We are experiencing a sliver of the new normal. Highly infectious diseases, compromised immune systems, overrun hospitals, overburdened essential workers, an insecure housing market, worker shortages, supply chain disruptions, unplanned migrations, working families left with no care support—everything we’ve lived through during the COVID-19 pandemic is what we’ll live through more frequently, against the backdrop of extreme weather events, if we don’t do something about climate change.
Yet the pandemic and the influx of increasingly alarming studies seem to have hardly captured the imagination of our legislators, so engrossed in the unwritten rules of machine and civility career politics that they are unable to effectively respond to the scope and timeline of our crisis. Why else would New York State not pass substantive bills on climate, housing, health care, and worker rights, immediately after witnessing the collapse of safety nets during the pandemic?
On the federal level, decades of cultivating a spineless, lobbyist-funded, market-oriented “bipartisan” politics have left the Biden administration at the mercy of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who are doing to climate change what anti-vaxxers have done to COVID-19: exercise an obstinate political will to endanger millions of lives. What we are seeing is the beast created by the cult of neoliberalism, which replaced community with consumerism, made people primarily citizens of the market, uprooted our sense of trust in governance and each other, and created a culture steeped in suspicion and cynicism. It turned our project of democracy into a collective death drive. Even the most imaginative of us, confident we can do incredible things like colonize space, often think it is impossible to create an economy that benefits everyone.
We in New York must reject this cynicism. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who ran Albany like the old boys’ club it has always been, is gone. Most of the candidates running to replace him are running on new politics, with the two strongest contenders being women. Our state legislature also has a veto proof Democratic supermajority. Among them is an increasing share of progressive legislators who are not devoted to private corporations and who reject funding from interest groups, such as the fossil fuel, insurance, and real estate industries. Egos, especially male, that guard the old boys’ club and directly stymie important legislation will continue to face serious challenges and are under the threat of becoming a thing of the past.
New York has other advantages. In 2019, we passed a landmark renewable mandate and we just denied permits to two new fossil fuel plants. We have the nation’s largest publicly owned energy provider, a successful institution that can lead the buildout of renewables. We also have an immense amount of concentrated wealth that we can tax to create huge investments into our well-being. Our economy, where billionaires got richer during the pandemic, is the fourth largest in the world, bigger than that of the Netherlands or Denmark, which have significantly stronger care infrastructures. There’s no reason we can’t do the same. New York can become the model for the United States.
We can pass bills like the New York Health Act, which would make health care a basic part of our life instead of a profit-making, debt-creating industry governed by private insurance companies; the Clean Futures Act, which would ban new fossil fuel infrastructure so that there can be no more Danskammers; the Build Public Renewables Act, which would reposition energy as a public good, transition workers to sustainable green jobs, and speed us up to meet our renewable goals; and good cause eviction, which would democratize our housing market and create stable neighborhoods by protecting tenants from arbitrary evictions. We can pass all these bills next year if we can thwart the influence of representatives funded by insurance, real estate, and fossil fuel companies.
Not just in New York, but even here in the Hudson Valley, we have the momentum to begin dismantling the stagnant, lethargic, and therefore dangerous form of politics that for too long has been presented as our only option. Younger people are running for office and organizing here, too, not just in big cities. To not build on this momentum would be to weaken our chances of survival, because the only long-term solution to our crisis is to dismantle the power relations that created and sustains it. To quote ecologist Jason W. Moore: “Shut down a coal plant, and you can slow global warming for a day; shut down the relations that made the coal plant, and you can stop it for good.”
What we must fight for is a future that is beautiful. Temporary measures will not carry us through the emergencies that await us, and we do not want to just survive, we also want to prosper with equity, leisure, dignity, and joy. We can achieve that by recalibrating our values toward an economy that prioritizes well-being and ecological regeneration. There is no other choice. We will not sit and watch our vision of a beautiful future crumble.
The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.