Debunking the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” of the AOC/Markey Green New Deal

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Photo: Farming in Karnataka, India.

Max Ajl’s People’s Green New Deal is a brutal reminder for the American left that even the most celebrated and progressive developments in American politics are still simply American politics, in other words they are a politics for America, and America first. Ajl situates both the longer history of environmental destruction and the response to it within a planetary frame without losing sight of geographical unevenness. The book is divided into two parts. The first part is where Ajl systematically debunks the American-centrism of the Cortez/Markey Green New Deal (GND). The second part is an imagination-widening exposition of an alternative People’s Green New Deal that centers the livelihood of the majority of the world’s people by putting forth an anti-imperial and anti-capitalist framework for a just transition. 

In the first part, Ajl exposes the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” at the heart of the Cortez/Markey GND. It is is remarkable that even while paying lip service to the “systemic injustices” of racial, gendered, regional, and economic injustices of environmental destruction, Cortez/Markey’s made the case for H-Res 109 that was introduced in Congress in 2019 by claiming that, “climate change constitutes a direct threat to the national security of the United States.” Therefore, this GND is a blueprint for how, through some combination of green capitalism and new technologies, America will save itself and become a “leader” in the world. The current GND has its origins in other blueprints for “green transitions” articulated in the early 2000s that exhibited a:  

Tendency towards apolitical social management – the governance approach – which tries to dissolve contradictions around class and colonialism, and capitalism’s inability as a historical system to respect the earth-system and the tenuous, delicate, and easily shattered niche it has for many billions of humans. Long-term planning and the equally vague call for “decent minimum living standards” all gesture towards using the GND as a lever to shift the social system to “sustainability,” another voguish word adulterated to meaninglessness through technocratic, bureaucratic, and academic misuse and overuse. 

The main problem with the GND is it seeks to ameliorate rather than confront or negate structural inequalities between North and South or rich and poor.  

In what is probably the most counter-intuitive and yet compelling argument against the claim that the GND is useful because it is practical or viable, Ajl exposes the political damage the GND has done. Rather than inaugurate or even open up the possibility for a green transition, the Cortez/Markey GND uses the slogan of a green transition to center US security interests in ways that displace and “disorganize” other movements for a just transitionAjl reminds us that prior to the Cortez/Markey GND, climate activists called for rich countries to pay the climate debt owed to countries of the global south which serving as a dumping ground for northern industrial waste and repeatedly had their atmospheric sovereignty violated. So the GND doesn’t represent the victory of an organized eco-left in the United States, rather, the GND “may well end up disorganizing resistance to the broader ruling-class agenda by embracing a false opposition to it.” (italics mine, Introduction) Discussions of the GND thus end up being depoliticizing or reformist precisely because many concessions have already been made to arrive at it. What is “pragmatic” or “viable” about the Cortez/Markey GND, which is in fact the one the Sanders faction also endorses, is the very thing that makes it not a just transition at all and instead a US-security centered vision. 

Instead we need climate reparations that consist of actual transfers of sums so that 1.) countries of the global south can undertake intentional and carefully planned projects of industrialization, 2.) Northern countries can take responsibility for the people who will undergo forced climate migrations, and 3.) an honoring of these as a part of the “universal right of mother earth.” What we do not need are intellectual property rights for green technology hoarded through patents on which the North retains power and control. The Red Nation’s Red Deal provides a much better starting point for how to think boldly, citing as it does as a first principle that, “What creates crisis cannot solve it.” So the US military, the largest polluter on earth, has absolutely no role to play besides disappearing itself as fast as possible. This is a fact not recognized at all when even “progressives” like Elizabeth Warren state, “We don’t have to choose between a green military and an effective one.”1 In addition, green capitalism cannot save us from the environmental destruction of capitalism itself, nor can the US build an “isolated utopia while the rest of the world burns.” Yet, it is the very strategic ambiguity of the Cortez/Markey GND that leaves wide open the possibility of co-optation by the US “security” beneficiaries, as witnessed in the Pentagon’s recent report where the climate threat becomes a threat to our security. The Pentagon’s solution seems to be to ramp up military spending more strategically to deal with the fallout. 

The second half of Ajl’s People’s Green New Deal is an astonishing read. It aims to “expand the scope of what is understood to be feasible.” The amount of detailed research on very specific  historical and current metrics of resource use, allocation, and impact on livelihood and equity are remarkable. In marshaling such learning, Ajl reminds us that the climate crisis is not an “impending” crisis that we must urgently forestall, rather it is already here. In the countries of the Global South, vast majorities of people have already been and currently are living with the systematic destruction of the planet occasioned by capitalist exploitation of nature and labor.  

If we are to solve the problem, we must conceive of a just transition that includes climate reparations and a whole host of other methods for planning carefully how to use which resource, where, and when. It is in the second half of the book that we learn so clearly that environmental destruction is not simply climate change; it includes desertification, soil depletion, land degradation, rising waters, droughts, fires, depletion of fisheries and wildlife, etc. All these things and more have disrupted livelihoods in many places for much longer than most think. And to take just one example of the folly of fashionable “northern” eco-trends, vegetarianism might sound like the earth-friendly ethical solution. But de-industrializing meat production instead would allow pastoralists and small-holders to have a livelihood and allow us to confront the problem of scale that is driving most environmental destruction. Not to mention, the fake meat industry is not innocent. Instead of simply lifestyle changes, Ajl advocates for planning a structural transformation that is purposeful, intentional, and knowledge-based to attain the stuff we need and forego what is harmful.[Text Wrapping Break] What is most remarkable about A People’s Green New Deal, and is almost never discussed even in heated debates about the GND is agriculture. Taking agriculture as a central part of human existence in the second half of the book, Ajl provides such a detailed account of how we can plan to save ourselves and the earth that entire curricula should be built around it. Only de-growth can work but not in the way most North-Atlantic centered thinkers imagine it. Some places have to have the right to industrialize in strategic ways. So this is neither romanticism of de-industrialization nor a common blueprint for all places. 

Reading the book, one can’t but help wonder what it is we teach in all our educational institutions if not how to concretely plan, and therefore build a livable and collective future. One can imagine courses in economics, sociology, anthropology, history, biology, geology, and even math, all dedicated to the task of debating and thereby planning a just transition that centers ecology and labor across the global south. Each subject would have to be thoroughly re-thought, of course. For instance, we learn about economics that the price mechanism is not a neutral arbiter of value or the market, but rather represents social power. We also learn that, “Words like economies and livelihoods are kaleidoscopic. They hint at human needs for food, shelter, and the good life and conflate them with the well-being of the economy. In this discourse, it is simply assumed that the health of “the economy” leads to the health of concrete individual human beings.” Such insights should thoroughly transform what is taught in economics, where relations of power are made invisible and “the economy” is treated as a natural artifact. 

If a curriculum were built around A People’s Green New Deal, the only climate transition plans that would be debated would be ones which enshrine a universal right to health, education, electricity, housing, food, and work that isn’t demeaning or alienating. At the center of such a just transition would be a serious consideration of agriculture, not in its technocratic vein in which the agricultural sciences are harnessed to do the work of creating economic growth but agriculture as the work the majority must do to sustain ourselves and the earth. 

It is rare that a book comes along that is so explicitly connected to current American politics and yet is global in scope without riding roughshod over the details of other places. It is also rare that such a work could center the needs and aspirations of peasants, landless landworkers, and laborers from the once third world or now global south. If a landless agricultural laborer in India, or the majority of the world, could shout at or argue against even the most “progressive” of American politicians, this is the book that one might compose from the wisdom of that confrontation.  

But as is usual, probably every regional specialist will have their quibbles with the book. As a historian of India, I winced when I read the occasional endorsement of “Gandhian economics.” For one, Gandhi allied with industrialists to advocate for a total deregulation of agriculture in India’s first year of independence.2 Nehru obliged for a few months and the results were devastating. In other words, planning was never a Gandhian virtue and Gandhi may have been a libertarian in today’s parlance. Second, Gandhi actively undermined labor strikes in colonial Bombay, replacing collective labor power with calls for “spiritual cleansing.” “Gandhian economics” deserves much criticism as does what we now call the Indian economists whose nationalist conception of a drain of wealth sidelined critiques of capitalism within India. But for every such wincing there is also the fact that regional historiographies can be invigorated by the new questions this book poses, implicit or explicit. For instance, Ajl’s reading of the Green Revolution in India leads him to claim that there is insufficient evidence to prove India was food insecure in the 1960s, rather it was the Green Revolution that caused landlessness and food insecurity. These are the debates that would be enlivened by building a curriculum around Ajl’s book. For historians for instance, what kinds of new questions about the past would we ask if we saw de-growth and a people’s green new deal as the only viable future? Upon reading the book it is clear, we need an entire new generation of thinkers who ask what a truly People’s green new deal would have to look like if it centered laborers, de-fetishized technology, sought neither industrial-modernization nor romanticized versions of village life — a green new deal that planned for a collective future rather than containing or managing our uneven demise.  

Sheetal Chhabria is Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College. She tweets at @SheetalChabbers.

This book review is a part of a symposium on Max Ajl’s book the People’s Green New Deal. .

[1] Cited in A People’s Green New Deal. Note 33.

[2] Benjamin Seigel, The Hungry Nation.

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