Thursday, 14 May 2009

Guest post: Towards a Green New Deal

John Barry: Last summer the influential think and do tank, the new economics foundation, published what turned out to be a prescient report. Called A Green New Deal: Joined-up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices, it analysed the interlocking crises of climate change, peak oil and the credit crisis. This report demonstrated that the urgency of making the transition towards a post-carbon economy, i.e. an energy economy not based on declining and volatile fossil fuels, could also promote secure jobs and investment, jobs that cannot be off-shored, but that managing our planned retreat from fossil fuels not only demands clear government leadership but also requires re-regulating and re-structuring the financial sector to ensure it does not undermine the ‘real’ economy. Its predictions have proved not only prescient but prophetic, in that it predicted the current credit and banking crisis and pointed out the reasons in the de-regulated, complex and high-risk strategies that the majority of banking and financial institutions were engaged with.

Then, in October, the United Nations Environment Program, together with the International Labor Organisation and the International Organisation of Employers, launched a major report: Green Jobs: Towards decent work in a sustainable, low-carbon world.

This report pointed out the millions of secure, well-paid jobs available across the world – but especially in the developing world – in the sustainable, green economy, especially renewable energy production and installation, waste management, water management, building construction, food, agriculture, forestry, transport and and other sectors. As the report states, “It now appears that a green economy can generate more and better jobs everywhere and that these can be decent jobs”.

The election of Barack Obama was based, in part, on his promise of a Roosevelt-style ‘new deal’ for America to help its ailing economy and prevent the haemorrhaging of jobs. The stimulus package just agreed by Congress is a ‘Green New Deal’ in that the infrastructural investment focus is on energy conservation, renewable energy projects, jobs and training. Across the media, economic commentators and political parties, there is a growing acceptance that a Green New Deal is what major economies in the world need: forms of Green Keynesianism and greater public investment and management of the economy. A Green New Deal tackles the issues that global and national economies face in relation to rising unemployment, reducing our addiction to and dependence upon fossil fuels, and also dealing with the threat of climate change. However, there are differences within this emerging agreement around a ‘Green New Deal’.

Those, like most governments including the UK, who see this as part of a temporary ‘blip’ in the global economy and believe that ‘normal service will be resumed’ in a couple of years; and those like the European Green Parties who are campaigning on a common platform in the upcoming European Parliamentary elections, based on viewing the current ‘triple crisis’ as an opportunity which should not be wated to re-design global and national economies in the transition to sustainable, green and less inequitable economies focused on quality of life and economic security – rather than orthodox economic growth.

Across the UK there have been meetings and conferences, as well as media and other commentary, on the outlines of a Green New Deal. In Wales, for example, there was a conference on the Green New Deal entitled ‘A Prosperous Way Down?: Exploring Green Economic Futures for Wales’, while in Northern Ireland, Friends of the Earth held a workshop on the Green Economy in late January, followed up with another in March with contributions from the Northern Ireland trades union movement and Northern Ireland employer representatives. An initial meeting around a Green New Deal for the Republic was held at the end of April.

The Green New Deal is, I strongly believe, one that the unions should get fully behind. I also believe that universities, in particular, should explore the possibilities of providing the space, time and support for workshops and think-ins etc about how to design policies and programmes for the inevitable greening of the economy. At the same time, universities have a unique role and opportunity in this time of crisis to provide expert knowledge and advice on a whole range of issues confronting politicians, policy-makers, businesses and communities. Academics (unionised or not) should be urging their universities to ‘do their bit’ in this time of crisis, and to offer their knowledge, expertise, space and support for genuine dialogue and innovative problem-solving to help our societies get out of this current economic and environmental mess.

Dr. John Barry is Policy Advisor to the Northern Ireland Region of the Green Party. He lectures in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s University, Belfast, and is Assistant Director of the Institute for a Sustainable World, QUB


Slí Eile said...

'I also believe that universities, in particular, should explore the possibilities of providing the space, time and support for workshops and think-ins etc about how to design policies and programmes for the inevitable greening of the economy. At the same time, universities have a unique role and opportunity in this time of crisis to provide expert knowledge and advice on a whole range of issues confronting politicians, policy-makers, businesses and communities. Academics (unionised or not) should be urging their universities to ‘do their bit’ in this time of crisis, and to offer their knowledge, expertise, space and support for genuine dialogue and innovative problem-solving to help our societies get out of this current economic and environmental mess.'

This is an interesting proposal and one that merits not only further and immediate consideration but practical steps to make it a reality. However, the issue should be not only the green economy but: democracy, social equality and macro-economic policy. It should draw on different disciplines and should lead to an on-going dialogue between academics, senior policy-makers as well as civil society. Bring it on.

Michael Taft said...

A Green New Deal, something that unfortunately features more at a rhetorical level in political discourse here, is a great opportunity to bring together a broad alliance of Left, Green and trade union activists. In particular is the role of public enterprise. While many Greens are suspicious of state bodies in general, and the ESB in particular, the fact is that public enterprise can play a new and stimulating role in the Green economy. Public enterprise is better placed to be knowledge-sharers rather than private companies which, rationally, are knowledge-hoarders. In this way, the pivotal role of the ESB, both the company and the workers, is not a statist strategy, but rather one that brings together all actors and stakeholders - public, private, regional, local, academic, entrepreneurial - in an open and agreed programme. Such a coordinated approach can ensure that new and developmental companies can work in a cooperative manner – sharing R&D, pilot ventures, commercialisation projects and long-term costs that individual companies and actors can’t provide on their own. This can be profitable at firm, as well as social and environmental, level. Over-reliance on market mechanisms will necessarily exclude smaller actors, will eventually be centralised in larger, more powerful market forces. And as to the inclusion of stake-holders – well, this is something that market forces are not terribly good at as it does not form part of their ‘mission’.

This requires a rethinking on all sides – how public enterprise can be more responsive and inclusive, how a Green New Deal is part of the ‘industrial’ solution (to use an old phrase) and how democratic decision-making, rooted in environmental concerns, is not incompatible with ‘the market’, whether of the public or private variety. This can help us rethink a number of economic problems – and not just in the vital area of environmental regeneration. No better place to start, though, than with a Green New Deal. All the elements are in place. And the need is urgent.

John O'Farrell said...

This is a piece I wrote for Foto8 magazine, published last month with is not online at, but attempts to place this debate into an Irish and international historical context. It may help the debate or bore readers to tears, but here goes:

Around 90 years ago, someone asked Lenin to define Communism. He answered with a formula: Communism = The Soviets + the electrification of the country. At about the same time, a young Irish civil engineer named Thomas McLaughlin was completing his PhD and he too, had a dream:

“No sincere student could have lived through the whole period of intense national enthusiasm without feeling a passionate desire to do all in his power to assist in national reconstruction, in the building up of the country by development from within. It was with this intense feeling I began my career abroad, and the ideal never for a moment left me until it brought me home again to see the Shannon Scheme realised. It was little credit to me – I could know no mental peace, no sense of self-fulfilment until my mission in life, as it had then become to me, was realised.”

Within ten years, his mission had been realised, and the backward and rural west of the Irish Free State had tamed the broad majestic Shannon, the largest river in western Europe. Instead of being a source of flooding for half the arable land in an economy dependent upon agriculture, it had been transformed into the source of the electrical power to change forever the darkest and poorest corners of Ireland. “My country, of which I was so intensely proud, must not lag behind other lands. The people in our remote villages must have the comforts which villagers in other lands enjoyed.”

The dam at Ardnacrusha, just north of Limerick, became a calling card for the modernisation of Ireland as much as Lenin’s plans to tame and utilise the raw natural power of the Volga and the Don. The project was completed in 1932, the same year that Chiang Kai-Shek first envisioned the same for the mighty Yangtze river, a project only completed with the Three Gorges dam in 2008, finished with the ruthlessness we associate with its overseer, Li Peng.

Also in 1932, the depression-hammered USA elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President, who was fired up with the same zeal for vast public works projects which provided jobs for the hungry millions and electric light for the dark ends of the street. The grandest of his schemes was for the Columbia river, with the Grand Coulee Dam and its vast artificial lake, named for the President which inspired its construction. This was the most productive hydro-electric power station in the world, a title now owned by the Three Gorges Dam. But these monuments to modernity and national pride added much more than megawatts.

They preached a belief that monuments could be functional as well as symbolic. The legacy of their creators would be warmth and light, rather than statues and ballads. But they did that too. Some of America’s greatest photographers were commissioned to chronicle the story of the New Deal. Popular song was used too. Woody Guthrie was hired to go on site and live among the workers constructing the Grand Coulee, singing in the evenings and writing during the day.

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of 'thrity-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, "Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you're rambling, you can do some work for me."

At Ardnacrusha, the fiercely nationalist artist Sean Keating was inspired to paint the progress of the Shannon scheme, and later sold many of his paintings to the state electricity board, but his most inspired composition, Nights Candles Are Burnt Out, was snapped by the auld enemy, in the shape of Oldham Art Gallery. This deeply ambivalent painting by a man whose early output and politics had been inspired by the rugged piety of the Aran Islanders, sets the high and huge wall of the dam as the background of the scene with the foreground occupied by the tropes of a country in the chaos of national rebirth.

Keating and his family are depicted pointing towards the future in the shape of the turbines, an armed IRA man cocks a snook at the besuited engineer, the labourers are exhausted and drunk, a priest quietly concentrates on his Bible and a skeleton in peasant’s garb hangs from a steel crane.

The story being told was of the Irish version of the Soviet ‘New Man’, “a new type of Irishman, alert to apply to his own purpose every modern discovery and every improved method, yet cherishing at the same time the ideals of the legendary past and drawing his mental sustenance from Gaelic culture,” as Keating told the New York Times in 1930. He continued, using language which could have been easily transferred to the USSR then, or the PRC now: “Hitherto, it has been only in politics that Irishmen have been revolutionaries; in everything else they are the most resolute and unbending conservatives in Europe. It may be that Gaelic, backed by electrical power, will provide an explosive mixture strong enough to smash the old moulds and radically transform Irish mentality.”

Within a few years, the events of the Second World War would shatter the love-in between romantic nationalism and mass modernisation. At that time, the absence of the individual human being from the symbols of state was noted and then parodied by WH Auden, in his poem The Unknown Citizen, dedicated, “To JS/07/M/378”, who:
“…was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.”

The poem ends with a couplet which would never have occurred to Sean Keating, or for that matter, Lenin in 1920 or Li Peng today:
“Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

The totalitarian mindset degenerated from progress-by-the scruff-of-the-neck to the liquidation of truculent reactionaries to grim personality cults around dour mediocrities such as Hoxza, Husak, Honecker and Ceaucescu. Spectacle and monuments were reversed under these placemen, with the roles of audience and performers switched. It was noted about Ceaucescu in particular that the great games involving thousands of tightly choreographed subjects were for the enjoyment on one person only – the Genius of the Carpathians at his podium.

While Ceaucescu will be remembered for his vast palace which submerged downtown Bucharest, the echt memorial to one person has to be Baghdad’s Victory Arch. “Two huge forearms emerge from the ground clashing two swords overhead. The arms which, even swordless, are higher than the Arc de Triomphe, are enlarged casts of Saddam Hussain’s arms, showing every bump and follicle.”

Saddam’s nemesis, George W Bush, has no such memorial. His Presidency will be remembered for collapsing structures, not constructed vanity arches or functional legacies. Aside from the twin towers, the Bush presidency is remembered for the rotting away of bridges and levees – the neglected legacy of FDR’s New Deal. The inundation of New Orleans was the physical outcome of three decades of the catchphrase popularised by Ronald Reagan: “Government is not the solution to our problems – Government is the problem.”

That time has now passed. America’s infrastructure is the key problem for the Obama administration, and fixing it is part of the solution to the wilful neglect of neoliberalism’s disgraced devotees.

We can now be on the cusp of an age for large state-led programmes to fix the roads and build the dams for the age of broadband, mass migration, climate change and peak oil. Existentially, the challenges are the same. Our legacy is unbuilt, yet.

John Barry said...

Thanks for the comments on the post.
Slí Eile...couldn't agree more about the need for universities to once again become places for progressive and radical thinking and acting on democracy, citizenship, equality etc. Perhaps what we need is to link like-minded academics together to have the courage to do this type of engagement - 'teach ins' for the 21st century, inviting local communities into the university etc.'re right about the rhetorical or 'greenwash' way in which a Green New Deal could be mouthed by those who haven't a clue what it means (beyond being the latest buzzword that seems to be doing the rounds amongst the chattering classes etc.). I agree with the direction you discern in the 'social' logic of the Green New Deal - namely in a form of Green Keynesianism, a 'green(ing) state' regulating and co-ordinating 'commanding heights' (?!) of the economy since we cannot leave these major paradigm-shifting decisions to the vageries of the unfettered market. But neither is a GND a form of 'green statism' but, in my view, an as yet tried blend of community/civil society, state and market formation in which the state regulates the market in the interest of and responsive to the needs and wishes of the people. Corny sounding perhaps, but none the less attractive and needed for all that. While there are lots of detail in terms of policy to be filled in here about how a GND would work, at this stage, again in my view, its more the visionary and empowering aspect of the GND vision and aspirations it unlocks for this island nation (I'm including Northern Ireland as part of any viable GND).

John....long time no hear or see! Like myself and Michael you rightly see in the GND an explicit role for the state and the GND as, in part, a state-based (but community-centred) project for, in my view, nothing less than the re-invention of our economy, and with it our society. We are either at the beinning of the end or the end of the beginning of the age of oil, of deregulated finance capitalism and the bankruptcy of the notion that a debt and consumption-driven model of a model of economic globalisation based on the notion that the minority world would consume and finance while the majority world produce, of the myth of the 'end of the state' etc., that I don't see anything nearly as exciting and invigourating as the GND on the horizon. Of course the severity of the current crisis and the utter nonesense of those commentators and politicians calmly re-assuring us that 'give us a few years and 'normal' service will be resumed' make any mouthings from them about a greening of the economy, just that, mouthings. This crisis holds within it, with enough vision and leadership, the potential to begin putting in place the infrastructure (energy, transport, housing, food, planning etc.) for a better way of life, not simply the 'greening' of business as usual. If for Lenin socialism was collectivisation plus electrification what's the equivalent for the Green New Deal I wonder? Libraries, laundremattes, and lightrail might be as good a place to start. If the future is the inevitable (and I stress inevitable) transition to a low carbon world, then we're going to need planning, state and community-based planning (here I think the Transition Towns movement, of which I'm also a member where I live in Holywood, Co. Down - offers some interesting ideas) and above all else imagination and innovation. But also political leadership in telling and preparing people for major changes in the way our economy and societies are ordered. And guess what? We've done it before...anyone who things we're doomed to business as usual is either a ideologue clinging to the present model as somehow 'natural' or 'inevitable' or simply underestimating the capacity for a people to do great things when faced with a challenge.

Paul Sweeney said...

I think we have no choice but to adopt a Green New Deal as part of the way out of this fantastic economic crisis which we are in. It is fantastic because when you see what has happened - no one ever thought or believed in their dreams that these things could occur. For example, that a cheque for €3.5bn of our tax euros, gathered in income levies today and for years to come, would be handed over to AIB and to BOI, each, as a reward for bad behaviour. But when you imagine if we were to write a cheque for €3.5bn of our taxuros, for education or for environmental initiatives over one or three years, then you see what could be possible.
I also think that the unions will be quite enthusiastic but such a Deal needs more scoping out, if it is to win wide support. On the other hand, what scoping out was there for NAMA or the bank guarantee. And have these enormous expenditures been approved by the people?
In the times we are in, one can see that this government is like a rabbit stuck in strong headlights, unable to move, to shift, except incrementally. It surely looks as if it will be "business as usual" once we get out of this crisis. Regrettably, in much of the media, you can see this conservativism too. There has been no debate about the bigger less technical issues. Thus we are not to repeat the mistakes in the future, pursue economic growth at all costs, (without development and redistribution) By the way, I also really like the piece by John O Farrell which I thought was wonderfully articulate!

John Barry said...

Hi Paul, I completely agree that what we are facing now is not only a fantastic crisis, but equally importantly a fantastic opportunity...'not letting a good crisis go to waste etc.'...However, I think you're absolutely right about more detail needed on the policies needed to ensure a GND is not simply a green fig leaf on 'business as usual' and here there is a particular opportunity/duty for the unions to start shaping a GND from their perspective. I know Comhar is gathering people around the table to begin the process of this scoping - you can email me at for more details. I note there may be a possible political vehicle for this in terms of Gerry Adams and SF openly floating the idea of a government of the left made up of Labour themselves and (possibly?) the Greens... But I'm not the numbers stack up as yet, but an interesting and to my mind a positive development.