“Green” Imperialism, or the Mistake that the Green New Deal Can’t Make

Joan Wong illustration for Foreign Policy

Introduction:

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change released the impactful 1.5℃ special report, which was the basis for the youth climate movement seen all across the world. That report plainly stated that global emissions will need to fall by 45% by 2030 to maintain warming at 1.5℃. After 2030, global emissions will have to fall to net zero by 2050 to further give the world a chance in limiting warming at 1.5 degrees. Because of that, the phrase “ten years to save the world” became a hallmark in the climate movement, which demanded more drastic and swift action to address climate change. Partly as a response to the report, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who made climate action a staple in both her primary and general election races, introduced the Green New Deal Resolution in 2019 with senator Ed Markey. Senator Markey was a notable addition for its introduction because he also introduced the 2009 cap and trade bill when he was in the House of Representatives. Even though the 2009 bill passed in the house, the bill ultimately failed to pass in the senate, even with Democratic control of the Senate.

The Green New Deal Resolution was different from the 2009 cap and trade bill because the resolution was much more radical in what it called for. Ultimately, the resolution acknowledged the U.S.’s role in contributing to a vast amount of historical emissions, and called on the U.S. to be a global leader in the reduction of emissions. The resolution was also radical because it rightfully paired climate action with the fight to obtain cleaner and more stable union jobs, including training and employment opportunities for workers in the fossil fuel industry; it also had a much more clearer focus on environmental and social justice, attempting to ameliorate the disproportionate racial impacts of climate change on BIPOC communities. The resolution was the first of its kind, and it caused global progressive leaders to call for their own versions of a radical climate action plan in their own respective countries also — the most notable one being Jeremy Corbyn, who called for such a plan ahead of the 2019 U.K. general election.

The Green New Deal Resolution, I feel like I have already said that 500 times in this video, is a mostly good framework for the sort of things that the U.S. needs to achieve to stave off the worst effects of warming. I certainly think that it’s ambitious and drastic enough to achieve its goals, and it adequately moved the overton window to the left, redefining what falls into the realm of climate action. That was nice, and absolutely welcomed because I was sick and tired of the debate being solely one of carbon taxes or cap and trade. But, even though I think the overall framework is great, and something that we need, there is one problem that I do have with it, and it’s something that can turn into a massive problem if the left in the U.S. fails to take it into account. The problem is, if the U.S., and the global north in general, can’t properly lower their consumption habits and engage in aspects of degrowth, the Green New Deal has the potential to be a front for “Green” imperialism. Simply, to sustain the lifestyle of an average U.S. citizen in a “greener” way, and to obtain the massive amounts of resources needed for that lifestyle, the U.S. will need to extract resources from where they are the most abundant. And, a lot of the time, where they are the most abundant is not in the U.S.. If we’re looking at the country’s history, that can mean that the rush to obtain those resources can be imperialistic, either physically or economically. And, that’s a mistake that the Green New Deal can’t make.

The Shortcoming of the Green New Deal Resolution:

As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of elements of the Green New Deal Resolution that I agree with, especially when it comes with environmental justice and workers rights. In fact, the Green New Deal calls for the public to receive some forms of ownership stakes and returns on investment from green technology, which, all I can say, is nice on a domestic front. As I said, however, if the Green New Deal doesn’t take into account how the resolution itself can affect the global south, then it can easily be used as a front for imperialistic ambitions for the future. It will be even more so if the U.S., and the global North in general, cannot control their consumption habits and engage in forms of degrowth. One question you might have is: “why is it a big deal if the Green New Deal Resolution doesn’t adequately address consumption habits for the average U.S. citizen?” The answer to that question is twofold, and as I believe, will highlight that main shortcoming of the Green New Deal Resolution. The first reason why, actually has to do with waste.

If consumption is not controlled for, then the amount of waste generated, even in a green technology future, will increase — and it actually has been increasing. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a recycling stream of electronic equipment that no longer serves their original purpose, and ceases to be of use to their original users. The problem then becomes the disposal of this waste, with an estimated 70–80% of e-waste getting shipped from developed to low-income countries and being improperly recycled there. And, even though the waste is valued highly in those countries, with it having the potential to be recycled into other electrical objects, there are disastrous health consequences to improperly recycling and engaging with this waste. The first ill-health effect comes from pollution, with the toxic metals and organic pollutants from e-waste releasing to the environment, which has disastrous consequences to the air, soil, and water sources of an area. This exposure to toxic substances leads to increases of “cancer and non-cancer risks at e-waste sites”. This increase harms the most vulnerable of the population also. For instance, since women are disproportionately represented in the e-waste sector, they are highly exposed to, and affected by, toxins from e-waste. This exposure can also lead to fertility problems, for exposure to lead and mercury within the first trimester may affect fetal development, resulting in “potential neurobehavioral development problems, low birth weight, or spontaneous abortion and birth defects”. If you want to know what this has to do with green technology, then just remember that solar cells and electric vehicle batteries contribute to e-waste also.

The second problem that comes from not addressing the consumption issue is the amount of resources needed to switch to a green energy future, while also maintaining the average American lifestyle. It’s safe to say that, to create the vast amount of panels, batteries, turbines, and everything else needed for a clean energy future, there will be resources needed to make those things. Obviously, it’s nice to imagine a future of global collaboration, where the sovereignty of nations are respected, and the workers of those nations own the resources they extract to sell at a fair price to any other nation or company. If we travel back to reality, however, it’s not hard to imagine a world where the attainment of those resources are brought about by imperialism. The evidence of that is basically the last half of the 1900s and the beginning of the 2000s (the coup that deposed Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh is an example of that).

In its entirety, the Green New Deal Resolution doesn’t have a strong international outlook in its policy goals, other than the mention of financial aid and technological transfers to developing countries. Even though I agree with those policy prescriptions if they’re ambitious enough, and if they successfully entail, what are referred to as, climate reparations, if any green new deal doesn’t address capitalism and other forms of oppression, then it can be seen as merely “green” colonialism to people in the developing world. Vijay Kolinjivadi and Ashish Kothari, write about the potential pitfalls of any green new deal that is not fiercely rooted in internationalism. They write a two part article in the leftist journal, Jamhoor, and you can find part one here and part two here. One salient point that they make, and which goes back to the resources question that I mentioned before, is the fact that the Green New Deal can potentially fuel the same quest for cheap raw materials, as well as and black and brown laboring bodies that are paid basically nothing for their labor. I will also add that within countries, there’s also the potential to displace vulnerable people from their homelands, and essentially harm their well being and rights. An example of that are the indigenous Saami people, a population of which live in Norway. Those people have reindeer herding rights in the mountainous regions of Norway, but those lands are now increasingly experiencing large scale wind power projects. These projects, as a result, are affecting the Saami’s people’s ability to herd reindeer, and by doing so, the Saami people viewed these projects as colonial and a continuation of a history of dispossession from their lands and culture.

On a global scale, there’s a trend of finance-rich and resource-poor countries looking towards resource-rich countries to fuel their needs.This has historically been the play for the usual imperial powers, taking the form of coups, the usual colonialist expansion projects, and increasingly in this age, economic warfare. There’s no reason to think that those countries in the imperialist core will stop, unless there’s a massive political reshuffling in those countries. In fact, there was a coup that took place recently in Bolivia, a country with great amounts of lithium as a resource. Other than those usual suspects in imperialistic endeavors, countries like China and India have been engaging in land-grabbing purchases to cheaply obtain essential resources also. As Vijay Kolinjivadi and Ashish Kothari mention, however, direct comparisons between the global north and global south powers can’t be made because the countries of the Global North have much more economic potential to carry out their visions for a Green New Deal, because of great spending ability that stem from high credit ratings, whereas a lot of Global South countries don’t have that potential because of IMF induced debt that stemmed from forced neoliberal policies. Thus, without addressing the consumption issue, a Green New Deal has the potential to succumb to “green” colonialism, as the resources needed to “greenly” power an average American and Western European life simply cannot come from finance-rich countries. There is a need, then, for a decrease in consumption for the richest people of the world, and that can only be brought about by degrowth.

Degrowth

Degrowth, as defined by ecological economist Giorgos Kallis, is the equitable reduction of a society’s throughput — materials and energy used by that society, what it extracts and processes and transports, and what it waste. The concept of degrowth, in its essence, applies to the overall reduction of consumption and waste within a society, and also of economic output. This essentially means that some economies will not grow any much longer; instead, they actively stop their growth, and even shrink in terms of GDP. It’s hard to conceive of that in our world today, where the capitalist mindset of growth infiltrates just about any country on this planet, with GDP being the primary measure of an economy’s health. Thus, some people who are uncomfortable with the concept of degrowth, and the shrinking of economies that it calls for, tend to go a different route: essentially calling for a decoupling of economic growth and material waste and environmental destruction that a growing economy creates. Even though there are some aspects of decoupling that happen in a more efficient and technologically advanced economy, advocates of degrowth argue that absolute decoupling is not a thing, that societies can’t absolutely grow their economy while wasting less and less resources. There’s also the argument that degrowth is the most feasible and less risky way to maintain 1.5℃ by 2030.

Degrowth, as a concept, can seem scary to a lot of people, especially to middle to upper class people in the Global North who are accustomed to relatively comfortable lives compared to, frankly, everyone else. There’s an assumption that people living under stagnant economies live miserable lives, without access to necessary resources. That assumption is true, if you look within our capitalist world, where resources are not adequately shared and redistributed to help all people. But, if we allow ourselves to step outside of capitalism, and envision a post-capitalist world, there’s no reason to infer that people will live miserable lives if there’s some sort of cap on economic growth. Economies of zero or negative growth can be economies of lower working hours, economies that control consumption by repairing, sharing, and downscaling products and services, and where social, physical, and mental wellbeing is emphasized above all else. Lives might actually be improved in that type of society, especially if you look for examples from non-capitalist societies.

One example of such a society is Cuba, a country that, due to some unknown reason, has low amounts of economic growth. The country, however, is not nearly as bad to live in, as some people are led to imagine. Beginning in the 1990s, as a response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuban leaders experimented with the principles of degrowth, without explicitly embracing it. That same period saw a decline in their overall ecological footprint, but also saw a rise in major public health indices. Maternal and infant mortality, diabetes rates, and obesity rates all plummeted in Cuba, and that was all brought about by a strong emphasis on policies that emphasized public health, social and economic equality, and safeguards against private accumulation and corporate interests. On a much smaller scale, there are societies that model our hunter and gatherer past that have unique relationships with the concept of scarcity and abundance. For instance, there are people in the Kalahari who actively work on sustaining their communities in accordance to the resources of the desert, emphasizing the wellbeing of all; conversely, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are the Mbendjele Yaka people who value their abundance of resources, but do everything in their power to maintain that abundance by consuming less and sharing more. There are also individual groups in countries like India and in Latin America that emphasize local control to balance the ecology of an area and maximize wellbeing, with some governments, like in Bolivia or Ecuador, borrowing aspects of indigenous knowledge and institutionalizing them.

On a broader note, there’s also the question of technology in societies engaged in degrowth, and what will be the role of technology in that type of future. First of all, I’m not arguing for an anarcho-primitive lifestyle, nor do I think any advocate of degrowth is arguing as such. I actually like technology, and what it brings to our world, and it’s absolutely true that technological innovation is needed to fuel the transition to a clean energy future. Disabled populations also need technology for their lives, and the aid that certain types of technology can provide them. Additionally, people of ethnic, sexual, and/or racial minorities use technology, particularly the internet, to connect with people who go through similar things as they do, especially if they live in hostile environments. Because of that, we still need to call for the emanation of progressive values all around the world, so that everyone’s local community can be more democratic, welcoming, and nurturing to everyone. With that being said, in societies that emphasize degrowth, technologies can be more localized, and focused on technologies that users can control and change and repair. Technologies will also be more environmentally sound and have an emphasis on the complete lifecycle of a product, hopefully aiding to create a more closed-looped future. Examples of a more commons based technological future are already here in certain local communities, from a bike kitchen in Sweden where people share a common area and tools to create and fix their own bikes, to a grassroots organization in Southern India that ementate scientific knowledge in the local language, helping and training people there to modify technologies to suit their rural needs. In a post-capitalist world, and a more fairly internationalized world, it’s also easier to see the concept of digital commons taking off, with plans and knowledge being emanated throughout the world, so that people in all areas can manipulate and create technologies on a local basis to suit their needs.

Obviously, there’s more to the degrowth movement than what I touched on here as somewhat of an introduction to the topic. I plan to do more research, and I encourage all of you to do that also. Through that research, you might even deny the basis of the degrowth movement, and lend your voice over to something like the ecomodernist movement, who prescribe more to technological fixes as a way to meet a sustainable future. That’s completely fine! In fact, there’s a part of me that desperately wants to try everything and anything to help bring about a sustainable future, and to help mitigate further warming due to climate change. However, I hope I adequately conveyed that, if individual consumption habits are not addressed, and if there’s an assumption that changes in lifestyles of the richest among us is not needed, then any climate action plan can solely be a plan of “green” colonialism, which will have detrimental effect on the lives of black and brown people abroad. And, as socialists, any plan that paves the way for imperialism is unacceptable.

Conclusion

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal Resolution is an ambitious framework for climate change, and it’s a welcome one because we need to act quickly and drastically to mitigate further warming in the future, and to basically give vulnerable populations a chance to live in a habitable world. There are some shortcomings, however, that can make the Green New Deal a front for “green” imperialism. By not addressing the consumption issue, there’s a chance that waste and resource extraction can stay the same, or even increase, leading to discarding of that waste onto vulnerable populations, and also imperialistic conquest for valuable resources. That will cause the lives of black and brown people to still be considered as secondary, and as necessary sacrifices, to give people in the Global North a comfortable life of excess. To address those shortcomings, to make sure that a “clean” energy future doesn’t end up being the same exploitative future as the fossil fuel one of the past, I emphasize the need for degrowth of the biggest economies in our world. Degrowth is needed to lower consumption rates of the most affluent among us, and to help usher in a more localized, democratic, and happy future.

A student of Environmental Science who tends to write about the intersection of climate change and storytelling.