27. Eco populism: is a green 4T possible?

How can we understand and overcome the mismatch between ecological demands and the logic of the Mexican ‘Fourth Transformation’? This essay makes the case for green populism, exemplified by a proposal for sustainable electricity on the countryside and the nationalization of future key industries.

The wave of policy initiatives coming from Mexico’s left government – collectively known as the fourth transformation – has been relatively successful in delivering on its social promises towards the working class. Yet from the left it faces real challenges in dealing with two fields: identity politics and ecology. Leaving the former aside for now, we will focus on imagining how a ‘green turn’ could look like. While the ecological efforts of this government should not be discarded, such as massive tree growing projects or the 12,300-hectare (!) ecological park of Texcoco, there is much policy space to be filled. In particular in the domain of energy. This would be an electoral opportunity for the left to increase its popularity with younger voters, the only age group they don’t have consistent majority support from. Bolstering ecological efforts would also give credibility to both the new alliance with Mexico’s Green party and to the questionable existence of that party itself.

    However, the analysis would be incomplete without considering the responsibility of environmentalists for winning support for their cause in a society with low environmental awareness. Raising hysteria over non-existing ecological threats that got memed into existence or blindly portraying the Tren Maya (a green mode of transport!) as the ultimate doomsday device certainly did not help to avoid the impression that ecology is just another form of partisan anti-(worker)politics. If we are serious about ecology and (thus) don’t suffer from the idea that conservatives would somehow do better, we need to figure out how to meet halfway. The real task is to unite increased efforts in sustainability with the populist approach of the fourth transformation. In what follows we will first analyze the problem further, before illustrating a vision of what could be possible in the relatively near future.

Let us start by understanding the current policy context and how increased environmental efforts in the next years would fit into this. The fourth transformation is in essence a worker class movement focused on two things: social welfare and challenging the culture of corruption. Some relevant typical positions that can be seen across policy fields are: a) a preference for direct support and corresponding skepticism for the (corrupt) middle institutions and companies; b) a concern with national sovereignty; and c) a clear and strong preference for the poor and most vulnerable. It this context it is clear that the framing of ecology as an elite or oppositional concern must be avoided at all cost. Additionally, in any serious discussion we must accept the reality that due to the current global health crisis, the government (any government, anywhere) will have budgetary limitations on the short run. Ignoring this would be cynical rather than critical.

    The relation of the government to state oil company Pemex deserves special reflection. Many environmentalists critiqued this protective stance, especially in regard to the new oil refinery in Dos Bocas Tabasco. Note that refining oil in Mexico should itself not be the issue ( importing oil is also not sustainable), but one can justly point at the opportunity cost of this mega project for not investing similar resources into for example solar energy parks. Yet we must understand that Pemex is at the center of political struggle in Mexico, with the neoliberal right having debilitated and pillaged the state company only to prove that it should be privatized – the biggest bone a corrupt dog could dream of. Given Pemex both symbolizes national sovereignty and the crown jewel in the fight against privatization and corruption, it is both unreasonable and unrealistic to expect this government to forget their decade long struggle. What matters is growing alternatives.

What, then, can be done? Is it possible? A good starting point would be to look at what already exists: the governments flagship agricultural and reforestation program Sembrando Vida. This regional development program helps small farmers transition to sustainable farming and agro-forestry by giving them plants and trees provided and (initially) grown by the government. This should result in hundreds of millions of newly planted trees and plants over the lifespan of the program. Additionally, Sembrando Vida pays around 420.000 farmers a monthly salary well above the poverty line for their participation in their program. Allow this son-of-a-tree-grower to explain to my urban audience the intelligent synergy at work here. Fruit trees can produce high value crop, but require considerable investments, both in the plants but more importantly of time: if (!) they survive, the trees won’t yield anything commercial for years. Therefore, poor farmers could never upgrade their business, since changing crops would result in missing harvests and thus destitution. By paying them and providing the plants, the government both boosts sustainability and empowers poor farmers to grow more profitable businesses in the long run.

Now let us think how we could export this social-green formula to the field of energy. My proposal is to apply the same principles to the distribution of solar and wind-energy to rural areas on a household level. Instead of handing out trees, the government could distribute solar panels and mini-windmills after technicians consulted rural communities about which form of energy generation is most fitting for their circumstances. Each house could be outfitted with these, providing an additional decentralized green source of energy that is independent of the larger – frequently failing – energy grid (which remains available for the remaining energy needs). I envision starting this in the countryside for a number of reasons: a) there is more need, especially since access to the grid is harder; b) this is harder to do in cities and apartment blocks; c) there is currently limited budget space so this could be tested on small communities first before a bigger rollout if funds are found. The latter focus on communities matters, as the experience in other countries shows that flat subsidies for solar panels can become very expensive fast if for example companies start abusing such policies. This policy both ticks the social boxes of the fourth transformation (preference for poor, no middle men, national production, local empowerment) while increasing and equally important popularizing sustainability. Your servant lacks the technical knowledge to develop it further, but one can assume the possibility of expanding this to even allow feeding energy back to the grid.

    The next logical (but expensive) step could be to produce these solar panels and windmills nationally, preferably in public enterprises in parallel to Sembrando Vida’s tree growing efforts. The ecological cause could also find more connection to the objective of national sovereignty if Mexico tried to control the raw materials part of the production chain of green technology, in particular lithium. While nationalizing a whole industry is a policy open to criticism (for budgetary, economic or ideological reasons), the case is much easier to make for nationalizing a material that already belong to the country – and thus all Mexicans. Nationalizing lithium, of which Mexico has large reserves, particularly in the North, could create the green equivalent of Pemex, both as a symbol of sovereignty and cornerstone of the economy. The ‘green’ aspect of lithium is of course in its industrial use for the production of batteries, lithium extraction in itself can be particularly hazardous to the environment. This water intense process is vulnerable to overuse of resources and pollution via spills, which is extra sensitive in Northern lithium rich states like Sonora where agriculture and cities already compete for small water reserves. Trusting foreign multinationals with this is like trusting the man who has graves in his front yard with your children. State ownership (the expensive option) or at a minimum far reaching regularization of private-public partnerships (the budget option) such as in the construction of the Tren Maya seems appropriate.

Given your servant’s expertise is more in politics than in the technical aspects of sustainability, we don’t need to elaborate further on these ideas as they could be better developed elsewhere. They merely serve to illustrate a bigger constructive point: that actually achieving a ‘green new deal’ in Mexico is most realistic when it is constructed on the populist and nationalist principles of the current political climate. It is first of all the responsibility of those in government to expand on these principles and create a narrative that make larger parts of the electorate see that ecology can run parallel with social and regional development. Smart, social and direct policies on a limited budget now could create the political capital and base infrastructure for larger transitions later. Yet activists and society at large also carry responsibility for popularizing the green cause in a less adversarial way, to the point where the average citizens no longer experiences it as an acquired taste of those with a higher ecological footprint than themselves.