4. the odd brilliance of the Green New Deal

I get involved in a movement because there's just no choice anymore

^ Outside my house at 10 am on Wednesday. The fires in California have created so much ash up in the atmosphere that it turns the sky orange: longer wavelength red light can get through the smoke particles, but shorter blue wavelengths can’t.

The day I wrote this, smoke from wildfires raging in the Sierra Nevadas rose up into the atmosphere and blocked out the sun in the Bay Area.

The front page story of Berkeleyside summed it up well:

Yes day is night and you can’t see the sun. You woke up and were disoriented. Had to put the lights on in your home at 7 a.m. to see what you were doing. People are wandering around outside wide-eyed and taking photographs on their cellphones.
It might feel like apocalypse, not least on top of a global pandemic that has put us on lockdown for six months, but it’s not.
— Tracey Taylor

Oh, joy. It’s not the apocalypse, just a nice little slice.

This week I’ve been feeling a literal depression — a heaviness — on my mind. There’s the practical constraint of not be able to go outside, to exercise, take a break. The air quality is in the “extremely unhealthy” range, and my boss and university are sending emergency response-type emails telling me to stay inside. But there’s also the deeper, psychological despair from knowing that your environment is being destroyed. It feels incredibly hollow to think of the streets outside your house, your city, and the surrounding nature not as boundless sources of exploration and human connection, but as a series of potential threats to your health that need to be creatively avoided.

Is the parking spot close enough to the grocery entrance that I can hold my breath from the car to the store? Can I order delivery through Doordash when food runs out? Am I just shifting the health burden onto the people delivering it for me? Similarly to COVID-19, climate change both tracks along an amplifies existing disparities.

Oddly, the absence of stuff to do on the outside doesn’t make the stuff you do inside feel more engaging. Instead, it highlights the inherently constructed nature of everyday tasks, making the day hollow and weirdly devoid of purpose. I guess that brings new meaning to climate change as an “existential” threat.

One of my favorite journalists, Anne Helen Peterson, writes a popular newsletter on Substack. And this week’s edition, sums up this “existential void” feeling well:

Some people remain in complete denial. But I think many are beginning to see and feel what feels like an irrevocable decline. As Hayes Brown wrote around this time last year, “the weight of knowing, this time really knowing, our future is taking its toll.” We can allow ourselves to not just bend to new forms of normal, but actually break. This isn’t about being better about sorting your recycling. This is about completely reconceptualizing the way we think about energy, and waste, and consumption. It will require a complete renovation of our value system. And it’s going to be hard and uncomfortable and different, but you know what else will be hard and uncomfortable and different? The end of the fucking world.

trying to stop the end of the world

Over the last two weeks, I attended a few Zoom meetings by Sunrise, a youth-led climate movement that organized with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to sit-in Nancy Pelosi’s and Dianne Feinstein’s offices. I joined this activist group (an otherwise very non-Anya move) because I felt as though it was no longer an option not to. I mean, ffs, I can’t go outside. Something something, just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.

Sunrise’s outward-facing strategy would be fascinating to a more policy-wonked brain. As far as I can tell, they have only a single policy slate, and that’s to pass the Green New Deal, which itself seems to be more of a mishmash of wishes and ideals. I read the resolution (it’s short), and there’s not a single number or percentage the “how we’re gonna do it” section, except for to set the goal of meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.

In some sense, I think it not being a real policy (yet) is what makes it a brilliant policy. For one, it’s got a cool name that’s easy to remember and rally around. A middle-aged man on one of the Sunrise calls summed it up nicely: “Well, I like the Green New Deal because it’s just one thing.” Simple. Organize around one sexy pitch, then bore the public with the details later. Economists and policymakers, on the other hand, love to bore you first.

On the other hand, there’s no carbon tax or cap and trade system proposed (the effectiveness of which I talked about in last week’s Giving to Strangers). In my mind, there better be damn good reasons why the two policies that most effectively reduce carbon emissions aren’t mentioned. I’ve heard several explanations: people are worried about the feasibility of passing a carbon tax (very fair), that taxes are reforms to an economic system that is fundamentally flawed (but you can, and people do, use the revenue from the taxes or cap/trade for environmental justice causes), and that making carbon more expensive in wealthy countries incentivizes corporations to instead pollute in low-income countries (though it’s kinda hard to move power plants from West Virginia to Brazil, and I wonder to what extent factory-based carbon emissions are actually substitutable).

But despite all that, and most importantly, the Green New Deal provides something to work towards at a time when everything is literally on fire. It represents a better future than the one we have now. It traffics in hope at a time in which we’re tired, and might have corona, and maybe have kids and no childcare, and people are literally dying because of racial injustice, and, and, and.

Writing this post several days into climate-induced house arrest, I am reminded of the end of a book of poetry called The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forché. I just went back to read it again while writing this — tired, upset, kinda hopeless — and not-so-inexplicably started sobbing.

“There is a cyclone fence between

ourselves and the slaughter and behind it

we hover in a calm protected world like

netted fish, exactly like netted fish.

It is either the beginning or the end

of the world, and the choice is ourselves

or nothing”

Climate change: the choice is ourselves or nothing.

Which strangers might you give to?

This week, for the first time in my life, I phone banked. I called voters to support Mike Siegel, a Democrat running in TX-10 (which covers northwest Houston and reaches towards Austin in a weird squiggle shape that was definitely gerrymandered). The race is important first because it’s a realistic shot to flip a district blue that’s been historically red: In 2018, Siegel lost only narrowly to the Republican incumbent, by 19 points. In 2020, Siegel — a former public school teacher turned civil rights advocate — is running again. The incumbent Republican is bone fide horrible: he’s a co-architect of Trump’s Muslim ban, voted against funding for the Department of Education and Labor, and of course hates the Green New Deal. A small evil which may make you want to punch him more: his home used more water than any other Austin resident in 2017. Lol, what?

I was really intimidated to phone bank until I learned how it works: You sign up for a 2 hour Zoom slot. You join the call with 20-40 other people, a Sunrise leader train you, give you a script, and then everybody puts themselves on mute to make the calls. At any point you can unmute yourself, or chat a question to the group. After two hours, you debrief and leave. Simple. You can sign up here if you want to give it a try — let me know if you’re interested and we can do it together!

Stay inside, and stay strong California,

Anya


If you found this post valuable or at least mildly apocalyptically entertaining, it would make my day if you shared Giving to Strangers with friends so they can subscribe:

Share Giving to Strangers