Klein on the Green New Deal

I’m going to try to post more short news items. For example, here’s a new book I haven’t read yet:

• Naomi Klein, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Simon and Schuster, 2019.

I think she’s right when she says this:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

Nonetheless Robert Jensen argues that the book is too “inspiring”, in the sense of unrealistic optimism:

• Robert Jensen, The danger of inspiration: a review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Resilience, 10 September 2019.

Let me quote him:

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Fire makes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

I don’t know what Klein actually thinks about this, but she does think drastic changes are coming, one way or another.  She writes:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

Jensen adds:

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.


22 Responses to Klein on the Green New Deal

  1. ecoquant says:

    Very nice summary, John. I say that not as one who has read either of the books, but as one appreciative of the weave you did of excerpts from both.

    I’m Jensen-like in my outlook, but I sometimes wonder if key messages have not gotten across. I had the opportunity to convey it successfully to one more person today, advocating as I did for the Climate Strike and membership in our committee at First Parish in Needham UU’s Volunteer Day this morning. I spoke to a member who is an engineer and, so, STEM-educated. After a bit of conversation, where it was clear he gets climate disruption, what he did not get was (a) the longevity of CO2 in atmosphere, and (b), because of the heat capacity of the climate system (oceans, primarily) and that 90+% of excess heat from radiative forcing has been going into oceans, when we zero emissions, after a lag of 2-3 decades, climate disruption will stop getting worse, but it won’t get better for a long time.

    He thought — and I wonder how many more do — that whenever we zeroed emissions, things would gradually improve. He did not realize that 50% of the CO2 would remain for 1000 years or more, and the rest decay over a few centuries. And he definitely didn’t know thermal energy wouldn’t go away.

    We spoke on technical remedies, I suggesting that while technical means of drawing down CO2 were available, they were horribly expensive, even at best estimates, and bringing them into the vicinity of 30-40 Chunnel costs for 70 ppm would take 10,000x improvements in the technology. On the heat removal I said, “Forget it. No way.”

    He was shocked. He felt trapped between knowledge of a past and an impossible future. I indicated that we’ve known about this one way or another for a long while, 1896 with Arrhenius, and, formally, in the USA, 1965 with LBJ and then with Nixon. I also indicated we’ve really known since 1990, but half the excess CO2 above 288 ppm has been put there since that time.

    I’m afraid I rather depressed him. But, then, as Greta Thunberg has said I want you to panic.

  2. mitchellporter says:

    Robert Jensen writes

    “The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family”

    For a moment I thought he meant actual families, like parents and children. But OK, he means human beings in general. And what is “the domination/subordination dynamic”? Any form of coercion? Any situation in which there are leaders and followers?

    And then there’s the stuff about “not suppressing your grief”. I will refrain from fully expressing my exasperation… Achieving planetary sustainability is not about psychotherapy or about attaining ecofeminist anarcho-utopia. It’s about finetuning the development of our machine civilization so it doesn’t roast us, starve us, or poison us.

    • ecoquant says:


      My understanding of “domination/subordination” is just the modern day equivalent of ancient Athens needing to continuously annex/conquer/bring-into-their-orbit more and more city-states in order to feed their ever increasing needs for luxury, however much these contributed to civilization writ long.

      It’s about finetuning the development of our machine civilization so it doesn’t roast us, starve us, or poison us.

      Well, yes, but even if one feels some form of moderated capitalism (e.g., Japan’s companies which are signing up to climate and environmental disclosures much faster than EU or United States companies) which puts more than shareholder value at its core (per recent statements from Diamond at Goldman) is our best shot, as do I, generally, it’s a lot more than “fine-tuning”, isn’t it? It’s about having a global economy, where the wealth W, isn’t governed by

      \frac{dW}{dt} = k W + \dots

      with k > 1 even if k - 1 < 0.10. That is inherently a problem. Indeed it means having a global economy which operates and sustains so that \frac{dW}{dt} \approx 0. That, in turn, means zero-sum wealth increases and decreases in parts of the world and, ultimately, for companies. Maybe there’s even some Kirschoff’s Second Law-kind of approximation appropriate on networks of commerce.

      I've followed these ideas for a bit. The consumption component clearly must go to zero. But if valuation and wealth is defined by a broader set of measures, such as, say, quality of life of employees or consumers of your products, perhaps growth can continue, despite that. This is not a new idea. (See also and here.)

    • John Baez says:

      Mitchell wrote:

      And then there’s the stuff about “not suppressing your grief”. I will refrain from fully expressing my exasperation… Achieving planetary sustainability is not about psychotherapy or about attaining ecofeminist anarcho-utopia. It’s about finetuning the development of our machine civilization so it doesn’t roast us, starve us, or poison us.

      Planetary sustainability is about managing our civilization so that it doesn’t roast, starve, or poison humans and the other inhabitants of the globe. I really don’t think “finetuning” captures the magnitude of the changes needed, and the swiftness with which they need to be made. We are driving off a cliff at high speed, with our foot on the accelerator.

      As for “not suppressing our grief”, it’s a fact that humans have emotions, and these emotions largely control our behavior. A lot of people, including me, are in grief over what’s happening. This tends to make people lose energy and divert themselves with distractions instead of facing up to what needs to be done. For example, I find myself needing to do a fair amount of pure math, because working on a climate change is too depressing.

      One can argue about whether “not suppressing our grief” is a good thing. But one can’t really dismiss psychological concerns as irrelevant. It would be great if global warming were a pure engineering problem, but we can’t. Human psychology drives economics and politics, and together they set harsh limits on which technically possible solutions are actually possible.

      • Blake Stacey says:

        Over at the n-Category Café, you recently quoted this comment by André Weil:

        In other circumstances, publication would have seemed very premature. But in April 1940, who could be sure of a tomorrow? It seemed to me that my ideas contained enough substance to merit not being in danger of being lost.

        This is how I feel every day of my life by now, but I’m not André Weil, so all I do is leave speculative and moderately self-indulgent comments at the n-Category Café.

    • John Baez says:

      Ecoquant wrote:

      It’s about having a global economy, where the wealth W, isn’t governed by

      \frac{dW}{dt} = k W + \dots

      with k > 1 even if k - 1 < 0.10. That is inherently a problem. Indeed it means having a global economy which operates and sustains so that \frac{dW}{dt} \approx 0.

      As you note later, it’s not exactly “wealth” that can’t grow exponentially forever: wealth is an abstract enough concept that maybe it can. I think what can’t grow exponentially forever are various flows of energy and matter.

      Getting this straightened out is not only a fascinating puzzle, it’s also important if we’re going to have a sustainable cultures. It may be too late to figure these things and do things right based on our new understandings… but it may not.

      Of course there have also been cultures that don’t explicitly value “growth” the way ours does. But ours is so committed to growth that we may still be clutching it to the bitter end with our dying fingers. A better approach would be to “abstract” it: just as we’re transitioning from a matter economy to an energy economy to an information economy, we can try to move on to a knowledge economy and then a wisdom economy. Exponentially growing wisdom is a bit hard for us to fathom, but once being rich meant having heaps of gold.

  3. Wolfgang says:

    The New Deal of the past was mainly about regulating economics for the benefit of improving the lives of “ordinary” people. The improvements were obvious to see. Thus, the people who were allowed to improve became part of the driving force for societal change. I do not see where this would be to happen in a New Green Deal? If the New Green Deal makes the lives of ordinary people worse, because they have to endure cuts in their wealth, while a rich elite lives their lives without a change, then this will not gonna happen. Essentially all the questions about a solution of the climate problem transform into questions of social nature, and this point seems to me extremely underestimated, mostly by people who are themselves living on the nicer side of life.

  4. I disagree with many of the ideas of “the squad” (they are way too woke, for example). But even if one agrees with them, it would make sense for the Democratic Party to make it clear that they don’t speak for the majority, not even for the majority of members of the Democratic Party. As Wilson said, politics is the art of the possible.

    • John Baez says:

      I’ve never allowed discussion of party politics on Azimuth and I’m not starting now. All I did is quote a reviewer’s description of a book that discusses party politics. This does not mean I’m opening the floodgates.

      I leave the above comment here just as an example of what I don’t allow. I express no opinion on it.

      • Thanks for the clear policy. My point is that, like all politics, environmental politics is the art of the possible. Sometimes, one must choose the lesser of two evils.

        • ecoquant says:

          “Lesser of two evils”

          Okay, yes, tradeoffs are sometimes necessary. But these need to be pursued with the understanding that success criteria are not entirely within our control, being dictated by natural processes to means ,(a) we cannot emit more than 3.7 trillion tonnes CO2 altogether, and (b) if we do the consequences are unforgiving and essentially irreversible. It’s not like it’s a negotiation only among people.

        • ecoquant says:

          Just to be complete, indicating where we stand … Atmospheric CO2 stands at about 408 ppm (MLO, mid-cycle). Pre-industrial was 288 ppm. That means 120 ppm has been added to atmosphere. However, only 4/9 of emitted CO2 remains in atmosphere, so actually there’s been 270 ppm emitted. 1 ppm of CO2 is equivalent to about 7.8 GtCO2. Accordingly 270 ppm is 2106 GtCO2. The above cited threshold is 3700 GtCO2. This means to achieve that, there is only about 1600 GtCO2 left.

          Humanity presently emits (padding upwards a bit to account for deforestation, etc, but not counting CO22) 40 GtCO2 per annum. So, that means there are 40 years left.

        • What I meant is that it is contraproductive if one’s own idealism (whether or not I agree with it in principle) prevents one from making progress. For an individual person, of course, their choice if they would like to stay true to their ideals whatever the personal consequences, but if we are talking about consequences to the planet, then it is better to cooperate (at least in this area) rather than ending up with the result that nothing is done because others didn’t want to be quite as radical.

      • Bob says:

        Regarding Sturgeon’s Law, Richard A. Lovett (astrophysicist, economist,…) writes:

        “…the things that most incense us may be things that the wisest of our opponents also recognize as crap. Once we realize that, maybe, just maybe, we can progress beyond name-calling and actually engage on the pros and cons on each other’s issues. “

  5. rovingbroker says:

    While we’re discussing books we haven’t read …

    Ronald Baily writes …

    “Global warming is a classic example of what happens in an open-access commons. The atmosphere is unowned, so no one has an incentive to protect and conserve it. Instead, people overexploit and pollute it. … Eventually federal regulations and market mechanisms were adopted. As a result, since 1980 air pollutants have collectively declined by 68 percent while the economy grew by 175 percent.

    “Scientists call this the environmental Kuznets curve. Environmental commons tend to deteriorate as countries begin to develop economically—but once per-capita income reaches a certain level, the public starts to demand a cleanup. It’s a U-shaped pattern: Economic growth initially hurts the environment, but after a point it makes things cleaner. By then, slowing or stopping economic growth will delay environmental improvement, including efforts to mitigate the problem of man-made global warming.

    “The MIT economist Andrew McAfee explains the process in a forthcoming book, More from Less:

    We have finally learned how to tread more lightly on our planet….In America—a large rich country that accounts for about 25 percent of the global economy—we’re now generally using less for most resources year after year, even as our economy and population continue to grow. What’s more, we’re also polluting the air and water less, emitting fewer greenhouse gases, and seeing population increases in many animals that had almost vanished. America, in short, is post-peak in its exploitation of the earth. The situation is similar in many other rich countries, and even developing countries such as China are now taking better care of the planet in important ways.

    “The upshot is that Klein, The Guardian, and many of the climate strikers have it exactly backwards. Properly incentivized capitalism is the key to solving the problems caused by climate change.


    • ecoquant says:


      I agree that options for a properly motivated as well as incentivized capitalism should be kept open. However, I think it’s important to realize this kind of pollution is like no other that’s faced any economy in all of human history. It is a pollutant which remains in the system naturally for over a thousand years, and its effects linger for longer.

      It’s not like cleaning up DDT or CFHCs where simply stopping emissions fixes it. In fact, “cleaning it up” demands rolling out incredibly expensive yet-to-be-perfected equipment on a global and massive scale. We’re talkin’ multiples of Gross World Product to get it done, and that assumes emissions have been essentially zeroed.

    • John Baez says:

      Ronald Baily writes:

      “The upshot is that Klein, The Guardian, and many of the climate strikers have it exactly backwards. Properly incentivized capitalism is the key to solving the problems caused by climate change.”

      He slips in those words “properly incentivized” but doesn’t explain them. They make all the difference! How do you incentivize capitalism in such a way that it pays people to either stop burning oil, coal and gas or to sequester the CO2 created by burning these? If we can do that, we can cross that problem off our list and move on to the next big tragedies of the commons: deforestation, the massive dumping of nitrates and phosphates into the ocean, etc. But nobody has managed to do it yet. And the real problem is, we need to do it fast.

      In short, I think he’s being too blasé about this.

      • rovingbroker says:

        Two obvious methods are “cap and trade” and a carbon tax.

        Singapore 2018:
        The finance minister said the Government expects to collect a carbon tax revenue of nearly $1 billion over the first five years, and is prepared to spend more than this in the same period “to support worthwhile projects which deliver the necessary abatement in emissions”.

        He added that the carbon tax will apply uniformly to all sectors, calling it ” the economically efficient way to maintain a transparent, fair and consistent carbon price across the economy to incentivise [sic] emissions reduction”.


        It was not so long ago that gasoline prices in the US were far higher than today and fuel economy numbers were printed on new car window (price) stickers. Dealers were awash in unsold Chevrolet Suburbans and other large SUVs.

        People respond to incentives, both positive and negative. A climate meltdown is far in the future but high prices act immediately.

        • ecoquant says:


          Actually, I strongly disagree a general markets meltdown due to a pricing in of the impacts of climate disruption is far in the future.

          Indeed, I think it could happen at any time now.

        • ecoquant says:

          I should have included this link to the comment I just made, but I did not have it handy. It’s a link to a Comment I made at resilience.org on a post arguing that a solar-driven future was unrealistic as long as our economy was capitalist. (I’m oversimplifying.)

          That said, and while I believe the existing economic system is in severe need of reformation, including bringing back Eisenhower-era 90% tax brackets, and more socialization of benefits, I still think enlightened and socialist capitalism has benefits and power.

          I should also caution that I consider myself a solar revolutionary in the spirit of Hermann Scheer.

      • John Baez says:

        The ideas of cap & trade and a carbon tax have been well-known for decades, and they are already implemented in civilized places like Singapore, California and Europe. But I worry that we don’t seem to be making progress on getting the US federal government, China or India to implement such programs. The US has been going in the other direction.

        Also, such programs only have a significant effect when the prices of permits, or the price on carbon, is high enough. Getting that to happen requires political will, and I’m not sure that’s happened yet in Singapore, California or Europe.

        In short, I’m not opposed to these ideas: I’ve long felt they are our best option, and I don’t have alternatives that I think are better. But I’m not sure we’re going to get serious about these ideas anytime soon. So I’m expecting that weather-related disasters will continue to get worse as the century progresses, leading to a flood of refugees, and wars.

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