I also want to mildly praise the resolution’s anti-incrementalism — because there are virtues in trying to offer not just a technical blueprint but a comprehensive vision of the good society, and virtues as well in insisting that dramatic change is still possible in America, that grand projects and scientific breakthroughs are still within our reach.

-–Conservative columnist Ross Douthat, The New York Times

Without question, the rollout of the so-called “Green New Deal” in early February was less than elegant. Not long before the actual resolution proposing the idea was submitted into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), a set of policy “talking points” were released by a member of Ocasio-Cortez’ staff.  It contained references to “farting cows” (code for methane reductions in agriculture), the elimination of air travel, and a guaranteed income for those unable or “unwilling” to work. 

Though none of this language is included in the actual resolution, its release by the still “green” (in the sense of political experience) AOC provided quick fodder for her many enemies on the right, especially the pundits at FOX News.  And while more than 70 Democratic members of Congress quickly signed on to the resolution, House speaker Nancy Pelosi rather perfunctorily dismissed the wish list of primarily left-wing ideas for combatting both inequality and climate change as a “green dream,” and liberal senator Dianne Feinstein berated a group of young people who came to her office asking for support.

On the other hand, some conservatives, including New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, did not rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Surprisingly, perhaps, while President Trump predictably condemned the wide-ranging resolution as a step toward Socialism, Douthat praised the Green New Deal explicitly for its sweeping approach.  Meanwhile, as expected, dozens of environmental and social justice groups quickly endorsed the measure. 

It is important to understand that the current resolution is merely aspirational (and, I would argue, inspirational), its short 14 pages offering only a set of reasons for reform and a set of goals to guide policies.  I want to look carefully at what is actually contained in the Green New Deal resolution and suggest, as Jeff Bilbro put it to me in an email, that the GND may be simultaneously too ambitious and not ambitious enough.  Then, I want to delve into the history of the original New Deal to see how its successes and mistakes might help guide this new effort at comprehensive change.  

What Is In The Green New Deal?

House Resolution 109 begins by outlining the impacts of climate change as reported in the National Climate Assessment of 2018, offering a depressing litany of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, “and an increase in wildfires, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life, healthy communities, and critical infrastructure.”  It argues that the United States, by virtue of its role in producing 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (a figure ignoring the offshoring of many of them), has a special duty to take the lead in combatting climate change.  It also claims that public policies over the past four decades have led to enormous inequality, and that environmental destruction and inequality have disproportionally decimated certain “frontline and vulnerable” Americans, including “indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

Like the original New Deal, the resolution suggests that a Green New Deal can correct these injustices while mitigating the climate crisis, and that it can and must create millions of high-wage jobs for those left out of our current affluence, attain “zero net emissions” of greenhouse gases in the next decade, and secure “clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment” for all Americans.  No small feat indeed.

It calls for large-scale investments into new zero-emission technologies and sustainable infrastructure, including a new energy grid and high-speed rail travel, while, perhaps in an effort to win business and rural support, “spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States,” and “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”  

The resolution also addresses other forms of pollution, recommends “science-based” solutions, and suggests the sharing of new more sustainable technologies with other nations.  As introduced, the Green New Deal would provide health care, affordable housing, a safe environment, and higher education for all, while guaranteeing family wage union jobs with benefits and paid vacations as well.  

Simultaneously Too Ambitious and Insufficient?

It’s undoubtedly a sweeping concept, and though the document calls for democratic dialogue down to the local level on policy specifics—there are no specific recommendations like carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, and nothing, not even nuclear power, is deemed off the table—opponents are likely, as the President already has, to deem the whole thing a massive Federal power grab. Moreover, the costs of such a program would dwarf previous budgets as a share of the economy, and much of it may not be achievable in the ten-year time frame recommended, whatever the investment. 

The attention to agriculture, a major producer of both CO2 and the even-more-heat-trapping methane, strikes me as a welcome aspect of the resolution, which I feared might stop with subsidies for wind, solar, and other primarily technological fixes. Both agriculture and its sister, forestry, can either contribute to climate change, or when carefully managed, sequester carbon.  Current agribusiness and corporate forestry practices tend toward the former, small farms and reforestation toward the latter.

The most glaring omission in the GND is its lack of any challenge to consumerism and our current obsession with economic growth.

Yet, even in its comprehensiveness, the Green New Deal may not be sufficient to the task it sets out to achieve—climate stability and resilience in a context of far-greater economic equality.  In my view, the most glaring omission in the GND is its lack of any challenge to consumerism and our current obsession with economic growth.  Nearly 70 percent of U.S. spending goes to consumer goods, an increasing share of which are made abroad.  We are not blamed for the carbon emissions embodied in those imported goods during the mining, manufacturing, and transport stages.  They are charged to the countries where the goods are produced, yet we, as the ultimate consumers, should be held liable for these real carbon impacts. Our global economy allows us to outsource much of the pollution and toxic waste produced by our insatiable consumerism.

Some studies suggest that production of consumer goods, whether domestic or foreign, may account for up to 60 percent of carbon emissions, more than either transportation or temperature regulation in buildings, the other leading culprits.  In my view, there is simply no way to seriously reduce our carbon footprint without reducing our penchant for consumerism, and yet we are going in precisely the opposite direction.  Abetted by instant-gratification marketers like Amazon and planned-obsolescence producers like Apple, our consumption levels continue to rise dramatically.  

Bill Rees, the University of British Columbia economist who developed the concept of the “ecological footprint” suggests that the world is already in “overshoot,” consuming at least 60 percent more resources and dumping far more wastes than nature can process, and that countries like the United States are consuming at rates that would require multiple planets to sustain.  Moreover, recycling doesn’t offer a way out—most of it can no longer be sold to the Chinese or elsewhere, and our waste is simply dumped into vast methane-emitting landfills.  

At the same time, almost as if they lived on a different planet where none of this was happening, economists left and right beat the drum for even higher rates of economic growth—the 4 percent rate that President Trump hopes for would mean a doubling of American consumption in only 18 years!  It is hard to imagine a Green New Deal which accomplishes the goals it sets forth without challenging the gospel of consumerism and growth.

Lessons From The Older Green New Deal

But like Ross Douthat, I’m not about to abandon the Green New Deal simply because it’s not yet where I want it to be.  I consider it a bold step in the right direction, an aspiration that can finally get us talking as a nation—and across partisan lines—if we care about the future we are leaving to our children.  What seems clear to me is that we cannot solve the problems that face us—from climate disasters to environmental degradation to poverty, racial division, rural despair, inequality and economic insecurity, anger, the opioid crisis, increasing mortality rates, the stresses of overwork, and the loss of meaning in our lives—silo by silo, as if they are disconnected.  For all its current weaknesses, the GND is an effort to “solve for pattern” as Wendell Berry recommends.  Surely, what we face is what William James referred to as the moral equivalent of war, a multi-faceted existential crisis brought about by our refusal to live responsibly and within limits.   

For all its current weaknesses, the GND is an effort to “solve for pattern” as Wendell Berry recommends.

The term Green New Deal harkens on an earlier New Deal, which was a response to problems remarkably similar to our own.  While we aren’t dealing now with massive unemployment, the income and wealth divides are once again as wide as they were then.  In that period, too, the nation faced an environmental crisis, its soils washing and blowing away, its mountains stripped of forests, fires and floods widespread, its wildlife decimated—in less than a century, bison numbers had been reduced to such a degree they had to be bred in the Bronx Zoo and released in the wild; only 15 Trumpeter Swans remained out of millions; bighorn sheep had been reduced from two million to seven hundred, and most waterfowl populations had shrunk by an order of magnitude.  And when it was first advocated by FDR, the howls of “socialism!” from Republicans were deafening.  

Though it was rolled out piece by piece, the New Deal was as ambitious as today’s GND.  And, in its early days, as historian Douglas Brinkley shows clearly in his opus, Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America, the old New Deal was also, first and foremost, a green New Deal, with programs like Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act arriving later.  While the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the New Deal’s first, largest and most popular program (launched in 1933), was a massive jobs program for unemployed men—with more than three million members overall—it was, even more importantly, an environmental project.  Working from hundreds of camps, spread to every state to increase local support, the CCC planted hundreds of millions of trees (including a “shelterbelt” that saved midwestern soils), helped restore damaged landscapes and wetlands for wildlife, and created hundreds of state and national park facilities that visitors enjoy to this day.  

The CCC provides a clear model for a national service program for young Americans—my best friend from childhood, now a conservative Republican opposed to “welfare,” told me he could readily support such a program.  It might also be extended, for example, to unemployed coal miners as GND climate policy requires a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels.  Much as CCC members did in the 30s, the miners could restore a wounded Appalachian landscape.  There are now some 530 cutoff mountaintops in that part of the country.  Imagine unemployed miners able to earn a family wage by staying where they now live, working outdoors and restoring those mountaintops, not with a quick sprinkling of exotic grasses as we now term “reclamation,” but with a full and diverse canopy of carbon-sequestering trees.

The next great New Deal environmental initiative, the Soil Conservation Act passed while its pages, in the hands of members of Congress, were literally turning brown from soil blown all the way to the Capital from the Midwest and southern Dust Bowls.  What followed was the establishment of Soil Conservation Districts in every U.S. county, where farmers, ranchers, academic extension agents, and local leaders came together to negotiate better care of soils and water. Such districts, now sometimes called resource conservation districts or simply conservation districts, remain vital to this day and might well be used to engage local input regarding Green New Deal agricultural policies and their local application—I had the opportunity to keynote the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts’ annual meeting last November.   Part of this, as the GND resolution indicates, means reverting large agribusiness holdings to sustainable small farms and training the many young Americans who want to farm to do so, while making land affordable for them by redirecting agribusiness subsidies.  

Curt Meine, a biographer of ecologist Aldo Leopold, tells me he believes the Green New Deal must begin with agriculture and rural America, both because modern food production is fossil-fuel intensive but also because a sustainable food system is the basis for everything else.  The opportunity to enhance the lives of small farmers and other rural Americans, who feel neglected by urban liberals, seems an essential aspect of winning bipartisan support for the GND, as it did with the old New Deal.  Rural Americans, initially skeptical of FDR’s grand schemes, were won over by direct improvements in their own lives.

Another Missing Element: Work-Time

As Brinkley chronicles brilliantly, the original green New Deal also saved millions of acres of land for National Parks and wilderness areas, state parks, and wildlife refuges. But not all of it was about conservation.  Perhaps the first vision of the New Deal was the creation of new jobs, not by government programs, but by shortening and sharing working hours. As early as 1930, the Kellogg’s Cereal Company, in Battle Creek, Michigan, had cut its workday to six hours (while paying for seven).  The result was an immediate gain of 300 jobs for the unemployed.  Workers used their extra free time to look after the community (crime dropped precipitously), get more outdoor exercise, volunteer in the community and its schools, take up new hobbies, and grow their own vegetables. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, thought the idea could work at the national level.

With the backing of Perkins, Roosevelt, and organized labor, a bill capping the American workweek at 30 hours (anything more would be charged as overtime) overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate on April 6, 1933, only a few weeks after Roosevelt’s inauguration. But facing strong opposition from the National Association of Manufacturers, Roosevelt backed down, in return for support of the CCC and a later jobs program, the Works Progress Administration.  The bill never went to the House.  Five years later, Congress passed the 40-hour workweek bill.  At a time when a third of the country was ill-clothed, ill-housed and ill-fed, as Roosevelt put it, expanding the economy to create jobs rather than shortening hours made sense.  A better distribution of poverty wouldn’t have won hearts and minds.

But today, we don’t suffer from too little production.  Today, continued economic expansion as a jobs program is a recipe for environmental suicide, not a healthier, happier society.  Cities like Seattle, where I live, suffer from too much wealth, rather than too little.  Our vast wealth has led to displacement, homelessness, congestion, and palpable community anger rather than happiness.  Today, a reduction in working hours—it’s been 80-years since the 40-hour week took effect and we are many times richer—could offer a way to increase employment opportunities without increasing consumer spending, while improving our health, strengthening our communities and giving us more choice in a society where both conservative and liberal Americans have noted the stresses of overwork and our rush-rush culture.  A Swedish study showed that a ten percent reduction in work-time would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 to 8 percent.  Policies shortening and sharing working hours are essential for the Green New Deal but, with the exception of vacation time, these have, so far, been overlooked.   For the poor, higher minimum wages and a basic income guarantee, which has also been suggested by GND supporters, could make up income losses from shorter hours.

Measuring Success

The original New Deal needed a way to measure its progress in increasing national output and reducing poverty.  In 1934, economist Simon Kuznets came up with a single index for such a purpose, the Gross National Product.  Revised slightly, and now called the Gross Domestic Product, it is a tally of “the final market value of all the goods and services produced in a country in a given year.”  When we talk about economic growth, we mean growth of the GDP.  But, as even Kuznets pointed out, the measure is simply one of economic output; in no way does it indicate the full welfare of the nation, and in fact, as Italian economist Stefano Bartolini points out, it may well do the opposite.  GDP counts what is paid for.  The costs of accidents or oil pollution or climate disasters often count as plusses but are actually remediation of the effects of earlier growth.  Faster growth may increase work-time and decrease social connection, or destroy the natural commons, leading to poorer health but greater expenditures, and thus a bigger GDP.  Meanwhile, many aspects of life that produce real satisfaction are not counted at all—housework, the value of nature, and the value of leisure, for example.

So just as the New Deal needed an index of success, so does the Green New Deal, but it requires a different one.  We need to measure things that contribute to quality of life and the restoration of the environment and subtract those that do not.  We cannot say whether this will mean growth, or de-growth—it depends on what we measure.  What is clear is that material throughput cannot continue to expand.  But without a new measure, the Green New Deal has no real way to be judged accurately.

Get Involved

As Curt Meine and others point out, the original New Deal, and even its green components, was not without unintended consequences from which we must learn.  Perhaps the most serious was its reliance on big dams.  Grand Coulee, Bonneville, and other massive hydroelectric projects were wonders of the world in their day, but some of them have destroyed salmon runs and others are silting over.  Straightening of rivers has led to new destructive flooding.  These mistakes, which might have been avoided by smaller construction, do not condemn the New Deal, and they vastly improved many lives, but they sound a cautionary note we would do well to heed. Which technologies, seen as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, may bring similar reasons for caution—nuclear power, large-scale wind farms?

But the call for caution is not a summons to inaction.  In my view, the Green New Deal is an exciting and hopeful prospect, especially because of its ambition.  There will be big fights over how to fund it, as there were over the equally-expensive (for its era) old New Deal.  Surely that will require some forms of carbon taxes, taxes on inequality and financial speculation, on extreme wealth and on market externalities like pollution, and on consumption and advertising.  Surely, as it is without question a security measure—the Pentagon has called climate change America’s greatest security risk—it will require a transfer of funds from a bloated and dangerous military budget.  There will be fights over application at the local level; here, as much as is possible, the principle of subsidiarity should take precedence and every effort must be made to engage ordinary citizens in the development of policy, in part through the conservation districts that already exist.  

But the stakes are too great to do nothing, and our children and theirs—who are already fighting for this—will not forgive inaction.  It is exciting to see high school and college students leading the way in this effort and filling the offices of members of Congress to demand that they not turn a blind eye to these existential threats.  It is exciting to see Minnesota high schoolers come together to create a draft plan for a state Green New Deal and present it to their governor, Tim Walz. So join them; add your own ideas, criticize where needed, but affirm as much as you can.  Talk to friends left and right and center, asking only that they be respectful as you will be.  Surely if Thoreau and Muir and Carson and Stoneman Douglas and Leopold and the Roosevelts could, they would be at the doors of Congress with the new children’s crusaders.  Think of what they once did and vow that we can do no less.

We will need local models.  In my upcoming film, Green New City, I’m exploring how the diverse and economically-challenged port of Vallejo, California might become an urban model for the Green New Deal, as it seeks to reduce its carbon footprint, develop through attention to nature, beauty and environmental restoration, and fully engage its citizens in planning for the future (including participatory budgeting).

When past times tried our souls, Americans did not retreat to rabbit holes.  When sacrifice was demanded for the public good, they responded willingly to rationing and hardship and found a way forward.  I, for one, intend to take the concept of the Green New Deal to every forum I can, to criticize and seek to improve but not dismiss this bold idea, to act as if our very future on this planet depends on what we do now, and indeed, it does.

Local Culture
Local Culture
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  1. Great article with a lot of good insight. I would just like to point out that there are currently many conservation corps throughout the country. Most of them are nonprofits, but some are funded by the states or through AmeriCorps. They do all the same kind of projects as the CCC but on a necessarily smaller scale. I wonder how a national conservation corps would affect these smaller, local groups.

  2. Great point Evan, I agree! Where good work is already being done we should rely on the principle of subsidiarity as I mentioned. And the local communities must always be involved in any CCC-type projects, again perhaps through the Conservation Districts. These kinds of organizations do a lot of good but can probably use more support. I certainly apologize for overlooking them. A national corps might be able to add numbers to these projects by providing them with more funds for participants.

  3. A wonderful article, John, and one that I can support almost every particular of. My one real exception is your discussion of the Soil Conservation Act, and even there I may not be in any disagreement with you. But as you describe “the establishment of Soil Conservation Districts in every U.S. county, where farmers, ranchers, academic extension agents, and local leaders came together to negotiate better care of soils and water,” I wonder if you might not be describing a move away from the sort of local, received, tactile knowledge that Wendell Berry always reminds us about, and insists is central to any actual sustainability. Certainly his own view about the consequences of the New Deal is hardly uniformly positive; the Federal Tobacco Program was, from his perspective, a wonderfully sustainable and responsible bit of government intervention, but other interventions had the consequence of taking responsibility away from those best situated to wield it. If I may quote something from an essay I posted on this site more than seven years ago, after having listened to a presentation by Wes Jackson:

    Norman Rockwell painted “The County Agent” in 1948, and used as his model an actual county agent, doing rounds on the farms of Jay County, Indiana. It is fairly easy for most audiences to look at this painting and see in it a nostalgic invocation of white America’s agrarian past–the red-paneled farmhouse, the horse and calf and chickens, the kids with the 4-H projects and a presumably intact, multi-generational family looking on. Jackson sees that, but he also sees more: “What is clear, with a little study [of the painting], is that expertise and youth are central while tradition and experience are peripheral.” The county agent has the knowledge and authority, and is educating the youth into this mode of thinking; the received knowledge of the family is becoming somewhat irrelevant to agriculture as it was being practiced (measured, assessed) in 1948, and would be into the future. And how that has been born out! As the industrial-fertilizer-fueled Green Revolution (which surely improved the nutrition and extended the lifespans of tens of millions of people, but which also, Jackson argued, presumed that 1) bigger yields were always a sign of success, 2) traditional technologies and ways of life and relationships to the land were always an obstacle, and 3) agriculture was a industrial science, and not necessarily, much less fundamentally, related to our carbon-based ecosystem) extended its reign, from the decades following World War II until our present Monsanto-dominated moment, the result was ever-more specialization, ever-more technical expertise, and ever-less actual connection, through a family or locally sustained community, with the land from which we fed ourselves.

    I wouldn’t want to lay all that on the Soil Conservation Act, even assuming I agree with every element of Jackson’s and Berry’s criticisms. But in this day, with connections to land and community radically more attenuated than they were 85 years ago, how could we prevent a “Green New Deal” from creating schemes of measurement and policies to re-organize agriculture away from agribusinesses–as necessary as that is!–which, unintentionally or otherwise, making working the land even more a matter of expertise, and even less one of organic community knowledge? I appreciate your emphasis on learning from the original New Deal’s “unintended consequences”; it’s just that this seems to me to be a very nefarious one, and one that would be difficult to prevent, even under the best of circumstances.
    In any case though, this is a great, thoughtful piece, and I think you for writing it. I’m going to have to track down your new film; thinking about how cities (particular mid-sized ones) can make themselves more fiscally and environmentally sustainable is my research passion these days. so I’m sure there’s much it has to teach me!

  4. Thank you, John, for your reference to Kellogg’s and the six-hour day. I researched this issue while working as a speechwriter at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the 1990s. An interesting footnote here is that productivity in the cereal plants remained nearly the same after the workday shrunk from eight to six hours. Employees took a shorter lunch, but they also worked harder and went home less fatigued. Much credit here can be given to W.K. Kellogg, the company founder. He was an old school patriarchal leader, who believed that by treating his employees fairly, he could make unions uneccessary. He spent freely to build parks, gardens, athletic fields and swimming pools, and required that manual labor be used in their construction to provide jobs. Unlike the transient, vagabond CEOs of today, he was committed to his hometown of Battle Creek and lavished much of his philanthropy there. I recommend “Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day,” by Benjamin Hunnicutt (Temple Press, 1996) as a readable and hopeful example of how industry can set workers free to serve their families and communities.

  5. Superb commentary, John. The starting point for a magnum opus, combining cogent historical lessons with balanced fine-grained analysis of the GND. Excellent contribution to the ‘state of the debate’ with thoughtful prescriptions as to how to move forward on this most important endeavor.

  6. I admire your passion. Let me make a few comments, as someone extremely displeased with the status quo but with very different prescriptions for what to do now:
    – Trying to argue that the last few decades can be characterized by “environmental destruction” is completely, totally, in every conceivable way wrong. In Los Angeles in the 1990s you couldn’t see the mountains from Pasadena. In the 1970s you couldn’t even go outside. Now it is amazing how pristine the air is. Cities like Pittsburgh and Buffalo in the 1980s were smoggy messes, and in the 1950s/60s you couldn’t go outside and couldn’t swim in the lakes and rivers. Now they are amazingly clean and livable. Huge swaths of the country are more forested than they have been in centuries, due to a century or more of rural depopulation. The environmental movement should be lauded for their achievements, and update their rhetoric away from Rachel Carson era doom and gloom. The reason they won’t, of course, is that fear motivates. Hence the perpetual “WE ARE ONLY 10 YEARS FROM THE DEATH OF THE PLANET!!11!!1!!” stuff.
    – Most people have seen all this environmental improvement as having no costs, as technological developments have led to replacements of dirty technology and practices with approaches that are cleaner AND cheaper. It is thus easy to get public support. The Green New Deal folks are talking about absolutely crushing costs (when they talk about them at all, instead of just avoiding the subject). As long as you intend to maintain our democracy, this is going to make these policies a non-starter. Americans will not tolerate their electricity bills, gas bills, etc., skyrocketing. If you can actually get renewable energy sources cheaper than oil, gas, etc., then they will win out. If you mandate that people switch to these sources AND pay much higher prices to do so, you’re not going to have a chance, no matter how much fear-mongering you do.
    – As an aside on costs, the military budget is bloated and can be substantially cut, but it’s not a major enough part of government spending to come close to paying for any significant part of these plans. Again, time to update rhetoric of 50 years ago for today’s world.
    – The challenge of our times and of the 21st century is human despair endemic to modern civilization. Look at the crisis with drugs, suicide, etc. A world without kids is a world with no future, including but not primarily in the economic sense. Modern environmentalists who argue that people shouldn’t have kids are committing a crime against humanity and are making the situation much worse. There needs to be a way to get back to human-scale life. You will not accomplish this with national-scale mobilization programs, where people are merely going to be cogs in a vast machine run by a distant bureaucracy. That will not resolve the problem that people don’t know their neighbors or have community scale group associations. What you need to do is break up the national-scale organizations that currently exist, in both business and government.
    – The goal should not be to have people work at a huge business that has shorter work days, more union representation, etc. We don’t want a world where people work 30 hour weeks for Lowe’s, McDonalds, etc. We should work for a world where people work a full week for Bob’s Hardware Store, Sue’s Diner, etc. Local is always better.
    Best of luck to us all.

    • Your last paragraph touches on someting the GND should have addressed but which isn’t obviously related to environmental policy: the fact that Reagan-era antitrust and corporate merger policy bankrupted small towns and small cities, and thereby increased transportation costs and traffic congestion with people having to travel to cities, as well as increasing the monopsony power of a few retailers. Amazon is now doing to Walmart what Walmart did to local businesses. I saw this as someone with absolutely no affection for ‘tradition’ whatsoever and a great appreciation for how urbanization improved the world for women and dark-skinned people. Still, the planet cannot support metastatic cities surrounded by empty fields, so we should find a way to make living in small towns and smaller cities viable, but economically and culturally. One way is to curb the Amazon.coms and Walmarts of the world.

      • I agree, Karen. And yes, the Green New Deal addresses this but not directly. that will need to come with the actual proposals. I mention in my piece that I think agriculture must come first and that at least the GND is attentive to rural America’s needs. It’s not where it needs to be but it’s a start in the right direction.

        • Yep. Ag policy has been pretty much entirely wrong since the 50’s. We need to have smaller, less energy dependent farms growing a greater variety of food crops instead of the soybean and corn plant-mines we have now, growing raw materials for industry. I don’t know how to get there.

      • “I saw this as someone with absolutely no affection for ‘tradition’ whatsoever and a great appreciation for how urbanization improved the world for women and dark-skinned people.”

        So in the upcoming special election for State Senate in my district, do I vote for the (Democratic) white female or (Republican) dark-skinned male person? This stuff gets me so confused!!!!!

  7. thanks to all of you for your comments. Russell, I very much agree with your points–well taken! I think folks in the conservation districts are learning. My talk to the CA Association (linked to in the article) has been very well received by many and while far from perfect, I do think they offer a door to good community engagement. I’ve just started my film on Vallejo but have written about it here: https://voxpopulisphere.com/2018/08/01/john-de-graaf-a-california-city-thats-taking-beauty-seriously/ I love your work and will also email you privately. Tom, glad you liked the Kellogg’s bit. I’ve written quite a lot about it over the years. Ben Hunnicutt is a good friend and he and I traveled to Battle Creek in 1993 to interview former 30-hour Kellogg’s workers for my film RUNNING OUT OF TIME. Laurence, thanks for the kind words. And Brian, I agree with some of what you say here but gloom and doom has not worked–see https://grist.org/article/its-time-for-climate-change-communicators-to-listen-to-social-science/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&utm_campaign=daily and I have tried to avoid it. You are right that many things have improved–especially US air quality. But my issues are not with that but with consumerism, economic growth, etc. and the pressures they are putting on the earth as a whole. We Americans have been offshoring our pollution and waste for a long time and the GND must address that. It will be expensive but inaction will be suicidal in my view. I hope you will give Bill Rees and others a read. I think we will need some national efforts to get back to local because it will require major changes in income distribution, etc. I agree about the goal of going local but local efforts alone will not break up national/international oligarchies. And the original New Deal’s federal jobs and conservation programs, often administered locally, gave hope to millions of depressed Americans and could we could do the same again for coal miners etc. We simply cannot continue to consume as we have and the sacrifices necessary for the GND will have the side effect of reducing consumerism. The reality of climate change and global environmental pressures will not be addressed by saying people won’t pay for change.

  8. I don’t know, but every Ag Extension or SCS agent I ever dealt with was a man or woman with mud on their boots and a nice combination of both practical and academic experience. The Army Corps of Engineers, when it comes to local wetlands jurisdiction are an entirely different matter.

    Long before the Silicon Valley Titans built “Total Environments” to benefit and lure their employees to an extent that Palo Alto restaurants claim they cannot find and hire a good chef anymore, American manufacturers built park-like “pleasure grounds”, complete with fountains, plantings and esplanade to benefit their workers. Engravings of these new kinds of workplaces that were replacing the dingy industrial wastelands typical of the era could be seen in magazines of the era. This was when individual company owners were concerned about the welfare of their individual employees instead of remote Corporate boards concerned primarily about the welfare of their shareholders. It was admittedly, a momentary fad of sorts until the High Tech Luxury Forts came along .

    But at least somebody is talking about the environment as something other than a foe or a myth. It is encouraging that a Time’s conservative journalist as well as this nominally conservative and localist website are actually responding to the “Green New Deal” in a productive manner. There are certainly a lot of questions to be asked about it but it is a far better approach than the general trend of dismissing the environment and to be precise, the current Administration’s doubling down on demolishing environmental regulation in a transparent kind of revenge for past 9th hole wetland permits denied.

    It has been said that our current built landscape will not even make good ruins but the fact remains that it generally spreads blight within its very first quarter. As a people, we expend virtually no effort towards educating ourselves as to the value of sustainable craft, the good business of better design and the importance of a healthy environment. If an environmental ethic were “socialist”, the Soviets and Chinese would not be such notorious despoilers. A culture with pretensions to being “exceptional” would not be so stubbornly illiterate in the subject of the environment and our proper place in it.

    Somehow, the environment needs to be resurrected as an important issue of complex scales rather than the popular crisis that our crisis-junkie culture likes to paint it as. The environment is uniquely attuned to subsidiarity and so any course of civics with that philosophic bent utmost in mind might be an altogether right and proper vehicle for finally establishing that Land Ethic that so far eludes us. It will not happen until the public is educated enough to counter the simplistic and reductive exploiters who control discourse and private or government investment today. Short term, zero-sum thinking , illustrated perfectly by a 20 minute drive through any sprawl you care to explore must be ended. This is not about socialism vs. capitalism or regulation vs. free trade or even good vs. bad taste, it is about our landscape. Our landscape is a benediction and there is no priesthood at present to give thanks. The moneylenders are in the Temple, building a food court. The people it seems, will eat damned near anything.

    Kudos to all the people of serious and good-hearted intent involved in this vital debate. The entrenched interests trivializing the matter are no less noxious than the wingnuts claiming the end is nigh. The widespread illiteracy concerning both building and our complex environment, at this late date, would be comical if it were not so deadly. It should come as no surprise that those who deride an environmental ethic are precisely those who profit most from the collective illiteracy.

    • Great comments! Very helpful. And a good reminder from history. Just spent the day in a neighborhood where beautiful century-old old homes, which house a large number of renters or owner families are being torn down for ugly “luxury” condos that will be an eyesore in a few decades. Less beauty and less affordable housing pandering to the new onrush of Amazon techies…

  9. One of the interesting skews of Conservation Policy is the emphasis upon “Wilderness” or “Land Preservation”. I am certainly grateful for those who have conceptualized and realized the National Parks and all the States and Cities with their parks as well as the nation’s private Land Trusts that work hard at conserving land to very positive ends but this effort has resulted…to a degree….in a kind of “either – or” rationalization. We preserve important landscapes, set them apart as almost sacred space but then feel entitled to virtually trash our inhabited landscape, salving our conscience with the good deeds of wilderness preservation. We attain virtue simply by setting up, in effect, large living dioramas of circumscribed areas. The tableaus one can view at the Museum of Natural History may not be as authentically productive and real as a National Park or Wilderness containing functioning biota but they are tied to a similar ethos that stubbornly maintains that we are apart from nature

    The congruence of craft and development with landscape preservation is a perfect example of the possibilities of localism and subsidiarity: Economic activity at the local level which partners with the landscape to a more enduringly beautiful effect while helping to meet the larger goal of an economically vibrant and sustainable planet.

    Before we might entertain such a thing, we need a citizenry who is capable of perceiving the aridity and utter lack of virtue represented by zero-sum human development that has accelerated within the last hundred years. People cannot be expected to understand or be attracted to that which they do not know can exist. The cheap and tawdry amusements of consumerism and short term exploitation are a powerful sin. A release or diminishment of liability is a less than salutary end.

  10. Matt,
    Can you imagine an economy’s GNP based upon Ruskin’s “National Store” instead of one based upon “National Debt? Thanks for the link.I think the biggest despoilment of the era is the prevailing lack of imagination as to what could or should be. Dominion as destruction is the rule of the junkyard. When ignorance, blissful or otherwise is a cash cow, ignorance will be showered in money. It is a tawdry luxury, the perfect object of adoration for the spendthrift.

  11. I think Brian’s comment above raises some unassailable points–unless we are willing to talk about limits, as the author says. Not nationally mandated limits, or even mandated limits of any kind, but of individuals who themselves possess a sense of limits and live accordingly.

    An anecdote: I was once in a faculty meeting, where the point under discussion was our faculty union’s advocacy for pay raises. I was the lone skeptic at the table. I raised the question: “How much is enough? I’ve got 4 walls and a roof and three square meals a day.” One of my colleagues argued that pay was a sign of Respect, so that pay isn’t just material compensation, it is symbolic. I asked “So how much Respect is sufficient?”

    Nobody had a decent answer to that.

    So, count me skeptical on the author’s interest in the sweeping vision model. Burke was right, and still is. However, three cheers for limits. Nothing good will happen, without an individual sense that there’s nothing wrong wrong driving old cars, fixing your old stuff when it breaks, and learning how to make things yourself.

  12. I am very impressed by the quality of comments here. As one whose writing is more often published on the left I’m used to generally superficial responses of Yay, that’s Great! or You’re a shill for the right-wing. Either way, most don’t have depth these do and I am glad to learn even from those I may disagree with. Aron, your take on limits resonates with me because I have been and still am, a serious advocate of voluntary simplicity. I no longer believe however that individual actions will get us out of this mess, which is why despite its dangers of overreach I am drawn to big vision of the Green New Deal. I think the times are simply to urgent to rely on the wholesale adoption of right livelihoods, however, desirable that may be. Our entire system is made to reward growth and the addiction to growth–it is a socially-sanctioned addiction si why I understand your skepticism, I hope you will enter the discussion and help move the GND to an understanding of limits and dangers of rampant consumerism.

      • John:

        Here’s where I think we disagree: You said: “I no longer believe however that individual actions will get us out of this mess, which is why despite its dangers of overreach I am drawn to the big vision of the Green New Deal.”

        I’d argue that it is less a “danger” of overreach than an “absolute certainty of disastrous overreach.” You may be right, that individual action has little chance of success (however Success is defined). But in my view, “collective” action of the form something like the GND advocates would necessitate such an extreme level of authoritarianism that any gains would be erased and we’d just trade one big mess for another. Just because consequences are unforeseen doesn’t mean they’re unpredictable, and for at least some politicians (AOC among them), increased scope for authoritarianism is probably a feature, not a bug. Add to that the historical evidence that the New Deal was (arguably) not, in the end, what ended the Great Depression. World War II has the better claim to that honor, I think.

        Putting those two points together doesn’t make an argument that voluntary individual limits are likely to be adopted by lots of people. We agree about that. What it does add up to is the argument that state action of New Deal scope almost certainly won’t pass the cost-benefit analysis test. So, I’m arguing for what seems to me to be the “least bad” option.


  13. Aaron, which Burke was right? The Burke of the primacy of Property and History or perhaps “Bad Laws are the worst sort of tyranny”. Is it the derided Burke who criticized the French zealots …or was it the Burke who asserted “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little” or the Burke who said “A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together would be my standard of a statesman” or perhaps “A State without means of some change is without the means of its conservation”? Which Burke? I like to think it might have been the friend of liberty who said “Beauty is the promise of happiness”.

    You and Brian are certainly correct in your suspicions of the Grand Plan. Laputan nitwits and Bolshy Bean-counters are the bane of our existence. There is nothing quite so fantastic and hideous as an authoritarian’s promises of stability and progress. Fencing with coulda-shoulda wouldas is always more farcical than confronting what exists now. But I think that Brian might be over-stating it when he asserts that “Trying to argue that the last few decades can be characterized as “environmental destruction” is completely, totally, in every conceivable way wrong”. Yes, Smog is being reduced, pesticides better monitored and Long Island Sound was increasingly hypoxic as recently as the 80’s and through infrastructure investment to eliminate combined sewers, it no longer exists in as dire a condition. However, environmental impacts have hardly turned a corner into positive territory globally nor have we Americans acknowledged the crude nature of our built landscape or the unsustainable quality of our technocratic growth economy presumptions. If I were to assess the overall quality of life on the planet on the basis of the increase in populations and variety of charismatic mega-fauna I see crossing my lower field in the Berkshire foothills since the 80’s, I would be sorely mistaken, particularly when a 2″ rainfall in less than an hour on a tuesday follows one that had an even shorter duration the previous thursday. Its never easy to understand that accelerating entrenchment of stream beds in the woods is a potential early sign of desertification when its still raining over 40″ a year.

    Should we give our unalloyed, uncritical support to the freshwoman member of Congress and her grab-bag, hastily hatched agitprop of a “Green New Deal”? No, neither should we support those like Marco Rubio who extoll the current inchoate regulation demolition and claim the environment is not a subject worthy of National Emergency like a Border Wall is during the same week that his hometown Miami newspaper publishes an article on the preposterous issue of “climate gentrification”. What might this new brand of gentrification be? Apparently, it is Miami Real Estate Developers invading poor neighborhoods on higher terrain to build their luxury towers to avoid the Development Fees required in the more tony flood zones. Perhaps Marco might like to spend the next King Tide in a lawn chair next to a Miami Beach Catch basin asserting the environment is not an emergency issue. He might want to pack his Cuban sandwich in watertight tupperware.

    We’ve been inhabiting a “least bad” reality for some time now and it aint getting any better. The people are no more equipped to apperceive the hazards and lost opportunities of what is at work than they were several decades ago. Misinformation, confusion and willful ignorance are increasing at a rate faster than the increase of shorter duration, higher intensity storm events. Dismissing any plan to critically address or rectify our approach to the human modified environment is akin to having a full stomach courtesy of the arm of yon expired shipmate on the Medusa raft and satisfied that the large pile of somewhat gnawed limbs remaining might constitute a sufficient level of planning for the days ahead. It might be a tad too late to worry about how one occupies the raft in the first place but satisfying one’s self with the institution of cannibalism seems wanting. I’m wary of course , though sympathetic to ole Ed Abbey’s assertion that “when the situation is hopeless, theres nothin to worry about”.


    • I was speaking of the “you began your trade without capital” Burke. As in, incremental, not revolutionary change, and so the Burke of “notes on the revolution in France.” Your point about the “least bad” reality is well taken: I’m not preaching optimism here. I’m just arguing that there is no hope whatsoever that any large scale national plan has snowball’s chance in h-e double hockey-sticks of generating better outcomes than the status quo. Doing “something” is not inherently better than doing “nothing,” if that “something” can’t be rationally justified as having some hope of success. As I said above, to the extent that history “proves” anything, the New Deal example isn’t persuasive (to me, anyway), and that’s not just because Coolidge gets my vote for best president. 🙂

      Does that mean that I’m preaching a kind of fatalistic quietism? Probably. Reasonable people can take the view that the outcomes of quietism and activism are likely to be identical, however, at which point, I’m going to avoid the antacid aisle, as your very apropos closing quote suggests. If anything good happens, it won’t be because of effective national planning, though no doubt some politician will take the credit. for me, I’ll do what I can to practice the limits I’ve been preaching.

  14. You might have me on this Aaron, nothing like the old Tourist Trap Plaque that shows a man running in circles with the advice: “When uncertain and in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”. I prefer the one that advises “Please remain seated while the room is in motion”. I suppose action, when uncertain and in doubt, as we seem to steadfastly be today, well…..action might be a threat best left behind unbroken glass.

    Nonetheless, I welcome the fuller debate on our environment, its a gorilla we should be talking about…….or even the tiny hope of a glimmering debate genuinely rendered and when I toss down my Farmer Stegall Esq bucket, it shall contain a few opposition papers floating in the assorted slop to feed the swine. At the very least, you can wad the generally…though not always thicker liberal tomes up into a righteous big wad to smack the surly brutes whence they commence to gang up on your terrier that thinks he’s tougher which he aint.

    • Agreed. That’s why I read articles like this one. Like any other position, pessimism has to be justified, and that has to be done in full view of what the best arguments for things we might “do” are. I’m not persuaded by this one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading or that somebody else might persuade me to change my mind.



  15. I’ll try not to jump in here too often but I appreciate all the thoughtful comments. Aaron, you and I will just have to disagree on the disastrous overreach issue. I see no evidence: 1) that social democratic countries, which are doing some–but of course–not all–of what I recommend have seen any loss of freedom as a result. Indeed the new UN World Happiness Report (http://worldhappiness.report/ed/2019/ not only finds them to be the happiest countries but also the most free in the sense that their people feel free to lead the lives they want. The US by contrast is far down the list in both happiness and our sense of freedom. Secondly, the original New Deal did not enslave Americans in any sense and while it did not fully end the Depression–you are right, the war did that–if improved the lives of countless Americans, provide purpose to millions and enhanced the environment and our access beauty in many ways. It did make mistakes, as will the current project, but the causes of pain and inequality and climate change are far more likely to be found in our lack of rules for corporations and the market than from government overreach. I do appreciate your own recognition of limits, Aaron, but in a society that has made greed a Golden Calf, I don’t think it’s enough to ensure the changes we need. D.W. Sabin, you write with great verve, your landscape architecture work looks marvelous and I will email you directly for more conversation. Thanks so much.

    • Regarding The UN World Happiness Report, take a look at Zachary Karabell’s fine book entitled “The Leading Indicators, A short history of the numbers that rule our world”. Aside from an overview of the history of “Leading Indicators”, the book speaks to how the statistics we rely upon to distill the truth of human activity are frequently skewed. He touches on the Happiness Index as he reviews what is behind traditional GNP statistics. His essays can be found in Wired and on Bloomberg among other places and he always brings an independent and seemingly contradictory opinion to global events. He is that rare bird who is simultaneously contrarian and an optimist, as opposed to mutts like myself who are contrarian and a crank.

  16. Let’s hear it for bipartisanship!
    Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal withered in the heat of the Senate on Tuesday as Republicans delivered a decisive spanking to liberal activists’ plan to reshape American society.
    Not a single senator backed her bill during the vote, a 57-0 filibuster. Forty-three Democrats voted “present,” refusing to take a stand.

  17. This was clearly a sham vote and meaningless but it is sad to realize that it’s Mitch McConnell’s grandchildren, not he, who will suffer the results of his failure to act. Make fun all you wish, Brian, but I don’t think you will have the last laugh.

    • Wait, I thought we only have 12 years until we’re doomed? I think Mitch plans to be around that long.
      I wish you the best in your advocacy. The environmental movement has done great things. However, I don’t think it’s a good thing that right now that they are traumatizing people, especially children, with their rhetoric. I’m not that old, but I’ve already seen decades of “We only have 10 years to save the planet!” which funnily enough seems to peak only when Republicans are in charge. Kind of makes one wonder.
      Also, I don’t understand the “sham vote” stuff-this was never going to pass, so why vote Present? If it’s a sham, why can’t they vote Yes, because they know it won’t be passed anyway, so why not plant your flag in favor of bold action since there’s no real-world consequence to worry about like there is with passed legislation? Because even the Senators from deep blue states, who have no fear of ever being defeated, know that the stuff in this GND is pure political poison. Like I said above, you have to reckon with that, unless you plan on abolishing democracy.

    • I wish you the best in your advocacy. However, I do not think the environmental movement is doing good right now by terrifying children.
      This vote was for a bill that was never going to pass. And so even though it would have zero real-world consequences to worry about, the Democrats, even those who have no fear of ever being defeated, wouldn’t vote Yes. Why? Because the GND is pure electoral poison. Unless you’re planning on abolishing democracy, you have to reckon with that.

  18. The GND was no doubt hastily produced but for a fleeting moment, it placed the subject of the environment and how we live on the land in front of a political class whose craven and cloddish nature knows no bounds. The subject of the Environment is indeed “political poison” but this point should not be so gleefully embraced. Senate Leader McConnell, casting about for but another idiotic vote quickly realized the opportunity and took it and the Democrats, equally leery of Mr. Gore’s Cross supported him in lockstep in that rare moment of “bipartisanship”. Yes, we can all agree to be against something, how nice.

    Rest assured though, abolishing democracy in this country will have to get in line behind demolishing our land because the folks who fund our beloved Representatives think gluttony is a synonym for growth and reality is immaculately conceived via poll.

  19. CORRECTION: In the article I say that the CCC with three million members was the largest New Deal program. That was wrong–the largest was the WPA, with nine million. I regret the error.

  20. “…It is hard to imagine a Green New Deal which accomplishes the goals it sets forth without challenging the gospel of consumerism and growth…”
    For me, this is the crux of the crises we find ourselves caught in. Without addressing the infinite growth culture/society/system we are all a part of, everything else we do is moot. Especially pertinent is the use of a debt/credit-based monetary system that requires perpetual growth to keep from collapsing (yes, a classic Ponzi scheme).
    I’ve come to have zero faith in any solution being possible from the top of our sociopolitical power structure. This structure has too much invested and at stake for anything but the continuation of the status quo, and it will fight tooth and nail to maintain (and possibly expand) it at every opportunity. The best one might hope for is a local community/neighbourhood movement towards sustainable living arrangements that can remove itself from the global, industrial matrix as much as possible.

  21. The GND completely ignores the other existential threat we face, rampant militarism and ratcheting up of US/Russia/China tensions which is leading us all down the garden path to annihilation. Even a tepid response to the US military’s gargantuan ecological footprint is totally missing in action. If current trends continue, we’re likely to have a better chance of experiencing “global cooling” due to nuclear fallout from a global war before climate change goes off the rails. Now I realize that the GND is a hard sell as is, but to ignore the above is willful blindness on the part of those who should know better.

    • Kent Brockman, I agree with you completely. and I do mention that “the Pentagon has called climate change America’s greatest security risk—it will require a transfer of funds from a bloated and dangerous military budget.” The GND should address the weapons danger and call for a massive transfer of military funds. War is not healthy for living things. Thanks for an important comment.

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