Introduction to Between the Devil and the Green New Deal
In 2009, Internationalist Perspective published a lengthy article entitled “Capitalism, Technology and the Environment.”
In the article, looking at the relationship between capitalism and the environment, E.R. wrote:
Capital’s relationship with nature has a history of its own; it has a trajectory of development, of ‘advancement’, of ‘progress’. But, we need to ask, an advancement and progression toward what? Capitalism has transformed nature over the years no less than it has transformed labour and the working class. Capital has to such an extreme extent, by today’s advanced stage in its historical development, interfered with, appropriated, manipulated, in a word, messed with the earth’s overall natural environment that it is in fact increasingly difficult any longer to find any feature, any aspect, any part of it that hasn’t been changed in one way or another as a result. This change, this messing with nature by capital has by now done such catastrophic damage to the natural, evolving, inter-connected, highly complex and self-sustaining ecosystems and processes of the planet that the question of sustainability itself in regard to capitalist economic processes in interaction with the natural environment has become an increasingly important concern for the capital class itself (at least at the political level).
A lot of water, much of it polluted, has flowed under the proverbial bridge since the publication of that article. Climate change continues unabated; the rate at which the polar ice caps melt increases; the rain forest disappears to fund development; industrial pollutants choke the air. Yet, despite widespread concern about the environment and its destruction, no revolutionary movement to avert this catastrophe has emerged. As a result, many leftists and “progressives” have instead looked favourably toward the wing of the Democratic Party led most prominently by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promoting the “Green New Deal.” (GND)
According to its right-wing critics, should the GND become a reality, American society would fundamentally change: Aeroplanes and cars would be banned; hamburgers too would disappear from menus; electricity would be produced solely by windmills, and would only be available when the wind was blowing.
None of this is true, for even though the GND’s proposals are much less radical than those suggested, they are no less impossible. Even the reform proposals would mean that capitalism would act contrary to its own nature: Instead of this rapacious profit-driven system, an environmentally friendly capitalism combining growth and environmental responsibility, along with a goal of zero emissions by 2030. It is the ultimate politician’s promise: Give up nothing and receive everything in exchange.
In the current issue of The Commune, a “popular magazine for a new era of revolution,” Jasper Bernes argues in an essay “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” that despite the hopeful feeling and the concerns it seeks to address, the GND is doomed to failure because it is rooted in a fundamentally false world view: It remains entirely within the framework of capitalism, and capitalism is inexorably tied to growth that guarantees the kind of environmental destruction and devastation the sincerest advocates of the GND hope to end.
It not simply that capitalism is tied to a growth “perspective,” growth is intrinsic to the nature of capitalism. Any changes which are made in the direction of a “green” economy are ultimately subordinated to production of value and the search for profit. We can already see how elements of capital are adapting concern for the environment into a way of increasing profit. But this search for profit ultimately leads to overproduction, to falling rates of profit, and ultimately to the destruction of value.
The reform of capital in the face of economic (and now environmental) disaster is not new, but as with efforts in the past, it cannot be successful. It is not an accident that this is named a Green New Deal, as it shares an underlying framework with Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Whereas the New Deal needed only to restore growth, the Green New Deal has to generate growth and reduce emissions. The problem is that growth and emissions are, by almost every measure, profoundly correlated. The Green New Deal thus risks becoming a sort of Sisyphean reform, rolling the rock of emissions reductions up the hill each day only to have a growing, energy-hungry economy knock it back down to the bottom each night. (Bernes)
In fact, Bernes, argues that in order to even attempt to reach its goals, the GND will worsen conditions. In the opening passages of the essay, Bernes vividly describes the beautiful horror of the Bayan Obo mine in China, an area which contains the largest deposits of rare-earth metals in the world, but notes that “To meet the demands of the Green New Deal, which proposes to convert the US economy to zero emissions, renewable power by 2030, there will be a lot more of these mines gouged into the crust of the earth.”
This is an important article which deserves to be both widely read and discussed. We reprint below, the first part of Bernes’ article in the hope of starting such a discussion.
To read the full article, visit the Commune magazine’s website
Internationalist Perspective August 2019
Between the Devil and the Green New Deal (Excerpt)
We cannot legislate and spend our way out of catastrophic global warming.
From space, the Bayan Obo mine in China, where 70 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals are extracted and refined, almost looks like a painting. The paisleys of the radioactive tailings ponds, miles long, concentrate the hidden colors of the earth: mineral aquamarines and ochres of the sort a painter might employ to flatter the rulers of a dying empire.
To meet the demands of the Green New Deal, which proposes to convert the US economy to zero emissions, renewable power by 2030, there will be a lot more of these mines gouged into the crust of the earth. That’s because nearly every renewable energy source depends upon non-renewable and frequently hard-to-access minerals: solar panels use indium, turbines use neodymium, batteries use lithium, and all require kilotons of steel, tin, silver, and copper. The renewable-energy supply chain is a complicated hopscotch around the periodic table and around the world. To make a high-capacity solar panel, one might need copper (atomic number 29) from Chile, indium (49) from Australia, gallium (31) from China, and selenium (34) from Germany. Many of the most efficient, direct-drive wind turbines require a couple pounds of the rare-earth metal neodymium, and there’s 140 pounds of lithium in each Tesla.
It’s not for nothing that coal miners were, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the very image of capitalist immiseration—it’s exhausting, dangerous, ugly work. Le Voreux, “the voracious one”—that’s what Émile Zola names the coal mine in Germinal, his novel of class struggle in a French company town. Capped with coal-burning smokestacks, the mine is both maze and minotaur all in one, “crouching like some evil beast at the bottom of its lair . . . puffing and panting in increasingly slow, deep bursts, as if it were struggling to digest its meal of human flesh.” Monsters are products of the earth in classical mythology, children of Gaia, born from the caves and hunted down by a cruel race of civilizing sky gods. But in capitalism, what’s monstrous is earth as animated by those civilizing energies. In exchange for these terrestrial treasures—used to power trains and ships and factories—a whole class of people is thrown into the pits. The warming earth teems with such monsters of our own making—monsters of drought and migration, famine and storm. Renewable energy is no refuge, really. The worst industrial accident in the history of the United States, the Hawk’s Nest Incident of 1930, was a renewable energy disaster. Drilling a three-mile-long inlet for a Union Carbide hydroelectric plant, five thousand workers were sickened when they hit a thick vein of silica, filling the tunnel with blinding white dust. Eight hundred eventually died of silicosis. Energy is never “clean,” as Muriel Rukeyser makes clear in the epic, documentary poem she wrote about Hawk’s Nest, “The Book of the Dead.” “Who runs through the electric wires?” she asks. “Who speaks down every road?” The infrastructure of the modern world is cast from molten grief.
Dotted with “death villages” where crops will not fruit, the region of Inner Mongolia where the Bayan Obo mine is located displays Chernobylesque cancer rates. But then again, the death villages are already here. More of them are coming if we don’t do something about climate change. What matter is a dozen death villages when half the earth may be rendered uninhabitable? What matter the gray skies over Inner Mongolia if the alternative is turning the sky an endless white with sulfuric aerosols, as last-ditch geoengineering scenarios imagine? Moralists, armchair philosophers, and lesser-evilists may try to convince you that these situations resolve into a sort of trolley-car problem: do nothing and the trolley speeds down the track toward mass death. Do something, and you switch the trolley onto a track where fewer people die, but where you are more actively responsible for their deaths. When the survival of millions or even billions hangs in the balance, as it surely does when it comes to climate change, a few dozen death villages might seem a particularly good deal, a green deal, a new deal. But climate change doesn’t resolve into a single trolley-car problem. Rather, it’s a planet-spanning tangle of switchyards, with mass death on every track.
It’s not clear we can even get enough of this stuff out of the ground, however, given the timeframe. Zero-emissions 2030 would mean mines producing now, not in five or ten years. The race to bring new supply online is likely to be ugly, in more ways than one, as slipshod producers scramble to cash in on the price bonanza, cutting every corner and setting up mines that are dangerous, unhealthy, and not particularly green. Mines require a massive outlay of investment up front, and they typically feature low return on investment, except during the sort of commodity boom we can expect a Green New Deal to produce. It can be a decade or more before the sources are developed, and another decade before they turn a profit.
Nor is it clear how much the fruits of these mines will help us decarbonize, if energy use keeps climbing. Just because a United States encrusted in solar panels releases no greenhouse gases, that doesn’t mean its technologies are carbon neutral. It takes energy to get those minerals out of the ground, energy to shape them into batteries and photovoltaic solar panels and giant rotors for windmills, energy to dispose of them when they wear out. Mines are worked, primarily, by gas-burning vehicles. The container ships that cross the world’s seas bearing the good freight of renewables burn so much fuel they are responsible for 3 percent of planetary emissions. Electric, battery-driven motors for construction equipment and container ships are barely in the prototype stage. And what kind of massive battery would you need to get a container ship across the Pacific? Maybe a small nuclear reactor would be best?
Counting emissions within national boundaries, in other words, is like counting calories but only during breakfast and lunch. If going clean in the US makes other places dirtier, then you’ve got to add that to the ledger. The carbon sums are sure to be lower than they would be otherwise, but the reductions might not be as robust as thought, especially if producers desperate to cash in on the renewable jackpot do things as cheaply and quickly as possible, which for now means fossil fuels. On the other side, environmental remediation is costly in every way. Want to clean up those tailings ponds, bury the waste deep underground, keep the water table from being poisoned? You’re going to need motors and you’re probably going to burn oil.
Consolidating scientific opinion, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report projects that biofuels are going to be used in these cases—for construction, for industry, and for transport, wherever motors can’t be easily electrified. Biofuels put carbon into the air, but it’s carbon that was already absorbed by growing plants, so the net emissions are zero. The problem is that growing biofuels requires land otherwise devoted to crops, or carbon-absorbing wilderness. They are among the least dense of power sources. You would need a dozen acres to fill the tank of a single intercontinental jet. Emissions are only the most prominent aspect of a broader ecological crisis. Human habitation, pasture and industry, branching through the remaining wilderness in the most profligate and destructive manner, has sent shockwaves through the plant and animal kingdoms. The mass die-off of insects, with populations decreasing by four-fifths in some areas, is one part of this. The insect world is very poorly understood, but scientists suspect these die-offs and extinction events are only partially attributable to climate change, with human land use and pesticides a major culprit. Of the two billion tons of animal mass on the planet, insects account for half. Pull the pillars of the insect world away, and the food chains collapse.
To replace current US energy consumption with renewables, you’d need to devote at least 25–50 percent of the US landmass to solar, wind, and biofuels, according to the estimates made by Vaclav Smil, the grand doyen of energy studies. Is there room for that and expanding human habitation? For that and pasture for a massive meat and dairy industry? For that and the forest we’d need to take carbon out of the air? Not if capitalism keeps doing the thing which it can’t not keep doing—grow. The law of capitalism is the law of more—more energy, more stuff, more materials. It introduces efficiencies only to more effectively despoil the planet. There is no solution to the climate crisis which leaves capitalism’s compulsions to growth intact. And this is what the Green New Deal, a term coined by that oily neoliberal, Thomas Friedman, doesn’t address. It thinks you can keep capitalism, keep growth, but remove the deleterious consequences. The death villages are here to tell you that you can’t. No roses will bloom on that bush.