In August, Bernie Sanders released the most ambitious green new deal yet, a proposed $16.3 trillion investment in clean energy, sustainable agriculture, global climate justice and green-collar jobs.
Just weeks later, Elizabeth Warren released her own climate plan, which would focus several trillion dollars on research, green manufacturing and clean energy.
Unsurprisingly, the two leading progressives in the Democratic presidential field have embraced bold action on climate change. Along with the original Green New Deal, Warren and Sanders’ plans represent the most appropriately ambitious American proposals to date.
And yet, they still miss the mark.
The underlying assumption of these proposals is that we can stave off climate change while maintaining our modern way of life. The green economy envisioned by Sanders and Warren relies on exchanging dirty modes of production for cleaner ones. Rather than driving gas-powered cars, we’ll drive electric cars. Rather than heating our homes with dirty power plants, we’ll plug into the solar grid.
But we’ll still enjoy our modern comforts. We’ll maintain our place in the complex web of global trade, which relies on polluting ships, trucks and planes to connect us with our products. We’ll maintain our suburban, siloed residential living patterns which require us to drive to work, to school, to the grocery store and to the pharmacy.
This underlying assumption is naive. And its problematic, for two reasons. First, current renewable energy technology is not yet viable on a large scale. Energy density — the energy produced per square meter of infrastructure — is significantly lower for renewable energy, especially wind. That means, absent a dramatic reduction in energy demand or a quantum leap in technology, our renewable energy future will require vast expanses of land. We’re up against a tight deadline, and procuring thousands of square miles of land will either mean cutting down large forests (which are carbon sinks) or fighting protracted legal battles. Decarbonizing the economy is necessary, but the quickest and most reliable way to avoid emissions is to avoid energy use in the first place.
Second, by exchanging fossil fuels for renewables rather than reducing our levels of consumption, we are simply pushing our issues onto the next generation. Electric cars, for instance, rely heavily on lithium batteries, which in turn rely on environmentally destructive and ethically dubious mining practices. It’s also unclear whether there is enough lithium in the world to build the billion-and-a-half electric cars which are necessary to replace the world’s current fleet, let alone the billions of batteries necessary to sustain a solar grid. The wholesale replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy will simply create new environmental dilemmas.
Very few politicians seem willing to acknowledge that our current way of life — not just our energy sources — is unsustainable. While Sanders’ and Warren’s plans endorse structural change (some of it quite radical, like Bernie’s plan to nationalize the power grid), they fail to diagnose the root cause of climate change: Overconsumption.
Modern civilization, particularly America’s version, is designed around resource exploitation and wanton disregard for the natural world. Exchanging oil for solar and gas-powered cars for electric cars will only delay our inevitable reckoning with our habits of excessive consumption.
We must return to traditional urban development patterns which lead to compact, walkable cities and easy access to necessary services like grocery stores and schools. Instead of highways, our communities must be connected with public high-speed rail. Isolated communities must be relatively self-sufficient. We must scale back our energy demand and power our homes through decentralized renewables like solar. We must grow our food locally, as we have for most of human history. And we must undertake a titanic cultural shift towards low-consumption local living.
This vision may seem utopian and incomplete — and it is. Books have been written on the vision I am attempting to describe in a handful of words. But although the path to this world is uncertain, it is crucial that we recognize it as a necessity. We can’t continue to fool ourselves with delusions of a green economy that doesn’t include dramatic changes to the way we live our lives.
Without this vision, we will maintain the status quo of overconsumption and environmental degradation until civilization devolves into a Mad Max-esque dystopia. There is no solution but that which fundamentally reorganizes our society around low-consumption living.
So don’t trust a politician who insists we can survive climate change and simultaneously maintain our modern habits of consumption. We must scale back to survive.
Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.