The Green New Deal, the ambitious plan proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to deal with climate change, has drawn a lot of attention and speculation, including at this week’s big energy conference in Houston. Beyond criticism that actually has nothing to do with the plan — such as President Donald Trump suggesting that reliance on wind power means that people could watch television only when the wind blows, and the Republican National Convention calling the plan a “war on cows” — many call the plan too ambitious and too costly.
But there is a side of the Green New Deal that is being ignored: It’s a public health program that will save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Imagine that Congress found out that a foreign power is planning an attack on the U.S. that would kill 70,000 people. Can you see anyone claiming that measures to prevent the attack, and mitigate its damage, are too ambitious or costly? Probably not.
More than 70,000 people in the U.S. died of an overdose in 2017 — and about half a million died in the past decade. No effort to save this many lives should be considered too ambitious. By setting the agenda on the root causes of addiction, the Green New Deal is the ambitious plan we need.
We hear politicians talk about the “opioid epidemic.” The truth is that America is facing two linked but different crises. The first is the acute overdose crisis that is claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people every year. The second bigger and more difficult crisis is the one of chronic despair that is pushing millions of people into addiction.
The reason we are seeing a rise in both addiction and overdose death right now in American history is because our society is increasingly unequal, and offers less services to those in need. It has become unlivable to millions of people. Through structural racism, inequality, and social isolation, America manufactures pain. And drugs are good at easing pain. But when drug use becomes addiction, the drugs no longer offer relief, but instead create more pain through withdrawal, stress, and criminalization.
If we truly want to end the overdose crisis, we must address the despair crisis, the pain that far too many Americans experience by just living in our society.
Enter the Green New Deal.
The resolution outlines a plan of action to address the major issues of our time. It starts with a clear identification of the problems and goes on to identify the types of solutions that would meet the challenge. The first pages of Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution are a laundry list of the causes of despair in our time: rising global temperatures are reducing economic activity, damaging infrastructure, forcing mass migration, and posing a national security threat on the United States; life expectancy is declining; many Americans don’t have access to clean air and water, healthy food, health care, housing, and education; wages have been stagnating for decades; income inequality is at its highest since the 1920s; and the racial wealth gap remains massive, as does the gender earning gap.
Any wonder that millions of people are choosing the warm embrace of alcohol, opioids, meth, or crack over fighting a social mobility battle that is rigged against them?
In 2015, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton coined the term “deaths of despair” to describe the rise in midlife deaths related to alcohol-related liver disease, overdose, or suicide. In a 2017 follow-up analysis, they explain: “Increasing distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected, is consistent with people compensating through other risky behaviors, such as abuse of alcohol, overeating, or drug use.”
In other words: America is just not holding up its end of the bargain that was sold to us as “the American dream.” That was always apparent for communities of color, and it is increasingly apparent for white people, namely low- and middle-income ones.
Hope and purpose are critical to fight addiction. In an interview for the podcast Narcotica, Jeffrey, a homeless man from Philadelphia, told journalist Chris Moraff: “It’s like [people in addiction] do wanna stop, but when they stop they have nothing to look forward to — no jobs, no housing, no normal friends as you call them.”
The Green New Deal is the shift we need to give people something to look forward to.
It starts by offering a future for the planet by cutting emissions and upgrading buildings. It goes forward by stating that it is the role of the federal government to ensure that every person has a “job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security." By providing health care, housing, and food, the Green New Deal offers people a chance to remain well, even when times are tough.