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NZ needs its own Green New Deal

The Green New Deal in the US is an example of what is lacking in New Zealand politics: a vision for truly transformative and system-wide change to tackle the big challenges of our time, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw.

For anyone following politics in the US, and its global implications, the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez like a firecracker onto the US political scene has been fascinating. A woman of colour, younger than most politicians, with no formal politics background, is challenging the power imbalances in politics, including within her own party, without (apparent) fear. And it is thrilling.

Of particular interest to me is her backing of the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal. Because in this movement I see something lacking in New Zealand: a way to communicate to people, in a concrete way, the systems wide changes needed to respond to not just climate change but all the big challenges of our time.

Following the recent capital gains tax decision, and the strange commitment by the Prime Minister to never mention it again, it appears that our transformative Government is not ready to take transformative action, at least not on housing and wealth inequality. Some suggest that housing inequality was the sacrificial lamb for still to come climate change action. But the artificial separation of the policies that deal with the symptoms of inequality from those that deal with the symptoms of environmental degradation is partly why transformation, in any area, is proving so hard to get a public mandate for. 

It is all connected

Tax reform to address wealth inequality, honouring te Tiriti o Waitangi, acting on child poverty, a transition to a carbon zero economy: they all fit together like puzzle pieces. We need transformative economic, social and environmental policies to achieve well people and a well planet.

None of us live in neat little policy silos, we know our source of income, our health, our living circumstances, our employment, our children’s needs, our urban environment all affect each other with endless feedback loops.  Yet all we are getting from policy makers and politicians is individual puzzle pieces thrown at us.

No one is showing us the complete picture on the box - how different policy pieces fit together and why they all matter for transforming the way we live.

That is where the Green New Deal is interesting. It is at its heart a new story of transformation, one that paints a picture of how multiple seemingly unconnected policies working together can take people and the planet to a more positive future.

The Green New Deal Global Movement: Joining it up with a Story

The Green New Deal has its origins in the UK. In 2008 a report was completed by economists and politicians, including Ann Pettifor, and published by the new economics foundation. At the time it was described as “joined-up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices".

The name is a reference to Roosevelt's “New Deal”, in which the entire US economy was rapidly made to re-orientate by politicians as a response to the 1929 global financial crisis. It  showed that in crisis, with leadership and commitment from people in government, industry and civil society, people can absolutely mobilise, pivot and respond. It wasn't perfect, but it got change done. 

With the reemergence of The New Green Deal in 2018, and with an associated global movement and a powerful figure to communicate it (something that the 2008 work was missing), this is exactly what is being demanded. A serious re-tooling of our economic systems for the benefit of all people and planet (not just a few). 

The Green New Deal communicates ...  that we need to stop collecting the bodies from the water downstream and start dealing with who is pushing them in upstream.

The new economics foundation says of the UK movement: “The Green New Deal is a plan and a growing global movement. The plan is for huge investment in the economic future of the UK, to create a new generation of jobs in the industries and infrastructure we need to tackle the climate crisis. The movement is demanding a new approach to running our economy that guarantees decent work, greater ownership and economic democracy, with a central purpose of putting people and planet first.” 

In essence it is a connected plan on how to move us away from our reliance on carbon, address wealth inequality and build an equitable and sustainable global economy. 

Looking upstream: shifting power from the few to the many

Fundamentally what the Green New Deal helps communicate is that climate and social injustices cannot be effectively dealt with by implementing individual and siloed policies focused on the downstream symptoms of the problem. Rather we need to focus upstream on the massive power imbalances in our societies. Imbalances that have lead to policies that encourage people with power and wealth to extract everything they can from people and the environment.

The Green New Deal communicates, from a policy perspective, that we need to stop collecting the bodies from the water downstream and start dealing with who is pushing them in upstream. It identifies who with power needs to change their behaviour (pretty much everyone from those in the fossil fuel industry who have acted in bad faith for profits and the so called “good-guys” in politics and society who have benefited from those profits), how change needs to happen across many different sectors in a just way, and most importantly what it will look like when we do.

Making the abstract concrete

What the Green New deal also does very well is make what is essentially very abstract issues - complex interconnected issues affecting both people and the environment - concrete.

Humans are not built to see abstract concepts. Our brains like the concrete and the tangible - we like banning plastic food bags, not changing policies that gave multinationals huge power over our food production. It is part of our “fast thinking” brain, as psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman terms it. Short-cuts in our brain, like grasping onto the concrete, help us manage huge amounts of information and focus on the critical. 

One way the Green New Deal’s proponents have tried to tackle this issue is by making the future vision of the deal concrete, for example in this video on the world the Green New Deal could achieve. Communication techniques like these (being very specific about the different future a policy is working towards), and well as many others that we use at The Workshop, help make the complex simple and motivate people to act on complex and interconnected policy solutions.

New Zealand Needs a Transformative Story

The current Government has shown it is not going to lead on the real structural transformation required, even if individual people within it may want to.

So we need to look to young people who can vote, and those who cannot yet vote, for making that transformative change happen. They will be the ones to push people in government. And for that to happen they need a clear, concrete, connected vision, our own version of the Green New Deal.

A vision that can be lead by people who question everything and everyone including people in government. The public and civil society must now tell our own transformative story.

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