Two Steps Forward

The Green New Deal meets America's myopia

GreenBiz collage

Over the past few days, nearly everyone within arm’s reach of a keyboard seems to have weighed in on the Green New Deal, an ambitious framework for future congressional legislation. It aims to build a clean economy and eliminate the U.S. carbon footprint, while creating jobs and opportunity across the economic spectrum.

And what a response. Thousands of articles that, variously, celebrate the GND’s bold aspirations, criticize it for its lack of specifics, skewer the sheer impractical audaciousness of getting it enacted or analyze each of its myriad components.

I’ll spare you from doing the media scan I did over the weekend. It was, in sum, predictable, mildly amusing and frustrating. Progressives and liberals loved the idea, if not all the specifics. Conservatives berated the GND as socialism or worse and seemed to lick their collective chops at the notion of making it part of the political discourse during the 2020 election cycle.

In The New York Times, op-ed columnist Ross Douthat pointed out that the plan confirmed every Republican suspicion of what global-warming alarm is really all about — "the seizure of the economy’s commanding heights in order to implement the most left-wing possible agenda." The Competitive Enterprise Institute and other right-leaning groups compared the plan to the Fyre Festival, the ill-fated Bahamian "luxury music" event that led to fraud charges for its organizers.

Wired magazine rode in with an analysis of the GND’s transportation component — "it won’t work for everyone," it offered, backing up that thesis with a dizzying critique of the inequities of driving, bicycling, even public transit.

Even the estimable Dave Roberts, who once led the editorial team at Grist but now opines over at Vox, denigrated the "eyebrow-raising doozies" amid the GND's lengthy agenda, such as "guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and disability leave, paid vacations and retirement security to all people of the United States."

(My co-author Patrick Doherty proffered a far more constructive critique, explaining how we might actually pull off and pay for a Green New Deal in a way that "does not need Washington to act." Refreshing.)

Washington Post satirist Tom Toles put all the naysayers in their place with a wry and withering parody, overlaying today’s political zeitgeist onto John F. Kennedy’s iconic 1961 man-on-the-moon speech, where he committed the United States to that audacious goal within a decade:

This is a nice-sounding idea, but it is not fully fleshed out. There are scant details about how Kennedy proposes to actually achieve this, nor is there any evidence of widespread public demand for it. The time frame he outlines — 10 years! — sounds wildly over-optimistic, and arbitrary in any case. Even he admits that it will be expensive, but he doesn’t say exactly how expensive or how we will pay for it.

Most of these analyses seemed to miss the bigger point: Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, there’s a national conversation taking place about sustainability, in all its many forms.

I mean, could you have imagined this conversation taking place just three months ago?

It’s not as if these ideas are new. The notion of a Green New Deal has been bandied about for a dozen years. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman broached the concept in 2007. Activist and commentator Van Jones picked up the thread a year later in his book "The Green Collar Economy." Also in 2008, the U.N. Environment Program executive director Achim Steiner proposed a Global Green New Deal, "a fundamental restructuring of economies weaning away dependence on oil and towards cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy." A Green New Deal was the central plank of Jill Stein's two Green Party presidential platforms, in 2012 and 2016.

But timing is everything, in politics as in life. The latest iteration — spearheaded by freshman New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and veteran Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey — comes at a time when Americans are both frustrated and sensing the fierce urgency of now, and actually might be ready for some fresh ideas that cut through partisanship, create not just jobs but wealth, distribute opportunity more equitably and tackle the climate crisis at the scale and speed warranted.

Moreover, the 2019 edition of the GND folds in another concept that, up to now, had been loitering at the political margins: a "just transition" — a set of principles, processes and practices that build economic and political power amid the shift from a polluting, extractive economy to a clean and regenerative one. While that term had been gaining currency within the environmental and economic justice crowds, it suddenly is becoming part of the national discourse.

Like I said, who could have imagined this conversation taking place at this weird American moment?

Which is why most of the critiques of the Green New Deal strike me as small-minded and myopic. Yes, it’s a grand vision that’s vague on details. No, it’s not likely to be enacted in its current form. Yes, it can be improved in any number of ways. No, it’s not going away any time soon — both the left and right seem to want to keep it alive, each for its own reasons.

It’s a big idea, born of common sense, that potentially empowers and engages all Americans. We haven’t had an adult conversation about America's future in a long, long time. Let’s explore it and figure out how some version of it can come to pass.

So, please stop for a second and celebrate the moment. After toiling for years in the veritable backwaters of society and the economy, sustainability — economic, social and environmental — is finally on the national agenda.

Then, after your all-too-brief celebration, get back to work. It’s time to dig in. This is our moment.