No (Green) Justice, No (Green) Peace: An Illustrated Look at the Old New Deal, the Green New Deal, and the Need for Just Solutions

Despite occasional rumors to the contrary, we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and here in the United States tens of millions of people have lost their jobs. Because businesses, especially small businesses, were forced to shut down for an extended period and their fates are still uncertain, it’s hard to say when many of those jobs will return. In addition, there’s a rising sense that capitalism itself is to blame for catastrophic economic problems that were painfully obvious even before COVID-19. [1] So what did the government of the U.S. do the last time there was this kind of record unemployment, an economic collapse, and a loss of confidence in the ability of capitalism to solve the problems that faced the nation?

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration set about creating a New Deal Coalition, an aggregation of social forces that intended to bring rural areas out of poverty, improve and/or repair infrastructure, and create jobs. These jobs included so-called shovel-ready jobs in the national parks where workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps built hiking trails and campgrounds. And, among the many other agencies of the Works Progress Administration, there was also a Federal Art Project, whose participants produced drawings and posters, in addition to murals that beautified public buildings. [2] These works of art also served as publicity for New Deal ideas, including the fight to strengthen workers’ rights and eliminate poverty.

“Artist’s Life No. 3” by Hughie Lee-Smith, created for Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project, ca. 1935-1939, lithograph, original located in Cleveland Public Library. Fine Arts and Special Collections Department; image available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0

In a lithograph made for the Federal Art Project in the mid-1930s, Hughie Lee-Smith critiqued the quality of life in industrial areas during the Depression. Lee-Smith was living and working in Cleveland, Ohio, at the time, [3] but his artwork reflected aspects of life in industrial cities throughout the U.S. Called “Artist’s Life No. 3,” this image features a desolate landscape of leafless trees, smoky skies, and what looks like a precarious situation for any living creature. In the image a man sits and sketches, facing the blasted landscape; another flies a kite (because even artists failed to use free time productively when it was so hard to make a living). Two women struggle to remain balanced, and a lone figure trudges along, leaning into the wind. Smoke darkens the sky; factories glower; an open book lies on the ground, ignored.

In addition to depicting economic hardship and the uncertainty faced by women, people of color, and artists, “Artist’s Life No. 3” comments on the environmental problems of the time by showing a horizon disfigured by smokestacks and chimneys from which smoke and soot pour into the atmosphere. Economic problems and environmental problems feed upon each other, making for a grotesque, almost post-apocalyptic scene.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. By NOAA George E. Marsh Album, b1365, Historic C&GS Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Though most people weren’t yet aware that those smokestacks were also emitting massive amounts of greenhouse gases, Americans in the 1930s were familiar with a different climate-related problem which affected farmers in the southern Great Plains. Many of those farmers had long been using poor agricultural practices, so when drought occurred for several years running, the topsoil dried up and blew away. Massive dust clouds, like the one shown in the photo descending on houses in Texas like an inchoate monster, made life in farming communities impossible. West winds carried away what was once productive soil and didn’t drop it again until they had reached Europe. By 1940 the resultant Dust Bowl had forced 2.5 million people to leave their homes. Many of these migrants, often called Okies, worked seasonal, low-paying jobs picking crops. Their care-worn faces and desperate living conditions were often featured in photos from that period. [4]

A couple of decades earlier, the family of Hughie Lee-Smith took part in another internal migration, one that was even longer in duration and more momentous than the Okies’ flight from the Dust Bowl. Though he was born in Georgia, Lee-Smith grew up in Cleveland because his family had journeyed North during what has come to be known as the Great Migration. More than six million African-Americans left the South between 1915 and 1970, moving to cities in the North and West. They were eager to get away from racist Jim Crow laws but were also looking for work, and they brought with them a strong desire to improve their quality of life. [5] During the 1930s the Great Depression dampened their hopes. And although there were exceptions, such as Lee-Smith’s active involvement in the Federal Art Project, the New Deal didn’t help people of color the way it should have.

According to Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal project and professor emeritus of Geography at the University of California–Berkeley, the New Deal had a mixed record when it came to challenging racism. Walker says that many of the leading figures in the program, from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, were consistently anti-racist and made efforts to include people of color in New Deal programs. As a result, most of those programs reached out to African-Americans, Native Americans, and Mexican-Americans, but, says Walker, “…President Roosevelt compromised with the Southern Democrats in Congress, who were a big part of the New Deal coalition and a mixed bag of populists and power-brokers in the Jim Crow South — not to mention big growers in California and Texas. Those compromises led to farm workers and domestic workers being left out of two major pieces of legislation: Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act.” [6] Then, as now, many farm workers and domestic workers were people of color.

More than eighty years after Lee-Smith created “Artist’s Life No. 3,” people in the U.S. are again confronted by Great-Depression-level unemployment and economic hardship, lately exacerbated by COVID-19, and systemic racism is still a fact of life. The fight against racism must be on the agenda of any environmental movement that espouses the Green New Deal as a solution to the economic and environmental problems we face to ensure that the program is more inclusive than the original New Deal was.

Heather McGhee of the non-partisan research group Demos – her soon-to-be-published book is called The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together – gives two pragmatic reasons environmental groups should also join in the fight against racism. First of all, public opinion polls show that African-Americans and Latinas/Latinos are more likely, on average, to be concerned about climate change, and they represent a largely untapped group of potential allies. Secondly, she says, political and environmental racism are “drivers of our excess pollution and climate denialism,” so it’s both ethical and practical for environmentalists to address these issues. [7] And of course, it’s already quite clear that many of the people who live most closely with health-destroying pollution in the United States, ranging from the toxic emissions of petroleum processing plants in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley to the devastating amounts of lead in the Flint River in Michigan, are people of color. Obviously, they would benefit from having environmentalists as their allies, too. [8] McGhee goes on to say that an anti-racist climate movement that endorses environmental justice would focus on the most vulnerable people and create green jobs, rather than endorsing solutions like cap-and-trade which would allow companies to keep polluting, usually in communities where black and brown people live.

Though cap-and-trade is not part of the Green New Deal envisioned by Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, it’s certainly on the spectrum of proposed solutions to address climate change. [9] Cap-and-trade would allow companies to keep polluting through what Vijay Kolinjivadi & Ashish Kothari call “cost shifting.” In an article published recently by the Indian magazine Jamhoor, they write: “Without paying attention to the broader political economy of globalized economic production that transcends national borders, a GND in Europe, US, Canada, South Korea, and its variants in China (e.g. ‘Ecological Civilization’) will be mere window dressing to conceal an underlying imperialist quest for cheap nature and cheap labour to satisfy the (increasingly ‘eco-friendly’) demands of the wealthiest people. In other words, the GND must overhaul the ‘cost shifting’ culture that globalized development requires; this is very different from merely transitioning to a more efficient ‘green’ energy economy.” [10] Consequently, those who wish to implement a Green New Deal here in the United States must not only make sure that the program supports the needs of people of color better than the original New Deal did, they must also make sure none of its proposed solutions engage in cost shifting, which disproportionately burdens the Global South.

Of course, the careless disregard – often combined with rapacious greed – of the industrialized world has long created environmental and social problems for the Global South. The phrase “quest for cheap nature and cheap labour” used by Kolinjivadi and Kothari echoes the wording of accounts of resource extraction in Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore’s A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Especially relevant is the story of sixteenth century silver mines in Potosí, a city located in what was then Peru and is now Bolivia.

In the sixteenth century silver was needed to back European currency, so after the workers in the silver mines of Central Europe had fought for and gained higher wages, financiers and others in the rising capitalist class turned to the New World for the “cheap labour” needed to extract this precious metal profitably. In the Spanish colony of Peru a labor system called the mita was set up. It required that Indigenous people in every one of the sixteen provinces around Potosí send a specific number of men, who were forced to work from dawn to dusk producing silver. These workers were paid a small wage but had to find their own way to Potosí, buy their own tools and food, and as a result the system required less capital investment than slavery would have. Working conditions were brutal, and the “apocalyptic effect” of this harsh regimen led to an 85% drop in the Indigenous population between 1560 and 1590. As for the exploitation of “cheap nature,” at first wood-burning furnaces were set up on the mountainside to smelt the silver, but when that method wasn’t productive enough, a new technology was introduced to extract the silver: mercury amalgamation. To provide needed water, thirty dams were constructed, which frequently burst, killing Indigenous workers and polluting the local water with toxic mercury. [11] If this brutal disregard for human life and the natural world sounds like something that could occur only in the colonialist past, we need to think again. Some of the very same technologies that environmentalists hope will enable us to trade fossil fuels for renewable energy are having similar effects today.

Kolinjivadi and Kothari say that “India’s plan to transition all vehicles to electric power in a decade will require an extraction-oriented race ‘on a war footing’ with China to acquire critical lithium and cobalt reserves in places like the Congo, Bolivia, and Chile. Lithium-ion batteries, cobalt, neodymium, silicon, and coltan are crucial for electric vehicle car-batteries, computers, and mobile devices. Increasing demand for these commodities from the world’s largest companies, including Google, Apple, and Microsoft, has resulted in some of the most deplorable working conditions in the world, where pregnant women are often powerless to prevent themselves and their children from working in the mines. It has also directly perpetuated one of Africa’s longest running armed conflicts.” [12]

For people who have been pinning their hopes on the Green New Deal because it will create good jobs and provide a clear path for the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, this is very bad news. How can we count on technologies like wind and solar when we know they will require what Patel and Moore describe as blood minerals and lead to a “lithium extraction complex in Bolivia [that] looks like Potosí redux”? [13] And yet most of the big environmental groups continue to endorse these technologies unreservedly. The unacknowledged fact that so-called renewable energy is not without serious problems is the main focus of Jeff Gibbs’ 2020 film Planet of the Humans, with Michael Moore as Executive Producer.

Planet of the Humans poster from the media kit available at

Note that the poster doesn’t feature eye-catching graphics, just a somber still from a scene in the film in which a group of concerned people walk through a wind turbine construction site in Lowell Mountain, Vermont. The man in the photo has just trespassed beyond the company’s property boundary, and he stops to stare for a moment at an area devoid of trees, which another hiker has called “mountain top removal for wind instead of coal.” The camera follows him as he walks through the rubble. Filled with effective scenes like this, Planet of the Humans asks us to confront a central question: Do those of us in the industrialized world think we can continue to use the same amount of energy that we use today, and also transition to green economies, simply by changing the form of energy production from one that is “dirty” and emits greenhouse gases to one that is “clean” and doesn’t contribute as much to climate change? [14] This question has turned out to be surprisingly controversial and so has the film, to the point where mainstream environmentalist groups have called for it to be censored. [15] Admittedly, some detractors focus on the film’s frequent criticism of the ever-burgeoning human population, but most of the uproar centers around the critique of “green” energy production.

To be honest, Planet of the Humans doesn’t spend nearly enough time outlining what will happen in the Global South as more and more blood minerals are required to make batteries and other components of wind and solar technology; in fact, there are only two sequences that address this crucial issue. In the first, as part of a fast-paced montage set to frenetic music shown under the title “How Solar Cells & Wind Turbines are Made (and Electric cars too!),” people, including young children, can be seen mining cobalt in an unidentified country, probably Congo. In the second specific reference to the Global South, the film cuts back and forth between clips of Al Gore testifying before Congress in support of the sugar cane ethanol industry in Brazil and then, alternately, we see indigenous children scream in fear as helicopters roar overhead. A voiceover from a news report tells us, “The invasion of sugar cane on the cultures in the region clashes with the indigenous people’s right to land,” and we learn that the Guarani-Kaiowa people were resisting eviction. We also learn that they did not succeed and that landowners later set their homes on fire to prepare the sugar cane for harvest. Harsh realities like this argue against renewable energy as a simple technological fix when, as the title of Kolinjivadi and Kothari’s article expresses so well, “No Harm Here Is Still Harm There.”

In Part II of this article, Kolinjivadi and Kothari muse about the fact that COVID-19 led to a remarkable reduction in human energy consumption during lock-down and conclude that, “A ‘Green New Deal’ must fundamentally be about changing how humans treat each other along the lines of class, race, gender, and caste, as well as changing our relationships to the temporal and spatial connectivity of the living and non-living world. It is the hyper-connectivity of global capitalism that compresses space and time to exacerbate the voracity of disease and heightens inequalities of life and death. There can be nothing ‘Green’ or ‘New’ if our response to the pandemic is restricted to a quick-fix vaccine.” [16] This will also be true if our response to climate change is restricted to a technological quick-fix that tries to substitute one form of energy production for another while ignoring the real needs of most people on the planet.


[1] Hillary Hoffower, “70% of millennials say they’d vote for a socialist. 5 facts about their debt-saddled economic situation tell you why,” Business Insider, November 1, 2019, accessed June 26, 2020,

[2] Ulrich, T., Gordon, T., Trier, S., Schneider, M., Bernstein, R., & Guillard, J. (2017, February 14). Chapter 16 – The New Deal. OER Commons. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from

[3] From the Cleveland Public Library. Fine Arts and Special Collections Department digital collection, accessed June 20, 2020,

[4] See Note 2

[5] Interview with Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, “Great Migration: The African-American Exodus North,” September 13, 2010, NPR website, accessed June 26, 2020,

[6] “What the New Deal Can Teach Us About a Green New Deal,” interview with Richard Walker, The Jacobin, accessed June 16, 2020,

[7] Somini Sengupta, “Black Environmentalists Talk About Climate and Anti-Racism,” The New York Times, Climate Fwd: newsletter, June 3, 2020, accessed June 17, 2020,

[8] Trymaine Lee, “Cancer Alley: Big Industry, Big Problems,” MSNBC website, accessed June 26, 2020,; and Julia Craven and Tyler Tynes, “The Racist Roots of Flint’s Water Crisis,” Huffington Post, February 3, 2016, accessed June 26, 2020,

[9] Umair Irfan and Tara Golshan, “Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal, explained,” August 22, 2019, Vox, accessed June 26, 2020,; and Tessa Stuart, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on How to Build a Green New Deal,” Rolling Stone, March 18, 2020, accessed June 28, 2020,

[10] Vijay Kolinjivadi & Ashish Kothari, “No Harm Here is Still Harm There: The Green New Deal and the Global South (Part I),” Jamhoor, May 20, 2020, accessed June 16, 2020,

[11] Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press: 2017), pp. 82-84

[12] See Note 10

[13] See Note 11, p. 179

[14] “Planet of the Humans,” directed by Jeff Gibbs, executive produced by Michael Moore, is available online; website accessed June 18, 2020,

[15] Josh Schlossbert, “Big Green Meltdown Over Planet of the Humans,” Counterpunch, June 9, 2020,

[16] Vijay Kolinjivadi & Ashish Kothari, “No Harm Here is Still Harm There: The Green New Deal and the Global South (Part II),” Jamhoor, May 20, 2020, accessed June 16, 2020,

Featured Image: The city of Potosí in Bolivia, with Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) in the background. Photo by rodoluca, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Leave a Comment