From Green New Deal to New Economy

A version of this post first appeared at The SymCenter Blog. This is part one of a two part post.

In a recent article about success in the sharing economy, Van Jones explained the degree to which sharing, crowdfunding, and other similar concepts are fundamentally transforming the economy as we know it. He turned to examples like Zipcar, Solar Mosaic, AirBnB, and Couchsurfing to show this transformation happening on the ground. For the few who don’t know, Jones founded Green For All, one of the central organizations within the growing green economy movement. His tremendously poignant article makes one wonder to what extent this sharing economy is similar to the green economy and how are we to understand their relatedness theoretically and organizationally? One could certainly say they have much in common, from the role the above-mentioned firms play in helping protect the environment by crowdfunding solar panels or reducing people’s need to own their own car. It’s one thing to see what ideas or outcomes they have in common. For the broader purposes of looking towards our collective potential to fundamentally transform the economy, it’s also important to look at how they relate to one another organizationally. This two-part series attempts to do just that. The first part looks at the green economy movement theoretically and organizationally, while the second part looks at the sharing economy, solidarity economy, and new economy to make the case for a New Economy Coalition acting to unite them all.

Even though the green economy has been growing in the U.S. for decades, its birth into mainstream social consciousness very much began with the push for a Green New Deal as an immediate solution to a collapsing economy in late 2008. We saw the potential for job creation through public investment with the Green Jobs Act prior to the collapse and the subsequent American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (1)  The hope behind the push for a Green New Deal is based upon FDR’s New Deal legislation in the 1930s and the works of economist John Maynard Keynes. The focus is a massive reinvestment by the government into the economy. With a Green New Deal that investment would be focused on renewable energy, energy efficiency, public transportation, improvements to the electrical grid, and other carbon-reducing strategies for job creation.

The Great Recession was caused by a combination of two major factors, with the center of it being the overall failure of the decades long strategy of neoliberalism. More specifically, the collapse of the economy was caused by a long process of what French economists Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy call, “the quest for high income, financialization, and globalization.” This quest refers to the efforts of the 1% to increase incomes via profits, capital gains, bonuses, stock options, and wages, while using that vast wealth to push for the deregulation (especially of the financial sector) and the expansion of increasingly unwieldy financial instruments. This growing and already colossal financial sector also became an increasingly global movement to expand the so-called “free market,” to deregulate the global economy under the guise of globalization.

The second major factor in their analysis of the cause of The Great Recession is “the macro trajectory of the U.S. Economy.” In this factor they identified three main aspects: the “low and declining [capital] accumulation rates, the trade deficit, and the growing dependency on financing from the rest of the world and domestic indebtedness.” This neoliberal strategy failed to correct a decades long trend of declining capital accumulation rates by corporations. The movement of corporations abroad greatly worsened the trade deficit and, when coupled with the concerted effort of the 1% to enhance their wealth at the expense of the other 99%, forced the vast majority into substantial debt. This unsustainable situation triggered a collapse in the housing market, causing the rapid decline of the entire economy in its wake. It is, in turn, this overall failure of the neoliberal strategy that’s beginning to lead to something transformative, new, and green. (1)  It began with a push for a Green New Deal and is now finding its home within diverse movements under different labels including green economy, sharing economy, solidarity economy, new economy, and others.

Keynes believed that in instances of economic crisis significant governmental or public investment was required in order to jumpstart the economy. By investing a considerable amount of money into the economy, he believed the government could offset the overall decline in demand. In doing so, the government could thereby create jobs, rebuild the tax base, and make its investment back without increasing the long-term deficit. The idea behind the Green New Deal has been simple: instead of a New Deal like with FDR back in the 1930s, this would invest in renewable energy, public transportation, energy efficiency, improvements to the electricity grid, etc. This is what makes it a Green New Deal. Unfortunately, even with the funding through ARRA and smaller governmental stimulus measures, the amount of funding has thus fallen far short of levels necessary to jumpstart the economy. (2) On top of that, the lack of adequate funding leaves us far behind on global targets to cap atmospheric carbon levels as well. (3)

Still, Green New Deal policies are a massive shift from the neoliberal orthodoxy of the last few decades. Just like the Republican Party’s almost unanimous support for destructive trade agreements, most Republicans oppose Green New Deal types of policies as well. It doesn’t matter that their opposition is based on flawed or even outright fabricated ‘analyses.’ Their opposition is based on the interests of who pays for their political campaigns. The oil and gas industry alone spent almost $64 Million in the 2012 election cycle, 90% of which went to members of the Republican Party.  Meanwhile, clean energy and low-carbon companies are growing and building a political force of their own. This is growing and will, over time, provide a counterforce to the oil and gas industry and their stranglehold on Capitol Hill. The American Council on Renewable Energy represents many of those clean energy companies and their trade associations. Similarly, the push for an energy efficient economy is finding a new political voice in the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. In many ways the green economy movement is at the forefront of the push to fundamentally transform the economy with other similar movements trailing close behind.

What’s perhaps the most exciting and promising aspect of the movement for a green economy and a Green New Deal is that it’s bringing together a host of different organizations representing communities and constituencies that haven’t often come together over the years. The movement for a green economy and a Green New Deal came to prominence in 2009-2010, as so-called Cap & Trade policies and others were on the verge of passage. The Alliance for Climate Protection, a non-profit organization with Al Gore as its board chair, was leading the charge by acting as a coordinating entity of sorts with numerous member organizations helping provide a degree of direction to the movement in general. Now called The Climate Reality Project, its focus has shifted more towards general public education around climate change. This is likely a result of the inability to pass comprehensive climate change legislation during President Obama’s first term and the drastic decline in public belief around the role of human activity in causing climate change. It seems few expected such a drastic assault by the extreme right in spreading disinformation like the manufactured “Climate Gate” scandal.

Labor unions, manufacturers, and environmental organizations are coming together through organizations like the Apollo Alliance and the Blue-Green Alliance (recently merged). They are made up of both public and private labor unions like the United Steelworkers Union, environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, and even manufacturers of all sizes. Small and medium-sized businesses are part of this movement through the Advanced Energy Economy. Local chambers of commerce have even joined the fight through Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy. Ceres is bringing together a wide variety of companies and investors small and large to address climate change and build a green economy. Broad umbrella organizations have emerged representing all types of community-based local organizations. 1Sky is the biggest of these organizations and recently merged with 350.org under the 350.org name to create a large advocacy organization made up of hundreds of thousands of members in the U.S. and a still larger global movement. It tackles many of the traditional environmental issues, while also advocating for Green New Deal policies. The Green Economy Coalition recently emerged as a global network to strategically support the expansion of the green economy at a global level in advance of the UN’s Summit on the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit this past June of 2012.

Low-income communities and communities of color are part in this movement too. Green For All has been pioneering the creation of green jobs, career-track jobs that pay a living wage, have benefits, and address environmental issues at the same time. They lobby Congress on environmental and Green New Deal policies, develop innovative policy research, while assisting coalitions of organizations in cities to implement green job creation strategies and helping green businesses grow. Providing empowering opportunities for traditionally marginalized communities is a vital aspect of this growing movement, which is why Green For All and others similarly working to create and expand opportunities low-income communities, communities of color, and others who have traditionally been passed by when economic opportunities arise.

There are other organizations and efforts within this larger movement for a Green New Deal. The Smart Growth Alliance is pioneering a new national opposition to sprawl and support for public transportation at the same time. There are even signs that working to rebuild our urban cores around public transportation and the remediation of brownfields can be done in ways that empower traditionally marginalized communities. (4) Numerous other organizations are starting sustainability initiatives aimed at involving themselves in one way or another in this movement for a green economy and a Green New Deal. ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability, is a network of local governments from around the world focused on the best ways for governments to leverage their resources to best build the green economy. 

Outside of the public policy arena, organizations and institutions all across the country are launching sustainability initiatives as part of a truly massive movement. Colleges and universities and joining this movement through the American Association for Sustainability in Higher Education. Countless think tanks have emerged to focus on renewable energy and clean tech to workforce development, bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based chemicals, and much more.

This movement isn’t the only game in town when it comes to transforming the economy. Alongside the push for a green economy are a few other movements with the goal of fundamentally transforming the economy in one way or another. The green economy movement is much more expansive though, but aside from the work of groups like Green For All, it’s very much a “double bottom line movement.” Unlike traditional economic approaches that stand firmly on the belief that profit should be pursued above all else, that considerations of externalities like the environment only hinder profitability, the green economy movement is based on the belief that profitability and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand. As will be discussed in a subsequent article, the sharing economy, solidarity economy, and new economy take the goals of the green economy one step further, emphasizing a “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profits. Just like the recognition that environmental sustainability and profit aren’t mutual exclusive, these other movements stress that the well being of communities can go hand in hand with environmental sustainability and the well being of the economy overall.

When the green economy movement first came on the scene with the ascendency of Van Jones to become President Obama’s green jobs advisor, some claimed it was part of a Communist conspiracy. Despite the irrational rantings of Glenn Beck and others, there is a strong push within this movement to more fundamentally transform the economic system as a whole. It just doesn’t have anything to do with traditional or “actually-existing” forms of Communism.

Given the frightening reality of climate change, the manipulative push-back from powerful corporate interests, and the longer-term economic stagnation that stands before us, it is likely that the green economy movement will increasingly take on the task of a more fundamental and structural transformation of the economy. The structural imbalances of power continue to thwart attempts to transform the economy on Capitol Hill. Examples like the Citizens United decision and the corporate assault on our democracy will likely force the green economy movement to fight for a more fundamental transformation of the dominant values and institutions in the U.S. This includes the nature and structure of major corporations as well as the nature of the political system overall. This is why an increasing unity between the green economy movement and other efforts to transform the economy are so important. The broader triple bottom line framework and transformational focus of efforts around sharing, solidarity, and a new economy must increasingly creep into the green economy movement; finding greater ideological and organizational unity.

We can already see the rise of a considerable mistrust of the entire notion of a green economy, evidenced by terms like ‘green washing’ and the decline in belief regarding climate change. A poignant example of this mistrust can be found with criticisms of the recent “Rio +20 Summit.” The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was meant to produce a renewed transformational focus on revamping the global economy for the planet and its poor. It showed little signs of achievement though. What’s more, this mistrust was codified into an alternative summit hosted as the “People’s Summit Rio+20.” It concluded that the green economy movement was fundamentally broken. As noted in one of their concluding documents, only by redirecting efforts towards the original goals of an Earth Summit, transforming the global economy into something that benefits the planet and its poorest, could the green economy find salvation.

From the perspective of the planet’s poorest and the organizations working with them, the green economy doesn’t represent opportunity. It represents a friendlier face of a global capitalist economy that has exploited them and their natural resources for decades. And just as the Alliance for Climate Protection became The Climate Reality Project in the face of public mistrust and disbelief in the realities of climate change, if the green economy movement wishes to win the hearts and minds of the American people, it has to not just educate but to create tangible and immediate solutions for individuals and communities struggling in the wake of our broken economy. This is why the other diverse movements to transform the economy have such a vital role to play. Each of them provide unique lessons for creating solutions today.

The green economy has been growing in the U.S. for decades, but if its going to go to the next level to transform the overall economy during these delicate beginning years of the 21st Century, it needs a mass movement behind it. The only way that’s possible, the only way the movement for a green economy becomes an impassioned charge from communities all across the country, the world for that matter, is for it to place the well being of those same communities into the forefront of it’s goals. When the movement to build a green economy transforms itself from a double bottom line to a triple bottom line movement, finding ways equitably support and interact with even the most marginalized communities, it’s firmly on the path to victory.

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(1) Gerard Dumineil & Dominique Levy, The Crisis of Neoliberalism, (MA, Harvard University Press, 2011), P. 35-40.

(2) For a detailed description for how a Green New Deal could lead to substantial economic development, see Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth, (DC: EarthScan, 2009). P. 113.

(3) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN).” Abu Dhabi, May 9th, 2011.

(4) Carlton C. Eley. “Equitable Development: Untangling the Web of Urban Development through Collaborative Problem Solving.” Sustain: A Journal of Environmental and Sustainability Issues. Issue 21, Fall/Winter 2010.

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