We are at the precipice of ecological collapse. There are no two ways about it. And despite what you hear, it is about far more than just catastrophic climate change. In a nutshell, our current biological predicament is the result of overuse of natural resources beyond their capacity to regenerate, the creation and mass production of never-before-known (often toxic) substances, and the accumulation of massive amounts of waste and pollution.
Exploitation. Over-production. Over-consumption. Waste. Pollution. Greed. Opulence. Excess. Power. These vices constitute the origins of our ecological problems, including anthropogenic global warming. Not coincidentally, poverty, extreme inequality, racism, sexism, and militarism also stem from these same sources. And of course, they all form the roots of the tree of capitalism. But if we can sum up the fundamental cause of our existential crisis in one simple phrase, it is this: our way of life. It is a way of life predicated on the desire for more – more energy, more products, more technology, more synthetics, more manufactured goods (i.e., bads), and more manufactured wants. Yet, our insatiable yearning for more has left us with less of the one thing upon which our entire lives depend: the natural world.
In biology, the radicle is the embryonic root of a plant. Likewise, its homophone, radical, means relating to or affecting the root, origin, or fundamental nature of something. To be radical, therefore, indicates that one seeks to get to the root of problems. This prospect tends to be frowned upon in America, where we like to do all we can to gloss over, circumvent, and deny our issues until they become too large of a burden to continue to ignore or obfuscate.
Consequently, we find ourselves faced with ever-increasing levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide with no signs of abating, despite the plethora of drugs dispensed by the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry and despite the increased use of psychological treatment which is no longer stigmatized as it once was. We continue to die mainly from heart disease and cancer and pour millions of dollars into painful and/or risky treatments like statins, radiation, and chemotherapy, though we know from studies of remote indigenous cultures that cancer could be rare, or at least, greatly reduced and that heart disease can be virtually non-existent in non-industrial populations.
We are deplorably unsuccessful in healing (rather than simply mitigating and condoning) our physical and mental illnesses for the same reason that we have not come close to healing our planet – because we have yet to address the root cause our all these ills.
The (New) New Deal
By now, most people know the historical context of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. FDR’s administration passed fairly sweeping economic reforms for the benefit of workers in order to quell the enormous upswell of socialism at the time, but also to maintain capitalism. Sure, the robber-barons (industrialists and entrepreneurs) did make some concessions – none of which amounted to any sacrifice at all to them – but the New Deal legislation still secured their standing as plutocrats. Moreover, massive environmental degradation and deleterious human health effects stood as externalities to the assumed economic necessity of capitalism and industrialism, just as they remain today. All in all, while providing some moral and crucial short-term economic relief for people, the New Deal left a hole wide open for corporate capitalism to stage a dramatic comeback. And so it has over the past half century, leaving wholesale environmental and economic catastrophe in its wake.
Enter the Green New Deal (GND). The recent version (not to be confused with the original, which emanated from the Green Party) outlines an ambitious strategy to eliminate our use of fossil fuels for energy in order to reduce carbon emissions while attempting to foster greater economic equality and prosperity. The low-carbon, more equitable future sought by the GND resolution is undeniably a good one; however, its foundation based on our current paradigm of prosperity – i.e., more energy, more production, more industry, more technology, more consumption – renders it insufficient to effect the radical changes we need for a sustainable future.
Impractical, Unreasonable, Infeasible, Pie in the Sky
Those who tend to ignore the truth or the totality of our environmental dilemma dismiss the GND as not politically or economically feasible. Somehow feasibility is never an issue when it comes to funding corporate interests (including the military-industrial complex). The reality is that continuing on our current trajectory is politically and economically infeasible and unreasonable, because without a livable planet, politics and economics do not even exist. Therefore, their dismissive arguments are hardly worth mentioning. We have never, ever prioritized environmental concerns, which is why we find ourselves in this precarious predicament in the first place. Without fundamental changes, ecosystems will continue to deteriorate all around us to the point where our species is permanently imperiled. Humans have spent the past several centuries (at a minimum) despoiling the planetary ecosystem on which we all rely for life. The idea that it is impractical to attempt to deal with our ecological crises is frankly, insane. It suggests one must be either too obtuse to comprehend the simple scientific realities of our time, or too self-absorbed to care.
What is pie in the sky about the GND is imagining that high-tech innovation and increasing economic development based upon increasing industrialization will save us. In recent interviews, Bernie Sanders repeatedly stated that we have 12 years to transform to a sustainable energy system. But energy is one small part of the issue. In reality, we have likely less than 12 years to transform to a sustainable world-wide societal system. To reduce our environmental problems and remedies to carbon emissions is to focus on a symptom not the disease. Climate change may be the most glaring symptom right now, but there are many others. We don’t need just sustainable energy. We need sustainability.
We have not only disrupted the global carbon cycle, resulting in catastrophic climate change, we have disrupted the global water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur cycles, to name a few. In the U.S., we are close to exhausting our landfill space, which houses the useless garbage from our production/consumption lifestyle. Most politicians and many academics have insisted that environmental solutions should be market-based, but markets always fluctuate. Now we see the obvious folly of their philosophy, as the market for recycling (not to say recycling itself is at all a solution) has collapsed since China stopped importing the recyclable bits of our disposable products. Thus, in many places our “recyclables” are now being incinerated into highly toxic pollutants like dioxin. In addition, we have deforested the majority of the planet and poured toxicants (especially pesticides) into our air, food, and water, all of which have contributed more to our other prominent crisis of species extinction than climate change has, or maybe ever will.
When confronted by Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes about the GND, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex asked, “What is the problem with trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible?” Well, the problem is that many of these high-tech innovations rest precisely at the root of our problems to begin with. It doesn’t help that Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff originates from Silicon Valley, one of the most extractive, consumptive, wasteful, toxic, and exploitative industries imaginable when viewed from cradle to grave.
In her formal announcement of the GND resolution with Congressman Ed Markey, Ocasio-Cortez stated, “Climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life.” But our way of life is the threat, and if her suggestion that the GND legislation exists as an attempt to preserve our way of life, then it will surely not succeed in preserving our life as a species. Here, she acknowledged that our challenges comprise more than just climate change, but how much does she, or any politician, truly figure the entirety of these environmental challenges into their thought processes and policies?
What troubles me is that many look to the GND as a move toward a futuristic techno-utopia, as Kate Aronoff envisions in her piece in the Intercept. That viewpoint is what is unrealistic about the GND. Aronoff imagines a semi-socialist bourgeois existence on a technological path toward becoming more like the Jetsons. To maintain a livable planet, we probably need to start thinking about a future scenario more in line with the Flintstones. We can still strive to “have a yabba dabba doo time,” but we might have to enjoy ourselves in manner closer to “modern stone-age” rather than a high-tech.