Green New Deal advocates in the United States should look to the Nordic countries for inspiration on how to overcome the 1 percent and address climate change.
According to the latest report from the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the Nordics are once again in the top tier of the World’s Happiest People. This year’s report, which came out March 20, pulled together the scores from the last three years to build a composite score, revealing that the four happiest countries from 2016-2018 are Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, with Sweden coming in seventh.
The researchers combine a number of indicators to define “happiness.” One especially interesting for Americans is “freedom to make life choices,” since we like to think of ourselves as leaders in liberty. The index, however, places the United States at 62 (narrowly ahead of the United Kingdom), while the Nordics remain in the top 10 countries in freedom.
Other research methodologies line up with these findings on freedom. In 2018, Freedom House rated countries by degree of political freedom. Norway, Sweden and Finland tied for first, while the United Kingdom was 27th and the United States came in at 58 and dropping.
Our relative lack of freedom makes getting a Green New Deal for the United States look like a hard slog, but we may get some clues from others — including from the time when they were less than free.
Do the Nordics have a ‘green new deal’?
The two main goals of the Green New Deal are to address climate change and economic inequality. Why combine the two? After all, there are some Democratic Party leaders and even some environmentalists who prefer to split those goals.
I found one connection in Denmark’s recent history. When the left coalition of labor and other egalitarian parties is in power Denmark surges ahead in addressing climate change. When the centrist coalition is in power, Denmark’s commitment to climate slows down. That’s because the Danish centrists, like the Democratic Party in the United States, include the 1 percent who find it against their financial interests to reduce carbon emissions. Canada provides another example: centrist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks a good game about climate but reportedly committed over $7 billion in federal funds to purchase the failing Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.
The Nordics have for half a century been in the top tier of nations for equality because they adopted a radically different economic model — one that puts the workers, farmers and professionals first, using capital as a tool to advance the common good. To ensure this, Norwegians have majority public ownership of most corporations and the public completely owns Norway’s largest bank. As I describe in my book “Viking Economics,” the Nordics have used heavily-regulated markets for some purposes, and they gave up completely on markets for other sectors.
Poverty was widespread in the Nordic countries a century ago, so the Nordics designed poverty out of their systems. And even though they were small nations living in what was for them a globalized world, they empowered themselves to protect against cycles of boom-and-bust.
While Iceland flirted with neoliberalism in the early part of this century — resulting in an economic collapse in 2008 — they came to their senses, defying the International Monetary Fund and returning to their people-first leftist model. As a result, they recovered from their Depression more quickly than the capital-first centrist United States did from its less-severe 2008 recession.
Using a Green New Deal for abundance
The Nordic model pays off for equality, but how about the other focus of the Green New Deal: meeting the challenge of climate change? U.S. critics of the Green New Deal try to scare us with the prospect of scarcity.
That’s an old game. The Danish economic elite did the same when it promoted nuclear power in the 1980s. However, after the people’s movement mounted a nonviolent direct action campaign, the government turned to wind for electricity. It began licensing decentralized coops for local energy, while also investing in massive wind farms in coastal waters. As a result, Denmark became a world leader in renewable energy technology, and its economy grew.
While Finland and Denmark are both aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, Sweden has its sights set on 2045 and Iceland is saying 2040. Each of them had major poverty a century ago but today enjoy shared prosperity with free higher education and universal healthcare.
Norway is a special case among the Nordics because it’s the only one that has significant oil and gas. A growing minority wants to stop extracting entirely, but a majority is not yet convinced. In the meantime, Norway takes other steps: charging drivers around $7 per gallon for gas, leading the world in electric cars and bicycle highways per capita, and spending over $3 billion so far to combat deforestation in the Amazon. The country is moving up the ranks of Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, now placing 11th. To make up for its continuing oil extraction, parliament plans to use offsets to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.
All the Nordics have found that their focus on climate coinciding with growth in the common good. Consistent with the American advocates of the Green New Deal, the Nordics’ investment in people’s health and well-being, jobs and education, yield benefits in abundance and innovation.
Nordics don’t waste money on crime-fighting because they reject poverty and mass incarceration. Sweden welcomed more immigrants fleeing the Middle East during the Syrian exodus than any other European nation, per capita, and recently adopted Norwegian best practices for integrating the refugees. One in five Swedes and Norwegians is foreign-born. While Nordics will tell you that they are far from utopia, they learn from each other while continuing to invest in social justice.
How they made space for their version of the Green New Deal
Grassroots movements forced a power shift. In each case the people created a multi-dimensional strategy for empowering themselves. They educated each other so they could see through the pretense of democracy that protected 1 percent-rule, building prefigurative institutions like co-ops that taught individualists the value of collective effort.
The movement involved intellectuals so they could together design a vision of the kind of economy they wanted, enabling them to also attract people who had doubts and hesitations. In this way they avoided the trap of becoming protesters who simply react against injustice. They put forward a program, and their positivity won increasing numbers of allies.
Once disunited, they built unity across the urban/rural divide and other lines that divided them. Having watched the civil war in Russia that accompanied the Bolshevik revolution, they trained themselves to use nonviolent struggle, employing the technology of campaigns. Small farmers took over landed estates in Denmark. When the Swedish state called out the troops to protect the 1 percent by shooting unarmed demonstrators, the people responded nationally with a general strike that forced out the old regime.
Is Scandinavian success relevant to us?
Although Americans generated mass movements in the same time period as the Nordics, Americans faced greater challenges, including our inheritance of racism. That’s one reason why, in the 1920s and ‘30s, we couldn’t keep pace with our sister movements abroad — although this fact doesn’t diminish the brilliance of their own strategic breakthroughs.
Circumstances change. Americans now have some advantages the Nordics didn’t have a century ago. One of our advantages now is that the U.S. civil rights movement learned many lessons about what works in tough situations — much tougher than we face now. These lessons are easily available to us, even in movie formats.
Another advantage we have now is in economic lessons we can adapt from other countries. No country prior to Denmark and Sweden had invented and practiced “the Nordic model” — who knew ahead of time that it would even work? We now have the easier task of adapting the model to our circumstances.
Thoughtful people around the world look for “best practices” to improve outcomes in their work. People in other countries have adapted innovations first tried in the United States, and we have already adopted from other countries’ practices, including Social Security and Medicare.
What strikes me about the “happiest peoples” is their understanding that analysis of what’s wrong cannot create what’s right. Analysis is only the first step: Just as important are vision and strategy. The ingredients of their winning strategy are not strange to Americans: education and culture work; leadership development; a platform or vision; coops and other structures that align with the vision; community organizing for growth and unity; nonviolent direct action campaigning to force the issue; building to scale in a movement of movements; and keeping our eyes on the prize. The art is putting the ingredients together in this political moment.
The opportunity for us is to work together toward this end.
MOVEMENT TO BUILD NATIONAL SUPPORT FOR GREEN NEW DEAL STARTS IN BOSTON, ‘CITY OF REVOLUTIONS’
Above Photo: Reverend Mariama Hammond-White is joined by local Sunrise Movement activists on stage for a song at the Boston launch of the Road to a Green New Deal tour April 18, 2019. Credit: All photos by Zach D. Roberts For DeSmog
The past two years, 2017 and 2018, brought the U.S. two major youth-led movements. The first was borne out of the March for Our Lives, which saw hundreds of thousands rallying for gun violence prevention in D.C. and across the country. The second was the Sunrise Movement.
While founded in 2017, the Sunrise Movement came to prominence in late 2018 with its news-grabbing protests demanding climate action on Capitol Hill. But rather than railing against Congress’s many climate science deniers, this environmental group gained attention with a sit-in of the office of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, where dozens of youth, joined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called for a Green New Deal to rise to the challenge of climate change.
In an attempt to build on their early momentum, the Sunrise Movement launched a national tour of U.S. cities on April 18 with a sold-out rally at the Strand Theater in Boston. Very few Republican names were mentioned.
Speakers brought up President Donald Trump’s name but Pelosi’s came up just as often — and not as an ally. That said, the movement’s young leaders do hope to reach generations beyond their own.
One of the rally’s speakers included Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who sponsored a Green New Deal resolution with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez in February. Markey told the audience, who gave him a standing ovation, that it was appropriate “this whole [Sunrise Movement] national tour is beginning right here in Boston and it should begin here in Boston because we are the city of revolutions.”
Markey, like several others that day, connected the Green New Deal symbolically to larger progressive causes such as healthcare. He said that acting now — before the worst symptoms of climate change arrive — is the only way for this youngest generation to have a future.
“Make no mistake, the planet is running a fever,” he said. “There are no emergency rooms for planets. And we have to put in place the preventative care, the protections to ensure that we avoid the worst, most catastrophic consequences, of climate change impacting our planet.”
The Sunrise Movement was co-founded by Varshini Prakash in 2017 with just eight members, all under the age of 26. Since then, as Prakash told me, the organization’s numbers “have positively exploded. We now have over 200 chapters across America of Sunrise members in Alaska, in Massachusetts to Maine to California, to Michigan and Pennsylvania.”
The crowd at the rally in Boston was more diverse in age, and in color, than the environmental movement has been historically. That was something that Reverend Mariama White-Hammond noted in her speech to the rally, and called out again in an interview afterward.
The Reverend is a founding pastor at the New Roots AME Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where she preaches regularly about climate change.
Dorchester, a neighborhood in Boston, is considering a multi-pronged approach to protecting its corner of the city from flooding due to rising sea levels and catastrophic storms. A MassLive article from 2018 lays out the plans, from expanding tidal marshes to a goal of carbon neutrality.
Reverend White-Hammond emphasized the importance of discussing climate change in a real, practical way that touches people’s everyday lives, rather than focusing just on polar bears and melting glaciers. Those sorts of things don’t always connect with people who are just getting by, and looking at higher gas prices, she said.
“Our neighborhood is very susceptible to climate change, particularly both in terms of us not being far from the water, but also that we have a lot of concrete and so we will have to deal with the urban heat island effect and how that will affect a lot of our communities,” White-Hammond said. “Many of our houses don’t have air conditioning. So climate change is very real” in directly affecting daily life.
This is why she says she supports the Green New Deal and its socio-economic approach: “What I like about the Green New Deal is that it is looking at how we address very real economic inequities. How we addressed the fact that there are many communities where people don’t have jobs and how we do that in a way that also builds us to the kind of climate future that we need.”
Just as the March for Our Lives injected new energy into a gun control movement that seemed to be stagnating despite continuing mass shootings, the Sunrise Movement is trying to do the same for climate action. Its members feel that after eight years with a President who understood climate science but whose administration only brought minimal changes to address it — which President Trump has been quick to undo — a new generation of activists want to bring a shake-up to efforts to prevent the climate crisis.
They want to create a movement that also looks like the people who will be most dramatically affected by what they are fighting to prevent.
Some vanguards of the earlier environmental movement seem to be embracing the potential for this change, including Senator Markey, who brought Sunrise’s Prakash as his one guest to the 2019 State of the Union address.
As Reverend White-Hammond told me, “This is a moment where the stakes are high and I’ve always had faith in young people to respond when the stakes are high.”
The Sunrise Movement already has a nationwide presence, which this “Road to a Green New Deal Tour” is meant to showcase. Upcoming stops in April include Detroit, Michigan; Des Moines, Iowa; and Los Angeles and Chico, California. The full tour and links to related town hall events are available at sunrisemovement.org/tour.
In the coming months, Sunrise also is organizing a mass action outside of the Democratic presidential primary debates in Detroit in July, citing the complete lack of questions about climate change at Trump and Hillary Clinton’s debates in 2016.
Despite its early focus on Democrats, the organization is looking to engage both major political parties. This is a revolution that has been in the making for decades, Prakash told me, because politicians have failed to take action on climate change and recognize it as an existential threat.
“It is life or death for our generation,” she said, “and now we’re sitting in and we are standing up and we are saying that enough is enough. We need action.”