A People’s Green New Deal – An Exercise in Just Knowledge Production

In his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1984, Thomas Sankara makes the following astute observation regarding the African petite bourgeoisie and its public intellectuals:  

“Our professors, engineers and economists are content simply to add a little colouring, because they have brought from the European universities of which they are the products only their diplomas and the surface smoothness of adjectives and superlatives. It is urgently necessary that our qualified personnel and those who work with ideas learn that there is no innocent writing. In these tempestuous times, we cannot leave it to our enemies of the past and of the present to think and to imagine and to create. We also must do so.”

In the same speech, Sankara continues to caution against planning for the uplifting of a nation if such plans are ignorant of, or are wilfully erasing, the disinherited masses and the wretchedness inherited by them. Sankara’s postulation, emerging from the socio-political contexts of the African continent, provides a sound theoretical foundation for knowledge production in the contemporary worlds we inhabit. The popular narratives around climate change have strived to communicate the gravity of planetary collapse and measures required to avert ecological and environmental crises worldwide. Nevertheless, the urgency of envisioning a new world shows little self-reflection as to its epistemic positions and privileges. Climate change discourses in the Global North, academic or otherwise, have largely been constrained by the desire to brave the planetary crises with limited disruption to existing race and class privileges. In terms of how the problems of climate change are identified and defined and the range of solutions to address them, the western epistemologies remain rudimentary.

Consequently, the range of green new deals or the visions for just-transition and sustainable utopias remain agnostic to the everyday realities and struggles of the Global South against imperialism and colonialism. It is unclear if Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour are better placed to partake in these futures than they are now. Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal provides a refreshing and rich scholarly alternative to how an ideal green new deal should be imagined.

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

tractor, tiller, tilling, equipment, agriculture, karnataka, india, transportation, mode of transportation, land, land vehicle, field, one person, landscape, agricultural machinery, day, nature, rural scene, plant, environment, driving, farm, dirt, agricultural equipment, outdoors, farmer, 4K

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. 

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 A People’s Green New Deal: A Symposium

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal intervenes in current debates regarding green planning, green future, green stimuli, and eco-socialism. It surveys a wide range of existing literature on the ecological and social crisis, ranging from ruling-class “great transitions,” to eco-modernist elixirs of the right and the left which bank on technological solutions to today’s social and ecological problems. It then considers and critiques an array of liberal, left-liberal, and social democratic proposals, some of them going under the eco-socialist moniker, and shows how they rest on continued exploitation and primitive accumulation of the periphery. 

A People’s Green New Deal contributions lie in, first, using frameworks of dependency theory, accumulation on a world scale, and ecologically uneven exchange to illuminate the costs and consequences of distinct approaches to the climate crisis, left and right. Second, the book’s emphasis on agriculture, land use, and agro-ecology makes it unique amongst books on the Green New Deal and parallel debates. Its emphasis on decolonization, national sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and climate debt repayments from the North to the South is a third contribution. A fourth is how it deals with technology. 

This review forum assesses the contribution of A People’s Green New DealSakshi situates APGND in terms of a counter-epistemology to Eurocentric and empire-blind resolutions, if not really solutions, to the social and ecological crises to which mainstream Green New Deals are addressed. Sheetal Chhabria assesses APGND’s contribution to thinking on a planetary scale about appropriate planning for a just transition, while criticizing the book’s uncritical embrace of certain Indian nationalist tropes. Güney Işıkara raises questions regarding political agency and organization, the role of national-level planning in any form of national-level green transition, and how to approach anti-imperialism on a world scale.  

Read the contributions:

How To Write About Pipelines

Writing about Indigenous rights or climate and environmental justice movements as a non-Indigenous person is difficult and complex. The magnitude of difficulty becomes manifold if the authorial voice falls somewhere on the white, western knowledge spectrum. What we have to say matters less than what we have learned in thinking with the Indigenous people and their knowledge forms. For non-Indigenous scholars, there is a constant need to be alert to the possibilities of reproducing colonial power structures and epistemic frameworks while engaged in knowledge production. The only way out of this conundrum is to constantly learn from Indigenous voices and epistemologies and be sensitive to structural inequities and epistemic injustices that have marred the academe. It is not adequate to merely provide nodding acknowledgement to the idea of environmental justice. Interrogating the colonial and settler colonial structures within environmental movements must be a continuous process. Particularly, the idea of Indigenous environmental justice is yet to assume the place it deserves in the literature on environmentalisms, environmental activism, or even Marxist ecology. While Black-Green solidarity and alliance is an indispensable condition for the flourishing of the environmental movements, the work towards achieving it has been disappointingly slow. These concerns resurfaced as I read Andreas Malm’s new work How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

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Ecological breakdown: What are externalities external to?

The 2018 Bank of Sweden Prize (falsely known as the Economics Nobel Prize) winner William Nordhaus opens the revised version of his Prize lecture as follows: “I begin with the fundamental problem posed by climate change – that is a public good or externality. Such activities are ones whose costs or benefits will spill outside the market and are not captured in market prices.”

The concept of externalities is a catch-all term, or, an empty box to capture the so-called spillover effects. Under the presumption that the market mechanism brings about the efficient allocation of resources, mainstream economic theory as well as many of its heterodox critiques argue for internalizing these spillovers by determining their costs (or benefits) and including it in the price of the commodity. In other words, the spillover effect itself must be turned into a commodity so that the market can efficiently handle it through the price mechanism.

Insofar as human-induced global warming has not been priced, so the story goes, it is an externality. In fact, it is today “the most significant of all environmental externalities” even in Nordhaus’ wisdom. Make no mistake – Nordhaus fiercely advocated inaction for over three decades, and portrayed projected levels of global warming, which are defined as devastating, or even catastrophic by scientists, as optimal.

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Can we electrify our way out of climate change – or do the rich also need to consume less?

As the Artic sea ice rapidly melts and the communities across the world suffer dire consequences, we are experiencing the tragedies from emitting greenhouse gases from human activities into the atmosphere. Climate scientists warn humans are running out of time to bring down CO2 in the atmosphere to stay below even 2 degrees celsius, as the planet’s ecosystems become unstable and the earth becomes increasingly uninhabitable. Arguably, we already have the policies and the technology required to combat climate change. Climate scientists at COP 21 in Paris 2015 laid out roadmaps for how to transition to clean energy in time, and these clean energy roadmaps show how more jobs are created, consumers save money, and together save life on earth as we know it.

Public discussions about how to convince people and governments to stop using fossil fuel energy take two paths. One is to emphasize that people’s lifestyles don’t have to change, as long as they electrify cars and homes–putting their faith in technological progress. The other is to emphasize climate justice and point out that many middle-income and affluent families need to consume less and share their prosperity. Lifestyle changes include living in smaller homes closer to work, flying less, eating mostly plant-based diets, and not buying so much stuff that ends up in the landfill. More broadly, re-envisioning economic growth and creating a circular economy that replaces wasteful private consumption with essential public services can improve the well-being of people today and in the future.

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‘Climate Emergency’, COVID-19 and the Australian capitalist state

covid-19-4926456_1920Now is the hour of our collective discontent. In order to pursue the agenda set out for this blog post series, namely: ‘to precisely identify the strategic, structural/epochal, or more contingent factors involved in the emergence of particular state–capital hybrids, as well as the specific institutional, organizational, and legal forms that facilitate such emergence’ (Alami & Dixon, 2019) my contribution examines the Australian state over the summer of 2019-20, into the COVID-19 pandemic. I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the instability and amenability to capital of our present conjuncture in ways that the bushfire crisis did not. Further, the pandemic renders our present conjuncture potentially far less stable and amenable to capital than declaration of a national ‘climate emergency’ could have, and therefore the left should consider how to force deep reorientations of state-led action (and therefore form and function) while it can.

The need for an adequate state theory

Existing scholarship on neo-Marxian theories of the state are the foundations of an appropriate diagnosis of this moment, though in the heart of an historic conjuncture is not the time to attempt a full synthesis or unified theory. Instead we should begin by using our compounding crises to work through our existing analyses and critiques. In keeping with this research agenda, I will begin with a Poulantzean reading of the state – not the blunt Althusserian structuralism of his earlier work, but his later and more nuanced work on the state theorised as an ever-contingent social relation. The state is thus conceived of as a material condensate of the balance of class struggle, meaning it is possible to isolate points of rupture and work upon and through them to alter the balance of power.

Without a reconfiguration of political and economic power, the crises we face will not resolve, but escalate by orders of magnitude. A neo-Marxian theorisation of the state reframes this political moment with a materialist analysis of the issues confronting our societies. The points of possible rupture have now become more apparent and should guide leftist strategy into and through the COVID-19 pandemic.

From ‘climate emergency’ to global pandemic (from theory to praxis)

Over the 2019-20 summer, Australia burned. Vast swathes of the country were covered in marauding fires; communities were evacuated; homes were destroyed; irreplaceable heritage landscapes were lost forever and millions of animals perished. Those physically distant from the fires were nonetheless impacted by the resulting cloaks of particulate matter draped across the country at levels ‘unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent’ in Australia’s recent memory.

Much of the resulting political jousting focused on whether or not funding had been cut for core services that would have ameliorated the situation. Over the course of the summer, communities mobilised to meet the relentless blazes, with numerous online fundraising campaigns set up to try and resource volunteer fire services. Rolling demonstrations and protests were held across the country, demanding action from state and federal governments.

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The risk of being misled by climate economy models

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This post deconstructs the following statement:

If reducing greenhouse emissions had economic benefits then we would do it anyway without new policy.

The statement above is used by economists to argue against the introduction of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the basis that the costs would outweigh the benefits of reducing climate change. It is part of a wider narrative that regulatory policy can only lead to economic costs. However, the statement is perhaps one of the most perverse conclusions from neoclassical economics. It depends on a raft of assumptions that run contrary to real-world experience. Further, as discussed below, if just one assumption is taken out, the conclusion changes.

Sadly, economists and (in particular) economic modellers, have played a key role in turning this fallacy into accepted reality. They have done this by using simple optimisation-based approaches that make strong assumptions about human behaviour. Often the modellers do not critically question or even fully understand these assumptions. Read More »