For an Ecosocial Transformation

Transcribed from the 9 December 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole episode:

We have to find a less resource-intensive form of affluence and a much more egalitarian one.

Chuck Mertz: The Green New Deal could change everything—everything about the way we relate to the world, each other, and our actual daily lives. A Green New Deal means a completely new way of living. No wonder so many conservatives and reactionaries oppose the plan. Here to help us imagine exactly what a Green New Deal may be, sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen is coauthor of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, a collection of four essays collectively written by three past guests here on This is Hell!, Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, and Thea Riofrancos. Their book also has a forward by Naomi Klein, another past guest here on This is Hell!.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Daniel.

Daniel Aldana Cohen: Thank you, it’s great to be here in hell.

CM: It’s really nice and humid this time of year.

You write, “A radical Green New Deal could build landscapes of no-carbon splendor in and beyond cities. Our overarching goal is limiting energy use while simultaneously improving quality of life. Reducing demand shrinks the amount of minerals we have to draw out of the Earth’s crust, and the less total clean energy we have to produce, the faster we reach zero carbon. We get there by treating the whole energy system as a public good, not a private amenity. Connecting dots between photons and transit, electrons and housing, photovoltaic and sunbathing.”

The argument that’s marched out every time anyone suggests making the energy sector or any sector a public good is that the government is not as efficient or effective; it creates far more wasteful spending than the private sector.

Does making the energy sector a public good mean it will necessarily become more costly, more ineffective, creating a perfect site for government corruption when it comes to hiring workers in that sector? That’s what we’re told over and over again.

DC: Obviously we don’t think that taking more democratic and public control of the energy system is going to cause all these problems. Quite the contrary. The overarching goal, as you read, is to reduce the amount of energy that we use. We simply have to do that, for a couple of reasons. One: if we don’t, then we are consigning the rest of the world to this endless churn of material growth which is not sustainable nor compatible with either social justice or preventing a climate emergency. The second reason we need to reduce how much energy we use is that it’s the only way we can decarbonize our energy quickly enough to get to zero carbon.

The private sector isn’t good at any of that. At best, the green capitalist model is to build, build, build, grow, grow, grow—except green. This is at the very same time that we need to use less energy. We have to find a less resource-intensive form of affluence and a much more egalitarian one.

Some big transitions in the economy have been relatively successful—we can think, in the US case, of the New Deal or of the war mobilization. We don’t want to build a ton of bombs, but we know that the public sector, when it moves really quickly, can get stuff done. Unsuccessful transitions in the economy—for instance the green neoliberal efforts address the climate change of the last thirty years—have essentially achieved nothing. There has been progress in the technology of solar panels and wind turbines, and that’s great, but we’re not trying to make changes on the margin. We’re trying to turn over the entire system.

For that, we need big public investment, and to coordinate with democratic control by communities on the ground.

CM: Is the Green New Deal, then, about a lot more than only addressing climate change? Is it even bigger than that? Conservatives have been warning us that climate change is a socialist plot for years.

DC: It’s not a socialist plot. Climate change is a physical manifestation of burning up all the fossil fuels and totally disrupting the natural carbon cycle. Naomi Klein was right many years ago when she wrote This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. She pointed out that conservatives were on to something. They realized decades ago—far before even the so-called left, let alone the Democratic Party mainstream—that if you take the climate science seriously, then there’s really nothing you wouldn’t do to prevent the calamitous and apocalyptic destruction of civilization.

Conservatives understand as well as anybody else that if we look back at history, at how to make a rapid transformation of the economic system, and do it in a way that has buy-in because it’s relatively egalitarian and fair, then we’re going to be looking at examples like the New Deal or the war mobilization. If we look at the United Kingdom, the periods of rationing during World War One and again during World War Two were times when life expectancy for poor people went up the most. In the midst of this rapid economic change that they made to deal with the war, they could only build enough political support to do that by providing sufficient food and supplies to poor people. And that raised their standard of living compared to the capitalist everyday.

But I think the bigger question you’re asking is whether we can—as some of the centrist wonks want to say—separate the carbon question from the social question. The answer to that is just no. If we follow the carbon off the graph and into the actual reality of everyday life and how the world operates, we find that carbon is in all the things that we’re already fighting about.

Take housing. Housing is responsible for fifteen percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no non-political way to tackle housing. Transportation: fifteen percent of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s fundamentally about public transit, cars, biking, walking—if it’s about biking and walking and transit, who has the resources? Who has the right to live in transit-connected and walkable areas?

In our view, we’re going to have to make a transformation to housing, and we’re going to have to make a transformation to transit, simply to save human civilization as we know it. That transformation absolutely has to be just and egalitarian and democratic, if we’re going to make the change quickly enough and if we’re going to build a good enough world that ordinary people are going to fight hard enough to win it.

CM: You write, “Energy dominates climate discussions: at present, it’s the cause of most carbon pollution. About four tenths of US energy is currently consumed in the form of electricity, mostly produced from fossil fuels. The rest mainly comes from their direct combustion, as in gas-powered cars or coal-fired plants. The only way to decarbonize energy is to electrify almost everything that now runs on fossil fuels, from stovetop cooking to bus travel, so that it can run on renewable energy instead while also increasing efficiency and building power supply.”

But as you point out, electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels. A refrain from the anti-clean fuel crowd has always been, “Where do you think clean electricity comes from? It comes from dirty coal!” Why is electricity any better that just burning fossil fuels? Aren’t they both, in the end, burning fossil fuels as conservatives claim?

It’s going to take a political movement to break the cartel of these fossil fuel-burning investor-owned utilities which are refusing to make change, and to impose a better system.

DC: There is some possibility of things like carbon-free gas which we can create synthetically through things like electrolysis. But that’s a small part of any future energy system, so I think we have to focus on the big stuff. We need energy. We need energy to make food warm, to cook it, to stay warm in the winter. We need energy to be cool in the summer in many parts of the world. We need energy to get around, to make things that we need, and so on.

So we need energy. The main way that we get it, as you said, is by burning fossil fuels—and that’s just got to stop. That is what will ultimately kill us. And it’s important to note, as you were saying, it’s not just that we do this burning at power plants, but we burn gas on our stoves. We burn heating oil in our homes to keep them warm and sometimes to heat up water.

The vision here is that the only way to create clean energy is through electrical systems. That means that all the systems we have that are not electric, we have to make electric. That already has a huge energy savings. When we burn fossil fuels, we lose about half of that energy in waste heat. That’s why a car heats up when you drive it. It gets very hot to the touch. Electrification is already more efficient. But as you said, once you electrify, where’s that electric power coming from? We have to take all the fossil fuels that are creating electricity and we also have to replace them with wind turbines and solar panels and in some cases things like geothermal energy.

It’s kind of mind-boggling how massive a transition we need right now. Renewables, especially wind and solar, combined, still account for well under ten percent of our total energy use in the United States. This is why we need big public investment and to move incredibly quickly, and why we want union jobs doing the work installing the energy, producing the energy, transforming our appliances, transforming our buildings, transforming our transit systems.

We need to reorganize the whole physical infrastructure that we live in, and some aspects of our everyday life, so we can power our existence with the wind and the sun. Outside of that: since this degree of transformation is necessary, we can make it really egalitarian. We can have community cooperatives owning and governing a lot of our solar power and a lot of our community wind, small-scale wind farms. We can have new social housing—we’re going to have to build new housing anyways. We can build new social housing to the highest green standards that will use virtually no energy or no energy at all—that technology exists and it’s happening all over Europe.

We can solve problems like the housing crisis at the same time as we’re decarbonizing the building stock. We can greatly improve public transit. And through a combination of social housing and transit improvements, we can actually make it affordable to live next to the subway stop, to live near where you work so you can walk to work.

There is an opportunity that comes from the changes every neoliberal wonk knows we have to make to the energy system: politically, we understand it’s a chance to make society more egalitarian, more democratic. And we have to. Again, because otherwise no one’s going to fight for this. And if no one’s fighting for this, it’s just not going to happen fast enough.

CM: You write, “These days public debate about energy turns on the narrow question of how quickly and cheaply we can build wind turbines and solar panels. But that’s the easy part. Wind and solar costs are plunging so fast that for much of the country it’s more expensive to keep burning coal than to close those coal plants, absorb lost revenue, and build new wind and solar.”

We’ve heard about how in the North Sea the wind turbines are now far more cost effective than burning fossil fuels. They don’t need any government subsidies, which is great for the UK. Will the market, will costs force us towards a more clean energy future? To what extent is the market working, at least to some degree, when it comes to responding to climate change?

DC: The role of markets in this is complicated. In the last thirty to forty years, clean energy has gotten cheaper far more quickly than anybody expected. Really the only people who saw how quickly the price of solar and wind would drop were groups like Greenpeace, who were mocked. But the International Energy Association, the Energy Information Administration—all the big forecasters got this wrong. This is a story of technological ingenuity, and in part it’s a story of markets. What’s often left out in this neoliberal fantasy talk is that a huge amount of this happened thanks to public investment through universities, and thanks to direct public subsidies. Ratepayers in Germany, for instance, agreed to pay more for clean energy because they didn’t want to keep burning coal—this actually kickstarted the Chinese solar panel industry.

Here’s the problem: we’re talking about change on the margins. Right now it is already cheaper in Georgia (in the United States) to build and put into operation new solar farms than it is to run the coal plant that already exists. But the factory that is building those cheap solar panels is not what actually changes a society’s energy infrastructure. It’s going to take massive political mobilization to bankrupt coal companies that exist, to put them out of business, to make sure that the workers in the mines and facilities have their pensions secured, and that they have other jobs that they can move to that pay just as well. And it’s going to take a political movement to break the cartel of these fossil fuel-burning investor-owned utilities which are refusing to make change, and to impose a better system.

The problem with the market lens is that it doesn’t even understand how its products got so cheap, and it doesn’t have a theory of change. It has a theory of “things might work out,” and there are some cases where it did, but it’s only through major political decisions and mass mobilization from below that we are actually going to get system change. The market is fine for changes at the margin. But we need system change.

CM: How difficult is it to deprivatize any sector? There’s a sense, in the United States at least, that any time something is privatized, it’s privatized forever and we cannot deprivatize it. How difficult is it to deprivatize any economic sector?

DC: I don’t think we’re talking about nationalizing every solar factory in the world, or necessarily any of them. We’re talking about taking public control of utilities and potentially having federal authorities like the Tennessee Valley authority moving towards more cooperative ownership of energy: municipal ownership of utilities and energy companies, that sort of thing. As for the actual manufacturing, in the short term we’d still see private companies doing that. We’re looking at a mix, but one where control of the system is in public hands.

How hard is that? There are legal hurdles, there are political hurdles, and there are economic hurdles. The kind of change we’re talking about—a huge Green New Deal—is not something you can just do in ordinary everyday politics. We’re going to need a mass mobilization, and we’ll probably need to take advantage of a moment of crisis.

Yes people need to be less selfish. But we’re not going to get there by browbeating them or through memes. We’re going to get there by giving them an economic ownership stake in the new economy.

We talk in the beginning of the book about how, when Obama was elected in late 2008, there was a huge financial crisis. At that time, when the government propped up the economy in the wake of a crisis, it had enormous bargaining power. It was essentially propping up the entire global economy. Many people were saying to Obama—for instance the head of Fannie Mae—that he could just buy up all the homes that were defaulting and rent them out to their occupants, and literally not a single person would be displaced. They wouldn’t even really be foreclosed on. And the Obama administration, on point after point, said, “No, that’s socialism—we’re doing this old-fashioned neoliberal way.” Obama himself actually wanted to build high-voltage transmission lines that would help move clean energy from the windy Midwest to the coasts, and his advisors convinced him that they couldn’t, simply because it’s not “normal” for the government to build transmission.

We know there’s another recession coming. It’s right around the corner. We hope and we’ll fight for a progressive in the white house. We know that this economic crisis is going to coincide with climate disasters, because they’re happening every month now—even every week. Our view is that we need a really big push, with a lot of mass mobilization behind it, and the power of the federal purse, and that in a liquid moment of a huge green stimulus, it makes it possible to do things like a big raft of nationalizations that would be hard to do in ordinary, everyday political life.

That’s why we focus on federal politics, where there is federal investment power, alongside this idea of crisis and the need to start building the ideas, projects, and proposals that people can organize around once we see the recession and the potential for a green stimulus.

When Obama got in in ’08, I’m sure you remember, there weren’t that many people in the streets fighting for a real democratic green stimulus in response to the financial crisis. But the left is so much stronger now than it was a decade ago. We can be confident that we will able to bring a real amount of people power and new ideas into the picture. That’s when we fight for a lot of big changes, like taking state control of a huge number of electric utilities, for example.

CM: You write, “More energy now flows up to the grid from below. Rooftop solar panels, home and vehicle batteries, and other so-called distributed energy resources send electricity up the same wires that it comes down from solar farms and wind turbines and dams and nuclear plants. When they are plugged in, electric car batteries can pull power down or send it back up.”

Do we all, then, not only collectively but individually need to start producing clean energy, each and every one of us, to account for the energy needed in a clean energy system? Should we all be putting solar panels and wind turbines on our roofs and in our yards in order to accelerate the process towards a clean energy system? Or is that the wrong way to look at it?

DC: One of the complexities of the green economy is that there are so many things we need to do that seem so similar to the green neoliberal ideology. It can be very confusing for people. Take the example of solar panels on your roof or batteries in your home that would help store that solar energy. These are really good ideas. Rooftop solar is an amazing thing, because even though it’s not as efficient as a solar farm, it doesn’t take a transmission grid to move it around. If there is an emergency and the power lines go down, and you have a solar panel on your home, you have some resiliency. And if you have that battery in your house, that can store power from your solar array for the nighttime, let’s say, but it could also be a resource for the grid. If suddenly a huge number of clouds pass over but it’s still a very hot and humid day, that battery could contribute little jolts of energy to the overall power grid to help multiple people keep their hyper-efficient air conditioners on.

There is a huge role for the home, the community, things like electric cars, electric buses, and so on. The problem with the neoliberal ideology is that they turn it around and say that it’s a matter of individual financial decisionmaking, a matter of individual responsibility—we all have to go green as individuals. But we know that doesn’t work. We know that’s not an option that everybody has. It’s not a smart way to make big collective change.

We have to get more into the mindset of understanding how the level of the community and even the individual home has to be a part of a broader democratic system. It’s not you making a financial decision looking at spreadsheets on your laptop at your kitchen table. Should I get a solar panel? What’s the right financing rate? No, the vision is that a democratic public utility comes to your door and says, “Hey, guess what, let’s send someone up to your roof and see what the quality of the roof is. It might need a public subsidy to repair that roof so we can then put solar panels on top of it. Or maybe your roof is ready for solar panels and we’ll come by later today, and all that’s going to happen is your electricity bills are going to gradually shrink as time goes on.”

One of the challenges we’re working with is to change the common sense around decarbonization, to get away from this idea about individuals going green as a choice that’s good for their bottom line or to signal their virtue, and recognize that individuals are participating in a broader democratic transformation of their communities.

CM: You write, “The other big spatial dilemma is transmission. The National Renewable Energy Lab finds that a ninety-percent renewable energy grid will require doubling of the length of current energy transmission lines. Proposed wind fields, solar arrays, and new transmission lines have all been slowed and often blocked by protests from communities where new projects are planned. Greens sometimes decry opponents as selfish NIMBY types or victims of Koch brothers propaganda (in fairness, there’s some truth in both) but it’s reasonable to be concerned about drastic changes to the place you live, especially when the costs are local and most benefits go to far-off urban consumers.”

Do we need a cultural shift, then, away from selfishness and towards selflessness? And if so, how difficult will that be, considering our decades of neoliberalism which has taught everyone to take care of themselves and all our problems will be solved?

DC: We do need a shift from selfishness to selflessness. But how do we get there? In terms of transmission lines, this is a really big challenge. There’s a huge amount of opposition in rural parts of the US to a lot of clean energy development, and especially to big transmission lines. There are over two hundred anti-wind groups in the country. In Canada, there is a group called Mothers Against Wind Turbines.

We do have to be sensitive to people’s concern that in cities we want to switch to pure renewable energy, but we’re not focused on how this will totally transform the landscape of people around us. Our argument is that we really do need to take local concerns seriously. In some cases we may need to slow down. We have to have more local ownership. If we look at a place like Germany, almost half the clean energy is generated by cooperatives, and those are mostly rural energy cooperatives in small conservative towns. Because rural villages have seen collective energy development as a way of saving their local economies, and a way of taking ownership of their own energy, it has meant that the conservative political culture in Germany is not anti-wind or anti-renewable in the way it is in the US.

In the 1930s during the original New Deal, we came very close to having a Vienna-style social housing system in the US, and it was killed in 1937 by the real estate lobby. They wanted a system where there was public subsidy for private mortgage owners, which created white, racist suburbs.

One piece of creating a more collective and selfless mindset around clean energy is to give people ownership. Whether it’s through a union; or through community ownership schemes in cities where you buy a solar panel in a more rural area, or about owning community solar that’s local on rooftops; or whether it’s rural areas having ownership through energy cooperatives, through public banking, or just through buying in with dollars or through their local tax base—local and community ownership of the energy system gives us a very different approach than just, “Oh, this infrastructure is being dropped on top of me by some liberal from New York City.”

We could talk about other examples of this, like having green jobs and union jobs doing the work, or having the public sector coming in and helping you retrofit your home with the most modern appliances that are far more efficient. Then we’re using less energy mainly through efficiency, not through patronizing lifestyle demands. We’re using less energy because our homes are going to have more automated systems, like sunflower homes that dry your clothes when the sun is beating down on the panels and not during the dead of night. And we’re building a more collective spirit by giving people an economic stake in cooperative ownership and cooperative decisionmaking.

Yes, people need to be less selfish. But we’re not going to get there by browbeating them or through memes. We’re going to get there by giving them an economic ownership stake in the new economy.

CM: You write, “Let’s be clear. In a radical Green New Deal there would be no shutoffs, because an affordable, comfortable home is a human right.”

An affordable, comfortable home is a human right. Will housing be a right under a Green New Deal? And if it is, how devastating would that be to the real estate industry? Not that I really care. But what will happen to real estate? What happens to that economic sector when all homes are a human right?

DC: Something like half of all global wealth is held in real estate. But rare is the day that I think to myself, “Wow, thank god for the real estate sector! It really makes my life better! So glad that real estate entrepreneurs are making super-profits keeping my rent up!”

Who is afraid that the government can build really high-quality public housing? The real estate industry. They are afraid of competition. They know that public agencies can do a better job at value than they can. In fact, in the 1930s during the original New Deal, we came very close to having a Vienna-style social housing system in the US, and it was killed in 1937 by the real estate lobby. They wanted a system where there was public subsidy for private mortgage owners, which were substantial and created white, racist suburbs, and with social housing only for the very poorest and only as a last resort and very low quality. What we’re proposing instead is retrofitting the public housing we have now, creating much more social housing, creating that to the highest green standards, and then taking all the low- and middle-income homes and retrofitting those through public investment.

This is not a proposal to save the real estate industry. This is a proposal to make clean, comfortable, safe, affordable, modern homes a human right for everybody. I think most people would choose that reality over higher stocks on Wall Street.

CM: What you describe sounds like a society, a culture that reflects on the way we relate with energy, with nature, and in doing so reconsiders the way in which we relate with each other. Is there something about fossil fuels that we relate with them in such a highly irresponsible, polluting, climate change-causing way? Does clean energy mean better living, and fossil fuels mean…whatever this is?

DC: Fossil fuels are just no good. We know that. Extracting them is brutally violent. They tend to be owned by gigantic corporations. They’re really inefficient. They’re really dirty. Even if there weren’t climate change, they’re causing millions of deaths a year just from respiratory illnesses.

There really is a fork in the road right now between an eco-apartheid vision that we could think of Emanuel Macron in France exemplifying, and we saw the Yellow Vest protests against it. He wanted to cut taxes for billionaires and raise taxes on gasoline that would hit rural and suburban people who didn’t have access to public transit. We’re going to see that vision emerge in the US.

But clean energy gives us the possibility of a really restorative, caring relationship to other people and to the non-human environment, and that’s what we’re fighting for. But we have to acknowledge that clean energy all on its own is not intrinsically, beautifully progressive. There is a version of solar fascism, and we’re very worried about it in this book. And then there’s a version of ecosocialism, which is about the shared human and democratic values we’ve been talking about today. We are going to have to fight very hard to make sure that the clean energy vision we get is the ecosocialist vision, a vision of democracy, of ordinary people controlling their place in the world and their physical relationship to the land. That’s not going to come for free just because the energy comes from the sun.

CM: You write, “When we reinvent state institutions and invest democratically, we’ll reshape our built environment in ways that decarbonize, make us safer, and abolish inequalities. There will be more than electric wires linking beautiful public housing, speedy trains, and verdant landscapes of public renewable power. These projects will be linked in an irresistible dream, ordinary people seizing control of their place in the world.”

How much of a threat, then, is the fight against climate change and the Green New Deal to nationalist, conservative, rightwing, reactionary Christian evangelical, and fundamentalist Republicans? People who you call ecofascists? Is the Green New Deal a political strategy to crush the rise of the far right in the United States?

DC: The short answer is yes. Neoliberalism has shredded social ties. It’s made life for the majority of Americans extremely hard: something like half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Nobody loves fossil fuels. Most Americans, by a huge margin, want to have renewable energy, and there is an appetite for change.

At the same time, there is not a huge amount of trust in public institutions. There is a lot of fear and anxiety. This is a situation that people like Donald Trump and white nationalists are exploiting, and it’s a situation that recalls the 1930s, when in many parts of the world rightwing fascist forces brought violent paramilitaries into alliance with the government, used racism, antisemitism, and colonial violence to create these horrifying coalitions, and took power. They could only do this because social ties were so shredded. People were so anxious and terrified. That is the moment that we’re in right now.

What we’re proposing with the Green New Deal is not green austerity. We’re not proposing that everyone is only allowed to wear clothing made out of hemp. We’re not proposing that people make massive individual cutbacks to their quality of life. In fact, most people in the US have a lot of problems with their quality of life already. What we’re proposing is creating a world of true, genuine freedom: where you have access to clean energy; where the built environment is much more efficient; where you can walk and bike and take the bus around to the places where you work, get services, and get care; where your home is not a crushing financial burden but simply a beautiful place to live. We’re talking about a world where you really get to spend time with the people who you love, having fun. Whether that’s hiking in the woods, going to see a play, putting on a play, playing sports, you name it.

This vision is fundamentally about answering the anxieties, concerns, and suffering that ordinary people have with a vision that is diametrically the opposite of fascism or ecofascism and is instead about collective well-being, collective affluence—fundamentally public luxury. This is winnable. Most of the technologies we talk about in this book exist. They simply need to be deployed at greater scale, and in some cases improved.

This is a vision, most importantly, that we can win in the next five years. We can have new social housing. We can have new public transit. We can have much more affordable rents. We can have transformations of people’s homes. We can have a massive deployment of clean energy within just the period of four or five or six years. We have to stop talking about climate change in terms of 2050. We have to stop talking about climate change as being aloof from the great political struggle between fascism and democracy. We need a short-term plan so that when the next economic crisis comes, we answer it with a political system, a social system, and a system of cultural values that brings us the world we need and that makes us feel good about being alive, and good about living with other people around us.

I’m really excited. I think that this is something that we can win.

CM: Daniel, this book that you’ve cowritten with Kate, Alyssa, and Thea is really fantastic. Thank you so much for being on our show this week.

DC: Thank you so much for having a bunch of us on the show.

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