Monday, February 25, 2019

The Democratic Future of the Green New Deal

Lida Maxwell
Associate Professor
Boston University

What does it mean to have a future? The monarch’s eternal body used to represent the continuity and futurity of the kingdom (over and against the mortality of both him and his subjects). In modern social contract stories, by contrast, ordinary men gain a future by moving out of a state of nature beset by uncertainty, violence, and hierarchy; mastering a state of nature that otherwise would master them. Yet nature in these stories is not a factual reality, but a metaphor for forces that feel uncontrollable or unpredictable. As Carole Pateman has argued, patriarchal mastery is necessary in social contract stories for liberal democratic futurity. So too the mastery of other races and peoples (as thinkers such as Uday Mehta, James Tully, and Adam Dahl have argued). These social contract stories, which continue to haunt our political imagination, position the future of white European bourgeois men as dependent on the subjugation of others.
This mastery-centered idea of what it means to have a future may help to explain why it has been so hard for many commentators, presidential candidates, and ordinary citizens to see the Green New Deal as a real possible future. Even people who say they support the Green New Deal feel like they can only talk about it in old terms, in terms of legislators balancing a series of trade-offs between individuals and the collective – as Cory Booker is doing right now (“I’ve endorsed the framework and the resolution, but I don’t endorse doing things that are going to hurt…a strong economy”). But this whole way of thinking is rooted in the idea that mastery by someis a condition of futurity for everyone – that the future of the collective depends on elites mastering “nature” (women, poor people, marginalized individuals, etc.) through (for Booker) technocratic policy making.
The Green New Deal is moving us toward a different conception of what it means to have a future – a democratic conception of futurity that has been prefigured in environmental politics and thinking. Here, futurity depends neither on mastery over some people, forces, and nonhuman nature; nor on separating politics from nature, the public realm from the private realm. Rather, futurity opens up through an ecological (holistic, interconnected) attention to how the attempt at mastery has left almost everyone in a situation of precarity, and the attempt not to master unpredictable forces, but instead to democratically understand, adapt, and respond to those forces so that everyone, and not just a few, might flourish.
This is the central idea in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. After detailing the ecological devastation (actual and potential) caused by insecticides and pesticides, Carson argues in her last chapter, entitled, “The Other Road”: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one "less traveled by" — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth” (277-278). On the one hand, Carson seems to be suggesting here that the choice is between two futures: 1) the “deceptively easy” “superhighway” that seems to be leading quickly toward greater prosperity and comfort, but actually ends in the “disaster” of destroying the earth that actually allows our lives and pleasures to exist; and 2) a future where we push back against that tendency and preserve the earth. Yet implicit in Carson’s formulation, and in the remainder of the chapter, is a deeper distinction: not just a choice between two futures, but between what a future is. The “deceptively easy” superhighway constitutes what we usually think of as a “future”: a space of inevitable progress brought about by capitalist industry and technology, and by what Carson calls the “control of nature,” or what Val Plumwood calls the “mastery of nature.” 
The other “fork of the road” is, in contrast, an open-ended path, made possible by our rejection of the attempt at mastery. In the closing pages of Silent Spring, Carson does not describe in detail what that path looks like. She notes that there is “a truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects” (278), and lauds ecologically grounded approaches to insect control, “biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong” (278). Yet she does not proscribe a particular course, a particular way of proceeding. Rather, what distinguishes this fork in the road is its democratic character. Directly after describing the fork in the road, Carson says: “The choice, after all, is ours to make,” she says. “If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our ‘right to know,’ and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.” (my emphasis, 278). Looking about enables a possible future because we are no longer deferring to technocratic, corporate elites. Instead, we become agents in creating a world where everyone can flourish. Just because the “smooth superhighway” is easy does not mean we should stay on it. We may “see what other course is open to us.”
The Green New Deal resolution offers us this democratic “other course,” this “other fork in the road.” If Carson called for the public to use the knowledge she gives it to demand the regulation of insecticides and pesticides, the Green New Deal calls for the public to engage in political and governmental action that will address climate change: a “new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal” (4). Also like Carson, the GND’s vision of the future on behalf of which they call us to mobilize is ecologically grounded: the aim is not only to ensure jobs, “prosperity, “economic security,” but also “clean air and water,” “climate and community resiliency,” “healthy food,” “access to nature,” “a sustainable environment,” and “justice and equity.” Like Carson – and perhaps more than Carson – the GND recognizes that justice and equity are connected with a sustainable climate, that prosperity and economic security are unimaginable without healthy food and clean air and water.
Yet also like Silent Spring, the GND resolution does not use expert knowledge to offer a precise map for how to “solve” the problem of climate change, and foreclose democratic decision-making (nor does it make false claims of ease, as in Cory Booker’s statement: “we did it when I was mayor of Newark; we just retro-fitted our buildings. We drove down our carbon footprint; we drove down our city’s energy costs. We created jobs for our residents, and we dealt with the issues of climate change. We created a win, win, win, win…”). 
Rather, the GND uses knowledge to empower communities. The resolution begins with a clear depiction of the hard truth of the devastation that climate change has brought and will bring (the consequence of staying on the “smooth superhighway,” despite the many warnings of Carson and others). This knowledge, rather than inducing powerlessness, instead serves as a framework that enables communities to become agents of their own future. 
The resolution continually portrays “community-defined projects and strategies” (6, cf. 9) as an integral part of addressing climate change, and places democracy at its center: the resolution calls for ensuring “the use of democratic and participatory processes that are inclusive of and led by frontline and vulnerable communities and workers to plan, implement, and administer the Green New Deal mobilization at the local level” (12). Refusing the assumption of many that democracy is incapable of addressing an urgent problem like climate change, the GND shows that democracy is the only way that Americans can claim and create the future they desire.
While this future is mostly illegible in terms of contemporary political “common sense,” we should take the Green New Deal as an opportunity to show why this “common sense” actually makes no sense. Thea Riofrancos, Alyssa Battistoni, and others are already doing that in Jacobin, to great effect. The Green New Deal invites a new way of thinking and feeling the future: not as requiring the “smooth superhighway” that exists only through eradicating that which appears unsettling, uncertain, or unpredictable (including democratic claims for equality and freedom), but instead as the possibility of things being otherwise that emerges from the democratic practice of refusing deference and opening ourselves to the pleasures, difficulty, and meaning of democratically governing ourselves.


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