisions of labour remain confined to very specific working conditions that increase the precarity of migrants’ lives.
The pursuit of global capital to “get something” and not pay for any of the costs has increasingly taken on a far-right, fascist turn. The passing of the National Registry of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 in India, rooted in shoring up a Hindu supremacist vision of development, while castigating any dissent against this vision as “anti-national” is a case in point. That India, under Narendra Modi, is also muscling up to the resource imperialist requirements of global capital allows it the space to not only extract resources and labour from people and planet, but also close its eyes and victimize anyone suffering from its consequences. This is no different from the US under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Turkey under Erdogan, the Philippines under Duterte, Russia under Putin, or some European Union member states under increasingly far-right party platforms.
To the extent that a GND does not fundamentally reverse these patterns, it is highly unlikely that the kinds of transformational social changes that it seeks will be attained. Abundant social services and the replenishment of the commons, in say the EU, cannot take place by cost-shifting the heavy burdens of material and energy requirements for such a transition to places like the Congo. Entrenched hierarchies of racial and patriarchal capitalism, stemming from slavery (of ‘coloured’ peoples and women) and the amassing of wealth by colonial oppressors, have shaped both historical and contemporary global development and consumption patterns. They have allowed for countries like India and China to shoulder the manufacturing requirements for consumption in the EU, US, Canada, and Australia, while simultaneously preying upon countries and communities in the Global South and their own marginalised ecosystems and peoples for raw material assets for their own development.
These racialized patterns of resource imperialism have ranged from overt military interventions, to debt-driven cycles of structural adjustment policies, to disciplining national economies into accepting the terms and conditions of unrestrained capital flow and demeaning labour conditions. It is a mode of development structurally founded on dehumanization; indeed, without this, it would not be able to proceed. It has imposed patterns of consumption predicated on hiding from view the socially and environmentally destructive character of production and distribution which lies behind consumer items.
Ecological destruction is either entirely ignored in most cases, or at best, is treated by states and corporations as a pesky nuisance that must be technically, managerially, or financially solved so that it stops interfering with the power of corporations and states and their development models. Indeed, ecological destruction is even being leveraged to further entrench capitalist power.
Some have raised the warning call that a GND that treats climate change as a “threat” to security is itself an irresponsible acknowledgement that the status quo (presumably without climate change) is somehow ‘secure.” For the billions of black and brown bodies that serve as the crude raw materials for production, whose minority religious or cultural beliefs are being instrumentalized and scapegoated upon to reinforce cultural hegemonies in their various religious or race supremacist variants, for the billions of women whose regenerative and affective labour both at home and in the workplace goes unrecognized, for those Indigenous populations whose worldviews have been systematically destroyed, and for the millions of non-human species being pushed over the edge of extinction, the status quo was and is increasingly anything but secure.
A GND that frames ecological crises as a global threat without pointing to the political economy of the crises, has disturbingly Malthusian implications that must be reckoned with. In the 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” author and environmentalist Paul Ehrlich described a New Delhi slum from his taxi window as: a “hellish mob,” describing his fear of being unable to eventually return to his hotel and his recognition of “emotionally” experiencing what he called “over-population.”
This perception is rooted in the fear that more bodies seeking a “good life” would not be sustainable for those who already hold such privileges. The imagery around “threat” erases colonial and imperial histories of Euro-American (or Hindu Brahminical for an Indian analogue) domination. The richest 10% of the population are responsible for 50% of global emissions for example. In India the richest person consumes 17 times the poorest. A blanket statement that climate change is a “threat,” without an obligatory attachment to global inequality in consumption could therefore be readily construed as ecofascist.
A call for alternatives to development for a plural, just world
A GND has the potential to be a powerful challenge to significant aspects of the status quo. However, if it is not continuously led by grassroots movements and struggles for political change, it will remain insufficient, eventually unable to stave off global ecological and social collapse. Unless it is contained within more comprehensive approaches to systemic transformation, which recognize power relations that underlie dominant development models, including capital accumulation, centralized state control, masculinity, racism, casteism, and anthropocentricism, a GND will not bring the lasting peace, justice, and ecological resilience that societies around the world seek.
But since the project of development is so deeply entrenched in all of these, including in colonial and imperial history, we have to search for alternatives to development, rather than just an alternative development. This quest leads us inevitably to the realisation that there is no one way, no single mainstream, but rather a multiplicity of visions and paths: a “pluriverse.” This does not mean that anything and everything fits; approaches that undermine the possibilities of others flourishing could not be part of such a pluriverse.
The book Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, a recent compilation of over 100 essays, brings together examples of thousands of initiatives that are meeting human needs and aspirations without trashing the earth, and minimizing state and neoliberal oppression and social and ecological injustices. These practical examples include: agroecology, commons, slow food, community conservation, alternative currencies, and transition movements; worldviews and approaches building on indigenous, spiritual and other traditions such as swaraj, hurai, tao and kyosei (from Asia), buen vivir (and its many parallels across Latin America), ubuntu (and its parallels across Africa), caring for country (from Australia), minobimaatisiiwin (and other native North American cosmologies); radical reinterpretations of mainstream religions; and ideological as well as other approaches from within industrialised or modern societies (such as degrowth, ecosocialism, ecofeminism, alter-globalisation, free software, and decolonial design).
While enormously different from each other, such radical approaches do show some common values and principles: commons and collectives over selfish individualism (but not denying individual identities and aspirations), autonomy and freedom with responsibility, respect for the rights of humans and non-human nature, self-reliance and localisation, simplicity or notions of ‘enoughness’ and sufficiency, direct democracy enabling equitable participation of all, among others.
A GND that challenges status quo development approaches requires transformation in at least five spheres of life:
Ecological wisdom, integrity and resilience: maintaining the eco-regenerative processes that conserve ecosystems, species, functions, cycles; respect for ecological limits at various levels, local to global; and the infusion of ecological wisdom and ethics in all human endeavour.
Social well-being and justice, including lives that are fulfilling and satisfactory physically, socially, culturally, and spiritually; where there is equity between communities and individuals in socio-economic and political entitlements, benefits, rights and responsibilities; where there is communal and ethnic harmony; where hierarchies and divisions based on faith, gender, caste, class, ethnicity, ability, and other attributes are replaced by non-exploitative, non-oppressive, non-hierarchical, and non-discriminatory relations; and where collective and individual human rights are ensured.
Direct and delegated democracy, where decision-making starts at the smallest unit of human settlement, in which every human has the right, capacity and opportunity to take part, and builds up from this unit to larger levels of governance by delegates that are downwardly accountable to the units of direct democracy; and where decision-making is not simply on a ‘one-person one-vote’ basis but rather consensual, while being respectful and supportive of the needs and rights of those currently marginalised.
Economic democracy, in which local communities and individuals (including producers and consumers, wherever possible combined into one as ‘prosumers’) have control over the means of production, distribution, exchange, markets; where localization is a key principle, and larger trade and exchange is built on it on the principle of equal exchange; where private property gives way to the commons, removing the distinction between owner and worker.
Cultural diversity and knowledge democracy, in which pluralism of ways of living, ideas and ideologies is respected, where creativity and innovation are encouraged, where the generation, transmission and use of knowledge (traditional/modern, including science and technology) are accessible to all, and where spiritual and/or ethical learning and deepening are central to social life.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic offers a potential to actualize such transformation. The unprecedented lockdowns with the global economy screeching to a halt, has put enormous pressure on hundreds of millions of workers who must continue providing “essential” services often at low wages while obliged to put their health on the line in the process, or who have lost their daily wage and informal sector jobs. While it remains to be seen whether a post-pandemic society can begin prioritizing these transformations, the promise of governments and multinational corporations to “return to normal” as soon as possible threaten to plunge people and nature into an austerity of economic structural adjustments never-before experienced. This dangerous scenario must be resisted at all costs.
At the same time, the war rhetoric being used against the virus as “humanity’s common enemy” and to ensure a quick return to the deadening processes of financial speculation and “business-as-usual” growth forecasts once again directly implies a full-frontal attack on nature. This comes at a time when re-establishing relationships with the living and non-living world has never been more crucial.
A GND in a post-pandemic recovery situation has unexpectedly drawn an even closer resemblance to the post-1930s original New Deal. However, a “green” deal this time around can only be ecologically-centred and relevant to the urgencies of combined social and ecological crises if grassroots organizations of mutual aid and social movements are both the means and the ends by which a GND emerges in practice.
A GND must be fundamentally about changing how humans treat each other along racialized, classed, gendered, and casteist lines, but also in terms of our relationships to the temporal and spatial connectivity of the living and non-living world. The proximity, indeed inseparability, of humans and nature is something the novel coronavirus is here to remind us. It is the hyper-connectivity of global capitalism that compresses space and time to exacerbate the voracity by which pandemics spread, but also heightens the inequalities of who lives and who dies as a result of them.
Yet, this proximity is anathema for status quo development logics in which control over other humans, over nature, over the spatial and temporal rhythms of the living world is the raison d’être of what progress means. COVID-19 emerged to blow this perspective out of the water, and every and any attempt will be made to expunge this episode from our collective minds to once again swallow the myth of a future that is “always-getting better” by increasingly attempting to separate humans from nature.
We must not let that narrative be the take-away message of this health crisis. Rather, we must build on this moment in time: the crisis has also led to numerous initiatives at creating solidarity networks to help those most affected even in highly individualised societies, engendered a new search for ethical and spiritual reconnection with the earth, and created new legitimacy for radical alternative initiatives of open localisation, self-reliance, and autonomy. These can be the basis for new, pluriversal pathways to a just, equitable, sustainable world. They also should be the basis for what a GND should resemble going forward.
Vijay Kolinjivadi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp in Belgium.
Ashish Kothari is based in India. He is associated with Kalpavriksh, Vikalp Sangam, and Global Tapestry of Alternatives.
A longer version of this post was published in Jamhoor.