The Green New Deal offers valuable insights on how to drive transformational change. Does it have what it takes to pull it off?
June 28, 2019 — If you’re paying attention to climate change or politics, you’ve almost certainly heard of the Green New Deal. It’s ambitious. It’s inspiring. It takes on two of the biggest crises of our time — climate change and economic inequality — and proposes a way forward that just might be up to the task of dealing with both. And it calls for transformational change: changing the structure of how a system works.
But can it deliver? Based on my research on how to drive transformational change, I think it can. But in order to do so, it needs to continue to gain traction on two key elements that make such change possible.
People can feel big change is needed, but the path forward is not clear. The Green New Deal offers a potential path forward.
The first key ingredient in transformation is fertile ground — a widespread understanding that things are becoming untenable and something has to change. The timing is ripe in the case of the climate crisis. Massive, global scientific reports on the dangers we face have recently been published (examples here and here), youth climate activism around the world is on the rise, and climate change is becoming an increasingly salient issue for U.S. voters. It’s also ripe with respect to wealth inequality, which is at historic highs in the United States.
The success of the Green New Deal will depend on continued and increasing frustration about climate and inequality. In short, people can feel big change is needed, but the path forward is not clear.
The Green New Deal offers a potential path forward. Importantly, it starts by asking what is necessary, rather than what seems possible. By definition, transformation means a fundamental change in the system, so asking what is possible in the current system is not a likely path to transformation.
The second key ingredient is the presence of a “collective” — a large, intentionally organized group — at the center. Transformative change takes more than an individual, or even a group of individuals. It doesn’t simply capture the imagination of many people; it offers ways for people to contribute. In a collective, individuals are involved as more than members or employees. They make identity with the collective a core part of who they are and what they do. A collective develops a shared identity around a shared purpose, and can take the grassroots energy bubbling up around an issue and focus it in ways that turns it into powerful transformational work.
The collective at the roots of the Green New Deal is the Sunrise Movement — an American element of a thriving global youth climate movement. The Sunrise Movement grabbed onto the Green New Deal idea and took bold action — most memorably occupying the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the orientation of new members of Congress. Since then, Sunrise has been organizing around the Green New Deal all over the country, recently wrapping up the Road to the Green New Deal Tour that included more than 200 town hall meetings.
Importantly, the energy and action behind the Green New Deal has grown beyond the Sunrise Movement. The Green New Deal exists at the federal level not as an overly prescriptive policy proposal, but rather as a resolution that balances broad, shared purposes (addressing climate change and economic inequality) with some, but not all, specifics (e.g., fast decarbonization through rapid expansion of renewable energy, building upgrades and energy efficiency combined with millions of good-wage jobs).
At the same time, local- and state-level green new deal proposals also have been introduced around the country. These changes are examples of how the Green New Deal is already changing mainstream conversation and practice. The changes are early evidence of the Green New Deal’s transformative power. MORE