Why COVID-19 will force us to rethink many assumptions about the Green New Deal
Advocates of the Green New Deal (GND) are looking to change the way we handle a range of problems facing society, especially in the wake of environmental challenges occasioned by climate change. In response, policymakers have suggested a variety of programs designed to deal with these challenges. Should any of these be reconsidered in the wake of COVID-19? And are there lessons to be learned from the original New Deal?
The pandemic suggests that we may need to incorporate a wider and more complex range of priorities than the ones that are baked into existing Green New Deal models. Two top candidates for reevaluation due to the pandemic are questions about urban density and public transportation. Before the pandemic, the GND envisioned a world in which urban density and mass transit are more efficient and less wasteful. In a pandemic, train and bus ridership is expected to fall by 80 percent as a result of social distancing requirements—there was a 90 percent decrease in New York City subway ridership due to fear of contagion and lockdown measures. As urban theorist Richard Florida has noted, “The very same clustering of people that makes our great cities more innovative and productive also makes them, and us, vulnerable to infectious disease.”
Opponents of the Green New Deal have used the excuse that the return on investment doesn’t justify the deficits accumulated—but now that the political process has habituated itself to create trillion-dollar relief packages for society, that barrier is clearly broken.
But that isn’t the end of the fight. Equally important is to recognize that a future policy debate on the GND should not be characterized by ongoing panic-mongering and hysteria in the context of populations who are already suffering lockdown fatigue and global depression, whose biggest concerns relate to economic survival today and tomorrow, as opposed to the fate of the planet decades from now. Think of the “yellow vest” protests in France.
In other words, the GND models need to incorporate more of our immediate social needs—better public health, infrastructure and education, freedom from punitive personal debt, and a more equitable and democratic political system—as well as national economic priorities, such as manufacturing and an end to wasteful military spending. We may need a bigger acronym.
The main question is whether the original objectives of the GND are still coincident with a new paradigm that prioritizes public health considerations, especially ones that have the potential to wreak total havoc on our economy. As governments try to grapple with the resources required to deal with a world where pandemics might prove to be the norm, rather than the exception, hundreds of billions of dollars will be spent on medical research and technology in an effort to ward off public health crises. Urban design will play a crucial part in this effort too. But there are limits to any policy’s ability to check all the boxes and simultaneously solve health and environmental problems, all while creating employment for the working class.
And future urban design should also incorporate the advice and expertise of health officials who “can offer a fresh perspective on neighbourhood design features that promote physical and mental well-being,” according to Ken Greenberg, principal of Greenberg Consultants, a Toronto-based urban design planning firm. Greenberg goes on to suggest the need for a greater degree of redundancy incorporated into future urban planning to cope with future crises, whether occasioned by pandemics, climate change, or something else.
By no means are these easy problems to solve, especially as many things will change in the wake of COVID-19. No longer will proponents of the Green New Deal be able to rely on the binary arguments that were more clear-cut before the pandemic (i.e., mass transportation is good, cars are bad; concentrated living space that minimizes long-distance commuting is good, suburban sprawl is bad). Because in a pandemic framework, concentrated indoor living with poor ventilation facilities looks to be a health hazard and, all of a sudden, cars look to be the safest way to prevent further infection.
There are many questions to be answered with this nuanced dichotomy in mind, for example: What share of society will need to drive going forward, and what share of society won’t? What is the appropriate urban density for any given city? What is an acceptable passenger density on urban transport? What’s the attraction of a large retail mall if it has the potential to become a new vector of contagion? To pose these questions does not invalidate the case for a GND. But its supporters cannot pursue their objectives too dogmatically. Like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original New Deal, a successful GND will be characterized by a remarkable degree of experimentation and ideological flexibility.
If China is any guide, one of the perverse outcomes of the pandemic is that we may be on the threshold of a new love affair with the car. As the South China Morning Post recently reported: “China vehicle sales increased 4.4 per cent in April compared to a year earlier, as truck sales jumped 34 per cent.” The passenger vehicle is also buoyed in an economic environment that sees both gasoline and electric batteries dropping in price, and increasing efficiencies each year. Sure, the rise of remote working in the wake of the lockdown will mean some people will no longer commute, whether by car or public transportation, between city and suburb. But it is equally plausible that cars, not buses or trams, will continue to have an allure for intra-suburban commutes or just run-of-the-mill activities, such as shopping or school runs. We can expect that auto companies will continue to promote that line in the years ahead, as they too seek to recover from today’s devastating depression.
For years, there have been repeated calls by Green New Dealers to reduce carbon emissions, and open more public transit options. But, as a recent report in the Wall Street Journal observes, “keeping passengers several feet apart in buses, on train platforms and on board subways could reduce ridership by as much as 80%, according to officials and public transport companies.” That creates a conundrum: We want to avoid stuffing people into congested public transport, Tokyo style, by providing more buses, subway cars, trams, and trains, so that there’s plenty of personal space, especially during rush hour. On the other hand, the very health considerations that are driving dispersion might also make public transit less economically viable for large urban centers already coping with stressed budgetary conditions if it leads to substantially reduced ridership.
Here’s another challenge: businesses in times of pandemic will also have to consider much more flexible working hours, so everyone is not going on public transport at the same time. Measures like varying hours for each day, plus a good dose of working from home, if possible, would keep a constant flow without too much crowding. Dense urban clusters are petri dishes for pandemics. Major operations will have to consider dispersions for their offices away from the city center, some in major commuter belt communities, as some of the Wall Street banks are now looking to do. Of course, that raises additional questions posed by Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith: “What happens to Class A office space in big cities now that WeWork is a thing of the past, and white collar employers are seeking to keep as many staffers as possible working remotely?” Multi-use will have to be incorporated into any future development to alleviate this problem.
We are also likely to see additional challenges here in terms of sustaining still relatively new COVID-19 induced social norms (masks, social distancing) in the weeks ahead as large cities and tourist destinations like beaches reopen, to say nothing of the challenges of mobilizing for any cause while the coronavirus is still with us. It’s not just the virus itself we’re fighting; we also are up against misinformation of changing or unclear rules (even the CDC admitted its updates on the transmission of coronavirus from surfaces were “confusing”), public unfamiliarity on how to prevent the spread in new social and business interactions during new phases of reopening, “quarantine fatigue,” and blatant disregard for public health and struggling local businesses. Another concern as large cities like New York reopen is the possibility of increased infection rates in the wake of the recent protests against long-standing racist policing practices. No one wants to see new waves of infection—urban density is one of the factors we can change to lessen the potential spread of a pandemic.
In many respects, dispersion is consistent with existing trends that were in evidence well before the onset of the pandemic, and is likely to facilitate better health outcomes as well. To quote Richard Florida again, “Many places around the country now have bundles of amenities—renovated old buildings, coffee shops and good restaurants, music venues, and not least of all, more affordable homes—that can compete with the biggest cities. In other words, the amenity gap between superstar cities and other places has closed, while the housing-price gap has widened.” That housing gap has also contributed to chronic health challenges in major urban centers, such as homelessness, the existence of which has led to a revival of diseases like tuberculosis that have been eradicated from the rest of the population.
As a result of these trends, we are seeing a plethora of economic activity dispersing away from traditional mega-urban centers such as New York and Los Angeles, gravitating toward medium-sized cities (such as Austin, Texas, or Denver, Colorado) and rapidly growing towns (St. George, Utah; Boise, Idaho; Bend-Redmond, Oregon; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, being a few examples of the fastest growing towns in the U.S. over the past couple of years). To ensure the continued viability of larger cities, Ken Greenberg notes that they need to avoid “overdeveloping a very small part of the city’s footprint (primarily in downtown wards) at the expense of vast areas which could benefit from density.”
Many proposed reforms would be more feasible and successful if we also were to drastically reduce the resources going to the military and redirect money into massive efforts to counter future public health pandemics, to say nothing of the need for a vastly expanded public health infrastructure that isn’t rationed by income or employment. Policymakers need to find ways of addressing people’s health before they get to overtaxed intensive care units at the hospital. In practice, however, the pandemic has created the conditions for a new Cold War 2.0 between the U.S. and China, which suggests that national defense considerations will continue to dominate in discussions pertaining to national budget allocations unless a political will can build to prevent it. Given the power of America’s military-industrial complex, that appears highly unlikely. At a minimum, this part of the debate will probably have to await the conclusion of the 2020 presidential election, given the extent to which China, and its future relationship with the U.S., is already being politicized.
The broader political challenge is that we need to ensure that whatever sacrifices might be required in the next few decades over which a Green New Deal is implemented will be more than compensated for by tangible benefits and a just transition. If anything, the post-pandemic response has exacerbated, rather than mitigated, pre-existing inequality. No less than Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has acknowledged that fact. Worsened inequality is one of the factors that contributed to the recent wave of protests.
Here is the other challenge facing the Green New Dealers: there will likely be a considerable degree of voter fatigue backlash against grand new experiments in social engineering, however beneficial in the medium to long term, absent a more equitable implementation of the requisite changes. The increasing pushback in regard to the various policy responses designed to restrict the spread of the virus—notably lockdown, social distancing, and even wearing masks—gives some idea of the future political challenges for Green New Dealers. However irrational or anti-scientific, these responses also reflect anxiety, confusion, and rising economic insecurity.
As with climate change, the science of coronavirus has become politicized. U.S. President Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro were among those who denied science altogether for a populist political agenda—while those who believed in science weighed social distancing orders against the understandable desire to congregate in order to protest social injustice, which in turn was sanctioned by many epidemiologists. Conflicting messaging has exacerbated division. The resultant fractures illustrate the challenges of seeking to mobilize people on the basis of a government-directed social engineering project for a sustained period of time, especially if large swaths of the electorate do not experience or perceive immediate benefits. As with climate change, addressing a challenge as big as a pandemic often means there is more short-term pain for long-term gains—which many might not be around to experience.
Many will crave a “return to normalcy,” the slogan that animated Warren Harding’s presidential campaign in 1920, when national exhaustion had set in after a world war, a sharp depression (that lasted from 1920 to the summer of 1921), and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Harding largely lived down to his election slogan, both because the flu pandemic dissipated and the economy recovered relatively quickly early in his term of office.
By contrast, the New Dealers experienced a considerably more challenging set of circumstances in the wake of the Great Depression. The original New Deal did achieve much, both in terms of economic reconstruction and creating a new model of capitalism that worked for the majority, precisely because Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the issue of economic insecurity almost immediately upon taking office and gave the electorate hope for its future. FDR didn’t just lecture or issue dire threats. Via his fireside chats, the newly elected president comforted the American people. He rightly diagnosed the problems, avoided vapid sloganeering and was therefore able to secure the confidence of the majority of the electorate (and Congress) to make the changes needed to fix a broken system.
Today’s Green New Deal is achievable, but we’re going to need a bigger acronym and a more expansive vision that incorporates many of the things we have learned during this pandemic. The likely structural changes required to offset the damage left in its wake are profound, but the burdens must be shared more equitably and the benefits dispersed more broadly, if it is to have any chance of success. Our future prosperity, indeed the future success of our democracy, depends on it.
Marshall Auerback is a market analyst and commentator.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.