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A Whole New 'Green' Deal

Can eco economics green us out of the Great Recession?

by Peter Seidman

About two years ago, a group of North Bay residents gathered around a table in a Novato restaurant to talk about missed opportunities.

The idea that old paradigms aren't meeting the unprecedented economic and environmental challenges facing the North Bay today was the topic of the meeting. "I called a bunch of people," says Norman Solomon, "and we met in the back room of the restaurant. There were about 20 people around the table for a few hours."

The group's name is an obvious reference to the New Deal from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration of the 1930s, but in many ways the complexities of the Green New Deal dwarf the challenges of its namesake. Back in the 1930s America was awash in oil, for instance, and paid little attention to clean energy and waste production. The group talked about how constituencies such as organized labor and other advocates for workers' rights, the environment, social justice and economic justice, while tending their own fields, weren't cross-pollinating. The enormous problems of dealing with environmental protection and at the same time stimulating a new economy that can provide good jobs needs new thinking, says Solomon, a West Marin resident who organized the meeting. He's the founder and president of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a consortium of policy researchers and analysts. He's also the national co-chair of the Healthcare Not Welfare campaign and the author of a dozen books on media, political discourse and public policy.

"One of the conscious goals I had was to get labor and environmentalists together and talk it out, not just say, 'I will add my laundry list to your laundry list,' but let's talk about issues, concerns, paradoxes, dilemmas and possibilities." Solomon says it struck him that during that first conversation and in subsequent meetings, "How separate Marin and Sonoma County often really are." Just as advocacy groups were separating along special-interest lines, the counties were separating along geographical lines.

If taken to extremes, parochialism undermines a rational regional vision. Even an issue as important as the proposed expansion of the Redwood Landfill was not on the minds of representatives from Sonoma County, Solomon says. If any issue has a regional slant, it's waste hauling and landfills. People from each county expressed interest in issues important to the neighboring county, but their knowledge of the issues was lacking.

Out of that first meeting, a core group of participants created the 10-member Commission on a Green New Deal for the North Bay. Solomon is co-chair with Ginger Souders-Mason. Five members of the commission represent Marin and five represent Sonoma County. The group held a number of public workshops to collect information about perceptions and concerns. The group then held focused hearings to collect testimony from experts, which forms the bedrock of the group's just-released report, "Vital Change: Reconsidering Water, Food, Conservation, Healthcare, and Commerce." The title reflects the belief that in order to break out of the 20th-century paradigm-which is inadequate for the 21st century-North Bay residents, activists, households and politicians must take a cross-disciplinary approach to issues facing the region.

The group's name is an obvious reference to the New Deal from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration of the 1930s. In many ways the complexities of the Green New Deal dwarf the challenges of its namesake. In addition to finding solutions to investment in industries and commerce that can stimulate the economy and at the same time provide jobs that pay a living wage, advocates of the Green New Deal must search for ways to forge those issues with sustainability and a new way of approaching problems, one centered on desirable outcome rather than the flat-out unbridled growth, consumerism and consumption that has driven past economies. Back in the 1930s America was awash in oil, for instance, and paid little attention to clean energy and waste production.

"The high concept," says Green New Deal Commissioner Peter Richardson, "was to produce a report that could bring together concerns about labor and concerns about the environment." Although not the only issues on the agenda, they played a large part "in the original motivation," notes Richardson, who lived in San Anselmo during the creation of the commission and the production of the report. He has since moved to Richmond. Richardson is editorial director of PoliPointPress in Sausalito. He's also a lecturer in humanities at San Francisco State University and chair of the California Studies Association. During his work as one of Solomon's book editors at PoliPointPress, he became involved in the Green New Deal effort.

PoliPointPress specializes in politics and public affairs-and it's unapologetically progressive in its inclinations, as is Richardson, Solomon and the Green New Deal. Although progressive bashing has become a participatory sport this election cycle, those who created the local Green New Deal for the North Bay (there are many national and international permutations of the effort) stand firm in their commitment to the principles that, they say, can wrench the region (and the state, country and the world) out of its 20th-century death spiral of overconsumption, a pathological refusal to accept environmental concerns and a lack of commitment to accept that paying workers a living wage can stimulate economies rather than drain them. It's no accident the commission is releasing the report a few weeks before the midterm election.

That progressive bent was the target of a letter published in a local newspaper more than a week before the report was released. The letter warned councilmembers in both counties that proponents would soon come to their cities with plans to create "a future for environmental sustainability, economic equity and social justice." The writer cautioned councilmembers to be wary of the policy recommendations that "tend toward evermore government regulation, overhead and taxation." The attack continued, comparing progressivism to Carl Sandburg's vision of fog creeping gently on little cat feet: "progressivism and its international goal of redistribution of wealth via unionization and taxation...is a very heavy penetrating cloud." (For the record, Green New Deal commissioners are happy to discuss issues with anyone, but they have no intention of muscling into city council meetings anywhere.)

Richardson says that in the current political climate "a lot of people feel the government is useless, maybe even malevolent. They cynically reject the ameliorating power of government action and think government is beyond the ability to produce good results at a reasonable cost." While forging the Green New Deal, participants debated where to place emphasis on actions: with government, the private sector or the household sphere. But, says Richardson, "if you're going to call it the Green New Deal, it should have something to do with the accomplishment of the New Deal-some really bold, forward-looking actions on the part of the government."

Many of Richardson's students at San Francisco State were born after 1980. At about that time, he says, "it became a bit of conventional wisdom to say that government isn't the solution; in fact it's the problem [a nod to Ronald Reagan." Richardson and the Green New Deal reject that assumption. The country has gone through periods when even the federal government "has been an engine of progressive change, and we need to expect that again."

The commission has followed classic community organizing strategies. Community organizers first gather diverse groups and listen to their "stories," their concerns and the dilemmas of people within each group. Then, by uncovering common goals, they guide the groups toward a consensus, which can translate into action in the political arena as well as the private business and household spheres.

One of the main goals is to bridge the gap separating various levels of government, which prevents coordinated solutions to problems that spark innovation.

"We make all of these divisions for practical reasons," Richardson says, "so we can compartmentalize these policy silos. But then you get into an extraordinary time when the conventional business as usual doesn't seem to be acting quickly or decisively enough to get what everyone seems to agree is the outcome we want." The challenge lies in cracking the assumptions, "not because they are necessarily wrong, but because they aren't well adapted to the problem at hand."

The Green New Deal report covers four interrelated major topics: water, agriculture and food; waste and pollution; healthcare; civic commerce. After delineating the challenges the North Bay faces in each area, the report suggests public-sector responses, private-sector responses and household (personal) responses. In the waste-and-pollution section, for example, the report notes that landfills are reaching capacity and beyond. "We have finally realized that resources are finite" and landfills are a wasteful destination for what should be a resource. The report calls for the North Bay to "do things right, save money and create new and different jobs" on the road to zero waste.
Although the county and cities and special districts in Marin, and Sonoma County, have waste-reduction programs, the Green New Deal posits an increased and integrated approach, from supporting efforts to push producers to take back their products for recycling rather than pushing them through a consumer-driven recycling stream, to promoting studies about the life cycles of products and their true costs, to taking household responsibility-including the consideration of a product's life cycle before making a purchase. These moves toward a variety of actions on a variety of levels can lead to major changes and a more rapid movement toward zero waste.

While acknowledging that the county and cities and special districts do have programs aimed at the concerns raised in the report, Green New Deal Commissioner Jonathan Frieman says, "I know that [elected and appointed officials know that so much more could be done." Frieman, who embraces the description "civic activist," was instrumental in bringing the Transition Town movement to Marin.

The report aims to be a document "not in opposition," Frieman says, "but done in good faith." The report and the conversation are meant to act as a catalyst for various groups, such as sustainability and transition groups and labor advocates, to connect and work toward complementary goals. It's also designed to be a template that can help (coerce) politicians-and concerned residents-to focus on the new issues in new ways. Commission members plan to circulate the report among interested groups and politicians to prime the conversation pump.

Richardson reiterates that the extraordinary challenges facing the region require "something over and above business as usual." And that goes for the state, the country and beyond. As an example, he cites the world of waste. "Waste management companies receive compensation for the amount of weight they transport. That gives them an incentive to keep the weight high, when in fact what we want is to diminish that and get to zero waste. You don't do that by compensating the hauling companies based on weight."

Richardson and other commissioners are under no illusions that synthesizing practical goals mixed in a philosophical crucible is an easy task. "Getting the incentives to match the outcomes we want is a big part of it, and sometimes you have to look critically at the status quo and say it's not working."

As the conversation goes from the general to the specific, tensions can mount among various groups. Stimulating solar power in the North Bay, for instance, could eventually contribute to a clean green energy micro-grid for the region. The idea of stimulating solar retrofitting on residential homes met with an enthusiastic response during discussion that led up to the report. Retrofitting would boost employment-an economic stimulus that would boost jobs.

But Solomon says that idea was met with skepticism. "People from organized labor said, 'Are you talking about temporary $8.50 or $9 an hour jobs here? We are not thrilled.' This was a clash of assumptions."

It's not enough to stimulate green jobs, say labor advocates, we need to create green jobs that pay a living wage.
"I take that as a straw in the wind," says Solomon, "because just one or just the other, just won't do it."  

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