No Silver Bullets

Grassroots organizing has pushed the Green New Deal from a leftist pipe dream to the center of US politics in just a few months. That activist energy is key to ensuring strong climate legislation doesn't get watered down on its way to implementation.

A speaker gives a speech at the 2014 climate march in New York City. norgessosialeforum / Flickr

It’s no secret that we need to rapidly decarbonize the US economy to respond to the threat of catastrophic climate change. But the Green New Deal’s (GND) greatest promise isn’t the goal of 100 percent renewable energy and net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Its promise lies instead in the grassroots organizing that’s pushed a leftist pipe dream to the center of congressional politics in a matter of months. That activist energy will be key to implementing the underlying policies that will transform our inequitable, exploitative, carbon-intensive energy system.

Even seemingly technocratic policies to expand energy efficiency upgrades in buildings — which Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s GND resolution goes all in on — require political struggle on the ground. Take the case of New York State. A decade ago, working with broad social justice coalitions, the state’s government tried to generate the same upgrades that the GND now proposes — and failed.

I was a member of the coalition that drove New York’s building upgrade experiment. I saw up close how technocratic policy divorced from on-the-ground organizing undermined the bold vision laid out in the legislation. An obsession with targets and timetables distracted from the imperative to continuously organize for a just and sustainable tomorrow. Instead of chasing silver bullet solutions, we’d be wise to follow the Black radical tradition: the recognition that justice is always elusive, that the fight never stops, and that our movements are, to a degree, ends in and of themselves.

From Policies to Movements

Sunrise, a grassroots movement led by young people that is fighting for aggressive decarbonization and green jobs policies, has propelled the GND into the political mainstream over the last year. In doing so, the movement has built on years of local and national organizing for an egalitarian, green economy across the country.

A decade ago I worked with a statewide coalition of labor unions, environmental justice organizations, and environmentalists that organized on the ground and advanced the Green Jobs Green New York Act (GJGNY) — an ambitious piece of legislation that established a statewide energy efficiency program with the same name.
Much like the GND resolution, GJGNY aimed to create quality jobs for workers and communities — particularly those plagued by environmental injustice — while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a rapid, state-driven expansion of sustainable energy. And much like Sunrise, the GJGNY coalition advanced ambitious legislation by mobilizing communities on the ground while coordinating with and pressuring elected officials in the halls of power.

Perhaps unwittingly, we took a “silver bullet” approach to social change, focusing our time, funds, and energy on the single goal of spurring massive public investments in green jobs and sustainable energy in a very short timeframe. In other words, our plan to transform the economy and fight climate change hinged solely on getting legislators to take bold action; other work toward these ends took a backseat to the legislative prize.

We were obviously jubilant when the governor signed the GJGNY Act. The legislation established a goal of generating one million energy efficiency retrofits in just five years while creating sixty thousand quality green jobs in the process — exactly the targets we’d championed. In addition to directing funds toward these bold objectives, it also codified our vision for an equitable and just green economy — a direct product of our aggressive ground game.

Specifically, it prioritized investments in “environmental justice” communities, namely places “which have been designated as a nonattainment area for one or more pollutants pursuant to section 107 of the federal Clean Air Act” (most of which are low- and moderate-income communities of color); funded green job training and placement for workers in affected industries; mandated that representatives of unions and grassroots community groups be involved in the design of the program; created funds to empower community groups to enable their communities to access energy efficiency upgrades; and mandated the creation of an innovating sustainable energy funding mechanism to ensure that low-income people could access energy efficiency upgrades without paying a dime.

With the power of the state behind our vision, the silver-bullet strategy seemed to be working. And then it didn’t.

Why New York State’s Green Jobs Push Failed

When it was all said and done, GJGNY generated less than twenty-five thousand retrofits in five years — a miniscule fraction of our one million goal — with scant job creation impacts. The program was a failure for numerous reasons; this isn’t the space to do a comprehensive autopsy, but I do want to call attention to two of our overarching challenges to inform today’s fight for a GND.

First, the bureaucracy, entrenched neoliberal interests, and material complexities of our industrial infrastructure and built environment made rapid transformation far more complicated than our codified quantitative goal suggested. We found that even when oppressed communities and organized labor have a seat at the table, and even when progressive legislation is in place, the agencies and elites that have always governed our energy system continue to exert their influence.

And the material process of infrastructural transformation is hard work. Our ambitious plans often butted up against human idiosyncrasies, administrative incompetence, and considerable physical variation in the built environment we sought to upgrade, creating constant hurdles no matter how tirelessly we worked to realize our job and climate agenda. Just because you have a legislative commitment to an ambitious goal (and public investments behind it) doesn’t mean that the social, political, and material structures are in place to actually achieve that goal.

The second overarching challenge we faced was sustaining the incredible ground game that we’d marshaled in support of the legislation. While the law funded community groups to help with on-the-ground implementation, the state agency in charge of the program severely restricted what these groups could and could not say as formal program ambassadors. These groups were integral to organizing low-income communities of color to pressure the state to act, and we had envisioned that they would leverage the program’s official channels and funding to continue their grassroots organizing in support of community-driven green economy transformations after the GJGNY Act was signed into law.

But the state’s restrictions on organizing eviscerated the program’s activist spirit, sapping the political power of our coalition’s key base-building members. The state agency in charge of GJGNY made participating community groups sign contracts that pledged they would only market the program according to delimited criteria — which forbade them from prioritizing energy efficiency companies that promised to hire locally and empower their communities, and that forbade their energy efficiency outreach workers from engaging in any political mobilization or organizing involving homeowners and tenants who they targeted for energy efficiency upgrades.

So when the program encountered bureaucratic, political, and infrastructural hurdles, we did not have the on-the-ground organizing presence necessary to continue our fight for a just, sustainable economy. Instead, committed, hard-working activists were told that they could not exercise their organizing muscle if they wanted to continue participating in the implementation of the program they had worked so hard to create.

Beyond Technocracy

In narrowly focusing on achieving a silver-bullet solution — a piece of ambitious legislation that codified clear quantitative goals — we overlooked the reality that implementation is often far more complicated than codification. In the process, we lost sight of the imperative to organize for the long-term, and thus lacked the momentum to challenge the status quo when things didn’t work as we planned.

As we continue to agitate for GND legislation with similar, albeit more ambitious quantitative goals, we should heed the lessons of GJGNY. Decarbonization and energy transitions are infinitely more complex than the rhetoric of “100 percent renewable energy” and “millions of green jobs” suggests.

When we consider the extractive, fossil-fueled industries that produce “green” technologies like solar panels and wind turbines, the often exploitative labor conditions under which these technologies are made, the carbon footprint of the commodity markets that bring these technologies to our communities, and the vast amount of physical space that must be committed to these technologies to achieve the visionary goals that the GND lays out, we begin to get a glimpse of the magnitude of the challenges before us — challenges that would persist even if we were able to push through our climate and jobs agenda.

Of course, we should still be doing everything in our power to move toward the goals we’ve laid out. We know that we have no choice but to fight urgently and ambitiously in the face of climate crisis. Through GJGNY, I witnessed up close the power of bold ideas to inspire people to feel a sense of possibility and take action. We should not abdicate our radical goals in the interest of short-term pragmatics.

We can’t pin all of our hopes on a single piece of legislation that promises to move mountains. While we agitate like hell in the coming years to get a GND bill signed into law, we must be simultaneously developing a ground game and organizing apparatus to continually agitate, innovate, and iterate when we invariably fall short of our wildest dreams.

In this spirit, I’m proposing that we move from silver-bullet solutions to the Black radical tradition. As Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin explain, this tradition “is about questing for freedom” — “the necessity of recognizing the importance of struggle regardless of outcomes.” The Black radical tradition reminds us to anticipate shortcomings, to avoid utopianism, and to embrace the process of organizing, even as we continue to uphold the vision of the future we’re organizing for. In doing so, we don’t lose momentum or become disillusioned when a single strategy or policy fails — we instead shift gears and navigate the roadblocks that we always face in fighting for justice. As Black freedom struggles teach us, we cannot have faith that even the most radical piece of legislation will solve our intersecting crises — and we cannot put all of our personal energy and focus into a sole utopian remedy.

And as we organize for a GND, we can learn the great lesson of GJGNY: the struggle for large-scale transformation doesn’t end when the ink dries on the legislation. We must build something bigger and more flexible than a congressional strategy. While many of us fret that the science suggests we have only a decade to overhaul our entire social, political, and economic system, the Black experience in this country reminds us of the unthinkable depths of human resilience. We don’t have the luxury of deferring action until tomorrow, but our capacity to fight will endure when we face the dire circumstances that will unfold if we don’t achieve our most utopian targets. Ultimately, the struggle is all we have.