THE ART OF THE GREEN NEW DEAL
“We didn’t just change the infrastructure. We changed how we did things. We became a society that was not only modern and wealthy, but dignified and humane.”
SOMETIMES A PROJECT TAPS INTO A FORCE THAT IS POWERFUL WELL BEYOND the expectations of its creators. So it was with A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a seven-minute video I executive-produced and conceived of with the artist Molly Crabapple.
Narrated by the congresswoman and illustrated by Crabapple, the film is set a couple of decades from now. It begins with Ocasio-Cortez, a white streak in her hair, riding the bullet train from New York to Washington, DC. Rushing past the window is the future created by the successful implementation of a Green New Deal.
The film project grew out of a conversation I had with Crabapple (a brilliant illustrator, writer, and filmmaker) shortly after the idea for a Green New Deal started gaining traction in the United States. We were brainstorming about how to involve more artists in the project. Most art forms are pretty low carbon, after all, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal led to a renaissance of publicly funded art, with artists of every stripe directly participating in the era’s transformations.
We wanted to try to galvanize artists into that kind of social mission again, but not years down the road, if the Green New Deal became federal law. No, we wanted to see art right away, to help win the battle for hearts and minds that would determine whether the Green New Deal had a fighting chance in the first place.
Crabapple suggested doing a film on the Green New Deal with Ocasio-Cortez as the narrator and herself as illustrator. The question was: How do we tell the story of something that hasn’t happened yet?
As we threw ideas around, we realized that your standard “explainer” video wouldn’t cut it. The biggest obstacle to the kind of transformative change that the Green New Deal envisions is not that people fail to understand what is being proposed (though there is certainly plenty of misinformation floating around). It’s that so many are convinced that humanity could never pull off something at this scale and speed. And a whole lot of people have come to believe that dystopia is a foregone conclusion.
The skepticism is understandable. The idea that societies could collectively decide to embrace rapid foundational changes to transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, forestry, and more— precisely what is needed to avert climate breakdown—is not something for which most of us have any living reference. We have grown up bombarded with the message that there is no alternative to the crappy system that is destabilizing the planet and hoarding vast wealth at the top. From most economists, we hear that we are fundamentally selfish, gratification-seeking units. From historians, we learn that social change has always been the work of singular great men.
Hollywood hasn’t been much help, either. Almost every vision of the future that we get from big budget sci-fi films takes some kind of ecological and social apocalypse for granted. It’s almost as if we have collectively stopped believing that the future is going to happen, let alone that it could be better, in many ways, than the present.
Not all art takes collapse for granted, however. There have long been creators on the margins, from Afrofuturists to feminist fantasists, who have attempted to explode the idea that the future has to be like the present, only worse and with sex robots. One such visionary was the great science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who delivered a searing speech upon receiving the National Book Foundation Medal in 2014, four years before her death. “Hard times are coming,” she said,
when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality. . . . We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art
The power of art to inspire transformation is one of the original New Deal’s most lasting legacies. And interestingly, back in the 1930s, that transformational project was also under relentless attack in the press, and yet it didn’t slow it down for a minute.
From the start, elite critics derided FDR’s plans as everything from creeping fascism to closet communism. In the 1933 equivalent of “They’re coming for your hamburgers!” Republican senator Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia wrote to a colleague, “This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot.” A former DuPont executive complained that with the government offering decent-paying jobs, “five negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this spring . . . and a cook on my houseboat in Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter.”
Far-right militias formed; there was even a sloppy plot by a group of bankers to overthrow FDR.
Self-styled centrists took a more subtle tack: In newspaper editorials and op-eds, they cautioned FDR to slow down and scale back. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein, author of Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, told me that the parallels with today’s attacks on the Green New Deal in outlets like the New York Times are obvious. “They didn’t outright oppose it, but in many cases, they would argue that you don’t want to make so many changes at once, that it was too big, too quick. That the administration should wait and study more.”
And yet for all its many contradictions and exclusions, the New Deal’s popularity continued to soar, winning Democrats a bigger majority in Congress in the midterms and FDR a landslide reelection in 1936.
The main reason that the elite attacks never succeeded in turning the public against the New Deal was that its programs were helping people. But another reason had to do with the incalculable power of art, which was embedded in virtually every aspect of the era’s transformations. The New Dealers saw artists as workers like any other: people who, in the depths of the Depression, deserved direct government assistance to practice their trade. As Works Progress Administration director Harry Hopkins famously put it, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”
Through programs that included the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theatre Project, and Federal Writers Project (all part of the WPA), as well as the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and several others, tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople found meaningful work, with unprecedented support going to African American and Indigenous artists.
The result was an explosion of creativity and a staggering body of work. The Federal Art Project alone produced nearly 475,000 works of visual art, including more than 2,000 posters, 2,500 murals, and 100,000 canvases for public spaces. Its stable of artists included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Authors who participated in the Federal Writers’ Project included Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and John Steinbeck. The Federal Music Project was responsible for 225,000 performances, reaching some 150 million Americans.
Much of the art produced by New Deal programs was simply about bringing joy and beauty to Depression-ravaged people— while challenging the prevalent idea that art belonged exclusively to the wealthy. As FDR put it in a 1938 letter to author 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.”
Some New Deal art set out to mirror a shattered country back to itself and, in the process, make an unassailable case for why New Deal relief programs were so desperately needed. The result was iconic work, from Dorothea Lange’s photography of Dust Bowl families enveloped in clouds of filth and forced to migrate, to Walker Evans’s harrowing images of tenant farmers that filled the pages of the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to Gordon Parks’s pathbreaking photography of daily life in Harlem.
Other artists produced more optimistic, even utopian creations, using graphic art, short films, and vast murals to document the transformation under way under New Deal programs—the strong bodies building new infrastructure, planting trees, and otherwise picking up the pieces of their nation.
Just as Crabapple and I started mulling over the idea of a Green New Deal short film, inspired by the utopian art of the New Deal, The Intercept published a piece by Kate Aronoff that was set in the year 2043, after the Green New Deal had come to pass. It told the story of what life was like for a fictionalized “Gina,” who grew up in the world that Green New Deal policies had created: “She had a relatively stable childhood. Her parents availed themselves of some of the year of paid family leave they were entitled to, and after that she was dropped off at a free child care program.” After free college, “she spent six months restoring wetlands and another six volunteering at a day care much like the one she had gone to.”
The piece struck a nerve, in large part because it imagined a future tense that wasn’t some version of Mad Max warriors battling prowling bands of cannibal warlords. Crabapple and I decided that our film could do something similar, but this time from OcasioCortez’s vantage point. It would tell the story of how society decided to go bold rather than give up, and paint a picture of the world after the Green New Deal the congresswoman had championed became reality.
The final result is a seven-minute postcard from the future, codirected by Crabapple’s longtime collaborators Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt, and cowritten by Ocasio-Cortez and filmmaker and climate justice organizer Avi Lewis (who also happens to be my husband). It’s a story about how, in the nick of time, a critical mass of humanity in the largest economy on earth came to believe that we were actually worth saving.
Crabapple’s paintbrushes depict a country both familiar and entirely new. Cities are connected by bullet trains, Indigenous elders help young people restore wetlands, millions find jobs retrofitting low-cost housing—and when superstorms drown major cities, the residents respond not with vigilantism and recrimination but with cooperation and solidarity. Over those lush paintings, Ocasio-Cortez’s voice is heard:
As we battled the floods, fires and droughts, we knew how lucky we were to have started acting when we did. And we didn’t just change the infrastructure. We changed how we did things. We became a society that was not only modern and wealthy, but dignified and humane, too. By committing to universal rights like health care and meaningful work for all, we stopped being so scared of the future. We stopped being scared of each other. And we found our shared purpose.
The response was unlike any we were prepared for. The film went online on April 17. Within forty-eight hours, it had been viewed well over six million times. Within seventy-two hours it was being screened in rooms of more than a thousand people, as part of a national tour to build momentum for the Green New Deal organized by the Sunrise Movement. In the halls, people cheered for every other line. Within a week, we had heard from multiple teachers (from primary through university) who told us they had already showed it in class.
“Our students are hungry for hope,” read a typical report. Hundreds of people wrote to us and told us they had wept at their desks—for everything that was already lost and for everything that could still be won.
Looking back on this project, and the speed with which it traveled through the world, it strikes me that we are starting to see the true power of framing our collective response to climate change as a “Green New Deal,” despite all the limitations of that historical analogy. By evoking FDR’s real-world industrial and social transformation from nearly a century ago in order to imagine our world a half century from now, all of our time horizons are being stretched.
Suddenly we are no longer prisoners of the never-ending present in our social media feeds. We are part of a long and complex collective story, one in which human beings are not one set of attributes, fixed and unchanging, but rather, a work in progress, capable of deep change. By looking decades backward and forward simultaneously, we are no longer alone as we confront our weighty historical moment. We are surrounded both by ancestors whispering that we can do what our moment demands just as they did, and by future generations shouting that they deserve nothing less.
As much as the hopeful vision of the future presented by the Green New Deal, I think this lengthened time horizon is what many are responding to so powerfully. Because there is nothing more disorienting than finding yourself floating through time, unmoored from both future and past. Only when we know where we have come from, and where we want to go, will we have a sturdy place to plant our feet.
Only then will we believe, as Ocasio-Cortez says in the film, that our future has not yet been written and “we can be whatever we have the courage to see.”