At September’s Labour Party Conference, shaky iPhone footage shot from the viewing balcony captured the final tally for a motion on the Green New Deal (GND) explicitly calling for a 2030 net-zero carbon emissions target. As the final count was read out, the conference hall erupted into cheers. Delegates had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the motion, which calls for decarbonization by way of a “radical policy package to increase social and economic justice.” As a result, the party’s forthcoming manifesto will include some version of the deal, though in what form is still unclear. If adopted in half measures, the GND could be co-opted to become the foundation of a tepid attempt to support businesses with incentives and tax breaks for minimal emissions targets. If adopted in full, it could have a bold future that not only targets carbon emissions but is also capable of broad economic and social transformation.
On doorsteps and at campaign rallies, the democratic ownership agenda has become a crucial way of confronting the paralysis and disempowerment that voters feel when faced with a looming climate crisis — and it promises much more than a pro-business incentive package. Rather than just a tax-and-spend initiative to create green jobs, the Green New Deal must be a radical program that matches the urgency of climate disaster.
An Economy of Stewardship
The Green New Deal called for by the Labour Party membership is more than a set of discrete interventions to decarbonize the economy. It’s instead a program for a collective effort to build a society that is democratic and sustainable by design.
At present, the UK economy is deeply rooted in extractivism. Resources are plundered; soaring profits enrich a web of executive management, elite shareholders, and institutional investors; and communities are drained of the wealth they build collectively. This model cannot be the foundation on which a Green New Deal is built. It’s a model that has been established — and sustained — through processes of primitive accumulation: neocolonial violence and relationships of control that enact themselves on the environment. We need to imagine a future beyond extractivism.
Building a Green New Deal on the foundation of collective ownership means shifting our economy from one built on extraction to one centered on stewardship. Anchoring our economy in more democratic forms of ownership gives people a stake and a say in how economic decisions are made. In the short term, this will mean democratizing the ownership of energy generation and distribution, so as to drive a transition to clean energy, with a new network of decentralized green energy production and use.
It will mean shifting land ownership and use in the pursuit of large-scale rewilding and land restoration, and pursuing a program to deliver good, low-carbon housing for all. As Nick Estes outlines in his article on the prospects of “a Red Deal,” by focusing our economy on caretaking and stewardship, we can realize an economic program founded on global justice and decolonial politics. He stresses that a Green New Deal must, above all, center the voices of those most affected by climate crisis, learning from social movements and indigenous resistance groups like Canada’s Unist’ot’en camp.
The radical GND we are seeking must be rooted in the development of a new commons, where value created collectively is managed and sustained collectively, and where care work can become the foundation of a progressive vision for the future. Democratic public ownership is how we can forge a new economic common sense, one rooted in the custodianship of our resources and the restoration of our natural systems.
A Green New Deal will require a transformative increase in public investment. This can partly be funded by the issuing of long-term debt, though we will also need a public Green Investment Bank to drive a rapid and just transition. We will need to repurpose central banking, harnessing its directive power to drive decarbonization. In addition, as John McDonnell has recently called for, we’ll need to reshape the architecture of international finance, including institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. This will also require subordinating private finance to the common interest. Just as the original Green New Deal, authored in the wake of the 2008 crash, called for an overhaul of the banking sector, today we need to radically green financial regulation, from capital requirements to collateral frameworks.
From the Ground Up
A green industrial strategy that consciously reshapes the economy to be more sustainable and just is fundamental to a Green New Deal. As the NHS (National Health Service) once again emerges as a crucial election issue, a GND for care work signifies an opportunity to gain real legal recognition for support workers, as well as a boost for new infrastructure that encourages collective care (for an aging population, for disabled people, and for children) and a greening of the care industry as a whole.
Inaction from both governments and corporations have made it clear that any movement will only occur from the ground up. Management won’t be making large-scale shifts any time soon — it’s employees who will need to lead the change and set the pace with which we act. Bernie Sanders’s Corporate Accountability and Democracy Plan, announced in October, presents a viable model for a radical overhaul of the company form, shifting company ownership so that workers — rather than external shareholders — have a definitive say in how their firms are run. Industrial strategy in the context of a Green New Deal will mean pushing for worker ownership and cooperatives to enhance workers’ decision-making power.
Changing the future of work and the workplace will also involve transforming our built environment. Truly affordable, wide-serving public transit and a collectively owned ride-sharing service can transform how our cities run. Beyond just regulating private cars out of existence, we need to build infrastructure that can make them obsolete. A GND necessitates a bold housing strategy and a retrofitting army to secure low-carbon homes for all. The vision of a Green New Deal that has emerged is one of public affluence in the place of private wealth: new universal services, more leisure time, and a twenty-first-century commons that can help communities prosper. We need to decommodify to thrive.
It’s clear that using minor policy tweaks to fine-tune capitalism will not be enough to accomplish this. We need to reexamine the very building blocks of our economy, and this includes land ownership, both rural and urban. Who owns what will need to become much more transparent. Land management is an undervalued and absolutely vital tool for drawing carbon from the atmosphere. If scaled up properly, rewilding and restoration can both create new jobs, and can help reduce the destructive effects of soil erosion, flooding, and coastal storms. In the UK, a plan to rewild and restore 25 percent of our land mass could result in a reduction of emissions by 15 percent a year. A post-carbon future means a world of more hiking trails, more city parks, and more wilderness.
To make decarbonization a reality over the next decade, we will need a government-led process of restructuring for democratic public ownership, where ordinary people participate in a rewiring of the economy from the inside out.
A Green New Deal is more than just a set of incentives and payments aiming for decarbonization. It’s a paradigm-shifting program to build a society beyond extractivism and to dismantle the hierarchies of gender, race, and class that underpin fossil-fuel capitalism. This will require a far-reaching transfer of ownership from the few to the many. Only then can we justly and equitably represent those communities most affected by climate change, as well as the workers and unions at the pivot point of a new economy. When the UK goes to the polls on December 12, it will have a world to gain with the Green New Deal.