A View of the Green New Deal From Argentina

Maristella Svampa
Enrique Viale
Sara Shields

The Green New Deal is gaining prominence internationally, with transformative green programs that respond to the specific needs of national economies. In debt-laden Argentina, leftists are arguing for a new Gran Pacto that implements a basic income and suspends all external-debt payments.

The Bandurria Sur production site in the Vaca Muerta. Photo: YPF

Civilization is at a crossroads. The pandemic has only deepened social and economic inequalities that were already intolerable. It is now necessary to look again at alternatives that only a few months ago seemed unviable in order to find a different way out of this crisis. As seldom before, the pandemic impels us to stop seeing the state, markets, family, and community in the usual distorted way. In light of our social vulnerability and our human condition as inter- and eco-dependent beings, we must think again about a comprehensive reconfiguration of society, health, the economy, and the environment, in a way that pays tribute to life and people.

This means that the capacities of the state, now revealed to be essential to overcome the crisis at global and national level, must be placed at the service of a major Green New Deal or Grand Ecosocial and Economic Pact (Gran Pacto Ecosocial y Economico, or Gran Pacto) to transform the economy by means of a holistic plan that will save the planet and seek to achieve a fairer and more equal society. The worst-case scenario is that states around the world, in their drive to return to economic growth, will legislate against the environment — bailing out fossil-fuel companies and further accelerating the environmental crisis — as well as increasing inequality between rich and poor, the global North and the global South. We must understand, once and for all, that environmental justice and social justice go together. One is no use without the other.

In our view, the Gran Pacto should have five fundamental components: a universal citizen’s income, a progressive tax reform, the suspension of external debt payments, a national system of care, and a serious and radical proposal for the socioecological transition.

The present crisis makes clear that everyone should have a guaranteed basic income to enable them to lead a dignified life. As has long been promoted in Argentina by the economist Rubén Lo Vuolo, among others, eligibility for this income should be guaranteed to all, without conditions — other than being alive, and thus being a citizen. In contrast to the fragmentary social policies implemented in Latin America in recent decades, the universal citizen’s income should be available to everyone, regardless of one’s earnings, and should be sufficient for every person to afford basic goods.

Once dismissed as impossible to implement, the universal income is now at the center of the debate on the global agenda, as is the proposal to reduce working hours and set a limit of no more than thirty to thirty-six hours per week, with no cut in wages. This would not only improve workers’ quality of life but also enable new jobs to be created to cover the reduced hours. In addition to this, a job-sharing proposal would be a proactive way to address the creeping automation of production processes and the advance of the digital society, without increasing unemployment or job insecurity in the process.

For a universal income to be feasible, we need a progressive tax system. Argentina’s tax system is regressive, based on indirect consumption taxes (such as VAT) and an income tax that hits people with middle and low incomes the hardest. Vast wealth, inheritance, environmental damage, and capital gains are hardly taxed at all in Argentina. The country desperately needs to reintroduce the inheritance tax, which was abolished with the stroke of a pen by José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz during the last military dictatorship, as well as new green taxes on corporate polluters.

In extraordinary times, it is justified to suspend payment of outsize national debts. In the developed economies, total debt — the sum of what is owed by households, companies, and the government — is equivalent to 383 percent of GDP. In the emerging economies, it is 168 percent.

Argentina is already on the verge of default, caused mainly by the loans taken out by the previous administration, which only served to hemorrhage money and maintain fiscal deficits that did not benefit the most vulnerable people. But no country should pay such colossal amounts in foreign currency without first ensuring that its citizens can live a dignified life, still less in a context of unprecedented global and national recession.

A few weeks ago, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) proposed a new Marshall Plan to release $2.5 trillion in aid for emerging countries. This would include debt forgiveness, a plan to enable health services to recover, and social programs. The need to remake the world economic order, including taking forward a debt jubilee, now appears both viable and plausible.

A Green New Deal must place care at the very heart of society. We need a national public health system capable of meeting the needs of older people, children, those with disabilities, and all those who require assistance. Once this pandemic is behind us, economic recovery should give priority both to strengthening a national health and care system, which requires abandoning the market-driven, classist, and wealth-concentrating model that generates huge profits for the pharmaceutical monopolies, and to redirecting state investment in caregiving.

In light of the current health crisis, we should remember that the most recent viruses — such as SARS, avian flu, swine flu, and COVID-19 — are related to the destruction of the habitats of wild animals in order to practice monocropping on a large scale. We must leave behind the discourse of war, recognize the social and environmental causes of the pandemic, and place them on the state policy agenda in order to respond to new challenges. In this regard, the voices and experience of health staff will be increasingly needed to include the inextricable relationship between care, health, and the environment on the public agenda, in the face of climate collapse. What awaits us is not just more pandemics but the multiplication of diseases related to pollution and the worsening of the climate crisis.

It is time for Argentina to begin a socio-ecological transition, an orderly and progressive abandonment of the fossil-fuel-based, extractivist production model. This implies both transition and transformation to a society based on clean, renewable energy.

The spectacular crash in the value of oil is now putting an end to the drive to exploit nonconventional fossil fuels that took hold in Argentina ever since the discovery of the Vaca Muerta deposits, a little less than a decade ago. But it was already clear that the project was economically unviable, given the millions in subsidies that the oil companies received to keep production going, paid for by huge increases in consumer bills. The historic collapse in the oil price takes apart the “fracking consensus” shared by politicians and economists alike, and buries the El Dorado myth about these deposits that used to proclaim Vaca Muerta as our country’s “savior.” At the same time, it opens up an extraordinary opportunity for a total rethinking of the energy system.

Argentina must aim to source 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2040. At the same time, we need to move forward in terms of democratization, as energy is a human right, and one of the main tasks in a country like ours is to put an end to the energy poverty that is widespread in low-income neighborhoods. Thus, social justice and environmental justice must go hand in hand.

An eco-transition means boosting agroecology to transform Argentina’s food and farming systems. Here, the creation and promotion of green belts for ecological farming in cities and towns is key to generating employment and guaranteeing healthy, safe, and affordable food. These initiatives would also promote food sovereignty, involving production and distribution systems aimed at developing local agroecological and markets for small-scale producers that focus on fostering a community culture and responsible consumption. A good start would be to make it compulsory for governments to buy food from these producers for schools, hospitals, and other public institutions. This would encourage the new farming system to take root in small and medium-size semi-rural cities, complemented by access to land, housing, good quality health services, and education (from kindergarten to university).

In Argentina, 92 percent of the population lives in cities (the global average is 54 percent), concentrated in just 30 percent of the country’s territory. The metropolitan area of Buenos Aires alone, just 0.4 percent of the country’s total area, is home to 32 percent of its population. We live in cities planned by and for property speculation (the flip side of which is the housing emergency and the lack of green spaces) and dominated by the dictatorship of cars (and underfunded public transport). Quarantine has placed these urban lives under the magnifying glass, showing the need for a radical change in the way we live in the metropolis. We need to make cities greener places to inhabit and provide access to nature for urban dwellers.

Finally, we are convinced that an essential part of the Gran Pacto in Argentina is the legal recognition of the rights of nature, meaning that nature is not simply there to be trampled like any object. We need to live together in harmony, respecting nature’s rhythms and capacities.

We need to reconcile ourselves with nature, to rebuild the ties of life rather than destruction both with nature and ourselves. Nobody is saying it will be easy, but neither is it impossible. But let us not deceive ourselves: to “return to normality” is to return to false solutions.

With all the horrors the pandemic has brought, it is also true that we are standing in front of an open door. The discussion and introduction of an agenda for a fair transition by means of a Gran Pacto can become a cause to unite behind to combat neoliberal thinking, now in retreat, neutralize the dominant discourses of dystopian collapse, and overcome the persistent epistemic blindness of so many developmentalist progressivisms, which prioritize the logic of economic growth as well as the exploitation and commercialization of the natural environment.

The proposal is to build a genuine national and global agenda with a battery of public policies aimed at bringing about a fair transition. This requires people to participate and use their imagination, and to forge connections between struggles new and old, social and intercultural, feminist and ecologist. It certainly involves not only in-depth thinking and debate on all these issues, which we have attempted to summarize here, but also building dialogue between North and South, center and periphery, on new geopolitical foundations, with everyone who is thinking about a Green New Deal, based on a redefinition of multilateralism with solidarity and equality at its center.

This piece was adapted from Revista Anfibia.

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Maristella Svampa is a sociologist and writer covering the socio-ecological crisis, social movements, and social theory. Her latest books are Chacra 51: Return to Patagonia in the Times of Fracking and The Frontiers of Neo-Extractivism in Latin America.

Enrique Viale is one of Argentina’s leading environmental lawyers, and an eco-social justice organizer, public intellectual, and adviser on environmental policy and Legislation. In 2004, he founded the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers.

Sara Shields is a translator from Spanish.

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