Climate, Commonwealth, and the Green New Deal: A Conversation with Alyssa Battistoni and Jedediah Britton-Purdy




“WE SHOULD ANTICIPATE a long and difficult struggle,” write Alyssa Battistoni and Jedediah Britton-Purdy in an essay on climate and democracy in the winter issue of Dissent, “replete with recurring fights about what the will of the people is, who the people are, and how that always-contested will ought to be enacted […] all in the face of an increasingly unpredictable nature that really does not care about any of these things.”

As if on cue, in the midst of the most consequential US primary elections any of us have experienced, nature’s indifference to our politics has revealed itself in the form of a novel coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak may not be directly related to climate change, but if you’re wondering what a 21st-century global “natural” disaster looks and feels like in real time, the havoc-wreaking COVID-19 offers a pretty good idea, complete with the potential for economic and political chaos.

Now imagine (it gets less difficult by the day) what our politics might look like as such havoc — brought on not by a pandemic but by growing heat, drought, flood, pestilence, food shortages, mass migration, resource wars, and social upheaval — persists and intensifies in the coming years. How will Americans live together, and with all of our fellow humans? How will we treat one another? How will the strong and fortunate treat the weak, poor, and disenfranchised? How will the latter defend themselves? How will “we,” the people, in our myriad identities and unequal circumstances, survive — even, if possible, live decently?

These are among the inescapable questions at the heart of Battistoni and Britton-Purdy’s essay, and they animate as well their recently published books: Battistoni’s A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (with co-authors Kate Aronoff, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos) and Britton-Purdy’s This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth. Both books are indispensable reading for anyone who wants a clear, rigorous, ethically serious framing of our current political challenge, and its possibilities, in the face of climate catastrophe.

The day after Super Tuesday, I sat down with Battistoni at her kitchen table in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is a political theorist and environmental fellow at Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, and with Britton-Purdy, who joined us by video link from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he is Beinecke Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Britton-Purdy is also a member of Dissent’s editorial board and Battistoni is an editorial board member at Jacobin, where A Planet to Win originated in a series of articles exploring the Green New Deal. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. 

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WEN STEPHENSON: It’s a cliché to say that “the stakes have never been higher.” And yet here we are, on the day after Super Tuesday — and the stakes have never been higher. I’m curious how you both see this moment. Never mind the campaign horse-race analysis, if you step back and take a longer view, what does this moment mean?

JEDEDIAH BRITTON-PURDY: Alyssa and I have had different experiences of the last month, because she’s been pounding the pavement really hard while I have been sitting under a baby. I’m more trapped in the online mediated experience of this campaign’s stakes than I have been ever, by far, in my life. So that seems relevant to what we each say. I imagine the emotional arc of the time is different when you’re out there actually making the boat with your own hands, in a way.

ALYSSA BATTISTONI: I’ll say a couple of things. I do think that, with climate, the stakes are always going to be the highest, because as things continue on, the stakes only get higher. I don’t think the stakes are going to go down again in our lifetimes.

And there seems to be an interesting disconnect between the vision of what people say they want and the candidates they think are either electable to get us there or have institutional support and momentum. We talk a little bit about this in the Dissent piece, that the elements of the Green New Deal are popular: the job guarantee, clean energy. I mean, the Green New Deal itself polls extremely well, including in swing states — people say they want climate action. I also noticed it knocking on doors. I’ve done electoral politics, canvassing, on and off over the years, and it does feel like there’s a shift happening in terms of people talking about climate as a politically motivating concern, something they’re thinking about in their vote, and people are excited about the Green New Deal in some general way, whether or not that means they vote for the candidate who’d be best for the policy — for me, that would be Bernie Sanders. But you see it not only on the topic of the Green New Deal, but in all the polls people also want Medicare for All, or universal health care of some kind. There’s even a kind of strange gap between positive polling for socialism in Texas and then votes for Joe Biden.

So, it seems that there are these two interesting climate democracy questions before us, where enthusiasm for the vision and policies and ideas, and democratic support for them, may not translate into their champions winning elections.

The other thing, obviously, is the generational question. I find it fairly dismaying, particularly after all the laudatory, you know, “the youth will save us!” stuff we’ve heard for several months around climate activism — which I’ve always been skeptical about, because I think it’s usually platitudinous and it means people who don’t identify as “the youth” will not also pitch in to do their share of the activism and organizing, putting something on the line for climate action, GND, whatever — but it also seems reflected in the generation gap and support for candidates.

JBP: I totally agree with all of that, and would build a little on your first point, Alyssa. One of the things that seems to come out of the UK election, as an unhappy or troubling lesson, which seems may be happening here as well, is the gap between — you pointed to the programs people say they like and the candidates they say they’ll support — and there’s also maybe a corresponding gap, or an underlying gap, between the world that people say they would want and their faith in politics and the state as things capable of moving us toward that world. We’ve seen tremendous discursive and imaginative movement on the left in the past 10 years, and pretty minimal concrete change, in terms of what the state is actually doing.

The underlying thought here is that one of the most effective neoliberal and right-wing reactionary achievements of the last 50-odd years has been the drawing down of state capacity and the rhetorical and imaginative poor-mouthing of the state, that it can only do things wrong and shoddily, and so on. And when people are choosing between a horizon that needs to be, in many ways, so far beyond what they’ve seen up till now, and the concrete threat of things getting worse in smaller but very palpable ways — like suddenly you’re in an even shittier insurance situation, or suddenly we lose to Trump again — the fear can get very salient. And I think the reason the fear dominates is that there’s not a lot of lived experience on behalf of the thought that we can actually do these things.

AB: Both at the level of the state and also at the level of political infrastructure to mobilize people around the vision. As you say, there’s a lot of discursive energy on the left, and there’s the canvassing, door knocking, and things like that. But door knocking is just not the same as having a political infrastructure, an organization, and institutions that are actually powerful and that people are connected to over long periods of time and that they experience as expressions of their own agency that can win things and exert power. You knock on doors in working-class communities, and people are like, yeah, sounds good about health care, but why on earth would they believe that this random person coming to their door is going to deliver that? There’s no reason they would.

It seems that the remarkable surge of the climate issue into national politics over the past couple of years may have something to do with the way the urgency of the crisis is now being communicated by scientists with some really stark, really blunt language — that this truly is about survival. There’s a chapter of my book [What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015)] called “Organizing for Survival,” meaning both long-term survival but also day-to-day survival, in which I reported on frontline environmental justice communities, mostly in Texas. And I wonder if you both find this constant push and pull between these competing urgencies, between survival in the long-term sense and the politics of day-to-day survival, on the ground, in communities where that’s a very real thing, communities that have been fighting racial and economic injustice for decades and centuries?

AB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I do think the Green New Deal is an effort to stitch those two time horizons together. We have to address the real problem of short-term survival and making a living and all that, and the question of how we make our lives in the longer term, the fact that planetary survival depends on what we can do to address people’s immediate needs now.

The real reason I think climate is on the agenda now is that there’s finally a framework for how to think about climate that’s not just gloom and doom. People have been aware of climate as something that they worry about but have had no way to express as a political issue, no political program they can see and say, okay, now I can go organize for this program or vote for it. There’s been no way to express support for a positive vision. So, I do think the Green New Deal has been very important for putting climate on the political agenda, because it’s hard to have a politics around apocalypse other than “Oh, shit.”

And that has been the thing for so long. Doom and gloom. Even the language of survival I try to use less, because it does suggest this kind of grim, zero-sum, Malthusian struggle that we point to in the essay, where scarcity is the fact of life and we will all have to duke it out among ourselves to survive, in this way that pits people who might be on the same side, as a climate democratic force, against one another. Which isn’t to say there’s no such thing as scarcity, or that we live in an infinite world, which is obviously not true. But the forms of scarcity I worry most about are social, imposing limits on what is politically possible. Actually, everyone could have health care without it drawing down all of the earth’s resources. That’s a very different question than can we all have a private jet or whatever. So, there are different ways to think about the scarcity question, but I worry that survival suggests that no forms of abundance, or collective social provision, are possible because it’s all just “get what you can and hold on to it.”

Right. I find the problem with the language of survival is that it’s just too binary, too all-or-nothing.

JBP: I want to amplify what I think is the tremendous value in the Green New Deal formulation, that Alyssa and her co-authors have really worked out, I think, better than anyone else I’ve seen. It’s the shift to both the idea that present material needs are actually met rather than constrained by climate politics, and the correct framing — but actually quite novel in some ways — that we can’t afford universal private wealth, but we can afford universal public abundance. This is a really significant and politically empowering reframing.

I also want to say one thing about survival. Part of the problem of the way the term has tended to be used is that the whole environmental vocabulary of survival is pretty directly derivative of an apocalyptic kind of imagination, in which the end comes for everyone, and at the same time, and on equal terms. The way in which survival is immensely relevant now is in the formulation that our friend and colleague Kate Aronoff gave, which I find myself quoting all the time, that the politics of climate change is about who gets to survive in the 21st century. Survival is not a universal question; in its consequences, it’s a distributional question. And that actually bears pretty significantly and in a complicated way on the relationship between immediately felt imperatives and threats to survival and the building of a larger solidaristic politics of joint survival. In certain settings and scales of politics, you can make the transition that says something like, the struggles of this community for survival are almost by definition also a struggle for a world that’s more sustainable and better to share.

I want to ask you both about identity. Your book, Jed, This Land Is Our Land, is a lot about American identity — or identities, plural — and about the relationship of identity to what we think of as “the land” or “nature,” the ways in which identity is shaped by the relationship to the land. In some ways, all our politics are identity politics. And one thing I really appreciated is that you don’t flinch from looking at white working-class identity, whether it’s in coal country, or the gas fields of western Pennsylvania, or wherever, and talking about folks who are, as you say, in some ways “left behind people in left behind places.”

JBP: The latest left behind people.

Yeah, exactly. And this is precisely an economic class, a laboring class of people, whom the Green New Deal promises not to leave behind. We’ve heard a lot about identity politics in the Green New Deal, as somehow being a mere “distraction” from the urgent task of “tackling climate change,” but for a Green New Deal or any kind of climate politics to be successful, it has to address all these different forms of identity politics.

JBP: Well, a Green New Deal politics can’t but be an identity politics, in the sense that it will be involved in preexisting and continuing experiences about whose politics it is, who can identify with it, who feels threatened or addressed by it, in a way that is distinct from, though coexisting with, its material promises.

The current left hasn’t had to confront, in a concrete way, the challenge of building majorities. We haven’t figured out if we can do it. And my instinct about building majorities is that you can tell people that the country is in a bad way, but it’s much harder to build majorities telling people that the country is a bad place. I think there is a strong desire to identify with the potential of the place you live, as a place that’s decent in its possibility. It’s certainly not morally mandatory, I wouldn’t tell anyone on the left that you have an obligation to make yourself a patriot rather than an internationalist, but on the other hand, a Green New Deal politics is a certain kind of identity-constituting vision, a proffer about who we are to one another.

AB: I think the Green New Deal is trying to undo the idea of the environmentalist as the core political identity, as the only person who’d be pro-climate policy, because I think that’s been a dead end. The Green New Deal is trying to say that climate politics is for everyone. And the question of work is a really major one for Green New Deal politics, and for climate politics in general, because so much of it is about the identity of the coal miner or the oil rig worker, or someone who’s a white man involved in fossil fuel extraction, as the figure of the carbon worker being threatened by a Green New Deal, or by climate politics.

And my co-authors and I tried, in A Planet to Win, to talk about seeing other kinds of workers as workers of the Green New Deal, like care work and things like that. And that’s important to do, but it doesn’t totally obviate the problem that we still have a group of workers who have identities that are very strongly grounded in a fossil fuel economy, and for good reason. How far that can be changed through sheer promise — like, okay, we’ll give you a job at same pay and benefits — how much of it is anchored in the material conditions and the fact that those jobs are sometimes the only jobs around, the only jobs you can get without advanced degrees and so on, versus that being part of a community way of life, identity, masculinity, whatever it might be, I don’t know the answers to those questions. We haven’t really had a chance to test it out, because we haven’t really had on offer, okay, trade out your job for another one.

Jed, in your book, when you write about commonwealth, there’s the idea that no one should have to earn a living in a way that harms other people and destroys the land. No one should have to earn a living digging up coal. And there’s this idea of mutuality, of community. I can’t help feeling that there should be a way to communicate with people in communities who have been trained, through political rhetoric, to see only threat in a Green New Deal politics, and to forge solidarity with them. Why is it so difficult to do that?

JBP: First, I totally agree with what Alyssa just said, we don’t know yet what kinds of changes people are capable of. But to respond to the way you just specified, Wen, obviously Trump appeals to different constituencies, but I think the appeal in the coalfields is really one premised on the experience of being backed into a corner, and having been in a corner for a long time, and responding to threat, as you say. And some of the root of that — I write about this a little in my book — is that the destruction of the unions also destroyed the experience, now for two generations of miners, of being able to have some collective control over the terms and meaning and future of their work. People have been holding on to a smaller and smaller economic life, in terms of how many jobs there are, in terms of how much coal is left, in terms of the sense of where the threat is coming from. People still know the difference between a worker and a boss, but they have been persuaded that they and the bosses have the same enemy — the same existential enemy, right? — which is some combination of environmentalism and a future that’s being made by people who are nothing like them and have no interest in them or in the lives they lead.

So I find it at least instructive to think about how different the history of climate politics might have been over the past 15 years if there had been a strong miners’ union, still part of a constituency of the Democratic Party, which people could have seen as bargaining on their behalf in a way that would be reliable, that would be firm, rather than just another story about the future from people they believe they have no reason to trust.

Of course, that would have required a labor movement that took climate change seriously 15 years ago.

JBP: Yeah, I mean, you need to run the story further back. In the 1970s, the Miners for Democracy included constituencies that wanted to ban strip mining, and to strike to enforce responsible environmental operations. They didn’t yet know about climate change, and the kind of reconciliation they had in mind probably couldn’t be done today, but they did have the beginnings of a mineworkers’ solidarity that wasn’t anti-environmental at all. But that all got broken.

That’s a great example.

JBP: I also think it’s just impossible to over-emphasize how real, in lived experience, the attachment to work is, in defining who you are — not in the sense of a career, but in the sense of what you go out and do, and how that makes you who you are. You just can’t exaggerate how important that has been in the lives of people who dig coal, and people who do other forms of manual and extractive labor, in my experience doing politics in West Virginia and my experience growing up among farming people and people who worked on pipelines and in the gas fields. It’s who you are.

AB: One question I have is that we just don’t know what that identity is for so many workers today. For people who have less stable work and community, the identity of work is really quite different. And even, I wonder, for a coal miner in Wyoming, if you’re working in Powder River Basin, and you’re there in the man camp for a year and a half, making a bunch of money, but you’re not part of an embedded community in the same way, I think there are — and I’ve seen people doing interesting research on this — there are still identities like, we’re providing energy to the nation, we’re performing important, valuable work.

Keeping the lights on.

AB: Exactly. Which we should take seriously, of course. And yet, I wonder what the dimensions of that identity look like, in communities of both fossil-fuel workers and other kinds of workers today. The crushing of the coal miners’ unions, and the positive identification not only with work but with each other around the control over that work, I think are very important to understand. You were saying unions haven’t taken climate change seriously, and that has been true in a lot of ways. But I also think unions have been so much on the defensive for 40 or 50 years that all they take seriously is the bare minimum of the material.

Right. There may be good reasons that they haven’t been able to think about climate change. So, I want to ask both of you about “struggle,” a word that’s in Jed’s subtitle. I’m with Frederick Douglass when he said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” In the opening pages of your book, Jed, you have an anecdote involving nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience. If your argument for commonwealth is in some ways an argument for civility, in a deep sense, I’m curious how you see the relationship between commonwealth — civility in that deep sense — and struggle, confrontation. How does that work?

JBP: I think we’re often involved in paradoxical work across time, in which the struggle is for the conditions in which talk about personal decency — and to be able to talk in good faith about common projects, and so on — involves building a setting in which that’s not obscurantist and it’s not just apologetics for things being bad and destructive. So, one sense of it is, as you say, that civility in a deep sense requires a transformation of the conditions in which people are interacting. That’s really why the note of civility in the talk of commonwealth is one of the utopian notes, not one of the present tactical notes. It’s a place to get to.

And this is a paradox that holds in a bunch of ways. Very frequently the most intense and appropriately angry insurrections against things as they are, such as mandatory masculinity and gender binaries, to take an example, also aim at building new forms of inhabited community and care and attachment. I mean, people break things in order to make places that they can live in. They don’t break things just to break them. There are very ordinary kinds of interpersonal virtues that are real, and their reality can’t be achieved just by practicing them. It may have to be achieved frequently by doing things that will make people accuse you of violating them.

[Britton-Purdy needs to sign off, and says goodbye. Stephenson and Battistoni continue the conversation.]

Alyssa, one thing that I’ve kind of cringed at — not in your work, but in some discussions — is what comes across as a naïve utopianism around the Green New Deal and around the nature of the struggle itself, what kind of struggle would be required to actually transform a system like the one we have, which would be nothing short of revolutionary. In the Dissent piece, you say that what we’re talking about here is “part of a broader transformation of economy and society — one that tackles the entrenched power of fossil capital and the political actors who have protected it.” How can that not require a transformation of the political system at the same time? You argue in the piece that there’s a lot to be said for even thin majorities, that a lot can get done. But is that really the case? Can a lot get done with only thin majorities, given the Electoral College, given the Senate, given a gerrymandered House?

AB: Well, I think there are different questions, like, what is the thin majority? Is it a thin popular majority? Is it a thin majority of representatives? Currently, we’re mostly being ruled by a popular minority expressed through electoral majorities, which is a real problem and points to some of the deeper systemic issues you’re talking about, and I absolutely think we have to address all of those. I just don’t think we’re going to mobilize people by saying we’re going to do electoral reform or ranked-choice voting, or even change the Supreme Court. You build the political power that would make it possible to start remaking some of those things.

We want to have some vision for what is possible to do right away. In A Planet to Win, we do say that we think a healthful planet is incompatible with capitalism in the long run, but we don’t think that’s going to change in the short term, so what are the things we can do in the intermediate stages and begin to change not just our political system but our built environment and the politics people have by virtue of those built environments.

You win one thing and that may build the potential to win something else. You need to have some wins along the way, not just all or nothing, survival or catastrophe. And some of those will have to be wins around enfranchisement, or having institutions that better reflect popular will, at the same time that we continue to try to build popular support for the kinds of things we’re talking about.

Part of what I’ve reacted to, at times, is the idea that “winning” will mean getting everything all at once, decarbonizing the economy in a decade, at the same time that we win universal health care and a job guarantee and all of these other things, what I think of as the social undergirding of the Green New Deal. But one of the things I really liked about your Dissent piece was the acknowledgment that we’re up against vast entrenched forces. You write that this will be a “long and difficult struggle,” and that it might look like something “between trench warfare and a collective nervous breakdown,” and that all of this is going to be taking place in a context of increasing climate chaos and instability.

AB: Yeah, yeah. I certainly feel it’s a struggle that I’m committed to for the rest of my life. And it is something that you always have to face as someone who’s on the left, on the side that has lost, basically, more often than not, and as you say, is facing extremely powerful forces that we understand perfectly well have more power, money, everything than we do. You can’t really commit to that kind of politics without recognizing how unlikely it is that you’ll win everything all at once, or even most of the things, that you’ll win anything more than partial victories over a long period of time. It’s something that you really have to grapple with.

And yet we often hear from the fatalistic sort that, if we can’t do it all in the next 10 years, and we pass certain climate tipping points, then the whole struggle is pointless. Whereas, in your and Jed’s piece and in A Planet to Win, I hear you saying that the struggle itself is worth it no matter what happens in the next 10 years, because it matters what kind of politics and what kind of society we have as we go forward into this really scary future.

AB: I do think it will matter, in terms of shaping what is politically possible. I tend to think it’s never too late, because it can always get worse. That’s the most motivating climate motto for me — like, it really always can get worse. Every degree matters.

Until we get to that point where there are cascading effects, and so on. But even then, the struggle for these things we’re talking about, on the rights and democracy level, and the economic and social justice level, those things matter even as we’re passing tipping points.

AB: Especially as we’re passing tipping points, as we start to see the right-wing reaction.

Exactly. Even if the only thing accomplished by the movement for a Green New Deal is to prevent the full flowering of fascism in America as we head into climate chaos, that is something.

AB: It is absolutely something. One of the things I worry about, on the scarcity and survival question, so far the right has denied climate change, but if climate proves to be a powerful political issue, if it starts to look like climate politics is a winning politics, especially among younger constituencies, there probably will be right-wing parties that start to move in that direction.

The reason we have to struggle for the Green New Deal, including all the social provisions of it, even if we don’t achieve them all in the next 10 years, is because the only way we counter the kinds of exclusion and the kinds of racial violence that you see when you have this enforced austerity, is a kind of anti-scarcity and anti-austerity politics that says, no, it doesn’t have to be “us versus them” in that deeply racialized way.

Can you have access to the things that make for a decent life? If the answer is no, that is how you produce a right-wing politics that goes toward fascism. And we are going to see much more of that, I think, as climate chaos intensifies. That’s why the struggle is not only worth it but absolutely necessary the worse things get and the worse things look like they’re going to get. I don’t see any alternative.

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Wen Stephenson is an independent journalist and essayist and the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice (2015). A frequent contributor to The Nation, he has written for many publications, including The AtlanticSlateThe New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Baffler, and elsewhere.

 

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