Review: A Planet to Win – Why We Need a Green New Deal

Pete Cannell reviews an important contribution to the discussions around the Green New Deal.

Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos, A Planet to Win – Why We Need a Green New Deal (London: Verso, 2019). 208 pp. £10.99


A You Gov Blue poll of US voters in March 2019 found that 59% supported the idea of a Green New Deal. A Planet to Win – Why We Need a Green New Deal is a highly readable explanation of what the Green New Deal represents and the challenges that have to be overcome to implement it. The book focuses on what needs to be done in the US over the next decade (a small quibble – some references to the UK are not entirely accurate) but it’s highly recommended for a UK audience. Not least because the authors are absolutely clear about the necessity for system change. They share the view expressed by Naomi Klein in the introduction that ‘The promise of the Green New Deal is that climate crisis is an opportunity to build a better world’.

The authors believe that radical change is essential and that such change ‘only happens when millions of people are organizing, striking and marching, shaping politics and the economy from below’. They argue that the transition to a sustainable economy has to be driven by mass action, contesting power and ending social inequality. They are also clear-eyed about the challenges that we face in building such a movement. They situate the Green New Deal in the context of more than 40 years of neoliberalism, when living standards for many Americans have been at best stagnant and during which inequality has grown. Moreover, they take on the issues of power in society. Understanding that big business will be as vicious in defence of the status quo as they have been in attacking the US labour movement. They argue that there are two essential tasks: Breaking down the divide between the labour and climate movements, and at the same time rebuilding the strength, vitality and combativity of the former. Most of the book is devoted to providing arguments that will convince trade unionists of the necessity for action and more generally to win the movement to an understanding that collective action rather than individual sacrifice is what is required in the face of an existential crisis.

Readers in the UK may be less familiar with the original New Deal. The Great Depression of the 1930s had a devastating impact on the US economy with many millions thrown out of work. The New Deal was a programme of public works, reforms and regulations that aimed to put people back to work. It was implemented on a mass scale: ‘Workers hired under the Works Progress Administration constructed 651,000 miles of highway… 125,000 public buildings including 41,300 schools, and 469 airports. They built 8,000 parks and 18,000 playgrounds and athletics fields.’ And it was popular. The authors of A Planet to Win understand that the New Deal was designed to save capitalism, not to bury it. However, they make use of it to illustrate how rapid action on a massive scale is possible. The history of the New Deal also informs their emphasis on job creation and job guarantees that extend far beyond workers in the carbon-based industries. Indeed they stress that it was about social reproduction as well as production and argue that in the 21st century jobs in care, health and education are critical to a just transition.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is its relentless focus on the politics of climate action and the need for climate justice. It rejects strategies that ignore the need to address social inequality and simply rely on technical fixes. It argues that we need systemic change. The technology exists – what’s needed is the political will to push change through in a short period of time. Here the book is at its weakest, though I think this reflects a more general weakness of the socialist left. Recognising the need for radical democracy and rebuilding collective organisation and the collective power of the working class is necessary. The book is good on this. Recognising that big business and the giant energy corporations have to be called to account is also critical and again the authors are clear about this. What’s less clearly articulated is the role of the state in relation to capital.

The US Green New Deal is radical and takes on board race and gender in a way that the original New Deal did not. In considering options for sustainability it recognises the impact on the globe of additional demand for natural resources but it is primarily a national strategy. It has little to say about the military industrial complex. The US military has a huge carbon footprint. If the Pentagon were a country it would be number 55 in the world for carbon emissions. But even more critical to a strategy for system change the giant military corporations dominate the industrial economy, exert a stranglehold on research and development and monopolise skills and knowledge essential for transition. Just like the energy companies their hold must be broken.

Quite rightly the authors of A Planet to Win are critical of those who would like to cherry pick some elements of the Green New Deal while trying to maintain the status quo. They argue that the real fantasy is that half measures, preserving business as usual, can work. An effective strategy implies a radical Green New Deal.

Whether we like it or not the global climate crisis is coincident with a global crisis of organisation on the left. The nature of both crises is deeply influenced by the last four decades of neoliberalism. The urgency of the climate crisis presents unique challenges and opportunities. So for example, in the US, at the same time as public policy is set on a path of rapidly increasing fossil fuel production, the movement for a Green New Deal is growing rapidly. For the first time in decades ‘socialism’ is back on the agenda. This book is a valuable contribution to the first faltering steps to build out of the marginalisation of the left. A different kind of economy is not only necessary it is possible.

Book now for Endgames: Capitalism and the Climate Emergency
A day of anticapitalist discussion on the politics of the climate emergency.

9.30-17.00, 26 October 2019
Elvin Hall, Institute of Education, London WC1H 0AL

Free professional childcare
£10 waged • £5 unwaged • £20 solidarity (help fund unwaged tickets and childcare)
Organised by rs21


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