PHOTOS BY KARINE VANN
The cold weather was especially biting last Thursday as Massachusetts residents lined up to hear US Sen. Ed Markey talk about a piping hot planet. Some early arrivals to Somerville High School’s auditorium had bike helmets strapped to their backpacks like trophies. Many who drove to the venue trickled in later, having braved rush hour traffic and the city’s notoriously scarce street parking.
“We drove in our gas-eating car, it’s true,” Judy Leff admitted. She and her husband Steve, residents of Cambridge, attended Markey’s town hall because they’re concerned about climate change and social justice. They said they do their best to lower their personal environmental footprint, but realize that until structural change comes, it’s all rather futile. They feel stuck on a number of fronts.
“We still heat our house with gas,” Steve explained. “And while we’d like to have a fully electric car, there isn’t one that we really feel makes sense for our family right now. We’d like to put solar panels on our house, but we don’t know how long we’re going to stay there.”
For many Massachusetts residents—a few hundred of whom were in attendance—living their environmental values often means going out of the way to reduce their impact. “I have heat pumps and solar panels, and I try not to use as much plastic as I can,” said Alice Grossman, a retired resident of Somerville who attended the town hall. “I take bags to the grocery store. Not a whole lot, but I compost. I’m trying to cut back on my waste and reuse things.”
Sasha, a Cambridge resident who works as a home visitor in Malden, hasn’t eaten meat in a decade for environmental reasons. And while she needs a car to get to and from work, her partner—also a vegetarian—relies solely on public transit or bike to get everywhere. “So I’d say we’re pretty conscious about decisions, as far as individuals can make,” he said.
So much self-supervision can get exhausting. “It’s very easy to let it take up a lot of your energy and have everything you buy be sustainable and low packaging,” Sasha explained, suggesting that it shouldn’t be left entirely to the individual to solve these problems. “Thinking about how you eat, how you get around. It’s just a lot.”
For many in the audience, like Theresa Weir, a nurse practitioner who lives up the street from Somerville High School, the Green New Deal symbolizes a route beyond mere solo steps. It’s a beacon of hope in a political landscape that is largely apathetic about the need for environmental action.
“It should be easier for people,” Weir said. “This whole thing that it’s up to the individual, that’s great and we do what we can, but it should be up to the government to make it easier for us to do the right thing.”
The Green New Deal was introduced in February 2019 by Markey and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A plan to get the government involved head-on in the effort to confront the climate crisis, the 14-page document sets forth broad goals to tackle climate change while also addressing intersecting social and economic problems—poverty, racism, job creation, workers rights.
Since day one, the bill has received enormous opposition from Republican lawmakers, who have targeted it as vague, expensive, and unrealistic. “Fox News gives a lot more attention to this than does MSNBC or CNN,” Markey told the audience. “They hate this idea. They cover it over and over again. You wanna know why? So they can call it socialism, night after night on Fox TV.”
The importance of winning back the Senate and the presidency were central themes throughout the town hall.
“Let’s be honest,” Markey told voters, “A second term for Donald Trump is a death sentence for the planet.”
The upcoming Senate race hovered in the subtext of the event. In November, Markey will compete for his seat against Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a candidate who, according to the watchdog Sludge, has personal holdings, “which are contained in inherited family trusts,” that “include Chevron stock worth between $100,001 and $250,000, ExxonMobil stock worth between $500,002 and $1,000,000, and $15,001 to $50,000 worth of stock in Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services provider.” At the town hall, one audience member asked Markey if Kennedy had “divested,” but the senator declined to comment.
An audience member representing the Climate Coalition of Somerville asked a question about how to convince Green New Deal skeptics to accept the legislation. A new shade of nuance to the climate change denial conversation is not skepticism of the problem, but of the solution.
“The boldness of the Green New Deal matches the magnitude of the problem,” Markey said. “What we did in this resolution is to lay out what should happen … in every sector of the American economy. Because they can all be transformed with new technologies, with new strategies, new conservation techniques, and in a very brief period of time.”
Throughout the evening, Markey exalted America’s knack for rapid innovation, at one point revealing a flip phone in his pocket as a way of demonstrating the pace of technological development in the American market.
“A kid today believes that a 50-inch HD interactive screen with a wireless device on their lap is their constitutional right,” he joked.
“I think there’s a pessimism, a technological pessimism, which is at the heart of some of these skeptics,” Markey lamented. “But the Green New Deal really captures the ambition of the moon shot, the moral imperative of the Civil Rights Act of 1969. And it challenges this generation to respond.”
Despite its big and bold approaches to big problems, however, the Green New Deal does not appear to have answers to comparatively minor concerns that, when combined, contribute enormously to climate change. Oddly, it doesn’t address what environmentalists like Grossman and Weir already spend much of their time thinking about: consumption.
At its heart, the Green New Deal puts forward a theory of green growth, the idea that the economy can and should continue to grow, and that it can do so sustainably, as long as lawmakers replace unsustainable elements, like fossil fuels, with green ones, like renewable energy. The bill’s language puts enormous stake in technological capacity to save the world from environmental degradation, but does little to challenge the economic theories that caused the degradation to begin with.
For the last 50 years, politicians have positioned increased consumption as a positive attribute, and even a patriotic duty. But what’s best for an economy designed around limitless consumption is not always aligned with what’s best for the environment; sometimes, the most environmentally friendly option is to not buy anything at all. How will the Green New Deal handle this fundamental contradiction? More sustainable solutions, said Markey in an interview after the event.
“Look at the Impossible Burger and all the changes that are taking place in the meat industry,” he said. “I was told that Burger King, last year, 6% of its revenue growth came from the Impossible Burger. So I think that’s what we need to do. To encourage the use of new technologies.”
But is adding a shade of green to the lives we already live enough to save us from catastrophe?
Attendees of the town hall felt that for now at least, the Green New Deal, however vague, was a good start.
“It’s hard to get anywhere, until you start walking there,” Weir said.
The Leffs, for their part, keep the heat low and turn off the lights when they’re not in a room. Most recently, they gave up one of their cars and now share one between the two of them. In their retirement, they try to drive as little as possible. Living near the Porter Square T station helps with that.
“And another thing we did,” Judy said, “we’re flying down to Florida soon, so I bought carbon offsets.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. To see more reporting like this, please donate at givetobinj.org.
Karine Vann is a freelance journalist based in Cambridge writing about the intersection of consumerism and the environment. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian.com, The Counter, Civil Eats and more. She's the former editor of The Armenian Weekly newspaper in Watertown.