Racial Capitalism, The Stack and the Green New Deal: Design Futuring and Design Politics after the Pandemic

Damian Whyte explores the ‘power geometries and reconfigured geographies’ and other ways of thinking premised on solidarity, justice, low carbon imaginaries and ecological integrity which might force new openings in the post-covid world.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. – Arundhati Roy

“Get your knees off our neck” – Rev Al Sharpton

Through facades, packaging, rendering, styling, streamlining, prototyping and performative promises design has always been good at hiding. COVID19 has revealed things below the surface about the design worlds we live in that the mainstream design industry, and a good deal of design education, has not been so keen to linger on over the last two decades. Design has many potential valences. There have been moments across the twentieth century when it has been open to systemic critiques of what exists and provided a space for dialogue with revolutionary social movements about the material, visual, spatial and cultural forms that could support an emancipatory future. There have been times when design has created a space where different kinds of voices could engage in worldmaking and desire-shaping. Yet design is also very easy drawn into formalist and instrumental approaches which cleave making from history, design from politics. A good deal of design thinking over recent times has largely traded systemic inquiry for the search for incremental win-win solutions within the existing system. This has oftentimes run alongside cultivated innocence for exploring the entanglements of race, class, gender, empire and other modes of subordination and ecological unraveling with our designed economies. Could an event that, in two short months, has left 350,0000 dead; become entangled in urban insurrections against ongoing police racism and state violence; undercut the income of working designers everywhere and which has possibly foreclosed the futures of many more young designers force new directions? Could it give voice to the marginalized currents within design which have long argued that discussions of racial justice and settler colonialism, climate crisis and labor exploitation, ecology and gender have to move from margins to center?

Understanding the racial political economy of complex systems after COVID19

The pandemic has brought about – as all pandemics bring about – a confrontation with the design of “complex systems” to be sure. The impact of living through the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression is very probably going to have long lasting generational impacts. COVID19 has torn across the landscape in some strikingly selective ways, preying on the elderly, vulnerable and immuno-compromised. It is likely that the economic downturn will negatively impact millennials in particular, flattening wages and curtailing their capacity for wealth generation[1]. Moreover, this comes on top of existing research which has suggested that millennials were already dealing with a two-track labor market, delaying homeownership and holding more debt that past generations -particularly in terms of student loans[2]. This moment may well deepen existing generational splits in values and political alignments. Nevertheless, and as we have already seen in the climate debate[3], discussions of the racial wealth gap[4] or the gender wage gap[5], the use of generational thinking and categories to understand, explain and ultimately assign responsibility for phenomena can quickly hit upper limits. And, most obviously, in relation to COVID19, as Keeanga-Yamahtta-Taylor has observed, if we miss how this pandemic has already turned a public-health crisis into “an object lesson in racial and class inequality[6]”, we will miss much.

When COVID19 hit, upper income New Yorkers of all age groups quickly departed the city to their holiday homes and bolt holes across the country to take them out of harms ways (while possibly bringing new viral loads to other communities). The pandemic has torn through the multi-racial and multi-generational working-class neighborhoods and households of urban America from Queens to Detroit. It left the racialized, classed and gendered bodies of healthcare workers, bus drivers, grocery clerks exposed and with no choice but to work. The owners of nursing homes and meat packing facilities successfully lobbied state and federal governments to protect their business from liability. The workforces in these facilities – disproportionately comprised of immigrants, women and low wage people of color – were forced back to work, often without adequate protection or healthcare. We do not have sufficient data on the social epidemiology of the pandemic to fully understand how genetics and demography, age and environment, race, class, gender disability and other factors interact with COVID19. But, as Julian Brave Noisecat has observed, the fact that the Navajo Nation in the United States has experienced the worst cases of COVID 19 outside Wuhan is sobering[7]. It suggests that when the histories of this pandemic are written in the United States, how the coronavirus has exacerbated the existing deadly impact of race and class will have to be foregrounded.

Understanding the racial political economy of complex systems after COVID19

Most modern people assume that our species controls its own destiny. We’re in charge! we think. After all, isn’t this the Anthropocene? Being modern people, historians have had trouble, as a profession, truly accepting that brainless packets of RNA and DNA can capsize the human enterprise in a few weeks or months.

Charles C. Mann[8]

If generational talk might not always help us grasp populations that can shelter in place and populations who are effectively seen as disposable, it would also seem apparent that if design is to grasp what is politically at stake in this moment, we need to explore the not only the racialized political economy but also the political ecology of the pandemic. Notably, we will have to think harder about the ways in which the pandemic has operated as an epidemiological disrupter of the social ecologies that we have been busy (mal)designing for decades.

The interventions of the epidemiologist and political ecologist Rob Wallace are important here. In Big Farms Make Big Flu [9]Wallace argues that we have designed an agricultural system that in terms of its economic geography has constructed a direct transmission pipeline route between the deepest pathogens in the forest and urban centers. Wallace notes that the basic configuration of neo-liberal agro-food industries are premised on hyper intensive factory farms increasingly reliant on monocultures, massive overuse of antibiotics and other pharmacology for their functioning. This has run alongside the dramatic expansion of land clearance and deforestation in the Global South variously driven by mining, animal agriculture and so on. It is through these patterns of change –changes which mirror Neil Brenner and his colleagues’ ongoing attempt in urban geography to map the spread of planetary urbanization expanding into hinterlands- that we are seeing an increased circulation of pathogens[10].

Wallace argues such forms of animal husbandry and land use change, coming together with the land grabs, expulsions, the ongoing dispossession of peasant and indigenous people and the undercutting of rural small holder production is bringing together animal agriculture and wildlife in novel and dangerous ways. A widening circuit of agro-production and trade extends increasingly deep into the forest and back out into the cities. As industrial agriculture spreads out it puts pressure on hinterlands and we see increasing spill over between wild and agricultural animals. A change in the ecologies of the host species that were typically confined to specific eco-systems are now increasingly bumping up against peri-urban regions where humans are concentrated. This is occurring across any number of species – from geese and bats to mosquitos. It is this configuration of agro-industrial production, that Wallace argues not only generates vast breeding grounds for zoonotic viruses but also through deregulated global trade and travel ensures that pathogens that are able to make it out can spread across travel networks and access susceptible populations very quickly.

The COVID 19 pandemic would seem to have demonstrated the salience of Wallace’s concerns. Again, his analysis invites design to engage with the systematic and structural issues he raises. In terms of the political ecology of COVID19, questions are going to reverberate around the safety and adequacy of the design of current agro-food networks for workers and consumers across the supply chain. We of course need to be aware that these discussions can quickly take xenophobic forms. We have already seen attempts in the US to mobilize populations around fear of the “China virus” and mobilize old tropes of non-white folks as disease carriers. But, as Charmaine Chua and her colleagues have argued, a more careful mapping of the politics of logistics might create new opportunities for organizing across these supply chains and more awareness of the strategic choke or leverage points that could open up opportunities for organized labor and environmental movements to press for different outcomes[11].

The extent to which the shock of affluential world experiences of supply shortage for the first time since the second world war may prompt a rethinking of the wisdom of large sectors of the economy being entirely reliant on global just in time production chains. Calls for de-globalization of course can take, and are already taking, quite reactionary forms. Prior to the pandemic we were already awash with populist BREXIT nationalisms, Sino-phobic trade war rhetoric and so on. But as Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen have argued there are other power geometries and reconfigured geographies, other ways of thinking about logistics and infrastructure premised on solidarity, justice, low carbon imaginaries and ecological integrity which might force new openings[12].

COVID19 has re-enforced what has been clear for a long time, notably that the US healthcare system, the most expensive healthcare system in the world was failing dismally to meet the needs of its population and that a private pharmaceutical industry in the United States, ridden by conflicts of interest, has done little to invest in antibiotic research in three decades. Conventional wisdom had it that such entrenched interests were so powerful as to be only open to minor reform. We were told that it took nothing short of a great depression and the experience of World War Two to create the political conditions to build the British National Health system. Perhaps the experience of mass unemployment, the sight of over-spilling body bags and medics being forced to jerry-rigging their own PPE with raincoats and scuba diving google might shift our thinking here?

The design, planning and architectural implications for the design of urban or rural futures that will be drawn from the pandemic are similarly hard to predict. Félix de Rosen has reminded us that from Olmstead to Le Corbusier the management of space through architecture, land use and planning has always been influenced by public health movements and anxieties about pandemics[13]. We know from many of these late 19th and early 20th centuries debates that they unleashed a complex political terrain to engage with. Few have mapped this moment better than Dorceta Taylor’s The Environment and the People in American Cities: 1600s-1900s which documents fragile labor-environmentalist alliances often undercut by racist conservation and planning schemes, where anxieties about hygiene, “racial contamination”, racial mixing and eugenics often played a deciding role in the design of the landscape. Prior to the pandemic debates among conservation scientists, political ecologists and activists had already become fraught around the question of whether the best way forward is to support land sparing or land sharing, locally controlled agro-ecology, regenerative agriculture, sustainable intensification or some hybrid[14]. The relationship between urban density/sustainability and health is likely to receive a new round of interventions following the crisis. Yet what does seem apparent though is that all these questions raise systemic and structural issues. The will require that we dig into the racialized and classes histories of conservation and urban planning. They are going to require new or the reworking of old relations between design education, ecology, political economy and the humanities.

If COVID has laid bare the history and geographies of racial capitalism in the United States, in all its brutal cruelty, and upended the social ecologies of the present, it does ultimately suggest that design needs to be fully conscious of the deeply political role it will play in building post-pandemic futures. What are the resources that can guide us here?

Radical designers have already responded to the pandemic through calls to help produce personal protective clothing via 3D printing, help generate pop-up testing sites and the like. Much of this work is urgent. The line between these kinds of proposals and what the blogger Kate Wagner has called “corona-grifting[15]” can be thin if the latest singular design intervention is (again) disconnected from dialogue with broader social movements or any structural or system understanding of the failings of the system. We have seen a resurgent of interest in mutual aid, neighborhood support, talk of the virtues of victory gardens WWII style and the like. If this contributes to a broader sense of communal possibility, it could be beneficial. If it merely re-enforces the default of the last few decades into more localist, small is beautiful, anarcho-radical interventions though, an opportunity will be lost. If we see the ways in which the pandemic has wreaked havoc across the landscape as symptomatic of and perhaps anticipates the broader systemic crisis – of climate, institutional decay, political legitimacy and inequality that surround liberal democracies everywhere, we are going to need to work with design friendly political imaginaries that might allow us to both grasp the complexity of this moment and think and act differently at many scales?

Let us consider three bigger imaginaries here – the ecological/climatological, the digital and the decolonial that, both prior to the pandemic and after the pandemic, are going to decisively shape the politics of our designed futures and, more likely, are going to require a design politics that can address systemic and structural failings.


Design and Planning for a Green New Deal

The Green New Deal has had many half-lives since it first emerged in 2008 as a set of proposals to deal with the Great Recession of 2008/2009. We have had fairly straightforward technocentric and neo-liberal iterations of the Green New Deal proposed by Tom Friedman, corporatist Green New Deals proposed by the European Commission and all manner of further national and regional variations that have their own distinct features. The most recent political eruption of the Green New Deal in the US, triggered by Representative- elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s failed attempt to establish a special house committee to create a Green New Deal in November 2018, has had an interesting afterlife.

The core theme of the Green New Deal is that the climate emergence necessitates that we must now embark on a vastly complex multi-decade iterative ongoing project to decarbonization the whole economy, adapt as best we can to a warming world. But most critically this must be done in ways that support and augment struggles for social, environmental and racial justice. At the core of AOCs and Markey’s proposal was the notion that designs for post carbon energy transition to obtain any kind of public support need to be linked to broader hopes and aspirations for better jobs, affordable healthcare, sustainable urban worlds, viable and regenerative rural worlds.

As is well known, House Resolution 109 was quickly dismissed as a “green dream or whatever” by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. It generated further ire from various center-Right environmental groups such as Jerry Taylor at The Niskanen Center or the Breakthrough Institute who warned that the GND was overloading the climate agenda with additional social issues which would merely guarantee failure. Who was going to fund this boondoggle? Such liberal grandstanding, according to climate realists, failed to understand that any possible post-partisan path to success in the US Senate would almost have to go through Susan Collins and Joe Manchin and speak to their political concerns. Even sympathizers of HR109 could acknowledge in November 2018 that it was a proposal that was big on aspirations and short on details[16].

The obstacles to the realization of the GND have not disappeared and its critics and detractors are still there.

But the GND has been propelled forward not only by the ongoing (and often invisible) work of environmental justice movements lead by women and people of color who have anticipated the arguments of the GND for nearly two decades, but also by a re-galvanized indigenous movement which has offered us the Red Deal by Generation Gretta and hundreds of thousands of school strikers. Additionally, the GND has been amplified by the voices of a generation of younger academics, policy makers and activists – to be found in New Compass, Date for Progress, the Democracy Collective, 350.org, People’s Policy Project, the Design Justice Network, the indigenous Environmental Network, Feminists for a Green New Deal and Sunrise[17].

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Green New Deal, though, has been the ways in which it has legitimized the work of assorted architects, designers, planners and engineers to consider the legacies of their disciplines past to create openings for the future. It has also forced more of a systemic turn in our architecture-design and politics discussions. For example, Billy Fleming and Nick Pevzner have both observed that the Green New Deal has exposed the drastic curtailment of ambition that four decades of neo-liberalism has had on the potential to develop public focused architectures, urban planning and landscape designs[18]. For a field that once proposed interventions into urban futures and the construction of public infrastructures as grand as Olmstead’s Emerald Neckless in Boston, the GND has highlighted the massive constraints that have been imposed on forms of architecture and design that are now largely focused on office park prettification, or improving possibilities for real estate accumulation. Fleming and Pevzner have also sought to highlighted the many ways in which the first New Deal not only put artists and designers back to work through the Civilian Conservation Core, The Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority but also called architecture, designers and artists to a public mission and actually employed them to enact this vision. Most critically though, these interventions underline that the construction of a post-carbon future is unthinkable without galvanizing the whole field of professional design to step up. The Green New Deal here could provide a mechanism for employment but also a means though which all kinds of designers have career paths in public service open to them that have largely been foreclosed.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the evolving discussion around the contribution that design could make to the Green New Deal is just the recognition that there is no shortage of work to do. The Green New Deal, for example, asserts that we will need to decarbonize the grid in 10 years. Whether we accept this deadline or not, as Kiah Goh and Dustin Mulvaney have observed[19], this call to implement a transformation of the power grid has profound implication on land use change, urban planning, the use of public land and national parks. And as such, the implementation of the kinds of cross continental transmission infrastructure and smart grids that can facilitate load sharing are going to depend on a transformation of the planning infrastructure. As Kate Aronoff[20] has argued, it may also require extended engagement with the design of new models of social ownership for energy utilities, or reconsidering the possibilities of co-operative utilities.

Daniel Aldana Cohen and Johanna Bozuwa have similarly focused on the need for a Green New Deal to make connections between the climate crisis and the housing crisis[21]. Both have focused on the urgency of re-legitimizing and the need for affordable, sumptuous, low carbon public housing at the center of future political struggles. As Cohen has elegantly argued, there are multiple models, from the public housing constructed by municipal socialists in Red Vienna to the experiments with housing co-operatives, that could guide us here. Such observation connects to the ongoing work of Daniel Barber to re-read and unpack the tangled complexity of modernism in architecture. Barber has argued modern architecture was a climate project in many respects, which allowed and focused on the management of climate and climate adaptability[22]. To be sure it had authoritarian aspects but it also had insights that we are not done with. Alexandra Lillehei and Billy Fleming again have argued that, in terms of public infrastructure, the pandemic has drawn attention to the central role that parks, sidewalks, and other public spaces play in cultivating our collective well-being[23]. Critical to the structure of a green stimulus will be the construction of a design politics that builds out new climate resilient but high-quality public infrastructures “in beautiful, imaginative, low-carbon ways”.

The Green New Deal is an imperfect, evolving discussion. It has, for the first time in a generation though, stimulated a substantive discussion between designers, planners, radical policy advocates and critical theorists about the systemic failings of where we are now and how a consequential design politics might work and think about its interventions at scale that could contribute to structural change.


The Stack, Terraforming and Digital Design Futures

If the Green New Deal potentially creates one point of convergence between Generation COVID and Generation Gretta, it is interesting to look at the rather different mappings of post-COVID19 landscapes that are now hovering in design theory focused on digital futures. The sudden contraction of the bricks and mortar economy in the light of COVID19, coupled with the forced pivot to all things online, has already facilitated extensive speculation about winners and losers in the next phase of the evolution of platform capitalism. Ongoing public health concerns running alongside economic contraction of businesses reliant on face to face modes would seem to be re-enforcing the power of big tech: from Facebook and Google to Microsoft, Amazon and Apple. The consolidation of these key players would seem to further drive the expansion of digital technologies, monitoring systems, modes of communication, education, entertainment and surveillance into our lifeworld. Benjamin Bratton’s recent interventions around The Stack, Quarantine Urbanism and Terraforming present some of the boldest and unsettling recent accounts to think through the implications of this moment[24].

The Stack is Bratton’s proposal that we view the various types of planetary-scale computations such as cloud computing, smart grids, robotics, universal addressing systems, mobile and urban-scale software, ubiquitous computing etc: “not as isolated, unrelated types of computation but as forming a larger, coherent whole” or an “accidental megastructure”. Bratton argues in The Stack that design has been fundamentally embedded in the stack for decades. In some fields of design, software has replaced theory not only as a theory, but as a tool for thinking in some parts of design. More broadly though Bratton has argued that the Stack as planetary-scale infrastructure, “… is changing not only how governments govern, but also what governance even is in the first place.” To respond to the challenge of the stack though with dystopian or utopian responses will get us nowhere. Rather, the Stack model “…is global but it is not immutable”. To the contrary, it is intrinsically modular and so this megastructure is also a platform, and an interface even, for the redesign and replacement of the Stack-we-have with a Stack-we-want (or perhaps with the Stack-we-want-the-least).” Bratton has elaborated on the implications of Stack thinking for facing post-carbon and post-pandemic futures in a provocative series of more recent writings.

One of the core themes running through The Terraforming is that speculations on the future of our planet in the light of climate change or the pandemic are poorly served by a technophobic and romantic environmentalism. Our very engagement with the image of the blue planet from space, our discovery of climate change and our on-going attempts to model, understand, adapt and influence future climates and other ecological disruptions are fundamentally dependent on the stack. Planetary scale computing is, in part, responsible for one of the iconic images of the earth that helped generate the iconography of the modern environmental movement. The general circulation models that inform our understanding of how increased greenhouse gases concentrations are impacting physical processes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and land surface are entirely reliant on super-computers. Moreover, Bratton argues that addressing and designing post-carbon and post-COVID futures is irreducibly going to drive us further into Stack world. Whether we consider the kinds of digital infrastructures that will have to be constructed to contain the pandemic and other future outbreaks or whether we consider the increasingly elaborate digital infrastructures we will have to design to monitor carbon emissions and protect biodiversity, this is going to give rise to more and more elaborate means of digital monitoring, surveillance, tracking and testing. To think otherwise, for Bratton, is to lapse into a naïve technophobic purism or a kind of conspiratorial politics in the fashion of Giorgio Agamben[25] which is politically useless. Bratton argues, moreover, that the scales of our design interventions are going to have be commensurate with the problem. Different kinds of design interventions, from climate geo-engineering to the expansion of nuclear power; the construction of new modes of quarantine urbanism to the reprograming and governance of the smart city; all are going to require an array of governance structures, both horizonal and vertical, if any kind of plausible post pandemic infrastructure is to emerge.

Bratton’s invitation for us to see “the suppressed potential of such technologies” invites a rather more forceful response along the lines of a “hack the stack” design politics that has been advanced by Tiziana Terranova [26]. His recent writings which argue that the systemic and structural failings revealed by the pandemic “poor planning (or no planning), broken social systems, and isolationist reflexes are the very same failing that preventing action on climate change” is not without insight. His observation that “[t]he various national and regional Green New Deals all imply a shift in the role of governance” is fair enough. However, the ways in which his analysis ultimately calls for a “geopolitics based on a deliberate plan for the coordination of the planet” without any clear account of the democratic forces that would steer this plan results in Stack-thinking rather losing its critical co-ordinates. An underlying accelerationism to the analysis takes us back to a Promethean vision of architecture and design role in the world that seems both nostalgic and unworkable.


Decolonial and Design Justice Futures

A revolution takes place because people are so conservative. They wait and wait and wait and try every mortal thing until they reach a stage where it is absolutely impossible to go on. And then they come out into the streets and clear up in a few years the disorder of centuries. CLR James[27]

Let us conclude here with some very provisional attempts to connect both the Stack and the Green New Deal with ongoing discussions around decolonizing design futures. The call by the Decolonializing Design Group and the Design Justice Network[28] to acknowledge how much mainstream design thinking has been informed by Anglo centric/Eurocentric assumptions and how much it has evaded engagement with settler colonialism and empire has been critically important over recent times. The call to re-center the perspectives, geographies and worldviews of those marginalized by these practices is a conversation that is only beginning to make headway within design. Yet, decolonial thinking does provide a lens to consider the partiality of all manner of design projects that can quickly slide into a kind of universal discourse. It does force us to acknowledge that the Green New Deal and the Stack are projects that emanate out of the Global North. The expansion of both these projects has significant implications for how design economies could be reconfigured. They portend to possible futures which already meet significant resistance from assorted forces committed to presentation of the status quo. Perhaps the critical questions though that lurk over both these projects are questions of who is going to have voice and agency in the designing and construction of these particular kinds of designed futures and who is going to suffer as their downsides inevitably emerge?

The Green New Deal is a critically important project. However, it has to be acknowledged that, geo-politically, it is a project that takes much of its inspiration from not simply the more radical possibilities opened up by the first new Deal but also by the vast pragmatic achievements accomplished by Northern European social democratic governance of the early 1970s. Much the same could be said about Bratton’s largely Northern-centric visions of Stack World/Terraforming worlds which seems to stretch in their geography from Southern California to Russia whilst being largely divorced from the multiple digital imaginaries that have emerged from the global South. We need to acknowledge then straight off the bat that these are delimited local visions. They stand in relation to a fragmented world system that is structured by ongoing internal and external forms of subordination, domination and violence (even if the geographies of these imperial relations – from the US to China are becoming more complicated). And as such, there are clearly complicated politics – resource politics, land use concerns, food-system politics, infrastructure politics, questions of displacement, expulsion and state violence – and so on that have to be confronted if these projects are to move forward[29].

Green industrial revolutions that are primarily focused in the first instance in the global North or ongoing expansions of digital infrastructures and networks are not going to break overnight with existing exploitative forms of resource extraction and ecologically uneven exchange between North and South. The Green New Deal in the US, at present is going to rely on the extraction of Lithium, Coltan and other rare metals mostly from the planetary mining industries located in the global South. Similarly, Planetary scale computing is currently also sustained by all kinds of high carbon infrastructure and has all kinds of planetary scale material and energy impacts. Extraction of the raw materials and even dis-assemblage of many low carbon energy materials or e-waste material is intimately connected to black and brown labor. As scholars such as Miles Lennon, Nick Estes, Thea Riofrancos and many others have argued, without a centering of these issues and broader concerns around racial justice, we may continue to move backwards[30].

So, what is to be done? Ecological apocalypticism that promises renewal by fire for the righteous has a long history in environmental thinking. Macho adventurist talk of the need for a “climate Lenin” are constant temptations in Leftist thinking. These political imaginaries have generated projects that have rarely ended well for working people. Design potentially has much more concrete and interesting things to say here. Thanks to the literature on design justice and the “new Jim Code[31], we know enough about the rise of digital and coding worlds to understand that subordination and exploitation via race and class, gender and ablism can be both hidden and speeded up through discriminatory designs. Thanks to the literature on platform co-operatives and the work of the design justice network[32], we also know how to build interfaces, platforms and organizational forms that could distribute ownership and power in very different ways. Literatures on designs for just decarbonization, transition design, redirective practices and so on, equally suggest that there could be many avenues to internalized the carbon impacts of our current material culture, through eliminative design and designs for dis-assemblage, agro-ecology and designs where everyone design[33]. Even currents of radical design can have moments where the hard slog of radical democratic transformation can be dispensed with in favor of pronouncing the need for “a dictatorship of the sustainment”. It is worth remembering that when we call for a design politics, we need to be careful what we wish for. Le Corbusier happily swung Left and Right, Lenin, Mussolini, Marshal Pétain were all fine if they offered commissions and opened up opportunities for him to make the world anew.

The more thoughtful iterations of a design politics for the Green New Deal are important for their attempt to re-ground the state as a terrain of popular struggle and their desire to assert public power through a renewal and reconstruction of public agencies that can be in genuine dialogue with popular pressure from below. To be sure this imaginary is still in process and somewhat under-elaborated. The Green New Deal largely operates from the parochial experience and current impasse of the US. Yet, it does force design to engage with political economy and political ecology. COVID19 has revealed just how poorly the neo-liberal imperial state is performing when faced with the political ecology of the pandemic and crisis. The US state is presently marked by worn capacities, conflicted interests, oligarchic capture and high levels of complete incompetence and corruption. We have seen the military and policing wing of the carceral state used again and again as the means through which extra-ordinary violence is rained down on people of color and indigenous people. All this should serve as a warning for how it will deal in the future with the unfolding climate crisis or how it seeks to expand digital governance.

What the pandemic has drawn our attention to is this institutional gap in our design thinking. Building the capacity for low carbon housing, climate resilient transport and public infrastructure, democratic digital cultures, or modes of distribution and new modes of ownership will require institutional re-designs at multiple scales. Struggles for climate, economic, digital and racial justice here have to be entangled in common projects to democratize the political order. In the United States, battles to fight voter suppression and build popular power in the workplace, replace the electoral college and attack gerrymandering, dismantle the carceral state and design the climate just welfare state have to be entangled. Rebuilding a minimally competent, democratic administrative state would seem a basic condition to move these projects forward. The Green New Deal and the need to build effective systems of governance, co-ordination and transparency around the rise of planetary scale computing is going to require a revalidation of democratic planning, of competent and trustworthy public expertise, and the need for public agencies that actually function in the public interest and which are staffed by civil servants who can do their job. Finding ways to connect the rebuilding of these public institutions with modes of participatory and community design that can facilitate more democratic knowledge entering decarbonization and digital futuring projects at multiple scales is clearly critical for moving all these projects forward.



[1] See Andrew Van Dam “The unluckiest generation in U.S. history” https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/27/millennial-recession-covid/

[2] Brooke Masters “Covid-19 will blight the prospects of a generation” Financial Times May 18 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/e0a6cf16-98e0-11ea-adb1-529f96d8a00b

[3] Jonathan White “The Pitfalls of Generational Thinking” https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/pitfalls-of-generational-thinking/

[4] “A conversation about the racial wealth gap—and how to address it” https://brook.gs/2Fu3zdB via @BrookingsInst

[5] See The Institute for Women’s Policy Research https://iwpr.org/issue/employment-education-economic-change/pay-equity-discrimination/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIz_zit6_96QIVDTiGCh0OVAmvEAAYASAAEgLy2_D_BwE

[6] Keeanga-Yamahtta-Taylor “The Black Plague: Public officials lament the way that the coronavirus is engulfing black communities. The question is, what are they prepared to do about it? The New Yorker April 16, 2020

[7] Julian Brave Noisecat “How to Survive an Apocalypse and Keep Dreaming” The Nation https://www.thenation.com/article/society/native-american-postapocalypse/

[8] Charles C. Mann “Pandemics Leave Us Forever Altered: What history can tell us about the long-term effects of the coronavirus

The Atlantic June 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/pandemics-plagues-history/610558/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share

[9] Rob Wallace Big Farms Make Big Flu. Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. Monthly Review Press. 2016. Also see Rob Wallace, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves and Rodrick Wallace “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital”, May 2020 (Volume 72, Number 1).

[10]See Neil Brenner New Urban Spaces: Urban Theory and the Scale Question (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) and his Critique of Urbanization: Selected Essays (Basel: Bauwelt Fundamente Series, Birkhäuser Verlag, 2016)

[11] See Chua, C., Danyluk, M., Cowen, D., & Khalili, L. (2018). Introduction: Turbulent Circulation: Building a Critical Engagement with Logistics. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space36(4), 617–629. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775818783101

[12] See Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure” The South Atlantic Quarterly 119:2, April 2020 for a suggestive provocation.

[13] Félix de Rosen “Stories of Space in Times of Quarantine” | The McHarg Center


[14] For some sense of the range of perspectives in the discussion see variously Raj Patel and Jim Goodman “A Green New Deal for Agriculture” Jacobin 04.04.2019 https://jacobinmag.com/2019/04/green-new-deal-agriculture-farm-workers; Max Ajl “Beyond the Green New Deal” https://brooklynrail.org/2018/11/field-notes/Beyond-the- Green-New-Deal; Angelina Sanderson Bellamy and Antonio A. R. Ioris “Addressing the Knowledge Gaps in Agroecology and Identifying Guiding Principles for Transforming Conventional Agri-Food Systems” Sustainability 2017, 9, 330; World Resources Institute “Creating a Sustainable Food Future”, authored by Tim Searchinger, Richard 4. Waite, Craig Hanson, Janet Ranganathan, Patrice Dumas and Emily Matthews https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/12/how-sustainably-feed-10-billion-people-2050-21-charts; Ted Nordhaus “The Environmental Case for Industrial Agriculture”https://thebreakthrough.org/issues/food/the-environmental-case-for-industrial-agriculture. On the land sparing/Land sharing Debate see Fred Pearce “Sparing versus Sharing” Yale 360 https://e360.yale.edu/features/sparing-vs-sharing-the- great-debate-over-how-to-protect-nature” and Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher “Why E O Wilson is wrong about how to save the Earth” https://aeon.co/ideas/why-e-o-wilson-is-wrong-about-how-to-save-the-earth”.

[15] McMansion Hell “Coronagrifting: A Design Phenomenon.”

[16] For Right of Center critics of the GND see Jerry Taylor https://niskanencenter.org/blog/an-open-letter-to-green-new-dealers/ and Michael Liebrerich https://about.bnef.com/blog/liebreich-green-new-deal-trumpism-climate-characteristics/.For a centrist take on the Green New Deal from the Breakthrough Institute see https://thebreakthrough.org/issues/energy/the-green-new-deal-and-the-legacy-of-public-power. For Left/radical critics of the Green New Deal proposal see https://communemag.com/between-the-devil-and- the-green-new-deal/. A response from the Indigenous Environmental Network can be found here https://www.ienearth.org/talking-points-on-the-aoc-markey-green-new-deal-gnd-resolution/For excellent reviews of the whole debate see Thea Riofrancios https://www.viewpointmag.com/2019/05/16/plan- mood-battlefield-reflections-on-the-green-new-deal/ and David Robert’s https://www.vox.com/energy- and-environment/2018/12/21/18144138/green-new-deal-alexandria-ocasio-cortez

[17] For a small selection of a vast literature see Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Thea Riofrancos A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal Verso, 2019; A Feminist Green New Deal http://feministgreennewdeal.com/; Nick Estes 2019 A Red Deal https://jacobinmag.com/2019/08/red-deal-green-new-deal-ecosocialism- decolonization-indigenous-resistance- environment?fbclid=IwAR3QFvoHy626hAYUYrsh8s4UvnT7LpGy82s2BJjt0kTl9iqMRE3rLflYXGQ.

[18] Billy Fleming (2019) “Design and the Green New Deal.” https://placesjournal.org/article/design-and- the-green-new-deal/ Nicholas Pevzner “The Green New Deal, Landscape, and Public Imagination,” Landscape Architecture Magazine, 23 July 2019 https://landscapearchitecturemagazine.org/2019/07/23/the-green- new-deal-landscape-and-public-imagination/

[19] Dustin Mulvaney (2019) Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability and Environmental Justice Kian Goh (2020) Planning the Green New Deal: Climate Justice and the Politics of Sites and Scales, Journal of the American Planning Association, 86:2, 188-195, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2019.1688671

[20] Kate Aronoff “How to Socialize America’s Energy” Dissent Spring 2016 https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/energy-democracy-usa-socialize-renewable-public-private-cooperatives

[21]Daniel Aldana Cohen. 2019. A Green New Deal for Housing. Jacobin. February 8.

https://jacobinmag.com/2019/02/green-new-deal-housing-ocasio-cortez-climate; Johanna Bozuwa (2019) Building Resiliency through Green Infrastructure: A Community Wealth Building Approach https://democracycollaborative.org/greeninfrastructure

[22] Daniel Barber Modern Architecture and Climate: Design before Air Conditioning (Princeton University Press, 2020)  A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War (Oxford University Press 2016).

[23] Billy Fleming and Alexandra Lillehei “To Rebuild Our Towns and Cities, We Need to Design a Green Stimulus”


[24] See Benjamin Bratton The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty MIT Press, 2015. Benjamin Bratton “18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism” https://strelkamag.com/en/article/18-lessons-from-quarantine-urbanism

Benjamin Bratton 2020 The Terraforming.

[25] For a (hostile) mapping of the controversies over Agamben’s reading of the pandemic see https://www.chronicle.com/article/Giorgio-Agamben-s/248306

[26] Tiziana Terranova “Red Stack Attack! Algorithms, Capital and the Automation of the Common” https://www.academia.edu/8430149/Red_Stack_Attack_Algorithms_Capital_and_the_Automation_of_the_Common

[27]C. L. R. James Modern Politics 2013 p.64

[28] See Schultz, T, Abdulla, D, Ansari, A, Canlı, E, Keshavarz, M, Kiem, M, Prado de O. Martins, L & Vieira de Oliveira, P 2018 What Is at Stake with Decolonizing Design? A Roundtable, Design and Culture, 10:1, 81-101, DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2018.1434368; Sasha Constanza-Chock Design Justice, MIT Press 2020;

[29] This is fully acknowledged by the more sophisticated versions of the GND see Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, Thea Riofrancos A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal pp.139-169.

[30] See Martín Arboleda Planetary Mine:Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism; Max Ajl “Beyond the Green New Deal” https://brooklynrail.org/2018/11/field-notes/Beyond-the- Green-New-Deal; Myles Lennon  “Postcarbon Amnesia: Toward a Recognition of Racial Grief in Renewable Energy FuturesScience, Technology, & Human Values, 2020.

Nick Estes 2019 A Red Deal https://jacobinmag.com/2019/08/red-deal-green-new-deal-ecosocialism- decolonization-indigenous-resistance- environment?fbclid=IwAR3QFvoHy626hAYUYrsh8s4UvnT7LpGy82s2BJjt0kTl9iqMRE3rLflYXGQ. For an interesting discussion of the possibilities of responsible sourcing for renewables see: Dominish, E., Florin, N. and Teske, S., 2019, Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy. Report prepared for Earthworks by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Francis Tseng Inside-Out Renewable energy, the future of mining, and the re-localization of harm, Jain Family Institute https://reports.phenomenalworld.org/inside-out/.

[31] See Ruha Benjamin Race and Technology: The New Jim Code, Routledge 2019; Sasha Constanza-Chock Design Justice, MIT Press 2020; Jennifer Low (2019). “Design is Political: White Supremacy and Landscape Urbanism,” Agora Journal of Urban Planning and Design, 126-136. http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/154720

[32] See Scholz, Trebor (2016). Platform Cooperativism: Challenging the Sharing Economy. New York: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and the work of the platform co-operative consortium https://platform.coop/; for the Design Justice Network see https://designjustice.org/

[33] For a review of this literature and references see White, D.F (2020)“Just Transitions and design for transitions: Preliminary notes on a Design Politics for a Green New Deal.” Capitalism Nature Socialism June Volume 31:2

Comments (7)

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  1. Dougie Harrison says:

    I’m sure there is a great deal of important information and policy thought here from which I and other readers of Bella could usefully learn. But alas, I am not an academic with a working knowledge of the field in which Damian White works. There is certainly a place for learned academics writing articles with 33 references in footnotes. But alas, Bella is not in my view that place. The author should stick to the academic journals which (correctly) require such an approach.

    Readers of Bella require information which is presented in a manner that goes out of its way to make it comprehensible to them. Damian needs to learn how to make his written information available to non-specialists – or stick to writing for academic journals. Sorry.

    1. Hi Dougie – we do occasionally publish long-form articles and academic pieces (normally on a Friday as a long read for the weekend).. Sorry you didnt like this – but we did.

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