On hearing his country’s goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050, Jairo Quirós, an electrical energy researcher at the University of Costa Rica, called the plan “a little utopian.” But, he added, “it’s good to be ambitious.”
So it is. My country used to know a little something about being ambitious.
The former British colonies were being ambitious when they decided to break away from the largest empire ever known, to separate from a flag on which the sun never set. Ambitious was the 33-year-old lawyer and plantation owner they chose to scribble up the reasons for their separation, and ambitious were the 56 men who attached their signatures to that sacred document. One of the signers later said it was signing his own death warrant.
Ambitious was F.D.R.’s program, launched from the depths of the Great Depression, to reform the banking system so the American people would never be left dollarless again, and to create a relief system for those that would be. You might say F.D.R. was overly ambitious, running for president after his legs stopped working.
Ambitious were all the nameless faces in the fifties and sixties who sat down at segregated lunch counters and marched against mobs of hate, daring police dogs and firehoses, for the dream of creating one nation out of many.
Ambitious, too, was another three-letter president, who only four months into his presidency, and only four days shy of his 44th birthday, aimed his country at the moon. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,” said J.F.K., “not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
And we did go to the moon, in 1969, and a handful of times afterward. But then something happened, and we stopped being so ambitious. In less than a hundred years we’ve gone from having “nothing to fear but fear itself,” to living in constant fear of the next act of terror. Now we barely leave our homes, barely peek up at the stars.
A few weeks ago I was watching TV or something when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that young congresswoman from the Bronx who everyone thinks is a radical, came on the screen and started talking about her “Green New Deal.” A.O.C.’s green targets are even more ambitious than Costa Rica’s: she wants to make her country carbon-neutral and running completely on renewable energy by 2030, the deadline set by the U.N.’s scientists who say we have till then to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (or before we invented capitalism and really began killing the ocean and choking the sky). Beyond that, say the scientists, all hell will break loose on this planet — sea levels rising, decade-long droughts and famines, wars over water, mass extinction — and it will get more and more hellish with every degree hotter.
The Paris Climate Agreement, which the President backed out of, sets a target range between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius — not nearly ambitious enough.
The “New Deal” in A.O.C.’s plan aims to guarantee every American a decent job at a decent wage, decent housing, decent food, decent trade deals with other countries, a good education, and “high-quality health care.”
So overall the Green New Deal sounds pretty decent.
“That’ll never happen,” says the young woman next to me, a Latina, and younger than me. She’s still sneering when I turn to her.
“Prolly not,” I tell her. “But you better hope it does.”
She sucks her teeth, rolls her eyes and slaps the air with her hand. “Yeah, I know. Global warming and everything. But people’ll never vote for all that. We’re too greedy. We’d rather burn to death than give up our stuff.”
She is always this cynical about people’s collective capacity to do the right thing — what she calls “being a realist” — so I hate it when she sounds right.
True, to achieve the Green New Deal’s goals would mean a drastic transformation in the way we live our lives and govern our society. We are talking more than merely separating recyclables from the rest of the trash, or taxing our rich people at somewhere north of 50, 60 percent — though doing both would be a good start. We would need to not only rebuild our infrastructure but modernize it completely, building a new one which would allow us to meet the challenges and opportunities of a new millennium. We would need to change the way our economy works, perhaps inject a little democracy in the workplace, and see if that doesn’t make work in this country a fairer deal for the workers.
Might this hurt our all-knowing and all-giving economy? Probably, especially in the meantime. But I’d rather hurt the economy than keep hurting the planet. We live here. We eat here. We breathe here. We drink here. If it all goes away, it won’t matter how big my flat-screen is.
New York City’s billionaire former mayor, Bloomberg, calls the Green New Deal “pie in the sky.” The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, referred to A.O.C.’s goals as “the green dream, or whatever they call it.” Both are in their late seventies and already shuffling off this increasingly inhospitable coil.
Diane Feinstein, who is worth 90 million dollars, was born the same year F.D.R. launched the New Deal and, at 85, is the oldest thing in the Senate besides the decor, sees no rush in meeting A.O.C.’s challenge.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” the dinosaur of the Democratic Party told a group of little boys and girls who came to her office last Friday to demand that immediate and drastic action being taken to lessen the bleeding which climate change promises to cause in the ensuing decades. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here and say ‘It has to be my way or the highway.’ I don’t respond to that. I’ve just gotten elected. I just ran and I was elected by almost a million-vote plurality. And I know what I’m doing. So, you know, maybe people should listen a little bit.”
This country used to be so ambitious.
Featured image: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (Dimitri Rodriguez/Flickr)