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The Green New Deal Can’t Be Anything Like the New Deal

Climate change demands a much more ambitious plan than the Great Depression did. It even requires reversing some of FDR's successes.

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The decade from 1929 to 1939 was hell. The Great Depression ravaged the country, leaving 15 million Americans jobless—a 25 percent unemployment rate. Industrial production fell by half. Bank panics led thousands of them to fail, wiping out their customers’ savings. When we look back on that period, we see soup lines stretching for blocks and desperate migrant families. What we don’t see are the tens of thousands of people who took their own lives, as suicides hit an all-time high.

In response, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed the most ambitious economic recovery plan the country has ever seen. Within six years, the New Deal’s sixty programs touched every corner of society, employing 11 million Americans and aiding six million farmers. A crisis of unimaginable magnitude was solved, and capitalism was saved.

Democrats including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hope to replicate the New Deal’s success with a plan to address a different catastrophe: global warming. The Green New Deal, like its namesake, promises a massive economic transformation that would touch every corner of society. But that is where the comparisons should end. The climate crisis is much bigger than the Great Depression, for the very fate of humanity is at stake. Worse, the crisis is being accelerated by the very thing that the New Deal helped save: fossil fuel capitalism. Thus, rather than emulating its predecessor, the Green New Deal must undo many of its accomplishments instead.

The climate crisis has reached desperate extremes. It has so far triggered the world’s sixth mass extinction event, and dangerous climate feedback loops. The economy is burning greenhouse gasses ten times faster than the volcanoes that sparked Earth’s greatest mass extinction, the Late Permian event (a.k.a the Great Dying). The worst-case outcome is a planet denuded of most life, potentially including Homo sapiens. That’s not to mention the many economic crashes that such a societal collapse would cause, making the Great Depression look like a Mild Discomfort.

America’s industrial economy, like a century ago, is powered almost entirely by fossil fuels. Carbon energy circulates through the veins of our transportation networks, buildings, data infrastructure, and globe-spanning supply chains. It puts food on our tables. One reason for this? The New Deal. FDR’s programs not only made industrial capitalism financially and socially stable; they sent it into overdrive by leaving monopolistic corporations intact, building the foundation of the interstate highway system, expanding car-dependent suburban housing, incentivizing consumption, expanding air travel, accelerating mechanized extraction, and ramping up resource-intensive manufacturing.

To say that a viable Green New Deal must dismantle and replace all this is not an ideological stance. It’s a material fact. The global scientific consensus suggests that, in order to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, high-emitting countries must reach net zero emissions by 2050—which means all industries have to start drastically reducing carbon emissions immediately. To achieve that, the Green New Deal needs to look less like the New Deal and more like the industrial revolution itself—fundamentally shifting the way we produce and distribute virtually all material goods, and building entirely new sectors while dismantling longstanding ones. With climate emergencies set to displace hundreds of millions, we’ll also have to rebuild cities and change settlement patterns.

This will require not just administrative and technological feats unparalleled in history, but overcoming obstacles much greater than New Dealers faced. The fossil fuel industry is putting its money and political might behind meager solutions or outright resistance, and other parties are sure to join the fight: big agriculture, aviation, automobile manufacturing, logging, real estate development, e-commerce, and the military. Proponents will have to contend with powerful lobbying groups and super PACs, and may even have to battle the union leadership ostensibly representing workers in these industries.

It’s comforting to imagine that all we need to save humanity is a New Deal 2.0—that is, to replicate something that America has already accomplished. We can just plug solar panels into the grid and keep the economy chugging along. We can use biodiesel tractors and maintain the same levels of agricultural production. We can synthesize low-carbon vehicle fuel to power a military that remains the world’s largest single energy consumer. We can swap out internal combustion engines and replace the world’s fleet with electric vehicles.

We can do all of these things, but they won’t save us. The resources necessary to maintain our current rate of production simply don’t exist on the planet. There isn’t enough topsoil to sustain agricultural production; at its current rate, topsoil will be depleted in a few decades and lead to mass starvation. There’s not enough cobalt, lithium, and other resources necessary to electrify transportation at its current scope; demand is already outstripping supply of such minerals and electric vehicles currently account for less than 2 percent of the market. There aren’t enough fish to keep trawling the oceans at our current intensity, with virtually every single commercial fishery in the world headed toward collapse. There’s not enough wild habitat to keep deforesting at the current rate, with sixty football fields of forest being destroyed every minute and dozens of species going extinct everyday.

But this is good, in a way. It offers a once-in-an-epoch opportunity to build a happier, healthier, and saner economy than the one we currently suffer through.

To achieve this, we first have to be clear-eyed about the challenges involved. Obviously, no single piece of legislation can do everything. But what a Green New Deal must do is begin to establish the political and cultural conditions in which this scale of transition becomes possible, and do so within the timeframe of about two Senate elections. It’s not entirely clear what that would look like, given that human systems have never produced something like this. It almost certainly must go far beyond the language in Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution.

But what we can be sure of is that a Green New Deal sufficient to fundamentally reform the economy and save the planet will not look at all like the New Deal. Our task is much bigger and much harder than addressing the Great Depression, or even enduring the Second World War. Call it a “Green New Deal” if we must—or, hell, why not a “Green Dream”? But we have to internalize these challenges before we can begin to envision and pursue solutions on the scale of the problem. After all, the objection to the Green New Deal from mainstream Republicans and Democrats alike is that it’s too ambitious. They must realize—quickly—that it’s not nearly ambitious enough.