We will need to rebuild after COVID-19, but building back better requires building back differently. It’s time to talk about a feminist green new deal; a ‘rainbow recovery’.
In many parts of the world, the COVID pandemic, in combination with a looming economic depression and climate emergency, is convincing many of the need for a recalibration of our social and economic priorities. Amid these interlocking crises of late capitalism and unprecedented uncertainty, resolve is growing to find a recovery plan which far from a return to normal, foregrounds people and planet, communities and care.
Googling the phrase ‘build back better’ yields hits on commentaries by such diverse actors as the World Economic Forum and business lobby groups, policy think tanks and mayors of fragile cities. It is a slogan typically used in the aftermath of natural disasters to boost the spirits of citizens and investors with great promises of new opportunities rising up from the ruins. Humans are resilient, they claim, we know how to bounce back after a shock. While many find hope in these promises of recovery, others advise caution, often with reference to Naomi Klein’s 2007 book 'The Shock Doctrine' that coined the term disaster capitalism.
This cautionary concept notwithstanding, many on the left are fighting to show that we can come out of this crisis with stronger, more just societies and economies. The COVID-19 experience so far proves it is possible for governments to change tack – almost overnight – and find the money to house the homeless, fund public services, and guarantee incomes. Climate activists have pointed to the rapid halt to high carbon activities and newfound public appreciation of cleaner air and thriving wildlife. After years of shouting ‘there is an alternative’ into the bitter winds of austerity and extractivism, left activists and policy makers alike are starting to believe their case has finally been made.
There has been a resurgence of articles and campaigns in the US and the UK arguing that the need for a green new deal is more relevant than ever: that the pandemic presents the opportunity to reconfigure the economy to avert a depression and improve wellbeing for all. For example, a campaign by the Green New Deal UK group sets out a five-point plan for building back better after COVID-19 that includes: securing people’s health, protecting public services, ‘rebuild[ing] society with a transformative green new deal’, investing in people, and building solidarity across borders. With its cheerful graphics and purple heart logo, the aim is show that healing the vulnerable and fixing the broken economic system can go (sanitized) hand in (latex) glove.
But despite the agreeable sentiment, there are some real gaps in this narrative. Derived from ideas put forward at the turn of last century, it uncritically adopts traditional ideas about what work matters and who does what work in a rich capitalist society. As feminist economists have pointed out, the habit of ignoring, undervaluing and feminising care and domestic work is durable in mainstream and ‘progressive’ economic thinking. Even when greens imagine a new deal that will benefit the masses, they tend to prioritise technological innovation and improved conditions for productive workers in male dominated sectors and show little interest in reducing or redistributing the work required to maintain and sustain society. Some pay lip service to the need to value the work of caring, but transforming it as part of a just transition is never on the agenda.
For example, although four of the five principles in #buildbackbetterUK are about caring for people and improving quality of life, the GND principle stands alone for decarbonising the economy at the same time as creating ‘new, well-paid, secure and unionised jobs’. Judging by the graphic chosen to illustrate it, the kinds of jobs they have in mind require hard hats; those lacking the muscle to lift a solar panel over their head need not apply. It is telling that this principle is the only one illustrated by a photo of a man and the only place the words ‘economy’, ‘decarbonisation’ and ‘union’ appear in the whole plan.*
In our paper ‘Towards a feminist green new deal for the UK’ launched today by the Women’s Budget Group and Wen: The Women’s Environmental Network, we address in detail the finding that gender inequality is not considered adequately in UK plans for decarbonising the economy. Crucially, we offer a set of recommendations indicating how feminist concerns can be front and centre of the transition to a green economy, starting by taking an intersectional approach to justice and putting care work at the centre – both of which have become exceptionally relevant during this health crisis.
We encourage GND advocates to recognise that although green job creation is an important tool through which GND plans can address social inequality, failure to recommend expanding existing low-carbon and socially fundamental jobs in the care and service industries (female-dominated sectors employing many BAME and migrant women) as part of a decarbonisation plan demonstrates significant white male bias.
A socially just green economy needs to focus not just on reforming and reducing carbon-intensive industries but also investing in already low-carbon social infrastructure (i.e., services and facilities that meet needs and contribute towards a good quality of life). This requires recognising that care jobs are green jobs and that investing in care is investing in a sustainable future. It means expecting men and women to participate equally in unpaid care, domestic and community work, as well as encouraging women and BAME workers to participate in the design and construction of physical infrastructure and new technologies. Most importantly it means fundamentally rethinking what work we value and what work counts as part of a just and sustainable society.
Feminists involved in environmental movements have long warned that is impossible to build a green society whilst simultaneously doing nothing to address sexism and racism. In Fighting for Hope, founder of the German Green Party Petra Kelly wrote, 'we don't want an ecological society where men build windmills and women silently listen, bake bread and weave rugs'. Thirty-five years later, it seems we still need to insist that building back better is not actually better if it means keeping the same old division of labour and assumptions about what it means to be ‘green’.
But maybe green is too narrow and making it feminist does not mean painting it purple. To be better requires a radically different vision, a more inclusive vision made up of many more colours. Perhaps instead of a green new deal, we should call for a ‘rainbow recovery’ that mobilises a positive symbol of peace, patience and diversity. Long celebrated by major religions to signify hope and used as a flag for LBGTQ movements, the rainbow has recently become of a sign of support for carers and other key workers in this pandemic. Why not let it become the banner of an inclusive movement to build back better by building back differently?
*the authors are pleased to acknowledge that the Build Back Better campaign have changed their imagery to be much more gender inclusive since this article was published.