OPINION

Why a ‘Green New Deal’ must be decolonial

The Green New Deal will not work unless it dismantles neocolonial structures exploiting nature and people.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announces the introduction of public housing legislation as part of the Green New Deal in Washington on November 14, 2019 [Reuters/Erin Scott]
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announces the introduction of public housing legislation as part of the Green New Deal in Washington on November 14, 2019 [Reuters/Erin Scott]

Discussions of a Green New Deal (GND) have been all the rage these days, as hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets around the world to demand action on climate change.

First proposed in 2008 to initiate a comprehensive action plan to combat climate change in the UK, the Green New Deal (GND) has come to global attention, gaining particular traction in North America.

Its vision goes beyond the “green,” “hip,” “vegan,” and “mindful” lifestyle choices of a burgeoning elite social class or the tried and failed policies of carbon-offsetting, cap and trade, and sustainable development of green capitalism.

It proposes definitive steps to help combat impending climate crises and to give the younger generation hope in the face of rapidly accelerating socio-ecological breakdown and unprecedented inequality.

It puts forward a plan to shift the economy away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy; to eliminate polluting practices in industrial production; to provide affordable housing for all, free education and health care; to create jobs with dignified working conditions and security, and to promote racial, gender and socio-economic equity and justice.

But for the GND to work and, indeed, transform the economy and our lives, it must be decolonial. This means, its application must go hand in hand with a concerted effort to rethink relationships to land, labour, and our collective imaginaries from the structural and historic injustices of Western-style development.

The understanding that development policies and ideas rooted in European and North American notions of “progress” are destructive and exploitative by their nature must be at the heart of the GND. In seeking to build a new economy and another way of relating to the environment around us, we must heed the advice of indigenous people, in their historical and ongoing demands for cultural autonomy and self-determination, on the need to restore a diversity of relationships with our environment.

What does it mean to be ‘green’?

The GND is meant to halt the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of soils, water, and rapidly decelerate global warming to pre-empt further the catastrophic impacts of climate change that a failure to stay below two degrees of warming will bring.

To achieve all these things, however, technological fixes, such as carbon capture and storage, bound to market economy forces cannot be the solution. The relationships we must develop with our living environment cannot depend on policies regulated by costly, unpredictable and market-driven accounting metrics, which defy the speed and severity of the social and climate shifts we are experiencing.

While all efforts to put the “emergency brake” on ecological degradation are needed, we must recognise the roots of how today’s custodianship and caretaking of land and waters was established and how it is linked to Western notions of development.

Our development trajectory has been marred by the idea that humans are the overlords of the world, who have to tame nature and submit it to exploitation for their exclusive benefit. It implies that human civilisation is somehow separate from nature, whose only role is to provide unlimited resources to feed and expand the human material world.

The separation between humanity and nature is also implied in how environmentalism has been approached in Western societies. It implies that environmental degradation is merely a symptom of bad management in an otherwise non-negotiable economic development model. The arrogance of this logic is deeply embedded in the mechanisms adopted by the international community to respond to social and ecological crises, including its sustainability policies.

As long as we erroneously see ourselves as outside and above the rest of the living world, we will continue to contribute to its destruction. A decolonial GND, therefore, requires repositioning ourselves vis-à-vis nature as an integral part of it – just as many indigenous peoples have consistently sought to do in their historical and ongoing struggle for cultural autonomy and self-determination.

GND policies must not simply aim to rectify harmful human activity that destroys biodiversity, soil fertility, and greenhouse gas pollution but engender a completely different approach to producing food, building human settlements and meeting human needs.

Under a decolonial GND, agricultural practices, for example, will have to be completely overhauled. Mass production and distribution will have to be phased out, as should the current practices of optimising yields through monoculture farming. Instead, transitions are required that focus on regenerative agricultural practices to return nutrients to soils; encourage and recognise knowledge passed down between generations farming the land; ensure healthy non-GMO food production that is affordable to all; and rebuild relationships between producers and consumers.

What is so ‘new’ about it?

The GND must also adopt a completely different approach to the human economy. First, it must recognise that the crises produced by capitalism cannot be solved by capitalism itself. Capitalism, much like the burning of fossil fuels which feeds it, should rather be phased out and replaced with a diversity of decentralised solidarity economies that put social justice and both individual and collective welfare at the core of their mission.

A GND can therefore only be “new” if it is premised upon a commitment to limiting and redistributing wealth, is oriented towards understanding well-being as sufficiency rather than ceaseless desires and ensures that the means of production are re-localised to transfer decision-making power to communities at the frontlines of resource extraction.

Second, any GND for the Global North must embrace degrowth, which means scaling down overall material consumption and energy use rather than simply making them more efficient, which would still expand growth and enable further extraction. It also means moving society away from wealth accumulation and expansion as a goal in itself and towards wealth distribution and social justice.

In this sense, changing one’s lifestyle choices – buying “green” and eating vegan or organic food – is not a solution to environmental and social justice problems. Rather people require support systems to radically alter the way they live and consume. These support systems might involve fostering conditions of solidarity, connection, and joy that are otherwise sapped from the individuality of materialism masquerading as “happiness”. Doing so means that learning to live with what is enough to provide for basic needs and good health should not be seen as a sacrifice, but as something to gain. 

This is the first step to building a society for everyone, radically different than the one we have now that favours the pursuit of self-enrichment and indulgence.

Third, the GND must also create the conditions for poorer countries to develop according to their own democratically chosen development path. For that to happen, degrowth policies have to be coupled with decolonisation of the global economy. Although the age of colonialism is supposedly over, colonial dynamics still very much dominate relations between the “developed” and the “developing” and determine hegemonic patterns of production and consumption.

If the GND does not address the uneven patterns of where production and consumption take place then it threatens to derail “green” or energy-efficient transformations in the global South. For example, if the shift to renewable energy is carried out without a parallel decolonisation of trade relations, then countries like Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, rich in coltan, lithium, antimony, nickel and other materials used in green technologies, would still face the dangers of extractivism.

Even if measures are taken to ensure that renewable energy production does not contaminate and deplete water, destroy habitats, and displace communities – hardly likely in any economic model predicated on optimising outcomes while minimising costs – unequal economic relations would doom these countries to a new form of domination known as “green colonialism“.

A decolonial GND must therefore prioritise restructuring global trade relations and reversing the enormous imbalances of cultural, economic and political power between Western governments and the global South.

A ‘deal’ on whose terms?

When the prefixes of “green” and “new” are removed, we are left with “deal”. This requires understanding what the current “deal” is and why it must be fundamentally restructured.

Apart from embracing workers’ rights and progressive social policies, a decolonial GND must also actively interrogate the racial, gender and class supremacies which have ruled the world and extracted wealth for the benefit of a privileged minority for centuries.

This is because, the ongoing and increasingly dire ecological collapse is very much the result of a perverse “social contract” in which patriarchy, capitalism and white supremacy shape human behaviour.

We live in a world where black, brown, feminine, queer and working-class bodies have faced unthinkable acts of violent dehumanisation under the banner of contemporary Western development.

This way of making and shaping the world and its inhabitants has not gone away with the introduction of symbolic laws forbidding discrimination. It remains fundamental to the socio-economic relations which dominate our lives and which tie ecological destruction and racialised cheap labour to the maintenance of uneven relations of trade across the world.

Take historical plantations as an example. The production of commodities like sugar and cotton involved both the brutal enslavement of people and the ruthless abuse of the environment, which led to severe deforestation, soil erosion and habitat destruction. The goods extracted through violent exploitation of both humans and nature were then sold for the benefit of wealthy white settler colonialists.

This plantation model has not fundamentally changed since slavery was officially abolished. It has rather become more sophisticated with the liberalisation of the economy and the advent of digital technology which today ensures greater predictability and control in yields, labour hours and profits. 

Today, agriculture and other sectors around the world are still dependent on a largely racialised and marginalised labour force, coerced in myriad ways to accept harsh working conditions. And again the outcomes are the same: destruction of the environment and ever-burgeoning profit for a select few.

A decolonial GND must break the bonds of the plantation model of social relations by introducing a new “social contract” rooted in ethical and political commitment to social, racial and gender justice. It must seek to establish a completely new set of rules for socio-economic relations in our society – one based on acceptance, respect for human life and dignity, solidarity, and equity.

Under a decolonial GND, temporary, underpaid employment will be discontinued. Job creation will be generated by the economic transformation away from fossil fuels and overexploitation of resources and towards worker-owned renewable energy and the relocalisation of industry that puts collective interests over individual ones.

Jobs will have to pay enough for the employee to sustain a dignified life; they will have to provide social security and desirable working conditions that are free of abuse and discrimination and stimulate creativity.

Worker-owned cooperatives could be one model to follow to create jobs and provide various community services, from health care and child care to recycling and security. However, this will only work if cooperatives are themselves embedded in globally decolonised economies geared towards responsible relations between people and the land.

A decolonial GND must also recognise and seek to compensate for the ills that centuries of racial, gender and social oppression have produced. It must, therefore, pay special attention to historically marginalised groups and indigenous communities dispossessed of their lands and ways of knowing and being. As part of this transformation, it should also make provisions for reparations for colonial injustices.

Decolonial or bust!

Thus, I suggest three organising principles for a decolonial GND: 1) “Going green” must rethink and experiment in alternative human relationships to each other and to non-humans, rooted in reciprocity and responsibility. 2) The world economy must be reoriented towards principles of degrowth, decolonisation and relocalisation 3) The unequal power relations underlying the “social contract” of Western development models must be democratised to eliminate discrimination and racial supremacy in all its forms.

For a GND to work however, it cannot be limited to discussions and action within the borders of a single country or region. The dehumanising and ecologically destructive forces of capitalism have proven to adhere to no borders, so any response strategies under a GND must have a global scope.

A GND requires collective commitment to resist oppressive forces that are literally waging a war against a good life for all. This means political resistance and action in the streets, each in their own way responding to the induced austerity policies of state and market that together reinforce the “social contract” responsible for ecological collapse.

At the same time, “decolonial” cannot be another prefix to tack on along with “green” and “new” to make a status-quo development “deal” appear more inclusive. It must recognise both the global power of Western development models in organising people and nature in violent ways, but also more regional and historically-specific variants. These may include the subjugation of people and their relationships to the land in places like Kashmir or West Papua and the rising demonisation of indigenous worldviews in Brazil and Bolivia.

A decolonial GND requires constant learning, building mutual consent and trust, and self-reflection of the embedded thought processes and habitus patterns that we all hold in contributing to such oppression, whether we realise it or not.

We have reached a point of no return and we must realise that there is no saviour and no quick-fix solution for the climate catastrophe we currently face. While the “mess” we are in was not created by all of humanity equally (and we must recognise this!), it is a “mess” of such proportions that we need committed and unconditional solidarity to get ourselves out of it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 



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