The Green New Deal’s Five Freedoms
A radical Green New Deal would open up enormous possibilities for human flourishing — and allow us to reclaim the language of freedom from the Right.
One of the biggest challenges of climate politics is that the solutions sometimes seem scarier than the problem. We worry that to truly decarbonize, we’d need an authoritarian government or endless austerity. But a big and bold enough Green New Deal could finally make us truly free.
The principles that animated the New Deal are often associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) proposed (but never fully enacted) Economic Bill of Rights. These included rights to employment, medical care, housing, education, and social security. Those goals are tragically unrealized for many Americans, and any just version of the Green New Deal must start there. They’re familiar goals for the Left, ones we’ve been championing for decades. But we also need to rework another New Deal–era statement of principles — FDR’s Four Freedoms.
In the twilight hours of 1941, as New Deal progress stalled in the face of white Southern resistance to federal power, and the war against Hitler intensified in Europe, FDR sought to describe freedom in new terms. He was struggling to firm up support for his faltering domestic agenda and an anticipated foreign one; the Four Freedoms were eventually mythologized and sentimentalized in paintings by none other than Norman Rockwell.
We’re not trying to reclaim American patriotism or gin up support for a coming world war. But the task of reimagining freedom is critical. In 1941, the Four Freedoms idea was a bridge between the New Deal’s unprecedented federal activism, pressed forward by a massive wave of labor and community militancy, and the wartime mobilization that followed, whose speed and scale now inspire the vision of a Green New Deal.
For decades, the Right has claimed the language of freedom. But their vision of freedom as your right as an individual to do whatever you want — so long as you can pay for it — is a recipe for disaster in the twenty-first century, when it’s clearer than ever that all our fates are bound up together. Freedom has to mean something more than the capitalist’s freedom to invest or the consumer’s freedom to buy.
Here we modestly upstage FDR with five freedoms that can orient us to an uncertain future.
Freedom From Fear
FDR called for freedom from fear of military conflict. We’re still working on his call for disarmament — we could start with the US Army, the world’s biggest consumer of oil and a purveyor of fear worldwide.
But we also must transform our built environment to grant us freedom from fear of the physical changes that already locked-in global warming will bring: fire and hurricanes, extreme temperatures, sea level rise and storm surges — and freedom from the fear that those dangers will grow exponentially worse.
It also means abolishing the social disasters a volatile planet could exacerbate. We need freedom from food scarcity and water shortages; freedom from racist, colonial, and sexual violence; and freedom from militarized borders. Freedom from fear means guaranteed jobs and homes so that we can survive every storm, every relocation, and every reorganization of industry.
Freedom From Toil
We can’t escape work altogether, and there’s a lot of work we need to do, immediately and in the long term. But work doesn’t need to rule our lives.
The great nineteenth-century English socialist William Morris made a distinction between useful work and useless toil: we need the former but should free ourselves from the latter. We can escape the crushing toll of working long hours for low wages to make something that someone else owns.
At present, there’s a lot of work that’s worse than useless — it’s toil that’s harmful to the people doing it and to the world in which we live. But even useful work should be distributed more widely so that we can all do less of it — and spend more time enjoying its fruits.
Freedom to Move
We live on a beautiful planet that belongs to everyone; we should all be free to move around it.
Freedom to move is particularly crucial for those whose homes are being rendered unlivable by rising temperatures and seas. But we should also be free to travel to enjoy our vibrant world’s wonders. Not as quickly as we do now — we can’t all fly everywhere at the drop of a hat, and some of us need to fly less often. But it’s the reckless waste of the affluent that must end, not the ordinary person’s occasional pleasure in discovering a new corner of the world.
Free public transit is necessary to get around without relying on emissions-spewing cars and airplanes. The freedom to move also means the freedom to pack up and live in another city, region, or country. To cope with inevitable climate displacements, we need solidarity without fences or walls.
Freedom From Domination
Liberals say the market gives us freedom to choose. But under capitalism, the market is master, determining what we can do and who we can be. Every year or two, we can mark a ballot paper. Every hour of every day the compulsion of the market stamps its will on every aspect of our lives.
The Left has long sought to end the arbitrary power of the few over the many. We must continue to pursue freedom not only from toil, but from the despotism of the boss, from a viciously enforced racial order, and from the intimate violence of patriarchy. Now, the outrageous power of the few threatens billions with ruin.
Domination also names our helplessness in the face of global capitalism. We need to know it’s possible to change our own fate, to be able to imagine the end of capitalism more easily than the end of the world.
But we must also let go of old fantasies of achieving freedom by recklessly dominating nature to serve human ends — those dreams have turned into nightmares. We need to live on this planet with other people and species. With innovation, equality, care, and wisdom, we can all have freedom within ecological necessity.
Freedom to Live
There is enough on our Earth for people everywhere to have what they need to live well. Reusing, recycling, and — most important — redistributing our abundance will open new vistas. The freedom to live includes freedom from want: plentiful access to the basics, like food, drink, shelter, health care, dental, education, music, art, and green spaces.
People are also entitled to freedom to want: the freedom to enjoy life, to be creative, to produce and delight in communal luxuries, to soak up the public goods we create for everyone’s pleasure, to love those we love, and to find new people to love too. The freedom to live a good life spans the shared wonders of knowledge, leisure, and adventure.
Enemies of climate action warn of totalitarian dullness, while the fossil industry commits crimes against humanity to maintain the privileges of a few. The point of a Green New Deal is to build the opposite: a colorful democracy for all, to live through sun and storm.