If you’re as lucky as I am to teach college students, an instructive exercise is to ask them to define the New Deal without providing any background information. What have they — coming from a variety of backgrounds, places, and cultures — imbibed about the New Deal in the course of their general education?
When I was in college, at the height of the recession, this question probably would have elicited the names of federal financial institutions that live on from this period — like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) — or on Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, perhaps the most iconic New Deal programs that almost everyone in the United States encounters in some way in everyday life. Inevitably analogizing our own lives to the past, we might have contrasted the auto bailout with the National Industrial Recovery Act, or longed for the wave of sit-down strikes that followed the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.
The first time I posed the question to students, it was in late February 2019, in the wake of Sunrise Movement occupations of high-ranking Democrats’ offices that helped cement the Green New Deal’s place in mainstream political debate. My students, across multiple classes, clamored to discuss programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. For them, the New Deal imaginary has — even against the backdrop of a supposedly recovered and booming economy — retained its power to shape public discourse around economic inequality and unemployment.
But with the mainstreaming of the Green New Deal, there is a new desire to trace the New Deal’s ecological legacy. That legacy, as Naomi Klein notes in her new book On Fire, is paradoxical.
The Mixed Legacy of the New Deal
On the one hand, the New Deal reshaped the federal government’s relationship to the land, materially and ideologically. Through agricultural policy, New Dealers worked to slow soil erosion on the plains, hopefully preventing another Dust Bowl. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) planted millions of trees. Ideologically, the environmental impact of the New Deal created a precedent for environmental intervention in the name of reducing inequality. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the New Deal in building the social, cultural, and physical infrastructure of the US welfare state that reigned for nearly half a century, and which, despite deliberate attempts at dismantling, remains popular in part because it touches so many Americans lives in diverse ways.
New Deal policies exposed the limits of FDR-style liberalism. On the one hand, reforms like the Indian Reorganization Act and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act recognized some land rights, opened up credit markets and educational opportunities, and acknowledged the importance of indigenous art to national culture by employing indigenous potters, weavers, and other craftspeople on relief projects and commissioning indigenous artists to create works of public art. At the same time, CCC projects perpetuated and expanded settler incursion into national parks like Yellowstone, which separated indigenous people from their traditional lands, including hunting grounds and sacred sites.
The same programs that sought to modernize poor agricultural communities and promote soil conservation also accelerated the consolidation of industrial agriculture. The same period of American history that saw the rights of workers finally recognized in federal law and the creation of relief programs that banned discrimination also excluded agricultural workers. The impact of this exclusion was amplified by the fact that the Agricultural Adjustment Act had an outsized impact on black sharecroppers across the cotton belt South.
But despite the mixed legacy of the New Deal, its popularity and impact have proved enduring. And in the decade since the collapse of the global economy, the engagement of social movements with the New Deal has bounced between reckoning with its historical legacy and limits, and recognizing its imaginative potential for a new transformation of American society. Klein’s On Fire is both of the past decade, composed of essays and remarks from 2010–19, and written for the new one, our closing window to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis and build a new kind of society around the values and practices of care, cooperation, and justice.
This double nature of the New Deal, as historical legacy and political imaginary, doesn’t have a fixed end point. Instead, Klein suggests its power is to move us beyond the constraints of “the never-ending present” which has left us “unmoored from both future and past.” Klein reminds us that it was not the only possibility for a historical analogy for the transformation needed to confront the climate crisis. Bolivian climate negotiators have called for a Marshall Plan for the Earth; others point to World War II mobilization.
All these precedents, including the New Deal, fall short of the future Green New Deal advocates imagine. Klein, however, suggests that “as flawed as each historical analogy necessarily is, each is still useful to study and invoke.” They show us we are not bound by past mistakes.
A Green New Deal that has reckoned with the failures of the first New Deal while using it as an imaginative platform will recognize the importance of community input and ownership, racial and gender justice, and respect for indigenous sovereignty and knowledge as the best defense against recreating the racially segregated, carbon-intensive suburbs of the postwar period, the ecologically destructive infrastructure projects that further eroded indigenous land rights while concentrating planning power.
Recognizing the paradoxes of the New Deal, Klein reminds us, is not the same as passing judgment. The impact of the New Deal on American life is a historical fact. In some cases, it has quite literally formed the terrain and streets on which we struggle. The form of the book recognizes this inherent tension, between legacy and imaginary, as a productive one rather than a source of political paralysis.
Klein purposefully chose not to update her essays, following them with a note explaining what has happened since the original speech or publication and highlighting the importance of understanding each piece in place and time. At the end, we see how the urgent fight for a Green New Deal is the product, not only of the original New Deal’s legacy, but of the last decade in which the New Deal has once again captured the political imagination amid widening inequality and the acceleration of the climate crisis.
Palestinian Liberation Is a Climate Justice Issue
One of the most moving essays of this collection is a lecture Klein delivered in London in May 2016 that opens with the proposition that “tree huggers must urgently make time for [Edward] Said,” the Palestinian theorist of orientalism and exile. Drawing inspiration from his recognition that for him, “home” in Palestine had been “so radically altered that it no longer really existed,” she suggests that Said’s work has become more pressing in a world, our home, which is becoming less recognizable.
The connections between the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the climate crisis are stronger than one might think. Ecological apartheid is rampant in the country. Israel uses control over water resources as a weapon of dispossession. Particularly in hot summer months, the Israeli authorities ration water to the West Bank, despite the fact that the Jordan River and Mountain Aquifer could be shared resources.
Despite the fact that the population of the West Bank has doubled since 1995, the water allotments have remained the same. According to a report by Al Jazeera, “The lack of water and other basic services resulting from Israeli policies has created a coercive environment that often leaves Palestinians with no choice but to leave their communities . . . allowing Israel’s land takeover and further expansion of its settlements.”
The destruction of “home” doesn’t end with the bulldozing of a house, or the imprisonment of family members, but destroys the landscape which has rooted Palestinian families to their land, sometimes for hundreds of years. Centuries-old olive trees are uprooted, destroying a key food staple, as well as root systems and sedimentation. Older traditions of local (and low-carbon) agriculture are bulldozed for industrial farming as Palestinians starve in Gaza. Palestinian struggle offers Klein a new way of thinking about home, and how we might fight for our collective planetary home.
Around the world, the fight against Israeli apartheid has highlighted the legacies of colonialism and apartheid in shaping environmental inequalities elsewhere. Moreover, it has led to activists articulating clearly: Palestinian liberation is a climate justice issue.
Those on the Left who doubt the utility of the New Deal analogy should reckon more seriously with why an analogy with such substantial limitations has so powerfully grabbed the public imagination. In the year since the idea went mainstream in the 2018 national elections, it’s become common to say that the Green New Deal is an “idea whose time has come.”
But we can be more specific. As we observe the fires and floods, deadly smog, continued violations of indigenous sovereignty from the Amazon to Alberta, global climate inequality threatening to escalate into full-blown climate apartheid, it makes sense that people, particularly in the United States, look back to the 1930s. The New Deal has retained a nearly mythic quality in American political life for its ability to create a welfare state nearly from scratch, for its ambition in remaking the bonds which tied citizens to each other, and for its belief in the democratic and egalitarian promises of public planning and investment.
At the same time, the Green New Deal’s supporters will do well to use Klein’s work as a model, recognizing that the power of the analogy comes from its simultaneous ability to reckon with and repair those places where the New Deal failed, either because it was a captive of racist colonial policies, regional politics within the Democratic Party that made Roosevelt particularly open to accommodating the racist wing of the party, or because the New Deal created infrastructure to support fossil fuel-intensive consumption and building patterns that facilitated racial segregation.
The Green New Deal is a chance to fix and build on the first New Deal, to finally address the exclusion of agricultural and domestic work which shut many black (as well as white) workers out from organizing protections, the racist biases of unemployment programs, and retrenched settler colonialism across the US west. The Green New Deal is not a chance to move beyond these histories, but instead an opportunity to repair the damage — human and ecological — which they caused.
By placing central importance on low-carbon care work — like teaching, nursing, social work, and home, child, and elder care — the Green New Deal also addresses the gender biases implicit in many New Deal programs that devalued this labor, and which helped lay the groundwork for the explosion of postwar suburbanization and consumer culture. Just as Said theorized a form of home to be used in the Palestinian struggle for liberation, “home” has also been weaponized against women and queer people. It isolated caring forms of work in homes and forced women to labor at them in isolation.
This kind of gendered idea of home also provided ideological support to the carbon- and resource-intensive infrastructures that made suburban domiciles possible. A feminist critique rooted in climate justice points to cars, large open spaces that were hard to clean and expensive to heat and cool, the particular suburban aesthetic that shaped new forms of home labor, new energy-intensive appliances that were supposed to ease women’s work but in fact raised the expectations of what work women were expected to perform, even as many wealthy white women continued to offload their domestic work onto underpaid women of color. Reimagining “home,” in this context, means reordering everyday life around gender, racial, and climate justice, to socializing caring, and building communities while decarbonizing them.
Reckoning with the meaning of the New Deal, both as an analogy for the future and a historical legacy all around us, is teaching ordinary people to see political choices, not technological inevitability, all around them: in barriers to organizing unions, in the highway infrastructure that made the United States into a car country, in the pipelines traversing and threatening indigenous land. This recognition is a source of hope. Most of us were excluded from these choices, and given the chance, we can make new ones.
In an essay recounting her collaboration with leftist artist Molly Crabapple on “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Klein also points to another point of connection: the hunger for hope. In the depth of the Depression, artists employed by WPA programs helped raise the expectations of ordinary people across the country. Like the left-wing artists of the WPA, we must also raise expectations. The imperfections of the New Deal analogy can, in fact, be a source of strength, allowing our movements to reckon with the past as a way to demand a better future. In On Fire, Naomi Klein shows us how, over the course of her career, she has done just that.