Editorial: Green recovery needs a radical struggle

January 30, 2021

From the January-February 2021 issue of News & Letters

The disruption caused by the pandemic and lockdown have been so severe that governments around the world scrambled to bolster economies. That immediately became a battle over who would benefit most and who would be left behind—corporations or workers? Oil companies or their “clean” rivals?

“Green recovery” and “green stimulus” became the watchwords of many environmentalists, renewable energy companies, and their political supporters. All this money supposed to jumpstart the economy should be used to move toward climate restoration and away from climate chaos. Calls for a green recovery came from world leaders like the heads of Germany, France and the UN and from development banks, economists, environmentalists and doctors. The International Energy Agency held a “Clean Energy Transitions Summit” in July, which to them means funding renewable energy, in which they include nuclear, which is hardly clean.


The green recovery and the Green New Deal have been put on the political agenda by pressure from social movements, together with the increasingly disastrous impacts of climate change. COVID-19 and pandemics to come are among those disastrous impacts; 2020 was the worst weather disaster year in history.

At the same time, governments and politicians are busy trying to co-opt and water down what the movements thought these things were supposed to mean. They exploit the limitations of the Keynesian green stimulus/recovery concept itself: it is based on the state’s power restoring economic growth, meaning capitalist accumulation, to rescue capitalism in crisis. Even some socialists join Joe Biden in touting it as a jobs program—rather than envisioning a move beyond a society based on wage slavery, through workers taking control of the workplace by means of revolutionary self-organization.

Biden’s “Build Back Better” program supplanted the Green New Deal and green recovery, largely reducing them to funding “clean” energy—including nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, a crutch to prop up fossil fuel burning[1]—and infrastructure, including roads and bridges, predicated on endless economic growth.

Missing are the urgency of winding down all fossil fuel extraction and consumption, and radical restructuring of the physical layout of cities to minimize the need for things like commuting on those roads. Biden, with his party’s backing, still wants to save the coal, oil and gas industries. Similarly, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, described as a “green recovery” bill—and then he presided over the fracking boom that turned the U.S. into the world’s biggest producer of both oil and natural gas.

Around the world, funding and deregulation for fossil fuel production and use have been a far greater portion of the past year’s stimulus initiatives than investment in renewable energy, electric cars, energy efficiency and other “green” projects. The Trump gravy train for oil is notorious.

More to the point is what will continue to happen under Biden. Minnesota, under a Democratic-Farmer-Labor state administration, approved the expansion of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline with a new route through protected land where the Ojibwe people have land use rights. It is a slap in the face of the Indigenous Minnesotans who helped Democrats carry the state in November. Indigenous and climate justice activists have been fighting the pipeline project for years.


The battle is on: is green recovery going to be a way to bring in ideas of the radical change we need or will those who want to use it to sustain the status quo win?

Will “build back better” reinforce today’s infrastructure, which is based on fossil fuels, intensive energy use, individual car ownership approaching 1.5 billion? Will it reinforce capitalistic exploitative methods and imperialist relations? For example, production of most solar cells and electric car batteries currently requires materials such as lithium and coltan that are mined by superexploited labor in countries like Chile and Congo. Much current solar cell production uses materials produced by Chinese companies that use Uyghur forced labor. The only way to break out of this kind of “building back” is through control by the workers, communities and peoples affected.

If “build back better” and “green recovery” do not mean tearing up this capitalist society by its roots and building a new one on truly human foundations, then they will end up being funneled into building a new stage of capitalism, which will fall short of ending the march toward climate catastrophe. What is necessary and possible, and is struggling to be born through the various social and labor movements, is just such a new society, if the movements and their supporters fight for it in the battle of ideas as well as in activism.

[1] See “Carbon dioxide removal sucks,” by Gabriel Levy, peopleandnature.wordpress.com, Nov. 13, 2020, which is being unaccountably censored by Facebook.

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