Extinction and the Green New Deal

by Kevin B. Korb

We have known collectively the dangers posed by the combination of modern civilization and human population growth since at least the 1960s. During that decade Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb (1968), which carried forward Thomas Malthus’s argument from the 19th century that exponential population growth models apply as much to humans as to other life forms and that relaxing the natural limits on resources and their utilization would provide only temporary material comforts soon overwhelmed by an expanding population. In The Limits of Growth (1972) the Club of Rome computer modelers expanded on these ideas by developing and testing a simulation of human population and economic activity incorporating natural resources and pollution. While their model was crude by recent standards, it did behave in qualitatively sensible ways. The story it told was that however you varied the inputs, e.g., extending resource limits or slowing population growth rates, if you stayed within anything like reasonable bounds, then the model showed a collapse of the population, through impossible levels of pollution, say, sometime during the 21st century. Neither of these pivotal books dealt with anthropogenic global warming explicitly, but the message was clear and still hasn’t changed: unfettered population and economic growth, at least on the models of both we have so far adopted, will be a disaster for our species and our environment. Nothing much has changed.

Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen Ed Markey’s Green New Deal (GND) seeks genuine change. It’s modeled on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, in the sense that FDR’s New Deal radically changed America for generations. The name also evokes the mobilization behind the World War II effort that happened shortly thereafter. The point is that radical mobilization efforts are eminently possible when the threat to a nation is existential, and human-driven climate change certainly poses an existential threat. The GND, if passed, would be a clear, resounding dual statement of intent: first, the intent to counter the threat to civilization posed by human population growth and economic activities; second, there is a more local statement of intent of economic and political justice for American minorities.

The bill is strictly aspirational, calling out the urgency of the situation, rather than laying out a specific pathway. It’s stated goals are not of a kind that could lead to direct actions. What GND shares with Extinction Rebellion most notably are our common view of the urgency of the situation and the optimism that if there is a common will to respond, that we can do something worthwhile to diminish the worst outcomes of anthropogenic global warming.

Some of the Main Goals laid out in the GND are:

  • Guaranteed jobs with family-sustaining wages for all people of the US
  • Maximizing the energy efficiency of all existing building in the US
  • Moving to electric cars and high-speed rail and away from air transport
  • Universal health care
  • Moving to sustainable farming
  • Moving to 100% renewable energy

Of course, the introduction of the GND has provoked a vigorous response from opponents. The most prominent objection, perhaps, is that it would be too expensive to be practicable. Certainly, refurbishing every building in America to maximize energy efficiency can’t be cheap. The obvious rebuttal, however, has been voiced by Greta Thunberg and other young activists: inaction will be far more expensive than action. Indeed, the GND in its initial Whereas’s states that inaction will lead to $500B in lost annual economic output in the US by 2100. Such a sum applied now, on the other hand, would clearly make a strong start to doing something about climate change. Aside from that, any dollar estimate of harm is never going to be a worst case estimate, since severe climate change is fully capable not just of direct economic impacts, but also of spurring warfare and social collapse, in ways where the real valuations entirely outstrip the speculative dollar valuations of harm. The right wing who harp about the expense are simply not yet prepared to think clearly about the consequences of the choices in front of us. (In my view, it is well past time that the decision bypass the obstruction.)

The whole point of the GND is that what is practicable depends upon the context, and what is practicable in times of war is of an entirely different scale to what is practicable in normal times. We are not in normal times. This is a time of war, and our enemy is us.