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1,400 people gathered to discuss how to build infrastructure—and movements—that support decarbonization and equity. We spoke to one of the event’s hosts, Daniel Aldana Cohen.

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This story was produced as a part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Radicalism and pragmatism are not opposing values. A radical Green New Deal has to be pragmatic. Any pragmatic Green New Deal will be radical.

DHARNA NOOR: There is lots of fearmongering about the Green New Deal. Some conservative critics say it aims to take away our hamburgers and our plastic straws and to make us all live in ugly concrete boxes. But that’s not the vision taken up at Designing A Green New Deal, a new conference held in Philadelphia last Friday. 1400 people were in attendance.

And afterward, I caught up with one of its hosts, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, Daniel Aldana Cohen. Here’s our interview.

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: So I was really happy to host a conference today: Designing A Green New Deal with Billy Fleming, who directs the McHarg center; Kate Aronoff, who is a writer and a journalist; and of course, myself. And the point of this conference is to understand if we’re going to rebuild the entire country, rebuild the economy, create a new physical space to live in that is sustainable–does not cause catastrophic climate change but actually lifts us up to live better lives in a safer, healthier, cleaner way–that’s going to involve a massive amount of change.

How do we make that change democratic? How do we do this so it’s not a few people in a room or a few designers on Photoshop making a new future, and then kind of beaming it down to everybody else? How can we build a movement strong enough that we can actually break the stranglehold on politics, the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry, the stranglehold of Wall Street, and of all their various allies?

So I think for us there are two questions. How do you build enough power to get this done? How do you make this a democratic, liberating project that takes down all the inequalities that have been so savage in this country, lifts people up, creates a new kind of democratic energy, new forms of social equality? And again, that’s not something that’s going to be decided behind closed doors by some well-intentioned people. That’s going to be built together by a big mass movement; professionals, workers, students, you name it. And with this conference, we hope to bring a bunch of those people together.

DHARNA NOOR: And we heard from a number of different kinds of people. We heard from–obviously–planners, designers, architects, but also social planners or policy architects, et cetera. What does design mean, and what needs to be different about design if we’re going to take on this huge project and decarbonize the entire American economy?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: Trying to say what design means is inevitably difficult… And I’m not even a designer. But let’s say that designers are professionals who work on the built environment. And they’re group of people who very often have been trained. So on the one hand, say we have a magical form of process, we have magical technical skills, we can solve the world’s problems with sophistication in a way that nobody else can. That same group of people is also trained to say, “Oh, well sorry, my client didn’t want me to do that.”

And so part of what this conference is about is saying, “Listen,” to the design profession: “You have an enormous number of skills, incredible capabilities. You need to stop idealizing working for the private sector. You need, as a profession, to stop thinking that some philanthropist is going to pay you enough money to finally make your dream come true. You have to put your skills and your capabilities at the service of a mass movement of ordinary people, working people, labor unions, farmers organizations, you name it.”

So design as a way of being in the world, we think, really has to change in order to be truly democratic, to truly help us solve our problems. And a big part of what this conference is about is saying, “Designers, we love what you do so much. Now come talk to some people who really know how to make change. Now come talk to some people from some of the frontline communities that need that change the most quickly, the most dramatically. And let’s see if we can change your ideas and build a new kind of coalition to get this work done together.”

DHARNA NOOR: Are there examples of that in the world that you think could be replicated or could be tweaked to work better for this political moment?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: I think that there’s a really interesting paradox at work right now. We have come to think in the U.S. of this neo-liberal period of infrastructure as something that is slow and painful and bound up with inequality in extremely profound ways. It would be normal to think of infrastructure as so big and so immovable that it doesn’t have anything to do with the speed that we need to move at in order to tackle the climate emergency.

However, when you go and you look back, you find many examples of infrastructural change that happens very quickly and pretty democratically. You can look at the United States case: Roland Wank, chief architect of the Tennessee Valley Authority–which was not perfect by any means–but they did build dams in such a charismatic fashion. Roland Wank really said, “I want these dams and the entire way they’re organized for viewers, approach roads, to speak to the inhabitants of this region and the poor South.”

And over the course of the 1930s, the first decade of the New Deal, 4.3 million Americans visited the Tennessee Valley Authority Dams. This was really done by and for the people in the United States. And it’s not a coincidence that Roland Wank, before he became chief architect at the Tennessee Valley Authority in the very early 1930s, Roland Walk built a housing complex for a socialist garment workers union in the Lower East Side. There was an echo of the Karl Marx-Hof, and that was the most famous building in Red Vienna, which is the most impressive public home building kind of program we’ve ever seen in the world.

And in Vienna, this was again infrastructure; the left-wing government in the city of Vienna saying, “We are going to put a ton of money into social housing. We’re going to make sure that that physical investment happens quickly. We’re going to make the decorations ornate to A) be beautiful and B) employ all the craftsmen who don’t have jobs. We’re going to put social service centers in those buildings. We’re going to put in daycares, we’re going to have gardens, we’re going to use this infrastructural investment to achieve our social goals, which are equality and liberation and a new culture of working class self-leadership and empowerment.”

And so you can look at that example. We can talk about examples from Brazil, we can talk about examples from South America, from South Asia, we can talk about a lot of different examples. Yes, it is possible to do a ton of building very quickly, very democratically, in response to pressures from below. And what that is going to require from us now is A) the movement from below, how are we going to build it; B) the designers have to know who to take orders from. And that’s not the rich philanthropists who are saying, “Oh, we’re going to let you make a great curvy thing.”

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. And in ways that are obviously climate-friendly too. Like there’s ways to ventilate buildings better if you’re not concerned about just a profit motive all the time. I guess I’ll finish up by asking you what you’re most excited about in the Green New Deal, broadly speaking. And what’s the main thing that you think that it’s missing? What’s one thing that you think is missing that you hope to see?

DANIEL ALDANA COHEN: The thing that’s so exciting to me about the Green New Deal is this notion that one, we can win, and two, we can win big. I mean, anybody really who’s alive has to fear for their future, for their future. Last year alone, there were $14 billion climate disasters in the United States, and the United States is one of the safest countries from the impacts of climate change in the near-term future. And of course, there’s lot of inequality there. But we are facing a terrible situation. And suddenly, along comes this Green New Deal movement, and we have a chance from the progressive end, the left end of the political spectrum, not just to get something done but to win and to win big. That is insanely exciting.

What’s especially exciting about it is the Green New Deal reflects the best intersectional thinking of progressive movements that comes out of social struggles. And particularly led by black women saying, “We have to tackle gender inequality, racial inequality, inequality of nationhood. Put the needs and aspirations of indigenous people first. Class inequality. We have to tackle all those inequalities together.” And the Green New Deal idea is all about tackling climate change and inequality together.

The thing I would love to see more of is discussion of a Green New Deal for housing. We’re hearing talking about it. People like AOC are talking about how in her case, green affordable housing for seniors is a model of what the Green New Deal can do. The Bernie Climate Plan was fantastic on housing. So I think we are seeing more and more momentum for a form of intersectional policy that says, “Yes, we can house people, we can solve this nation’s insane housing crisis.” And that’s not an add-on to the Green New Deal. That is how you make the Green New Deal concrete. When someone says, “How are we going to make life greener?” No carbon social housing; retrofits of low income homes; repairing, upgrading the public housing that we already have; making every complex of social or public housing in this country into a center for resiliency and safety during storms.

It’s insane to talk like this. Somebody who five years ago you would get one left-wing bullet point per year. And now we’re like, “We’ve got to put this all together. We can put this all together.” I think that we’re going to win. And my takeaway from this conference is a whole lot of people want to win and are planning to win. And I don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like, but it’s going to look good.

DHARNA NOOR: Thank you so much and congrats on this amazing, amazing event.


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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.