The Green New Deal is the real deal

Artist: Fletcher Martin, "Mail Transportion," 1935

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This is a guest post for City Atlas by Douglas Schuler, author of Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution (MIT Press):

From climate change to poverty and racism, the wicked problems of the 21st century are confusing and menacing. Their enormity clouds our ability to think clearly about them and confounds our ability to address them. But just when things had been looking especially grim we may have gotten a reprieve, another chance to improve our situation. The Green New Deal may provide the perspective we need that can nudge us into meaningful collective action. 

Wicked problems are those that seem impossible to solve. These include the ones that humankind has wrestled with for centuries, over which we just can’t seem to get the upper hand. They also include many new problems, such as climate change, nuclear war, out-of-control artificial intelligence, designer pandemics and others that ironically are products of our ingenuity, kickstarted into existence with the assistance of advanced technology.

The term wicked problem has a definition that is more precise than the one I used above, but its fundamental nature is clear: Wicked problems are not solvable in the usual sense. And the idea of a wicked problem is now finding its way into common usage. Indeed, today’s circumstances demand a concept that describes the problems that are becoming harder and harder to ignore.

These problems, both time-tested and spanking new, aren’t so much “wicked” as theologians might define the term. There are, however, wicked reasons behind their existence—greed, violence, and intolerance, to name just three. Likewise the consequences of these problems—such as disease, famine, floods, and wars—are likely to unleash more wickedness.

Enter The Green New Deal 

The Green New Deal approaches these wicked problems with goals that earthbound entities can work towards with some degree of optimism. The Green New Deal builds on the ideas—and the programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations—of the New Deal that President Franklin Roosevelt enacted in 1933 to help the United States climb out from the depths of the Great Depression and build the foundation of future prosperity. Its scope was panoramic; it contained scores of big and small initiatives across multiple trades and industries, from dams, roads, and rural electrification, to support for local theater and the arts.

Alfredo de Giorgio Crimi, “The Transportation of the Mail,” 1937

The genius of the Green New Deal is that it acknowledges that environmental problems such as climate change and species disappearance, and social problems such as poverty, mass incarceration, xenophobia, and war, are inextricably linked. Like the original New Deal, the Green New Deal is extremely wide-ranging. It addresses agriculture, energy, transportation, economic security, the environment, and the entire social sphere besides.

While totally “solving” all the wicked problems that we face is not possible, it should be possible to make some significant progress on them if enough people work on them at the same time and communicate effectively with others. Indeed that seems to be the only way. The Green New Deal has the potential to do that by helping to coordinate, however loosely, all of our efforts. This is what Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues describe as polycentrism, where there are many centers of research, mobilization, and action. Communication and cooperation take place between these centers but no one group in one center can dictate what other groups (in other centers) must do. Note that this work can succeed only if all the various sectors from the highest government to the smallest neighborhood are engaged, diligent, nimble, creative, vigilant, and “see themselves as jointly sharing responsibility for future outcomes” (Poteete, Janssen and Ostrom, 2010). These are huge ifs. But at the same time, the broad perspective and some loose coordination can help coalesce smaller efforts into a ubiquitous worldwide campaign of independent, yet cooperative, efforts. Writing in On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Naomi Klein reminds us of the enormous job before us: “We can only meet this tremendous challenge together, as part of a massive and organized global movement.”

Many countries (and many working together) around the world are using the term Green New Deal to describe their plans for meeting environmental and social goals concurrently. 

The European Union is currently considering a forward-looking plan that may be the most ambitious yet. At the same time, the Green New Deal name might not resonate as deeply with people outside of the U.S. In that case people in other locations may choose to develop names or concepts that better characterize their own response. The important thing to remember in any work in this area is to connect social good with ecological good, and to build the capacity of the movement. Regardless of which name is used, the project is still part of a global Green New Deal initiative. 

This has critical implications especially in the unequal world we inhabit, in which the bulk of the environmental damage is being perpetrated by the richer countries and their citizens, while the detrimental effects are most likely to be felt by those in impoverished and marginalized communities. This, of course, suggests that rich countries should shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for Green New Deal work. This also means that in the pursuit of decarbonization and other Green New Deal goals, the potential effects on disadvantaged groups must be a critical consideration. As the authors of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal point out, the pursuit of the Green New Deal will still “need minerals extracted from the earth.” Like the fossil energy system, renewable energy requires natural resources from around the world, cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and a host of rare earth minerals used to produce solar panels, wind turbines, battery storage, and electric vehicles. 

Because there is no one central authority, Green New Deal projects can spring up anywhere. And they do. In October, 2019, mayors from 94 cities called for a global Green New Deal. While strong participation from rural areas is critical, cities are especially key to the movement. According to the UK Guardian newspaper, “75% of global energy demand, and 80% of greenhouse gas emissions come from hungry urban hubs.” Here in Seattle, the City Council passed a Green New Deal bill that is intended to eliminate Seattle’s climate pollution, “address historical and current injustices, and create thousands of green, unionized jobs.” At the federal level in the United States—and other countries—the Green New Deal or variants have also been proposed. But neighborhoods could sponsor their own, as well as communities of various types.

The changes we need won’t become realities, however, if all the efforts are operating solely on their own. Freedom and flexibility are desirable and necessary but a lack of coordination among the projects could mean that many opportunities for building on the work of others or participating in complex projects on a timely basis would be unfulfilled. 

With that in mind, I suggest that patterns and pattern languages, concepts borrowed from A Pattern Language (Alexander et al 1977), an influential book about making buildings and towns more beautiful and life-affirming, have important characteristics that could help encourage the independent and the interdependent aspects of a Green New Deal. 

Poster for Green New Deal by Tandem

A “pattern,” as we use it here, takes on a slightly different meaning than a pattern  in clothing or art. But one thing that all patterns have in common is repeatability. The originators of the pattern approach state that each pattern they discovered “… describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over without ever using it the same way twice.” 

They define pattern languages as collections of patterns that belong together because they are designed to work with each other to address similar problems. The pattern language in Alexander’s book contains 253 patterns ranging from the very largest (such as Independent Regions) to the very specific (Things From Your Life). Some, such as Six-Foot Balcony are quite explicit, while others, such as Half-Hidden Gardens, have an air of mystery. His book has been immensely popular and, as Greg Bryant, a software engineer and editor of Rain Magazine, points out: “pattern languages are among history’s most influential methods for sharing best practices” which “inspired the computer industry, the construction of buildings, and urban planning. It even inspired the wiki.”

In the following sections we begin to explore what patterns might belong in a pattern language supporting the Green New Deal. Although this article is intended to be a brainstorming exercise, we believe that many of the pattern ideas in the next section are likely to be useful for Green New Deal practitioners. 

Patterns from the Liberating Voices Pattern Language 

In 2008, Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution, based on the approach used in A Pattern Language was published. It was a collaborative effort involving the contributions of more than 100 friends and colleagues. In it, 136 patterns were presented. Each pattern in the “language” is intended to act as an inspirational prompt or seed. And these seeds grow and mature in different ways in the hands of different people who apply them in different situations. Although contexts and specific goals of the people who use the patterns will differ from place to place, the objective of the pattern authors—and the patterns they developed—was the same: to help cultivate the civic intelligence that we will need to address our problems given the circumstances of our time and place.

These ideas may sound abstract, but by using the patterns in the Liberating Voices project as a source of promising ideas we can begin to explore what patterns would be needed in a pattern language if we wrote one for the Green New Deal. And because all the work associated with the Green New Deal actually is one mega project consisting of millions of loosely coordinated smaller projects, each project would be focusing on a smaller group of patterns drawn from a larger universe of patterns that was shared with other individual projects. 

In the following (and above), pattern names are shown in bold.

The Civic Intelligence pattern from the Liberating Voices pattern language seems like a great place to start. This pattern is based on the basic idea of civic intelligence, that humans make progress if and when they have the ability and the will to address their shared problems effectively and equitably. This pattern would help establish, at the onset, that this work requires the thoughtful involvement of people throughout society— not just some small subset such as elites or activists. On the other hand civic intelligence also acknowledges that the “enemy” of this process is not the climate; it’s our inability to address it. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the well-resourced and powerful actors who are dedicated to confounding the public, in effect to prevent them from being civically intelligent. The study and practice of civic intelligence necessarily involves the recognition that civic ignorance (which is often promoted through corporate campaigns that intentionally sow confusion) exists and must be countered. (Incidentally civic intelligence also means not assuming that one person or group is always correct and the other side is always incorrect. That assumption would, in fact, be an excellent way to demonstrate civic ignorance!)

Patterns are intended to be used with other patterns—which is why the holistic collection of patterns is called a pattern language. When the patterns are juxtaposed with other patterns it’s common to develop a narrative that weaves them together. That process is, in itself, as you might guess, described by a pattern: The Power of Story. The following provides a glimpse of one story a group might develop, as it considers how best to use the patterns in its own work.

Poster for Green New Deal by Tandem

In our group’s quest to support the Green New Deal objectives we will concentrate on Universal Health Care and how it relates to local and global sustainability. To do so we should seriously consider what we mean by the “good life” that we believe is being denied to people without access to adequate health care. That thinking can be used aspirationally and also as a touchstone for thinking about realities and possibilities of peoples’ everyday lives. The Good Life pattern suggests that “The environmental crises of the planet require a broad vision of a good life that harmonizes human aspirations and natural limits.” That pattern could be refined or reworked to include more emphasis on the Environmental Consciousness (noting here that this is not yet a pattern) that the Green New Deal would require. In the course of this work we recognize the need for us to embrace Everyday Heroism in which we realize that it may be difficult to stand up to the opposition that we are likely to face. Throughout this we must be ever conscious of the Voices of the Unheard, those who are at the highest risk, yet are kept on the sidelines of the discussion. We will strive to develop an Open Research and Action Network (itself an example of The Commons) in which we can welcome these voices in a collaborative, purposeful, and mobilized association. Throughout this we will work to cultivate the Sense of Struggle that will help us sustain this work over the long haul. At this point in our work we have decided to focus on a Meaningful Maps project in which we develop maps along the lines as the one below that shows health disparities across Washington State. Based on various Alternative Progress Indicators that we and others have developed we can map and connect issues, stakeholders, and resources that can guide our actions and help us coordinate with other Green New Deal efforts.

Other patterns from the Liberating Voices pattern language also seem like good possibilities for Green New Deal projects. For one thing, we could consider our Strategic Frame. Incidentally this points out one of the important functions of the Green New Deal: a simple perspective or point of view that helps make sense of a given situation, and a way to focus attention, as we are now seeing. (And the New Green Deal is also a good illustration of the Mirror Institution pattern since the Green New Deal is a partial reflection of the original New Deal.) Thinking about the “new deal” aspect of the frame also helps us think about how basic assumptions, relationships and opportunities may be rethought and recalibrated.

One of our more abstract patterns, Demystification and Reenchantment, could serve important functions by suggesting alternative ways of seeing the issues before us. The first half of the pattern, Demystification, could be used to help us better understand how and why the connections between social (particularly economic) forces affect the environment. It could also show how environmental factors affect each other and what the consequences are likely to be. At the same time, the last half of the pattern, Reenchantment, reminds us that life and nature, as well as love and positive social bonds between people, are absolutely vital, and their almost magical nature must not be forgotten.

Mining and Finding New Patterns 

We can’t count on the Liberating Voices pattern language to provide all of the patterns that would be needed. That pattern language was intended to be fairly broad, useful in a wide variety of contexts and, indeed, as the discussion above points out, many of its patterns are relevant to a Green New Deal. There are also other relevant pattern languages available, such as the Group Works pattern language which can be used to help facilitate meetings and other engagements. Hajo Neis, a professor and architect at the University of Oregon, has recently developed a new pattern language which is intended to help integrate refugees and migrants which is especially relevant as climate change sparks water wars, fires, crop failures, floods and other disturbances that cause people to leave their homes. At the same time, new ideas that are especially tailored for the Green New Deal are being proposed all the time, many of which can presumably be fashioned into patterns with some work.

The writings related to the Green New Deal provide a rich field for ideas and perspectives that have not yet been formulated as patterns but appear to be excellent candidates. These include ideas around energy such as Resource Efficiency and Reduced Energy Usage. They also include a variety of economic and financial approaches such as Low-carbon Infrastructure Redevelopment which, like the other patterns, would differ from place to place depending on many factors, such as climate, income, levels of industrial activity, and energy usage and availability. Financial patterns such as Directed Tax or Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Investments, and Green Investment would also be useful. A pattern related to financial oversight such as Financial Regulation, Scrutiny, and Transparency would also be needed to help ensure the funds were being used fairly and effectively. Finally, a Global Marshall Plan Initiative, could be used to help spread ideas—and resources—around the world. As part of the commitment to equity, a Just Transition pattern would help ensure that nobody would be left behind during the transition to a more sustainable carbon-free future.

Potential patterns can also be mined from proposed or enacted legislation. A pattern, for example, called Recovery from Oppression could be shorthand for the longer text from the original Green New Deal legislation proposed early in 2019 by US House Member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and US Senator Ed Markey that calls for “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples” and other vulnerable and marginalized communities. And at the state level, a ballot measure, I-1631, put before Washington State voters in 2018, contains at least two potential patterns. If it had passed I-1631 would enable Washington to “charge Pollution Fees on sources of greenhouse gas pollutants and use the revenue to reduce pollution, promote clean energy, and address climate impacts.” This would be under the oversight of a Public Board, a potential pattern for cities, counties, and states to create a new entity that could provide a focal point for ideas and information on the environment, energy usage, and economics. 

The concept of the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action (or NAMA) was instituted at the United Nations Climate Change Conference to allow nations to develop approaches to climate change that made sense given their individual situations. A general pattern called Appropriate Mitigation Action could be applied at any level: internationally, nationally, regionally, or locally—or to a specific virtual or professional community. The pattern could then be supported and enabled by technology, financing, and capacity-building, and shared with other efforts via, for example, a Pattern Clearing House.

The original New Deal in the United States (Flynn 2008) placed a high value on music, theater, and the visual arts, especially that which reflected local values and shared issues. A modified Arts of Resistance pattern (from the Liberating Voices pattern language) perhaps called the Arts of Resilience could be a fruitful addition to a growing list of likely Green New Deal patterns. And I suggest Into the Classrooms, as a suitable pattern name for a planned project by the group Science for the People that stresses the importance of education for any long-term Green New Deal. 

A more sustainable future need not mean that so-called luxury items or activities will be unavailable. On the contrary, done right, they would be enjoyed by more people. This is in keeping with the aims of the original New Deal. Writing in On Fire: The (burning) Case for a Green New Deal, Naomi Klein quotes a passage that Roosevelt wrote in a letter to Hendrik Willem van Loon: “I, too, have a dream—to show people in the out of the way places, some of whom are not only in small villages but in corners of New York City . . . some real paintings and prints and etchings and some real music.” A holistic approach will need to create new ways for people to enjoy life, including sociality, awe, sport, learning, novelty, and adventure. Klein quotes George Monbiot (writing in the Guardian) with the idea of “Private Sufficiency and Public Luxury”—which sounds like a great candidate for a pattern. Monbiot calls for “wonderful parks and playgrounds, public sports centers and swimming pools, galleries, allotments and public transport networks” which are all reminiscent of the thousands of new play grounds and swimming pools that the New Deal built. In A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal the authors highlight Public Recreation as well as Playscapes, which helps to highlight the fundamental value of play.

The idea of Repair—in its broadest sense—needs to become a fundamental orientation and, hence, a pattern that needs to be included in the list of patterns that we need to develop for the Green New Deal. As Naomi Klein explains, “”… we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair. Repairing the land. Repairing our stuff. Fearlessly repairing our relationships within our countries and between them.” From polluted rivers to economic injustices every community rich or poor has things in need of repair.

Patterns could also be based on operational principles, such as Dependence and Independence which highlights complementary approaches to our work. Local and Global Alignment is another way of looking at the broad context while the Governing by the Governed pattern focuses on the critical fact that the necessary changes will not take place without the participation of people who are not wealthy and have no other special status. As noted above, a guiding principle of the Green New Deal is Social and Environmental Linkages. Also, because of all the shifting parts, the projects must necessarily employ the pattern of Mutual Adaptation. This pattern makes clear that projects must be able to change in relation to the changing social as well as physical environment. And, of course, with a focus on patterns and pattern languages, we would clearly need to consider pragmatic, specific approaches that we could adopt in relation to Pattern Sharing, a key element of the broad collaborative strategy that all groups and projects would use. Realizing that the patterns we are envisioning are intended to be shared, a Pattern Life-Cycle pattern that acknowledged the processes of how patterns are to be proposed, tested, adopted and revised would also be a key element of that collaborative strategy. 

An approach like Revolving Small Project Awards could help ensure that grant money would be directed towards a wide variety of projects, not only those that were already successful, established, or supported by elite institutions. And to help ensure the success of small projects, a Mentoring Small Project Proposals pattern could be established to help ensure that those projects were as innovative and well-organized as others. Cross Boundary Cooperation could be used to build political support and help work across racial and other divides, such as rural and urban regions or rich and poor communities. A Backbone Organization, a concept from the Collective Impact approach (Kania & Kramer 2011), a popular framework for collective action, could help support and align a variety of group efforts that the Loose Federation pattern would describe. A Green New Deal Checklist pattern could help groups see how well their projects fit within the Green New Deal vision while a Carbon Audit could help provide a necessary periodic check that projects could use to monitor their progress. Some of these patterns are simply reminders about the basics of group work. Every program, for example, needs a focus and a Program Focus pattern could provide some assistance. If a group finds that they don’t have one, they might choose another pattern for their central concern. Regional Health may provide their answer. Or Environmental Protection and Reclamation, perhaps? 

As mentioned earlier, the Green New Deal is needed throughout the world. The authors of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal state that, “…the boundaries of the nation-state can’t be boundaries of our political imagination.” The original A Pattern Language contained very broad patterns (which were put at the beginning) and very specific ones (towards the end). For the Green New Deal we might consider three patterns suggested by A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal authors: two broad patterns, Relations of Solidarity or Democratic Control Over Energy, and one specific one, an Ethical Battery, as proposed by Amnesty International to avoid future human rights abuses that accompany current battery production.

Things are moving so quickly that many of today’s news items are likely to be outdated by the time this is being read. Hopefully, this provides a useful glimpse into the possibilities that patterns and pattern languages offer to people who are interested in playing a role in some of the transformations that will be necessary to address our wicked problems. Humans are immensely creative and passionate. There are also very powerful forces of greed, racism, xenophobia, violence, and hatred that we must contend with. We must play the cards we’ve been dealt. Living on earth and defending life on earth is the real deal. 

Texts Consulted

Alexander, C. 1977, A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press.

Aronoff, K., Battistoni, A., Cohen, D. A., & Riofrancos, T. (2019). A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. Verso Books.

Flynn, K. 2008. The New Deal: A 75th Anniversary Celebration. Gibbs Smith.

Group Works Pattern Language,

Kania, J. & Kramer, M. 2011. Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter. 

Klein, N. (2019). On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. Simon & Schuster.

Kennedy, C. A., Ibrahim, N., & Hoornweg, D. (2014). Low-carbon infrastructure strategies for cities. Nature Climate Change, 4(5), 343-346.

Liberating Voices Pattern Language,

Neis, H. A Pattern Language for Refugees,

Poteete, A. R., Janssen, M. A., & Ostrom, E. (2010). Working together: collective action, the commons, and multiple methods in practice. Princeton University Press.

Schuler, D. 2008. Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. MIT Press.

About this Project

We are currently working on a larger paper that describes how a pattern and pattern languages approach could be developed to help coordinate the various actions that will be needed to help make the Green New Deal effective. Please watch for the paper, tentatively entitled Can Pattern Languages Help Us Address Wicked Problems? and help spread the word when that’s available!

The Liberating Voices pattern language that contains many of the patterns presented above is available in a book published by MIT Press in 2008. It is also available online at Full versions of all the patterns in English are also available online. Condensed versions of the pattern language are also available online without charge and via physical cards in Arabic, Chinese, English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Finally, our Activist Mirror app which recommends four patterns based on your input and lets you know what type of activist you are is available in beta release at An Italian version is in work and others to follow.