Commentary: Green New Deal can reclaim ideals of the New Deal

Rather than reforming a culture of exploitation, the New Deal rescued it; we must avoid the same mistakes.

By John Larson / Special To The Washington Post

Will Congress finally act on the Green New Deal bill introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., almost a year ago?

A barrage of opposition has framed the proposal as insane, socialistic and un-American. But what opponents miss is that the resolution falls well within the mainstream of the American political tradition. Calling up the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, this proposed legislation challenges Congress to do what Roosevelt asked for nearly 90 years ago: that is, to step up and govern when the economic system has failed to sustain the general welfare.

But the root of the climate problem runs much deeper than economic crisis of the 1930s. From colonial times, a culture of exploitation has been baked into American environmental practices, the function of the state and the very idea of progress. After the founding of the Republic, private interests even more aggressively exploited people and the environment for short-term benefits. Market forces often rewarded bad actors and bad activities.

As Roosevelt understood — and now Ocasio-Cortez reminds us — correcting the harms and iniquities produced by unchecked private interests may require both powerful incentives and coercive restrictions. Our popular sense of American history as progress condemns such interventions, but we must revisit that history and expose how the culture of exploitation promoted economic aggression over sustainable practices from the very beginning.

In the name of freedom, British settlers in North America attacked Native American populations and expropriated their land. To justify displacing the Eastern Woodland Indians, settlers ignored their extensive farming traditions and dismissed them as “savage” hunters and gatherers. They said Indians did not cultivate, extract and “subdue” the earth as commanded by the Christian scriptures. Two hundred years later Thomas Jefferson still proclaimed them “addicted to the hunt.”

Such allusions to environmental concerns provided superficial justifications for whites’ entitlement to the land, however. When the Cherokees embraced the “white man’s ways” (tobacco farming, Western dress, written language, African slavery), freedom-loving Americans drove them out at gunpoint. At issue was not just how to make maximum use of the land but who had the right to use it.

Americans’ hunger for profit no matter the costs to sustainability or human rights shaped the society. In colonial Virginia, for over 60 years tobacco planters showed little interest in racial slavery until structural changes drove up the cost of white servants, drove down the cost of enslaved Africans and threatened the political hegemony of the largest tidewater landholders. The next generation crafted a slave labor system that allowed white settlers to magnify their own prosperity, adding a dimension of racial brutality to the assault on the environment.

After independence, newly liberated Americans launched an extraordinary campaign of conquest westward. Private drive and economic freedom energized the spread of industry and technological innovation. Within a generation, ambitious Americans had reached the Pacific coast and bound the whole country together with transcontinental railroad lines. But in the process, they killed and displaced Native American people, spread slavery, brutalized Chinese railroad workers, destroyed the vast bison herds and attacked the timber and mineral resources of the Rocky Mountains with astonishing fervor.

Through it all, Americans crafted a triumphal narrative, casting themselves not as conquerors but benevolent improvers promoting liberty, enterprise and innovation. The successes of their colonizing project convinced the people their desires were innocent and their progress decreed by Providence. In the 19th century the cry of “manifest destiny” accompanied the seizure of Mexican territory, the pacification of the Far West and U.S. overseas imperial adventures in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and other territories. In the 20th century, the United States joined the rush of European empires to carve up the globe’s resources for private gain.

American exploitation didn’t proceed without resistance. In 1637, the colonist Thomas Morton published a perceptive and generous appreciation for the social, economic and spiritual complexities of the New England natives. The Puritans expelled him. Critics decried American deforestation from the 1630s well into the 19th century. Soil exhaustion brought nightmares to Chesapeake planters and forced their children to move away to Tennessee. In the 1850s, Vermont naturalist George Perkins Marsh detailed the dangers of watershed destruction. In the West, John Wesley Powell insisted that land and water rights be re-envisioned to account for the arid climate.

But apparent abundance postponed broader reckoning, and by the 20th century progress itself promised high-tech solutions to any negative feedback.

When the global enterprise system faltered in 1929, the New Deal tackled the question of how to temper capitalism for the sake of humane outcomes. But far from reforming the culture of exploitation, the New Deal rescued it so successfully that the next generation could renounce the state interventions that made it possible and return to the business of exploiting land and labor on behalf of global capitalism.

The present environmental and economic challenges beg for a revision of these stories about the natural triumph of modernization, but powerful interests and institutions depend upon our embrace of this culture of exploitation, and they stand behind the loudest voices insisting that we dare not consider the challenge laid down in the Green New Deal. In truth, the development of modern America with its drive for exploitation was neither natural nor inevitable. Purposeful historical actions drove the embrace of African slavery, the violent disruption of indigenous communities, the reckless assault on natural resources and our embrace of unrestrained material self-interest. Americans made choices along the way, and to see a way forward we must recognize that these choices can be reconsidered.

Unlimited global resources do not exist, nor can we expropriate and enslave our way to world domination and control today. Instead of letting the past dictate the future, we should draw inspiration from the energy, ambition, intelligence and collective potential that drove the American project so impressively in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What we require today is a focus and a call to common purpose to redirect those historic virtues toward sustainable goals. By assigning to government the duty of meeting the challenge, the Green New Deal can jump-start the process of weaning ourselves from the addictive habits of growth and exploitation that made us rich but now threaten the entire human community.

John Larson is a professor of history at Purdue University and the author of “Laid Waste: The Culture of Exploitation in Early America.”

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