How to Get Off Fossil Fuels Quickly—and Fairly

Climate experts share a range of ideas and strategies for envisioning a better future.

When it comes to a just transition, it’s going to take a radical reimaging not only of our economy but also of our culture and the shape of our social structures. YES! co-hosted a conversation with experts from the nonprofit The Land Institute to discuss policy proposals and new ways to rebuild our sense of self and community from the bottom up.

The discussion was prompted by a new book, The Green New Deal and Beyond, by Stan Cox, the Land Institute’s lead scientist for perennial crops. He was joined by his colleagues, Director of Ecosphere Studies Aubrey Streit Krug, and President Emeritus Wes Jackson. The event was moderated by YES! contributing editor Robert Jensen.

Together they share a range of ideas and strategies for envisioning a better future.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ROBERT JENSEN: I would propose that the most important word in the title of your book, Stan, is “beyond.” We know the Green New Deal is not a fully fleshed out political program yet, but why do we need to go beyond it?

STAN COX: The Green New Deal is just a vision at this point. It’s really two things: There’s the “new deal” part and the “green” part. The “new deal” part is pretty good with its provisions for job and income guarantees, for economic justice and racial justice, and for Indigenous rights and workers’ rights.

The “green” part of the Green New Deal, in contrast, is inadequate to the point of being self-defeating. If you look at the joint congressional resolution from last year, it calls for the elimination of greenhouse emissions in various sectors of the economy as much as is technologically feasible. It doesn’t say how to do it or how much is actually going to be eliminated. Taking that approach to say “Let’s see how far technology and a big industrial initiative can take us in resolving the climate emergency” is far from enough.

There appears to be an underlying assumption that building up wind and solar energy and green infrastructure—this big, industrial initiative that they’re talking about—will be enough working through the market to drive fossil fuels out of the economy. But history, analysis, and research show us that’s not the way things work. New sources of energy in a growing economy simply add to the total energy supply. They don’t displace the older sources of energy as long as those are available.

Care work—education, health care, parenting—is really important to any social movement and change.

What I’m proposing in The Green New Deal and Beyond is a direct, secure, statutory elimination of fossil fuels involving a national cap on the number of tons of coal, cubic feet of gas, barrels of oil that can be brought out of the ground and into the economy in a given year, with that cap ratcheting down year by year in equal increments until the deadline, at which point fossil fuels are completely out of the economy. “Cap and Adapt” is what we call it.

If we get serious about getting rid of fossil fuels, we’re going to be living with a declining energy supply. The thing that we have to guarantee is fair access to the necessities of life for everyone—what you might call “sufficiency for all and overconsumption for none.”

This will be where the economic justice provisions of the Green New Deal become even more important. Marginalized and front-line communities, before the pandemic, were already feeling all the negative impacts of unchecked economic growth. Now they are suffering some of the worst effects of both the pandemic and the chaotic degrowth that we’re experiencing now.

JENSEN: We live in a society that doesn’t deal well with the idea of limits. Aubrey spends a lot of her work thinking about what a stable, decent human society that can live within limits means. Can you describe the work you’re doing?

AUBREY STREIT KRUG: The Ecosphere Studies program at The Land Institute is investigating how to co-create just communities and the kind of social and cultural arrangements that are necessary to create these stable human futures, beginning with work in agriculture.

These biophysical realities that Stan is outlining here—ecological limits, what is needed, and the pace of change that’s needed in order to make a just transition—these realities spark an emotional response for most people. I think that recognizing and naming that is important, because often in response to this willingness to turn and face reality, we are greeted with an invitation—or sometimes a push—into thinking that we just need to care more about something. That can make us turn right back around into denial and avoidance.

Instead, what I’ve been working with is, rather than just caring more, caring more skillfully and doing the work of care.

Growth will undercut any efforts to get greenhouse emissions under control.

Care work—education, health care, parenting—is really important to any social movement and change. Feminist economists have written a lot about this. Disability justice scholars have contributed some really important work here. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, in her book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, writes about how the work of community and the idea of community isn’t just a magic unicorn, an answer you can put on anything and it just solves it: “We just need community!” Instead, community is work. It involves ongoing effort and negotiation and webs of relationship and care.

When I think about the change that needs to happen, I think about our need for social and cultural arrangements that actually value care work. It is not valued or recognized in our current economy, especially due to the fact that primarily women and girls or Black and Indigenous people of color are the ones who are performing most care work. If we were able to begin to figure out how to value care work, that would be part of a radical reorientation toward justice, and it would also be building the kind of social capacity we need to start and sustain change.

Caring for each other and for the more-than-human world—the places and plants and co-inhabitants of our lives—is integral to not only sustaining where we are now and surviving, but also making the work of transition happen. It’s how we stay alive now and how we get to where we want to go.

JENSEN: I really like that distinction between caring about and caring for—that you can care about something, but the real work of the world is caring for it. It is work. We know that’s not going to happen overnight. Wes, your work has always taken a kind of long timeframe. Can you talk about why what Stan and Aubrey are talking about can be so difficult sometimes?

WES JACKSON: There are going to have to be a lot of changes, and I think we’re on the early stage of some of those changes right now.

At the eastern end of the Mediterranean, some 10,000 years ago, the greatest group of revolutionaries to ever live began to give us our crops and livestock. We started that journey into agriculture. We found out ways to get the highly dense carbon along the way. We end up with an industrial economy, and we become, increasingly, a species out of context.

When we started The Land Institute in 1976, the limits to growth was right up there in front for our considerations. It wasn’t that many years ago, sitting with people in high places, when I said we’ve got to have a cap and then rationing, I heard the same old sentence: “Good luck on that one.”

But if we could get that cap, then we will have fewer decisions to make. We’ll have easier decisions to make.

JENSEN: That concept of a species out of context is really central—the recognition that we are now living in arrangements that we did not evolve in, that we aren’t evolved for this. Hence, the idea that we’ll never get it right.

COX: The reason that addressing climate change has been so difficult for the past three-plus decades is that every single time there have been proposals for seriously addressing climate change, they have been rejected or gutted because of the very real worry that they would undercut economic growth and wealth accumulation. That was, of course, very unacceptable to world leaders and business leaders. But there’s really no effective way to cut emissions down to zero that is not going to affect growth, and that needs to be accepted.

The joint congressional resolution on the Green New Deal is silent on the subject of growth, but as it’s been conceived, the Green New Deal is nothing if not an economic stimulus plan. We will really have to be careful in implementing something like that, that it not exacerbate the problems being caused by growth.

Truly sustainable agriculture is absolutely fundamental.

As we come out the other side of the pandemic, whenever that is, returning to endless growth is going to be the top priority for business and government. Some form of the Green New Deal is already being talked about as a way to stimulate that growth. Growth lies at the root of the very problem that we’re trying to solve. If we, say, achieve 3% annual GDP growth, which everybody talks about needing, then in 25 years, the economy has doubled the size it is now. Any hope of either cutting emissions or of generating enough wind and solar electricity to run something like that, there’s just no way that it can be done.

Growth will undercut any efforts to get greenhouse emissions under control. The good thing is, I think Americans may finally be willing to consider something like this. In the past couple of months, maybe 3/4 of our population has accepted the fact that when faced with a dire existential emergency like the coronavirus, people were willing to set growth and profit-making aside and do what has to be done. I think once people can be convinced that in the long term, the climate emergency is even more dire, and that we’ve experienced what it’s like to reduce dramatically our footprint on the Earth, people may be willing again to do it.

JENSEN: In addition to the large-scale policy, can you tell us a bit about what kind of work is going on on the ground, Aubrey?

KRUG: I’m often asked about what kind of actions might be productive for people to take or, again, how to make this work feel real or connect with people. I tend to think about that in two directions. The first is the work of building a path forward, figuring out what to carry forward.  The other direction is the figuring out of what you need to leave behind.

First, in the work of building a path forward, truly sustainable agriculture is absolutely fundamental—to be able to feed ourselves for the long term. The Land Institute’s plant breeders and ecologists are working to breed and domesticate new perennial grain, oilseed, and legume crops that will allow communities to feed themselves. We’re thinking about domestication as a form of ongoing mutualistic relationship. People have to be aware of them in the first place, and then they have to come to value them.

Then there’s the looking back, to determine what we leave behind and how. It’s been really helpful for me to think about not only what I want to learn, but about what I want to unlearn. I recently started working with one of my collaborators on a piece about why it might be especially important for White women to do the work of unlearning—unlearning different structures and ways of participating in systems of domination. From my own position, I could say that it might be really important for some humans together to realize that what we thought we knew is not working, and then to collectively and skillfully figure out how to let go of those things.

I think about the work artists and writers and activists and people, especially in Native communities, are doing right now to advance a collective unlearning of everything the fossil fuel industry has tried to teach us. That feels like a very active letting go and figuring out how we can leave behind, rather than stay within, those systems that we’re trying to move forward.

I think that framework of unlearning might be useful to people as they look in their own lives and communities and networks for opportunities to become involved on the ground.

JENSEN: There’s been a theme here about learning and unlearning, moving forward, but also looking to the past. Wes, as someone from Kansas who grew up on a farm, you’ve seen the countryside depopulated in your lifetime. You’ve seen a culture say to people, “All the action is in the cities. If you want to make something of yourself, go to the city.” You’ve started to talk about the need to repopulate the countryside, to reclaim skills that were once common in a low-energy world. Can you talk a bit about your thinking about what the future is really going to look like when we start moving toward a future that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels?

JACKSON: This is an extremely exciting time to be alive, and it’s also a very dangerous time. Look at the good things that have come from this period of human history: We now know of our origins coming after a Big Bang. We know about the cosmos, and we know that it’s possible to understand Darwinian evolution.

I think we are at a pivot point, and we’ve got to begin a new journey. I think it’s possible, but it starts with something like care and something like putting a cap on carbon and figuring out how we are going to be from now on, knowing there’ll be a lot of changes.

We are going to have to resettle a lot of the small towns and rural communities, not as a matter of nostalgia, but as a practical necessity, partly because that’s who we are. We’ve got to begin a huge rethinking of what it means to be Homo sapiens.

We’re left with the question: “What’s to become of us?”

Watch the video of this conversation here

BREANNA DRAXLER is the climate editor at YES! She covers all things environmental.

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