We Have To Make Sure the “Green New Deal” Doesn’t Become Green Capitalism

A conversation with Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson.

Sarah Lazare December 12, 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pictured September 22, 2018 in the Bronx borough of New York. (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Incom­ing Con­gress­woman Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez made waves in late Novem­ber when she called for a Green New Deal (GND) — a plan to tran­si­tion” the U.S. econ­o­my to become car­bon neu­tral” over the course of 10 years. In a draft res­o­lu­tion, she pro­pos­es the for­ma­tion of a Select Com­mit­tee to devel­op a plan for mas­sive pub­lic works pro­grams, pow­ered by a jobs guar­an­tee and pub­lic banks, with the goal of meet­ing 100 per­cent of nation­al pow­er demand through renew­able sources.” Accord­ing to Oca­sio-Cortez, the plan aims to elim­i­nate pover­ty, bring down green­house gas emis­sions, and ensure a just tran­si­tion’ for all work­ers, low-income com­mu­ni­ties, com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, rur­al and urban com­mu­ni­ties and the front-line communities.”

We need to critically analyze some of the shortfalls of the capitalist logic embedded in this plan. We have to push back and improve upon the Green New Deal.

The GND is still in its nascent phase, and con­crete details haven’t yet been hashed out, but the pro­pos­al has received back­ing from the youth cli­mate orga­ni­za­tion, the Sun­rise Move­ment, which staged direct actions and protests to build polit­i­cal sup­port for the frame­work. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) is throw­ing his polit­i­cal weight behind the plan and 35 House mem­bers have endorsed it. Oca­sio-Cortez — who iden­ti­fies as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist — is poised to lead the pro­gres­sive con­ver­sa­tion about cli­mate change at the fed­er­al level.

Yet, some cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions are respond­ing with more cau­tious sup­port. The Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance (CJA), a net­work of front-line envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the South­west Work­ers Union and Black Mesa Water Coali­tion, praised the GND as a much-need­ed aggres­sive nation­al piv­ot away from cli­mate denial­ism to cli­mate action.” But CJA said in a state­ment released ear­li­er this week that the pro­pos­al for the GND was made pub­lic at the grasstops [as opposed to grass­roots] lev­el. When we con­sult­ed with many of our own com­mu­ni­ties, they were nei­ther aware of, nor had they been con­sult­ed about the launch of the GND.”

While the GND is in its devel­op­men­tal phase, the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance says it is crit­i­cal for social move­ment groups to fight for the best pos­si­ble ver­sion of the deal — and ensure that it does not include false solu­tions such as car­bon mar­kets, off­sets and emis­sions trad­ing regimes or geo­engi­neer­ing tech­nolo­gies.” CJA says any jobs plan should restore and pro­tect work­ers’ rights to orga­nize and form unions, and it should be pred­i­cat­ed on non-extrac­tive poli­cies that build local com­mu­ni­ty wealth that is demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly gov­erned.” Any deal must ensure free, pri­or and informed con­sent by Indige­nous peo­ples,” CJA insists, and should be direct­ed by those com­mu­ni­ties bear­ing the brunt of the dig, burn, dump” economy.

In These Times spoke with Kali Akuno, direc­tor of the CJA-affil­i­at­ed Coop­er­a­tion Jack­son, a Mis­sisip­pi-based group that aims to build a sol­i­dar­i­ty econ­o­my” that is anchored by a net­work of coop­er­a­tives and work­er-owned, demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly self-man­aged enter­pris­es.” Accord­ing to Akuno, move­ments must defend the best com­po­nents of the GND, while chal­leng­ing – and offer­ing alter­na­tives to – the cap­i­tal­ist log­ic embed­ded in some of its pro­pos­als. While this is still in the draft­ing phase,” he argues, let’s get it as near per­fect as we pos­si­bly can.”

Sarah Lazare: What do you think of the pro­pos­al for a Green New Deal put for­ward by Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez?

Kali Akuno: One, I’m glad that some­thing like this is being intro­duced and is being dis­cussed so wide­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly com­ing from a fresh­man con­gress­woman. I don’t think that’s insignif­i­cant at all. I’m excit­ed Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez even had the courage to take this up. Let’s be real: To walk in as a fresh­man con­gress­woman in this envi­ron­ment and atmos­phere, she should be applauded.

Is it per­fect, is it every­thing we want? Absolute­ly not. To a cer­tain extent, that’s fine. She has to play ball in the bal­ance of pow­er as it con­crete­ly exists. The broad pub­lic debate that the intro­duc­tion of the Green New Deal pro­pos­al has gen­er­at­ed presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Left to strength­en our forces, gath­er new forces and expand the base of the move­ment. Her putting this for­ward is a pro­found oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Left.

I think the Left needs to seize it. We can do that by talk­ing about it: the things we sup­port, why we sup­port them, the things we want to see strength­ened, improved and changed. We should com­mu­ni­cate that as far and wide as we can. We have to shift the con­ver­sa­tion and put the Right on the defen­sive. Right now, they’re on the offensive.

We need to crit­i­cal­ly ana­lyze some of the short­falls of the cap­i­tal­ist log­ic embed­ded in this plan. We have to push back and improve upon the Green New Deal. In a real prac­ti­cal and con­crete way, the Left has to intervene.

Dis­miss­ing it and not hav­ing a dia­logue and talk­ing just about how it’s imper­fect is not good enough. If we believe there is a lim­it­ed time to avert the most cat­a­stroph­ic effects of cli­mate change, we have to seize every oppor­tu­ni­ty to edu­cate peo­ple, cre­ate the pol­i­cy frame­work, and to take action to imple­ment it on the ground in real time. We need to talk about it, raise aware­ness and build a base for our point of view. Let’s use the plat­form her win­ning the elec­tion has pro­vid­ed to move peo­ple and to take action.

Sarah: What should a left inter­ven­tion look like?

Kali: Let me get to the heart of it. Because of the cap­i­tal­ist log­ic that’s embed­ded in what Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez has put forth, at this point, the Left needs to intervene.

We need to be putting out and ele­vat­ing the counter-pro­pos­als many of us have been putting for­ward. There is the just tran­si­tion” frame­work com­ing out of some social move­ments and orga­nized labor. There are some con­crete sug­ges­tions many of us have been putting for­ward for years. Heal­ing the soil, rein­tro­duc­ing small-scale agri­cul­ture, restor­ing the com­mons, mak­ing more space avail­able for wildlife rein­tro­duc­tion. This has been com­ing from the It Takes Roots Alliance, which con­sists of the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work, Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance, the Grass­roots Glob­al Jus­tice Alliance and the Right to the City Alliance. On the ground, orga­ni­za­tions from oppressed com­mu­ni­ties have been putting for­ward a just tran­si­tion for a while.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from It Takes Roots are open­ing a dia­logue with Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s office. Our aim is to lift up our demands and con­crete solu­tions and have them con­sti­tute core com­po­nents of the leg­is­la­tion that she puts for­ward. We’re see­ing the begin­ning of an open­ing in that regard.

While this is still in the draft­ing phase, let’s get it as near per­fect as we pos­si­bly can.

Sarah: What needs to be improved?

Kali: There are some things in the frame­work that she put forth that need to be chal­lenged. The one that I always high­light is this notion that the dif­fer­ent types of solu­tions that are devel­oped through the entre­pre­neur­ial inno­va­tions that come out of this pro­gram, like renew­able ener­gy tech­nolo­gies, that the U.S. gov­ern­ment and major transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions should be exporters of this ener­gy and knowl­edge. That’s deeply embed­ding this thing as a new export indus­try, which is a new cycle of cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion. That part real­ly needs to be chal­lenged. This is try­ing to embed the solu­tion in mar­ket-based dynam­ics, but the mar­ket is not going to solve this problem.

Editor’s note: In her draft text call­ing for a com­mit­tee on the Green New Deal, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez includes the fol­low­ing objec­tive, to be accom­plished with­in 10 years of the plan’s imple­men­ta­tion: mak­ing green’ tech­nol­o­gy, indus­try, exper­tise, prod­ucts and ser­vices a major export of the Unit­ed States, with the aim of becom­ing the undis­put­ed inter­na­tion­al leader in help­ing oth­er coun­tries tran­si­tion to com­plete­ly green­house gas neu­tral economies and bring­ing about a glob­al Green New Deal.”

Sarah: U.S. indus­tries have played tremen­dous and dis­pro­por­tion­ate role in dri­ving cli­mate change. It seems preda­to­ry for those indus­tries to devel­op solu­tions” and then turn around and sell them to the Glob­al South.

Kali: Yeah, it’s this log­ic of, I cre­at­ed the prob­lem, I con­trol the res­o­lu­tion of the prob­lem through var­i­ous mech­a­nisms, I play a big role in pre­vent­ing any seri­ous motion that might hap­pen at the lev­el of inter­gov­ern­men­tal exchange through the Unit­ed Nations — under Oba­ma, and now under 45. I set it up so that we come up with these tech­nol­o­gy solu­tions — some are pure sci­en­tif­ic fic­tion – come up with a few car­bon seques­tra­tion solu­tions, and I’m going to charge exor­bi­tant rates sell­ing tech­nol­o­gy to the Glob­al South. Pri­mar­i­ly Trump, the Unit­ed States and west­ern Europe cre­at­ed the prob­lem and pre­vent any­one from com­ing up with solu­tions. They come up with mar­ket solu­tions and sell them back to us through force.

We need to strug­gle with Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez and oth­ers about this. We have to frame this in a way that real­ly speaks to the glob­al nature of the prob­lem. We have to include the peo­ples of the world at the front­lines of the tran­si­tion in the dis­cus­sion to resolve it — Indige­nous peo­ples, the peo­ples of Ocea­nia, South­east Asia, the Caribbean, and the African con­ti­nent. It’s not just a nation­al prob­lem. The way this is framed is real­ly as if we’re going to stop cer­tain prob­lems with­in U.S. bor­ders. But car­bon emis­sions don’t observe nation­al bound­aries — they nev­er have and nev­er will. Nation-state pol­i­cy lim­its us in cer­tain ways. That’s anoth­er aspect of this that we have to push back on and chal­lenge. This has to include front-line com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States and from all through­out the world.

Sarah: What would the ide­al glob­al cli­mate pol­i­cy look like? What do you think about the frame­work of reparations?

Kali: Repa­ra­tions is one of the key aspects that has to be intro­duced into the dia­logue. The Unit­ed States has, under all admin­is­tra­tions, blocked this kind of approach. It is not new to Trump. The con­cept of repa­ra­tions needs to be intro­duced into sev­er­al dif­fer­ent lev­els of the con­ver­sa­tion. You can think of repa­ra­tions in terms of finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion, and you can think of it in terms of decol­o­niza­tion — return­ing lands back to indige­nous and col­o­nized peo­ple sub­ject­ed to the Unit­ed States and West­ern Europe much of the past 500 years.

The mar­ket-based cap­i­tal­ist extrac­tive sys­tem has been high­light­ed through the World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion. You have intel­lec­tu­al patents that are being cod­i­fied into law through the WTO, which the Unit­ed States and West­ern Europe have pushed on the world. If we look at Mon­san­to, they basi­cal­ly took agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices and indige­nous knowl­edge, cod­i­fied it with their tech­nol­o­gy of splic­ing genes, and now have pow­er and con­trol over it. Patents need to be abol­ished and dis­solved and we need to open up space in many areas for small farm­ers like those aligned with the glob­al peas­ant move­ment, La Via Campesina, to return to tra­di­tion­al prac­tices of grow­ing food. That is a major form of repa­ra­tions: repair­ing harm that’s been done.

Sarah: What about the fos­sil fuel indus­try? Should we be talk­ing about going to bat­tle with the indus­try? Shut­ting it down?

Kali: There is no ques­tion about it. That has to be tar­get num­ber one. We have to adopt a pro­gram of keep it in the ground.” There is no way to get around that. That’s a demand com­ing from Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. If we just look at the raw sci­ence, all the raw data that is out there, that’s what we need to do. We’re locked into an old exploita­tive log­ic that is only main­tained through the grip the petro­chem­i­cal com­pa­nies have on the polit­i­cal process. We are going to have to take them on head on.

What hap­pened at Stand­ing Rock real­ly points the way for­ward for the future. I don’t think we should hide from that or step away from that. We’re going to have to take direct action on a mas­sive scale to shut that indus­try down on an inter­na­tion­al lev­el. There are a ton of alter­na­tives that could be scaled up — solar, wind — and they need to be scaled up.

To think that they can keep pump­ing and drilling, and we’ll just phase them out with alter­na­tives, on the basis of some kind of mar­ket log­ic, is not going to work. There is no ques­tion that we need to adopt a keep it in the ground” pol­i­cy — like, yes­ter­day. That has to be one of our cen­tral demands.We have to scale up our cam­paigns against the oil com­pa­nies, and we have to win. This is a nec­es­sary polit­i­cal struggle.

Sarah: Can you talk more about the con­cept of a just tran­si­tion” — where it comes from, what it’s call­ing for?

Kali: Just so folks know, the term comes out of the labor move­ment in the 1980s, par­tic­u­lar­ly some folks who were work­ing in labor sec­tors, includ­ing the petro­chem­i­cal and ther­monu­clear indus­tries. The con­cept was adopt­ed to say that our inter­ests around hav­ing a clean and safe envi­ron­ment, and your inter­est in hav­ing a liv­ing-wage job, are not and should not be opposed. There is a sys­tem in place keep­ing us at odds with each oth­er in the short term. We have to change the sys­tem. A key part is tak­ing care of our com­mu­ni­ties, mak­ing sure that the over­all impacts of tox­ic con­t­a­m­i­na­tion are thor­ough­ly addressed. There has to be a way in which new jobs are cre­at­ed that enable work­ers to go through a just tran­si­tion from one set of skills to anoth­er set of skills and main­tain a high stan­dard of living.

For Coop­er­a­tion Jack­son, which is part of the It Takes Roots Alliance, we ful­ly endorse the just tran­si­tion frame­work. This means high­light­ing grass­roots, inde­pen­dent solu­tions in front-line com­mu­ni­ties: pro­grams cen­ter­ing on repa­ra­tions, decol­o­niza­tion and build­ing a demo­c­ra­t­ic econ­o­my through the advance­ment of the social and sol­i­dar­i­ty econ­o­my. For us at Coop­er­a­tion Jack­son, this is linked to a pro­gram of eco-social­ist devel­op­ment. We are going to have to ulti­mate­ly do a major over­haul in how things are pro­duced, dis­trib­uted, con­sumed and recy­cled back into the nat­ur­al resource sys­tems that we depend on. If we don’t think about just tran­si­tion in a long-term, holis­tic way, we are miss­ing the point. To think we can make some tweaks to cap­i­tal­ism or expan­sive car­bon neu­tral” pro­duc­tion — that is also miss­ing the point.

To address our deep prob­lems, we have to shift wealth and pow­er — it has to be moved from the Unit­ed States and Europe to the rest of the world. We know we are going to run into a great deal of resis­tance from cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ments. We want to include that in our nar­ra­tive of what a just tran­si­tion entails.

Right now, as we speak, the COP24 cli­mate talks are hap­pen­ing in Poland, and there are work­ers there in the coal indus­try who are try­ing to appro­pri­ate the term just tran­si­tion” to say clean coal” is part of the just tran­si­tion, which is con­trary to the spir­it and let­ter of the con­cept, espe­cial­ly know­ing how that indus­try is con­tribut­ing to the cri­sis we are in.

Sarah: What do you think about the Green New Deal’s call for a jobs guarantee?

Kali: It excites me, because I could see the imme­di­ate ben­e­fits here in my com­mu­ni­ty in Jack­son, Mis­sis­sip­pi. That would cre­ate a lot of jobs for the young peo­ple in my com­mu­ni­ty for the peo­ple who are chron­i­cal­ly unem­ployed and under­em­ployed. How­ev­er, we should push for this plan with open eyes. There’s a lim­it to how many jobs could be cre­at­ed and how long they could be sus­tained. At a cer­tain point, the log­ic of expan­sion has to run its course and end. You have to go back to eco-social­ism. There need to be lim­its we impose on our­selves. We can’t just keep extract­ing min­er­als out of the earth — we’re going to have to fig­ure out some nat­ur­al lim­its to live in. I would like to see more of that infused into the Green New Deal: real con­ver­sa­tions about our nat­ur­al lim­its and how to cre­ate a tru­ly sus­tain­able sys­tem, so that we don’t exhaust all of the earth’s resources and deprive them to future gen­er­a­tions. We have to start think­ing about that now.

Sarah: Among oth­er things, the Green New Deal calls for new invest­ment in pub­lic bank­ing. The draft text reads, Many will say, Mas­sive gov­ern­ment invest­ment! How in the world can we pay for this?’ The answer is: in the same ways that we paid for the 2008 bank bailout and extend­ed quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing pro­grams, the same ways we paid for World War II and many oth­er wars. The Fed­er­al Reserve can extend cred­it to pow­er these projects and invest­ments, new pub­lic banks can be cre­at­ed (as in WWII) to extend cred­it and a com­bi­na­tion of var­i­ous tax­a­tion tools (includ­ing tax­es on car­bon and oth­er emis­sions and pro­gres­sive wealth tax­es) can be employed.”

What do you think of this pub­lic bank­ing component?

Kali: We are big-time sup­port­ers of pub­lic bank­ing. We’ve been think­ing of that in rela­tion to the imple­men­ta­tion of the Jack­son-Kush Plan going back 10 years, and we’re still try­ing to fig­ure out how to put it in prac­tice on the munic­i­pal lev­el. I’m excit­ed to see it embed­ded in Green New Deal pro­pos­al. With­out that, you won’t have cer­tain kinds of cap­i­tal con­trols over the process. But we need to make sure there’s going to be suf­fi­cient invest­ment in com­mu­ni­ties. I don’t think enough of the Left is real­ly talk­ing about it.

Some peo­ple will say pub­lic bank­ing is just anoth­er reform mea­sure in the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ism. That’s true but we’re not going to elim­i­nate finance overnight, like it or not. One of the first steps in the social­ist tran­si­tion as we see it, is that we’re going to have to learn how to dis­ci­pline cap­i­tal and put it to pub­lic use. That’s a key thing that I think pub­lic banks will help us do as we learn and grow. There will still be con­tra­dic­tions to deal with, on dis­play in strug­gle against the pipeline in North Dako­ta, because the pub­lic banks there are invest­ed in that. This is not with­out con­tra­dic­tion, but we will have to set them up to be run by com­mu­ni­ties, and they must have a pro­found­ly dif­fer­ent ori­en­ta­tion and log­ic. Who­ev­er on Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s team that put that in there, I was very much pleased to see it.

Sarah: To what extent were front-lines envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice groups con­sult­ed about the Green New Deal?

Kali: As an indi­vid­ual I was not con­sult­ed, but I think it’s a two-way street, because I also didn’t do much to help her get elect­ed. The nat­ur­al incli­na­tion is you’re going to lis­ten to the folks who sup­port you. The polit­i­cal trade off, whether we like it or not, is that you lis­ten to those who put skin in the game to help you. That’s a real­i­ty we need to start with. Whether or not Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez reach­es out, we have an oblig­a­tion to tap her on her shoul­der and say some of these ideas are ter­ri­ble, here’s why, here are alter­na­tives, here are exam­ples of what the alter­na­tive looks like in prac­tice — you can ele­vate them and use them as a mod­el. That’s our task on the left — to inter­vene in that par­tic­u­lar way. It’s not a ques­tion of whether or not she will lis­ten: She’s an elect­ed offi­cial, and we have move her to lis­ten through the force of our orga­niz­ing ini­tia­tives. We have to strug­gle with her to make sure she votes in the broad­est inter­ests pos­si­ble, since she’s try­ing to lead this on a nation­al level.

For me, it’s our task to hit her up, to con­tact her, to make sure we are very upfront and vocal from this point for­ward, to make sure what we’re demand­ing and propos­ing is very clear. We have to win oth­er folks over to that posi­tion as well. Some of the best ideas might not car­ry the day if they don’t have an orga­nized con­stituen­cy behind them. She’s going to have to go to bat­tle, she’s going to have to fight for the Green New Deal, and she’s prob­a­bly going to lis­ten to those forces that have the great­est lever­age in terms of resources, or the great­est num­ber of voic­es in sheer num­bers. Those are things we have to deliv­er — we need to deliv­er that to make sure she’s account­able to our demands. We need to be real about how this game is going to play out. And be clear about what we bring to the table to make sure we get the out­comes we need.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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