Frontline Index





The Illusion of the Green New Deal

Liam Young follows up his recent article looking at the environmental crisis facing the planet with an investigation of two rival solutions, capitalisms so-called Green New Deal and radical approaches being taken in Latin America.

A recent poll taken by the Guardian found that almost nine out of ten climate change scientists do not believe that political efforts to restrict global warming to 2oc above pre-industrial levels will be successful. The poll was taken as scientists gathered in Copenhagen to discuss the forthcoming UN conference on climate change to be held in December. It also found that over sixty percent still think it is possible but not under the current political arrangements. It is instead more likely that temperatures will rise on average between 4-5oc by the end of the century. The effect that this would have on the material basis of life would be catastrophic, creating food and water shortages, causing the death of thousands of species of plants and animals and leading to massive sea level rises that would flood the homes of hundreds of millions of people.

This gloomy mood of the scientific community that the poll illustrates is indicative of a period which is potentially one of the most dangerous in the history of the human race. The capitalist system now faces its greatest challenges in the current economic crisis coupled with the fact that ‘business as usual’ will mean that in a matter of a few generations the damage done to the ecosphere by human activity could cause irreversible climate change. It is the fear and insecurity that these economic and ecological crises are causing, that the ruling elites are now attempting to exploit in order to convince us that capitalism the market and technology offers the only way in which to transform the situation.

Green New Deal

It is therefore imperative that those seeking a better world do not fall prey to the pessimism the apparent absence of a viable alternative can foster, this will only cause us to concede ground to the forces in society that uphold the current economic system which has caused the problem in the first place. There is a need to familiarize ourselves with the so-called solutions to the ecological crisis being proposed by those who would promote the idea that the only ‘realistic’ way out of the crisis is through capitalism. We also have to seek out concrete examples that begin to raise the notion that an alternative is possible and can act as a pole of attraction to those that want to construct a positive solution to our current difficulties.

Over the last year almost every world leader has talked about the need to develop a ‘Green New Deal’ that can solve the duel problems of global economic recession and at the same time transform the environment and so save the planet. Last October the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) launched the Green Economy initiative aimed at ‘seizing an historic opportunity to bring about tomorrow’s economy today.’ The initiative hopes to deliver within 18 to 24 months to governments a ‘comprehensive assessment and tool kit for making the necessary transition.’ It details sectors most likely to ‘generate the biggest transition in terms of economic returns; environmental sustainability and job creation’ such as ‘clean energy and clean technologies’, ‘Ecosystem Infrastructure’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’. What is most alarming about this paper is how the ecological crisis facing the planet is viewed as an opportunity to make profit and maximize ‘economic returns’.

The framework being offered up is from the beginning reliant on the free market, and therefore fails to address the underlying causes of the environmental degradation being wrought on the planet. In order to avoid a challenge to the current system of accumulation there is a need to downplay the depth of transformation that is required to secure long term species survival. The prevalent approach to the environmental crisis is to break it down into different parts and so hide the systemic nature of the problem. This approach conveniently ignores the glaring contradiction that infinite growth within a finite eco-system is simply unsustainable. Thus green capitalists at all costs avoid admitting that economic growth is the problem and instead attempt to convince us that it holds the solution. As Marxist Victor Wallis states “The ‘good’ from this perspective, is a scenario of jobs, material abundance, and energy independence understood, however, within a characteristically capitalist competitive framework. While the need to cut greenhouse gases is recognized, the challenge is posed in narrowly technological terms. Attempts to resist consumerism are belittled, on the assumption that innovations, along with massive public investment, will solve any problem of scarcity.”

Hence we are presented with a host of technological solutions designed to combat rising CO2 emissions and deter global warming but without challenging the overall morality of the system. The environmental crisis is portrayed as a mere technical problem that can be resolved without any major disruption to business as usual, all that is needed is a little inventiveness, some technological adjustments and the market will take care of the rest. The green economists tell us that this is the way to a dematerialised economy which will reduce the demands it places on the planets resources, meet our environmental challenges and open up new opportunities to accumulate wealth.

Historically these proposed technical solutions tend to avoid dealing with the root cause of the problem and usually have unforeseen consequences. Rather than accepting that the biosphere has finite limits and working within them to obtain what humankind requires from nature, capital treats these barriers as something to be overcome. Thus we are presented with short-term solutions that move problems around rather than resolving them, as one environmental crisis is ‘solved’ by adjusting the way in which something is produced, a different problem is created. Such as when plastic replaced wood in the production of many consumer goods, the problems associated with obtaining wood were replaced with another set of difficulties brought on by the production and disposal of plastic.

The Car

The challenge that CO2 emissions presents to humanity can only be resolved by reducing energy use and challenging the concept of mass consumption of the motorcar. This of course would have a negative effect on the main consumer product around which capital accumulates wealth and is therefore unacceptable to the system as a solution. The problem instead is to be dealt with by switching to another fuel source, namely bio-fuels. Although bio-fuels may be cleaner in the aspect that they emit less greenhouse gases there are other problems that must be addressed from an ecological standpoint. For instance the amount of agricultural land that is required to grow the crops from which these fuels are to be produced will lead to soil degradation, an increase in food prices, air and water pollution, as well as the loss in bio diversity that agribusiness practices cause no matter the product. Therefore under capitalism the apparent solution to one problem simply creates another further down the line.

This approach to the environment springs from the notion, that nature is somehow separate from humankind, and has no use value other than that which the market dictates for it. It is this unshakable faith in the market that leads green capitalists to argue that regardless if something is natural or manmade, scarcity will ensure its price will rise thereby causing a fall in demand. Demand in this case of course being defined as the ability to pay. A major problem arises however when the good in question is essential for human survival such as clean air, drinkable water, cultivable soil to produce healthy food or the ozone layer. Despite this the World Bank is to set up market mechanisms in an attempt to protect “nature” such as the Clean Development Mechanism. Under CDM major polluters in the advanced capitalist countries can avoid reducing emissions in their own countries by investing in green projects elsewhere.

The CDM is put forward as a way of preserving “natural capital” such as rainforests and wetlands. The reality of this however is to encourage the enclosure and privatization of forests leading to the expulsion of many indigenous and other poor people who inhabit and depend on the forests for a living. This then allows corrupt governments and forestry companies to sell permits to polluters in exchange for a promise not to cut down trees. Many activists in poorer countries are campaigning against such practices as they claim the CDM projects are appropriating land, water and air that is already supporting the lives and livelihoods of local communities.


As the realization of the potential environmental catastrophe facing us becomes clearer the forces within society fighting for solutions are growing. The climate change demonstration in Glasgow last November was certainly the largest since the event started several years ago and for the first time had a substantial socialist presence. It is the development of these trends that is forcing capitalism to make “ecologically friendly” adjustments and the increase in green rhetoric from world leaders cannot be disconnected from the growth in public awareness and movements related to the environment. As this current has become stronger green economists have tapped into the call for renewable energies but see these merely as a way of sustaining an economy geared to the production of consumer goods and the creation of profit.

It is in this lack of recognition as to the complexity of the environmental crisis and the failure to take account of the demands that continual expansion of the economy places on the resources of the planet, which ensures any solutions offered by capital will be ineffectual in dealing with the long term problems we face. The expansion of airports continues unabated, the destruction of green spaces, the destruction of natural habitats, the proliferation of chemicals and toxins associated with hi tech consumer goods, the dumping of poisonous waste onto so called less developed countries. In short the everyday effects of a system that Paul Sweezy described as “a juggernaut driven by the concentrated energy of individuals and small groups single-mindedly pursuing their own interests, checked only by their mutual competition, and controlled in the short run by the impersonal forces of the market and in the longer run, when the market fails, by devastating crisis.”

As Scientist Barry Commoner outlines, the basic laws of nature are directly in opposition to those of our economic system. The material reality of ecology is that “everything is connected to everything else” and this interdependence has developed over millions of years. Capitalism operates on the principal that the only connection between things is the cash nexus and reduces nature including human beings to their exchange value. Another law of nature is “everything must go somewhere” this basically illustrates how nature is a cyclical system where the waste produced in one eco-system is recycled in another. Compare this to the linear production system that exists under the current mode of production where valuable natural resources are used to produce useless commodities and then dumped into nature’s sinks. Commoner writes “goods converted, linearly, into waste; crops into sewage; uranium into radioactive residues; petroleum and chlorine into dioxin; fossil fuels into carbon dioxide… The end of the line is always waste.”

It is in challenging this system that demands uninterrupted economic growth, we have to call the current consumption levels that are encouraged under capitalism into question. As Victor Wallace points out “Much of the appeal of “green capitalism” would vanish if people could focus on how much of its ever-expanding production went into goods and services that are useless if not destructive. Capital seeks always to produce and sell as much as possible. Ecology posits the need for massive cutbacks in throughput, but the market offers no opportunity to target such cutbacks on the basis of any rational assessment of need. Instead, it constantly drives business to create new needs in order to maintain a perpetual cycle of innovation, obsolescence, and upgrading.”


There are pockets of resistance developing around the globe that can be pointed out as inspiration in our attempt to create an alternative vision of society. Most of these are rooted in the politics of the left and have developed in opposition to the overarching morality of Capitalism and imperialism, examples where sustainable human development is leading the way in resolving the problem of how humanity obtains what it needs from the planet without undermining its environment.

The first such case suggests that even under capitalism isolated illustrations of what is possible can develop. The Brazilian city of Curitiba is home to over a million and a half people due to its population tripling in the last 25 years with the influx of displaced peasants. It is poor with the average annual income per head of capita being $2500. It has no beach, no great rivers and nothing special in terms of culture and yet over 99 percent of its residents stated in a poll that they were happy with the city with 70 percent of Sao Paulo residents stating they would be better off living in Curitiba. What differentiates Curitiba from most other cities in the World is that its planning strategy is geared to the needs of human development. This has led over the last three decades to the development of an ecological, people centred city.

The problems of most other South American cities are present in Curitiba with the huge slums filled with urban poor. But the urban poor of Curitiba are given food and free bus tickets in exchange for recycling their garbage and have access to social programs and health services. The city recycles 70 percent of its garbage and has a public transport system the envy of any city in the world and the uniformed fare makes it accessible to the poor. The city has 200 km of bike paths, over 20% parkland which means 52 square meters of green space per person. The residents of Curitiba use 25 percent less fuel than the national average making Curitiba one of Brazil’s cleanest cities.

The direction the city took, was spurned from opposition to development plans to widen the city centre roads in order to increase car capacity. The resistance to the plans was strongest in the architecture and planning dept of the federal university, where one of the leaders of the direct action campaign emerged to become mayor of the city at the age of 33. This is no socialist transformation but Curitiba does stand, as is an illustration of what is possible when the interests of business are subjugated to the interests of human beings.


On a national scale, Cuba a poor third world country has managed to combine ecological sustainability with equity, and also prioritize the health of its people. The achievements of Cuba include ecological and organic agriculture, health levels comparable with most advanced nations, environmental education, occupational health, urban planning and economic development compatible with environmental protection. The explanation for this as ecologist Richard Levins suggests are rooted in the goals that the Cuban revolution set for itself “Thus Cuban science made possible the effective commitment to an ecological pathway of development by being publicly owned, planned, collaborative, holistic, multi-level, and integral to the education of all Cubans and committed to meeting the material and cultural needs of the people.”

The direction of Cuban development Levins argues started to shift in 1970 when “Carlos Rodriguez introduced his argument differentiating development from growth and arguing for integral development, laying the groundwork for a goal of harmonious development of the economy and social relations with nature.” This undoubtedly suggests a break with the ideology that had dominated the industrial development of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. The transformation was not smooth and required a struggle but eventually “The ecologists won the struggle with developmentalism. It took a long time and the debate was fierce at times but it had a very different flavour from similar debates in the United States. All parties were looking for ways of meeting the needs of society so that the disagreements were just disagreements, not surrogates for clashing interests. Nobody was pushing pesticides or mechanization to make profit.”

Although Cuba is far from a socialist paradise and has generated much debate, there is certainly a difference between the overarching morality of the Cuban state and that of capitalism. It is these differences Levins points to in explaining why Cuba has chosen an ecological pathway “Socialist social arrangements and ideological priorities made ecological development an almost “natural” correlate of the economic and social development and of the commitment to improving the quality of life as the primary goal of development. Then “natural” means that when the first Green Revolution developmentalist approach turned out to be destructive of productive capacity and poisoned people and nature, this was sufficient reason to re-examine the strategy. It means that once the direction was debated there were no greedy institutions committed to defending the harmful course with lobbyists, public relations firms, lawyers and hired witnesses.”

On a larger scale we can look towards the developments in South America and in particular the launching in 2004 of ALBA, a trading bloc between progressive governments that seeks to weaken the US dominance of the continent. As pointed out in Frontline “The kind of ‘trade’ that ALBA proposes is exciting in that it provides a glimpse of how international relations could be done differently; how goods might be exchanged not based on their world market prices but on what one country produces and what the other needs, regardless of the supposed ‘price’ of each good. Taking as its starting point the resolution of South America’s social problems; malnutrition, illiteracy, unemployment etc. ALBA offers an attractive alternative for South America’s oppressed peoples and one whose priorities are radically different from Mercosur, whose meetings are generally centred around subsidies, tariffs and customs. At the heart of ALBA is the continuing Bolivarian revolution, and the notion that the natural resources of a country should be used to transform society in the direction of sustainable human development, rather than to enrich a minority of the population. The challenge this represents to the current system of accumulation is obvious, as it places the physical needs of human beings at the centre of the economy, and rejects the market as a mechanism for deciding the allocation of resources.

The common starting point for all these that point towards an alternative is that they seek to place social needs at the centre of their planning and as such offer solutions to the economic and ecological crisis that are unimaginable to the system of Capitalism. The building of an ecologically sustainable society can only be achieved when the driving force behind the prevailing economic system, becomes the provision of basic human needs such as clean air, drinkable water, universal health care and education, free public transport, housing and healthy nutritious food. The unbridled accumulation of wealth that drives capitalism prevents it from considering anything other than the pursuit of profits, leading to the ever-increasing impoverishment of the majority of the people on the planet as well as their environment. Thus the fight for a global ecological revolution is inexorably linked to the struggle for the socialist transformation of society and the pursuit of sustainable development.