A Green New Orleans Deal

We know climate change is caused by air pollution. Stopping air pollution is imperative, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. That’s because these particular types of pollutants (greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane) are emitted in virtually every sector of our economy. To stop the emissions means getting our economy on a whole new footing, one which doesn’t contribute to global warming. It’s a gargantuan task — no way around it. 

You may have heard of the “Green New Deal.” This is not a fixed policy but more of a grab-bag of loosely associated proposals, aimed at making the necessary shifts to our economy. I use the term “Green New Deal” because it’s at least somewhat familiar to most audiences, but what I have in mind is a little different.

We need a Green New Deal for New Orleans — a Green New Orleans Deal. 

We often hear about such proposals at the federal level, but that requires a centralized, top-down approach that invariably results in “business as usual.” For-profit corporations have led us to unprecedented levels of income inequality and environmental destruction. Let’s be clear: “business as usual” is what has gotten us into the mess that is the climate crisis. The existing social order has failed and appears unable to fix the crisis it’s created. Though certain federal solutions remain desirable (such as a carbon fee and dividend) it’s unlikely that our salvation will come from big corporate interests or from big government. We need a fresh, decentralized, grassroots, revolutionary approach, and this can be most effectively implemented at the local level.

After all, we’ve known for decades that the sustainable economy of the future will be the one with the shortest distances between production, consumption, and disposal of (minimal) waste. In other words, the future is local.

The fact is that a number of municipalities have already implemented local versions of a Green New Deal, and even some states have gotten into the act. 

Here’s a partial list as compiled by the Sierra Club:

  • New York City
  • Maine 
  • Los Angeles
  • Illinois
  • California
  • New Mexico
  • Portland
  • Seattle 
  • Pittsburgh
  • Washington DC

Notice anything? That’s right, every region of the country is represented except ours. Let’s take the initiative! Given our vulnerability to climate change, it only makes sense that New Orleans should be a leader in the American Southeast — and given our unique cultural heritage, it only makes sense that our Green New Deal should be radically different. 

Guiding principles

Currently, economic success is defined as extracting maximum profit from the natural world (including human labor) for continual growth. This is not sustainable. We must redefine success in terms of actual usefulness. Social and environmental wellbeing are much better indicators of true prosperity. 

The point of developing our local economy is to strengthen and sustain our local communities, who must be engaged in the democratic process regarding the important decisions that affect our lives. We aim to increase not only our odds of survival, but also our satisfaction in being alive, awake, aware, and engaged. 

Self-sufficiency and decentralization emerge as guiding principles for a strong and sustainable local economy. Yet no urban area can be completely self-sufficient. Urban farming initiatives should be promoted intensively, but these will never be enough to feed the urban population. We must aim instead for regional self-sufficiency. The City of New Orleans must develop and maintain positive relations with the rural areas outside the metropolitan area; this is where the bulk of our essential food should come from, and not from farms on the other side of the country or other continents. 

Finally, we need to foster worker-run cooperatives that will serve the common good rather than narrow private interests. In this regard, New Orleans should study and learn from Cooperation Jackson, the emerging network of worker cooperatives based in Jackson, Mississippi. 

Creating jobs

I support the Gulf Coast for a Green New Deal platform, which aims to advance equity, follow Indigenous and frontline leadership, build community wealth and health, invest in visionary and transformative change, and advance community and local control, using an intersectional approach that values all humans equally — and also recognizes the rights of nature. This platform includes some broad initiatives and specific priorities which are essential to a just and equitable future. 

In large part, it’s about creating jobs. But this must not replicate the meaningless labor of the old economy. The focus has to be on work that improves the quality of life for all residents by mitigating or combatting our new climate reality. This is best accomplished in a cooperative framework. More specifically, for the city of New Orleans, we must use the economic shifts mandated by the climate crisis to allow meaningful work. Climate education across the curriculum is an important piece of the puzzle; robust vocational training programs in wind energy, solar, and battery technologies will open up many opportunities, particularly in our low-income communities. Let’s eliminate poverty while also building the future we need. 

Examples from elsewhere give a hint of the possibilities. Inefficient buildings are a huge source of climate pollution. New York City is now requiring landlords to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, while also protecting low-income residents from rent increases. The state of Illinois has adopted legislation along the same lines, with provisions to make solar energy more readily available to communities of low and moderate income. Los Angeles has a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with an array of ambitious mandates and benchmarks. These moves are anticipated to create thousands of jobs. That’s great insofar as it goes. In all these cases, however, these jobs are simply created within the existing business-as-usual economy. We can do better.

Let’s implement similar measures, but tailored for New Orleans, to transform the economy according to the principles outlined above. The City of New Orleans should convene a task force with scientists, workers, youth, and community leaders to develop a detailed plan that meets the needs of our communities, creating “green” jobs in a new cooperative economy. This would build upon the City’s existing Climate Action Plan, which currently has little life, and ensure those goals are actually met. It would accelerate the drive toward our Renewable and Clean Portfolio Standard. A sense of utmost urgency must inform this process to produce a Green New Deal like no other — a Green New Orleans Deal.