What's Missing From the Green New Deal

Thursday morning, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14th District) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) released a resolution outlining their much-buzzed-about Green New Deal—a proposed large-scale effort to create jobs and address income inequality through federal government spending on programs that would help America curtail its emission of greenhouse gases by drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels. The outline comes following months of discussion of the concept on Capitol Hill and beyond. You can read it here.

The proposal is sweeping. It’s idealistic. And, we can't help but notice, it doesn't really talk about one of the biggest factors in carbon emissions: urban land use.

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We're not the only ones who noticed this, of course. Vox’s David Roberts pointed it out in his thorough review of the resolution. And Strong Towns member Alex Baca wrote an in-depth take for Slate on this very issue. An excerpt:

But the Green New Deal has a big blind spot: It doesn’t address the places Americans live. And our physical geography—where we sleep, work, shop, worship, and send our kids to play, and how we move between those places—is more foundational to a green, fair future than just about anything else. The proposal encapsulates the liberal delusion on climate change: that technology and spending can spare us the hard work of reform.

I suspect this blind spot is mostly just that: a blind spot. I don’t think it reflects any real antipathy on the part of advocates of the Green New Deal to examining the effect of land-use policy on carbon emissions. They’re certainly attuned to emissions from car travel—the resolution mentions “zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing” and “clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation”—but they don’t seem attuned to the ways that our land-use patterns powerfully determine how much car travel we’re forced to do. Per capita road fuel consumption in the U.S. and Canada dwarfs that of the rest of the world, and North America’s radical embrace of suburbanization is the reason.

I like the Green New Deal. I’m afraid, though, that its backers will focus too little on shaping the ways that federal policy sets the context for local action, and too much on launching big, bold initiatives that Congress can put its stamp on. Programs that lead to ribbon-cuttings.

Part of the issue here is that land-use problems may appear not a very natural fit for federal action, even if you do think they’re important. Land use is governed by cities, and to a lesser extent, states—what federal role could there be in overriding or shaping local zoning?

And yet, federal incentives do profoundly shape local land use already. Housing policy dating back to the original New Deal privileges car-dependent suburban development, via federal mortgage insurance rules that tip the financial scales in favor of single-family homes even today. So does the mortgage interest tax deduction. Federal infrastructure spending often favors big highway expansion projects, and the gas tax doesn’t remotely meet transportation funding needs, resulting in a net subsidy from non-drivers to drivers. So conversations about those things, which powerfully set the incentives around urban development, need to be on the table.

I like the ambition of the Green New Deal. I do believe we need radical, transformative visions of the future (which is why I work for an organization that itself advocates for transformative change). I’m afraid, though, that as this vision makes its way through the Washington sausage-making machine, its backers will focus too little on shaping the ways that federal policy sets the context for local action, and too much on launching big, bold initiatives that Congress can put its stamp on. Programs that lead to ribbon-cuttings. In other words, things that kind of look like the torrent of acronyms that characterized the original New Deal (regardless of what you think of its legacy).

The Kind of Problem the Climate Is

What’s absent from the Green New Deal resolution reflects the limiting way many (though far from all) environmentalists talk about climate change: as a technological problem to be solved by large-scale, top-down technological interventions. Electrify all the vehicles. Build all the solar arrays. LEED-certify every building (even, as Baca points out with righteous scorn, a $40 million parking garage in the heart of walkable, transit-rich Berkeley).

Technological solutions are no doubt going to be an important part of any national climate policy. But ultimately, the Green New Deal is an attempt to solve two complex problems, neither of which is a technological problem at heart:

  1. The threat posed to the biosphere and human society by climate change (hence the "Green" part)

  2. Inequality and middle-class income stagnation in the U.S. economy (hence the "New Deal" part)

These are societal problems involving the behavior of millions of actors, all of whom are responding to incentives and simultaneously influencing the incentives that others respond to. They're about technology, but also about economics, about psychology, about culture, about ethics and morality and religion.

These are not merely difficult problems. They're not merely complicated. They are complex —meaning they defy cause-and-effect understandings. They are wicked problems.

The fact that we're having a national conversation about them is great. The fact that we’re having it in the halls of Congress is great. As long as the policies we end up enacting are informed by humility and by respect for the limits of our ability to know the best courses of action in advance.

The Green New Deal is going to evolve. It hasn’t spawned any legislation yet, just a loose framework. So as that discussion unfolds, here’s what we want to see from that framework:

Chaotic-But-Smart Over Orderly-But-Dumb

Mercatus Center research fellow Emily Hamilton pointed out on Twitter that the Green New Deal FAQ cites the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)’s estimate that we need to spend $4.6 trillion on infrastructure.

If you’ve read Strong Towns for long, you know what we think of ASCE. The organization is a central player in what we’ve dubbed the “Infrastructure Cult,” a group of organizations to which there’s seemingly no problem can’t be solved by building something big and expensive (and not coincidentally, employing a lot of civil engineers in the process).

The brand of infrastructure advocacy championed by the likes of ASCE, which many self-identified liberals and progressives have latched onto as a job-creating mechanism, is dangerously simplistic. Investment in, economic growth out. No thought to the long-term maintenance liabilities we’re creating with every ton of concrete we pour. Just pull the lever. “Build, build, build, build, build.” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, in an interview with NPR, suggested “building more roads” as part of the program—fairly nonsensical as part of a climate-change proposal, yet familiar-sounding if you’re steeped in this rhetoric.

I've seen some Twitter users diagnose the problem with AOC's "more roads" comment as the fact that she didn't say "more transit." But the problem with this mindset is not just about "roads;” it’s about megaprojects. Huge increments of money become huge long-term liabilities when best-laid plans go awry. And transit can be just as inadequate to the cause of fighting climate change: it's possible to spend vast sums on it in ways that barely move the needle on car dependency. We know this because it's been done.

But the problem with this mindset is not just about “roads;” it’s about megaprojects. Huge increments of money become huge long-term liabilities when best-laid plans go awry.

A lot of the things that do move the needle on how we live and how we use energy are going to be bottom-up initiatives. They're going to be things we won't even anticipate at the federal level, let alone be able to orchestrate. Let's make sure we leave room for that—if there's a pot of money here, let's be looking for ways to decentralize control of its use, and don't leave it to big, influential players like ASCE to lobby for the uses of that money that serve their interests.

Original Green Over “Gizmo Green”

Our friend Steve Mouzon, author of The Original Green, explains the difference:

“The Original Green is the sustainability all our ancestors knew by heart. It is plain-spoken, meaning “keeping things going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.” Sustainable places are… serviceable, for example, those where you can get all your daily services within walking distance, and where you can choose to make a living where you’re living if you want to. … Sustainable places are lovable, for example, because if a building can’t be loved, it won’t last.

“Gizmo Green is the proposition that sustainability can be achieved with nothing more than better equipment and better materials.”

We need to be humbled by the antifragility of places built long before the fossil-fuel era; places that have survived and thrived for hundreds and thousands of years. We need places that inspire what G.K. Chesterton called mystic patriots, something no top-down federal policy can direct.

We need not just cities and towns, but ways of existing in them, that are sustainable by nature and by default, that don’t rely on technocracy and/or our own better angels to be so.

A federal Green New Deal is a brilliant way to raise the stakes of the conversation, to establish a tone of crisis. “Climate change and our environmental challenges are the biggest existential threats to our way of life,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said on Thursday. “We must be as ambitious and innovative in our solutions as possible.” I agree with her.

And yet the blunt instrument of top-down federal policy is completely inadequate to the Gordian knot of societal and cultural crises we face. “We will save all of creation by engaging in massive job creation,” said Sen. Markey. Nice sound bite, but smells of frightening hubris.

That paradox is inherent in what the Green New Deal is attempting to do. We’ll be watching with interest to see what forms it takes.

(Cover photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)