The original New Deal was conceived and implemented as a compromise to save the system in a period of enormous upheaval. By the end of that period of upheaval, two world wars had been fought and tens of millions of people had died. Some parts of the world got fascism, others communism: the US got the New Deal.
Might the possibility of mass extinction and the end of organized human life impel a similarly desperate compromise from elites? Bigger changes occurred in 2020 than many could have imagined. Quarantines, airplanes grounded, basic income programs introduced. Surprising successes in containing the coronavirus in some countries have been contrasted with notable failures in the US. And in the midst of the pandemic, the US has seen the largest demonstrations in its history, against racial injustice and police abuse. In this rapidly changing context, Stan Cox’s focus on what needs to be done from an environmental perspective and ignoring considerations of “political feasibility” seems prescient. If these times have shown anything it’s that political “feasibility” is a moving target, and that is a good thing.
When feasibilities open up it is important to separate false solutions from real ones. Stan’s previous work – on rationing, disasters, and air conditioning, and now the Green New Deal – is about using the methods of scientific and historical analysis to discard what’s useless. What’s left is a simple, clear program that could, if followed, save the planet.
The first idea Stan slices away is that we can grow our way out of the climate crisis. In 1972 the Club of Rome published the Limits to Growth, which Stan says went over like a “bowl of prune soup at a potluck”. Stan shows how the authors of the Limits to Growth were right – that an economy dependent on continuous growth will eventually overrun some environmental threshold. Even if the climate crisis is surmounted, there will be new ecological crises unless the growth imperative is checked.
Which leads us to the next idea to be pruned: that the market, without any plan or intervention, can resolve the climate crisis. Stan shows how carbon pricing and the creation of carbon markets are simply a form of rationing – by ability to pay. Such mechanisms have failed where introduced, and (along with carbon taxes) proven politically as well as practically toxic.
Next, Stan helps us discard a series of flawed plans. 100% renewables plans, including the most notable ones developed in California by Marc Jacobson, have hidden dangers: they sidestep the key policy of taking fuels offline, emphasizing the secondary consideration of building renewable capacity. Stan reminds us that we have to reduce fossil fuel use whether or not we can replace all the lost energy output with renewables.
And we probably can’t replace all that output. Back of the envelope calculations show that finding land for solar and wind installations is a serious problem – requiring 3x existing agricultural land for solar installations and 6% of all of the US land surface for wind generation, in a few of the Jacobson scenarios. The amounts of storage capacity – batteries, and therefore lithium – required by 100% renewables plans is enough to fuel a new round of colonialism. With the 2019 lithium coup in Bolivia, it already has. The 100% renewable future needs at least 120% of the world’s cobalt and up to 160%, of the world’s lithium reserves – so that’s not happening either.
Jacobson’s plan, Stan also points out, is a plan for energy apartheid, with different classes of global energy citizens based on current consumption. The 100% renewable world will look like the old one, with 9500W per US person, and 760W per Haitian. Stan dismisses this apartheid plan with simplicity, pointing out that the rich need to consume less, not replace every fossil watt with a renewable watt. Ultimately, he writes, we need to run an “energy frugal society, not an energy gluttonous one”.
There is more for the dustbin of history here. Forget about biofuels. These will take land out of food crops – feeding cars and starving people. Forget direct air capture, which takes so much energy to do that it cancels out the climate benefit. Forget about Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), which includes no plan for feeding the society of luxury communists and anticipates unlimited nuclear energy. Driving around in electric cars isn’t going to happen either – not when you consider that it takes energy to build the cars and their giant batteries (there’s that lithium again). The cornucopian fantasies are all premised on an idea of ‘decoupling’ – that you can have economic growth without increased resource use. As Stan discusses extensively, you can’t. Nor can you solve the climate crisis by the aggregate of individual choices to ride a bicycle or go vegan (both of which you should do, of course): to solve a problem of this scale, industrial policy, set and enforced by the state, is a must.
But for all the cutting, Stan is not here to generate despair or nihilism. When all the distractions are removed, we are left with a set of ideas based on energy frugality summarized as “cap and cope”.
These begin with ending subsidies to fossil fuels (“supply side suppression”) “locking companies out of public lands, banning fracking, busting pipelines, stopping oil and gas exports, and depriving dirty-fuel companies of investment”. But these are just prerequisites.
The key mechanism is an “impervious cap on the nation’s total supply of fossil fuel” – set it, and then “it ratchets downward by a fixed amount year by year until it liberates us from fossil fuels entirely.” Enforced by a system of government permits in physical quantities “barrels of oil, cubic feet of gas, or tons of coal, not in carbon units or dollars.” Imports and exports of fuels are banned, and importing and exporting goods with carbon footprints will require the surrender of equivalent permits (no moving the problem offshore is allowed in this plan).
That’s the cap. Then there’s the cope, which Stan proposes could take the form of a Victory Plan with a series of public cooperatives, with – of course – rationing and price controls of key goods to ensure a good life for everyone in the transition. And, as every environmentalist has had to do since the 1970s, Stan assures the reader that the future could still be very nice: “Walkable, livable communities will be free of private-vehicle traffic; air, noise, and light pollution; and other dangers. A transformed food system will ensure better nutrition for all. Free neighbourhood public and community clinics will provide preventive medical care, reducing by several sizes the economic and environmental footprint of today’s profit-driven medical industries.”
The resulting book is indispensable for environmentalists. In recent years scientists have opened a discussion about whether the pressure to publish only positive results has damaged the whole scientific enterprise. The analogy to the climate crisis is clear: there has been a proliferation of solutions without enough attention to their fitness for purpose. The Green New Deal and Beyond pares away the distractions and leaves you with climate clarity.