The Green New Deal Must Have a Zero Waste Policy

Disrupting the extractivist logic of capitalism is crucial to addressing climate change.

Kali Akuno

(Illustration by Ryan Johnson)

One way to waste the opportunity of the Green New Deal would be to limit the terms of debate to what conventional wisdom deems politically possible, rather than what we scientifically and morally understand to be necessary. If we are serious about ushering in a just transition of our economy, then we have to be prepared to launch a no-holds-barred debate about the need to transform all the productive relationships in our society. That includes talking about the physical objects we use every day — in our homes, our workplaces, our streets, our cities — whose materials are a major source of greenhouse gas, from cement to iron to plastics.

Ecosocialism, loosely defined, is a transformed society where the relations of production are not only in harmony with the limits of nature but also help regenerate the ecosystems of our planet.

In fact, 29 percent of U.S. emissions come from manufacturing. A quarter of this comes indirectly through electricity use — the rest results from the direct burning of fuels or from gases or chemicals released as part of the production process. And this does not include emissions from forests cleared to extract materials, ships and trucks used to transport them, or, at the end of a product’s life, gases produced in landfills and incinerators. To zero these out will require taking action against consumption and waste, as well as changing the materials we use and how we make them.

First, we have to confront the extractivisst logic at the heart of the capitalist system. This logic of detached accumulation treats the Earth and all of its natural resources as objects that exist solely for human consumption. This leads to mining, harvesting, clear-cutting and damming to produce commodities, primarily in the form of consumer goods — be they personal, commercial or industrial — without end. In fact, tropical forest loss driven largely by extractive industries is now responsible for 8 percent of global carbon emissions.

Our planet and its unique biosphere have limits, and there is no way to sustain unlimited growth. If we don’t learn to operate within these limits, we will suffer the consequence: what ecologists say is already on pace to be one of the six largest extinction events in planetary history.

If the Green New Deal is going to produce the outcomes we need, it must deliberately disrupt the capitalist logic of extractivism and endless accumulation and set us on a path toward ecosocialism.

Ecosocialism, loosely defined, is a transformed society where the relations of production are not only in harmony with the limits of nature but also help regenerate the ecosystems of our planet. Social relations would be reshaped through the elimination of white supremacy, settler colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, speciesism, and all systems of exploitation and oppression that foster destruction.

To be clear, no legislation alone, even a Green New Deal, can construct an ecosocialist future: This will take the agency and collective power of the multinational working class: building worker- and community-owned and self-managed cooperatives; organizing worker-led labor unions that aim to own and control their places of work; and forming people’s assemblies on community or municipal levels to deepen democracy.

The Green New Deal can, however, make this transition less cumbersome through a comprehensive program of degrowth in the energy and materials we produce and consume.

Part of this program must be a plan to reduce the production and consumption of various consumer goods. Plastic bags and wrappings, for instance, release greenhouse gases in the manufacturing process and fill landfills, waterways and the oceans. Plastic in the ocean threatens life up and down the food chain, from zooplankton to whales, and disrupts nutrient cycles in a way that reduces oceans’ ability to store carbon dioxide.

The program should also require the elimination of the planned obsolescence built into the life cycle of all modern consumer products from cars to cell phones, a practice that both enriches corporations and drives the need to extract more resources and expend more fossil fuels to make more products.

Importantly, the Green New Deal must expand the production of public goods and services held in common, in order to end the false scarcities produced by capitalism. Designing cities around mass transit could reduce the need for individual cars. Collective urban farms and edible lawns could ensure greater food sovereignty on local levels, while drastically reducing emissions for food transport and storage.

We must also implement regenerative production” standards, and thereby counter extractivist logic with regenerative logic. For every resource we extract and use, we must either replace it or create conditions for it to regrow or regenerate itself. This could mean, for example, that we plant three trees for every tree we cut, rehabilitate damaged habitats and reintroduce species that have been harmed by extractive industries.

Given the expansive drive of the capitalist system, the restoration of Earth’s natural habitats will be no small feat. In practice, this will include regenerating our soils, massive reforestation and ocean cleaning projects, all of which require a shift from an extraction- and consumption-based economy.

The Green New Deal must therefore facilitate a transition to waste-free methods of production, distribution, consumption and recycling. This is most easily done if accompanied with local material sourcing, local production, and localized supply and value chains. We must ramp up the recycling, reuse and composting of both existing and future materials, reducing downstream waste in landfills and incinerators, both of which release greenhouse gases.

This means we need comprehensive zero-waste and recycling processes for all non-perishable products, placing the primary responsibility of compliance on producers. Concretely, this could entail a requirement that corporations invest in the production of fully recyclable or reusable products. Should their goods continue to include disposable components — e.g., plastic or cardboard wrappings — corporations must fully internalize this cost, rather than externalizing it onto consumers and the public.

Some new production methods will require new technology. We need massive public funding for open-source research into the development of carbon-neutral production techniques for the industrial and consumer goods needed to ensure a high quality of life for billions of people. Several young technologies are headed in the right direction: Digital fabrication, for instance — in which computers direct production — allows for decentralized manufacturing and uses far less material than traditional processes. The Green New Deal must include policy mandates that ensure these technological developments continue.

Parts of this process, too, will necessitate learning and incorporating a mix-ture of Indigenous and sustainable methods of production drawn from precapitalist cultures. To be clear, this is not a call to return to the days of precapitalist production. It is a call for us to press forward with the full range of scientific knowledge that humanity has accumulated — for example, drawing on the more durable and sustainable methods of concrete production used in ancient Rome, or ecologically sound food cultivation methods from the Incas and Aztecs.

If we are going to stop runaway climate change and save the species and habitats that can still be saved, we are going to have to get serious, fully open our imaginations and dig deep into the reservoirs of our accumulated knowledge to enact comprehensive systems change over the next 10 to 15 years.

Given the tremendous obstacles our ancestors have overcome over the past 200,000 years — from extreme ice ages to supervolcanic eruptions to the genocidal introduction and imposition of the capitalist system on a global scale — we know we have the capacity to survive the horrors this system has unleashed. The question is: Will we develop the will and organization to do so? I believe we can as much as I believe that we must.

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Kali Akuno is the co-founder and executive director of Cooperation Jackson, an emerging network of worker cooperatives in Jackson, Miss. He served as the director of special projects and external funding in the mayoral administration of the late Chokwe Lumumba, and served as the executive director of the Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He is the co-editor of Jackson Rising.
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