MAY 18, 2020
IN THE THICK FOG of quarantine, my sense of time has slowly eroded. I’m rarely certain of the day, almost never of the time. Daily rituals occasionally help, like brewing coffee each morning (though that happens later and later each day) and pouring a post-work-from-home drink (though that happens earlier and earlier). Historians of disaster often refer to this phenomenon as time compression — the fog of mass disruption exacerbated by unseen forces seeking to expedite a return to normalcy, all resulting in the feeling that things are happening both all at once and not at all. The condition allows for what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism,” a period in which elites are able to quietly push through radical, self-serving policy changes that might otherwise have been impossible. In the case of COVID-19, this process is already well underway, reflected in the myriad regulatory rollbacks (including automobile fuel standards) and the outright suspension of enforcement actions initiated by the EPA during the pandemic.
The most reliable marker of time during the pandemic has, unfortunately, become the daily presidential coronavirus briefing. Whether I’m alerted to its presence by scrolling Twitter, seeing a group text light up, or having the great misfortune of seeing it live on television, nothing has signaled as powerfully to me that a new day has dawned than this event. Like a metronome of disinformation, junk science, and human misery, each briefing serves as an infomercial, reminding us of what happens when the dregs of humanity are thrust into leadership roles during a global crisis.
A familiar refrain throughout these daily briefings is the president’s moniker of “the invisible enemy” to describe the novel coronavirus. While others have quickly noted that the virus is, in fact, visible through a microscope, we can see its imprint in plain sight as well. Most notably, we can see it in the creeping, lonesome voids it has created in our communities: in the empty schools and sidewalks; the shuttered businesses and college campuses; the half-empty trains, planes, and buses; in the queues of refrigerated trucks, holding the bodies of the dead too numerous to house in a morgue; and in all the other vacated spaces, public and private, we’ve abandoned to make room for the virus. To look at the ragged, fraying edges of our communities is to see it.
If we stretch our imaginations a touch more, we can also see the virus in the discursive void surrounding climate change in the 2020 presidential election. With candidates Warren, Sanders, and Inslee vanquished — along with the ambitious variations on a Green New Deal at the center of their respective platforms — the nation’s best hope for serious climate action falls to Joe Biden. While some have rightly acknowledged that his climate plan is far better than any of those put forward in 2016, few have noted that this is, in large part, because the bar is so achingly low that Biden could step over it without breaking stride. After all, his top climate adviser, Heather Zichal, served in executive leadership at natural gas giant Cheniere Energy and helped craft the Obama administration’s “All of the Above” energy strategy — one that viewed natural gas a “bridge to the future” and sought to radically grow domestic oil and gas production. In a moment of profound societal and economic upheaval, the future of the planet is largely in the hands of a campaign whose climate policy was written by veterans of the fossil fuel industry. The climate movement is right to be skeptical of whatever conciliatory remarks, platform revisions, or tweets come next from the Biden campaign.
There is a bitter irony to our new reality. In a primary campaign organized around competing visions for the future — some predicated on a restoration of the Obama administration’s incrementalist legacy; others on the more radical, expansive legacy of FDR — the presumptive nominee, now poised to lead the nation’s second major stimulus and recovery effort in a decade, has already proven himself largely unwilling to think and act at the scale of a crisis. After all, the 2009 Obama Stimulus — a package that Biden has publicly taken credit for throughout the campaign — has rightly come to be viewed as a failure, too small in scale, too narrow in scope, and too little to adequately respond to the Great Recession.
In his book, A Crisis Wasted, Reed Hundt offers a definitive analysis of Biden and Obama’s failures during this period, noting that “[Obama] chose an economic recovery plan that benefited educated, well-off people much more than the middle class. […] The disappointingly protracted economic recovery and Obama’s unpopular legislative initiatives cost the Democrats control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.” The economy is being restructured in real time by COVID-19. Can we really afford to waste another multitrillion-dollar stimulus package on lavish bailouts for the one percent? Can the planet withstand another carbon bomb disguised as an infrastructure package? Only one idea on the table offers the ability to avoid these kinds of worst-case scenarios again: the Green New Deal.
As the authors of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal deftly argue, the concept of the Green New Deal was always imagined as a kind of stimulus measure — a package of ideas that could be brought to fruition at a moment of economic crisis and restructuring. In the opening chapter, they write, “[T]here’s also the matter of crisis. President Obama wasted his, but more are on the horizon. […] We don’t celebrate or romanticize brutal breakdowns of social, economic, and political stability. But as Naomi Klein showed […] the Right plans for crises meticulously. We should, too.” As the world begins to contemplate a return to work and an easing of some social distancing measures, a post-pandemic stimulus (not to be confused with the mid-pandemic relief and bailout packages already passed) is already in the works. Whether it aligns, or not, in any meaningful way with the tenets of a Green New Deal remains an open question. But this book, and this precarious moment, are reminders that hope is not found, it is forged. And whether the stimulus-yet-to-come is green will be a test of the ascendant left’s ability to translate its grassroots energy into statecraft.
A green stimulus could amount to a down payment on the longer, generational project of a Green New Deal. Or, as the right and far too many on left have argued, climate action could be deferred once again, locking in emissions and future catastrophes along the way. In this regard, no other text or resource offers as much to this moment as A Planet to Win. The authors — Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos — have emerged as some of the climate movement’s leading writers and scholars over the last few years. While their book is already circulating widely within that community, it also marks a turn toward a broader audience for them, beyond the bounds of socialist magazines like Jacobin and Dissent (where each has been published) and into broader public conversation. Indeed, it has already been reviewed in Foreign Policy and The New York Review of Books, to say nothing of the myriad, packed events organized around it in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. The Green New Deal is officially a popular, mainstream idea.
While authors of A Planet to Win do extraordinary work reconciling the radical proposal with the logic of capitalism (“Ultimately, capitalism is incompatible with environmental sustainability. That said, we have just over a decade to cut global carbon emissions in half. We don’t imagine ending capitalism quite that quickly.”) and framing their ideas as pragmatic (“[W]e’re taking the science seriously and setting our political goals accordingly. […] [O]ur goal is a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius of warming, aiming for as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius as we can get.”), their most important contribution is their focus on the material transformation of everyday life in the United States — on how a Green New Deal would restructure how and where we live and relate to each other. Whether in housing, transportation, parks and public space, infrastructure, or other elements of the built and natural environment, A Planet to Win excels at putting flesh on the bones of the Green New Deal outlined in February 2019 by House Resolution 109.
To get a sense of why this kind of world-building is so crucial to this moment — and the broader socialist project — it’s instructive to look back at the last half century of environmental movement-building in the United States. In many respects, the 1970s represented the movement’s crescendo: the previous decade’s organizing work resulted in the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976), among others. Far from perfect, these legislative wins came as a result of sustained, external pressure on Congress and gave birth to the nation’s environmental regulatory framework, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A half century later, the youth activists driving the Sunrise Movement — one of the new, and increasingly powerful, engines of the climate movement — is building upon this legacy, as its leaders organize and stoke outside pressure on Congress around issues tied to the Green New Deal. While contemporary critics of the Sunrise Movement’s political strategy have sought to discredit their work for investing in something other than a purely inside game, those critics have yet to account for the very real ways in which prior movements have deployed similar tactics to bring the House, the Senate, and even President Richard Nixon to their collective knees. The Sunrise Movement’s critics might hope to launder the reputations of men like Nixon as quiet environmentalists, but such a claim would rest well outside the bounds of any serious scholarship on the period. Indeed, historians and political scientists have long argued that the environmental successes of the 1970s were won in spite of, not because of, Nixon and Congress — long, hard-fought victories by the environmental movement akin to those sketched out in A Planet to Win. Or, as the authors put it, “We, too, can have our time in the sun. But we, too, will have to fight for it.”
This rallying cry is set against the backdrop of the more recent history of the environmental movement in the United States, one defined largely by retreat and defensive posturing. Much of it has been less about demanding — and winning — a set of concrete demands and more about stopping bad, high-profile projects that conflict with their goals. Think of the Sierra Club’s admirable campaign to close coal-fire plants, or the indigenous-led protests at Standing Rock and elsewhere to stop oil and gas pipelines that threaten sovereignty and planetary collapse. Worthwhile — and in many cases, wildly successful — efforts, to be sure. But they represent a fundamental reorientation within the motley climate movement toward halting bad projects, rather than fighting to start new, exceptional ones.
Whether this drift to defensiveness is a product of the philanthropic community that funds the movement, a product of the turn toward inside-game-only politics by legacy environmental organizations, or other forces, the promise on offer from the Green New Deal is, ultimately, for the movement to once again go on offense. Though it occasionally recedes into the background, this is the central insight of A Planet to Win: “A Green New Deal would likewise have to make climate action viscerally beneficial, turning victories into organizing tools for yet greater political mobilization — and for ongoing liberation.”
Ultimately, those movement-led battles will be manifest in the buildings, landscapes, public works, and infrastructure that only a Green New Deal can make possible. This is not to say that the energy system is unimportant — indeed it is critical to the ideas put forth in A Planet to Win. But molecules (carbon) and electrons (electricity) alone will not inspire the kind of transformation that the climate science underpinning this book demands. No one will switch on a light or plug in their phone and notice a material difference if it is powered by wind instead of coal. Rather, those material gains will be found in the production of low-carbon housing and parks, in high-service and low-carbon public transportation, and in the various ways — large and small — that the built environment must be transformed to attain the jobs, justice, and decarbonization goals at the core of the Green New Deal.
As the authors note, “[I]n the decades of neoliberal despair, it has often felt impossible to imagine that the physical world was actually responsive to political projects, that infrastructure could be a medium for radical, fast-moving action steered by democratic publics.” Yet this moment demands that we build more infrastructure and public works than we’ve ever built, faster and better than we’ve ever built them. It also demands that we reorient how we relate to one another, to capital, and to the planet. The only hope we have of balancing those needs with the desire to live up to democratic principles is through a Green New Deal. And no book offers more to help us translate that idea into better lives than A Planet to Win.
Billy Fleming directs the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-editor of Design With Nature Now (Lincoln, 2019) and The Adaptation Blueprint (Island Press, 2021), and co-author of An Atlas for the Green New Deal.