Principles Of The Sunrise Movement: Antidotes To Neoliberalism

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

The term “neoliberalism” isn’t new. It was coined in 1938 at a meeting in which social democracy was framed as analogous to a collectivism like Nazism and communism. But neoliberalism today is a conundrum: its slimy tendrils claw into everyday Western life, yet it is so anonymous that we seldom even recognize it as a pervasive ideology. Neoliberalism pushes deregulation on economies around the world, forces open national markets to trade and capital, and demands that governments shrink themselves via austerity or privatization.

neoliberalismNeoliberalism’s anonymity is its essential symptom and cause of its power, and the Sunrise movement is seeking to make the consequences of neoliberalism transparent in society. You know Sunrise, even if you can’t immediately grasp why. They’re the cohort of primarily college-aged activists who are promoting the Green New Deal. You saw pictures of their sit-in in front of Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office in the news and on 60 Minutes when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) joined them in support of objectives to virtually eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in a decade.Sunrise Movement

The earth is on track for 3-4 C degrees of warming, which would cause sea level rise of several feet and make extreme weather more frequent and dangerous, among other consequences. The next 4 to 12 years are critical if the world wants to limit that warming. Waiting to reduce greenhouse gases will make the challenge harder.

The Sunrise Movement is working to build a cohort of young people to make climate change an urgent priority across the US, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on politics, and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.

The Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal would eliminate GHG emissions from electricity, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and other sectors within 10 years. It includes a job guarantee program “to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one” while also seeking to “mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional, and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth.”

The Principles of the Sunrise Movement

George Monbiot, an environmental writer and political activist, wrote about neoliberalism for The Guardian, and that article has become suggested reading for Sunrise participants. Why is Monbiot’s message resonating with these young Green New Deal activists? Well, instead of competition, division, and isolation, the Sunrise Movement wants you to feel part of action that can change the world — literally — for the better. And it will only happen when people come together and work toward social change.

Sunrise is the antithesis of neoliberalism.

In order to build the movement for a Green New Deal — a plan that would transform the US economy and society at the scale needed to stop the climate crisis — the Sunrise Movement has created a series of guidelines for their actions. In a side-by-side comparison with neoliberalism, it is evident how the rich and powerful who control environmental and climate change politics differ from this group of young people who are scared about what the climate crisis means for the people and places they love. The Sunrise Movement is motivated by the belief that, if they unite by the millions, they can gain political power and “reclaim our democracy.”

Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution!

Trickle-Down vs. Robust Technological Workforce

Neoliberalism: Neoliberalism shapes the ideal of society as a kind of universal market (and not a civil sphere or a kind of family) and of human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace or of inalienable rights and duties), writes Stephen Metcalf in The Guardian. With a goal to weaken the welfare state and any commitment to full employment, to cut taxes and deregulate, neoliberalism has been a way of reordering social reality and of rethinking our status as individuals.

Sunrise: “We are a movement to stop climate change and create millions of good-paying jobs in the process.” As they unite to make climate change an urgent priority across the US, the Sunrise Movement has a goal to end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics and elect leaders who stand up for the health and wellbeing of all people.


Policies to address climate change will bear directly on the future of individuals in the US, impacting everything from their financial status, lifestyles, and local community culture. No longer can it be assumed that US elected officials will take climate change matters into their legislative hands for the betterment of society at large. Each person in the US needs to be actively involved in the quest to reduce GHG emissions in our nation. Concrete examples show what governments, local councils, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders have been doing to strengthen education and training on climate change, both locally and regionally.

Kate Ringness of the NY Jobs Project adds that “a good starting place for any state looking to expand advanced energy manufacturing would be to think about its resources and how they can work together – what we call an economic cluster. The idea behind an economic cluster is to grow an industry holistically. That means encouraging cross-pollination between innovation, access to capital, workforce development, the value chain, and the local market to support a robust industry.”

Closed Door vs. Open Communications

neoliberalismNeoliberalism: No restrictions on manufacturing, no barriers to commerce, no tariffs: that was the neoliberal economic vision that Adam Smith described. He said free trade was the best way for a nation’s economy to develop. Such ideas were liberal in the sense of no controls. This application of individualism encouraged free enterprise and free competition — which came to mean, free for the capitalists to make huge profits as they wished. Neoliberalism, according to CorpWatch, means embraces liberating “free” enterprise or private enterprise from any bonds imposed by the government, no matter how much social damage this release of responsibility causes.

Sunrise: “We grow our power through talking to our communities.” With pledges to talk to neighbors, families, religious leaders, classmates, and teachers about the Green New Deal, the Sunrise youth are seeing strength and work rooted in local communities. Local knowledge around climate and energy issues like this needs to be considered as a strategic leadership element when advocates work toward inclusivity, cultural respect, and equity. Enhancing quality of life for all people includes transitioning from reliance on fossil fuels and the movement toward renewable clean energy sources like solar, wind, micro-hydro, and biomass.

Inequality vs. Embracing Diversity

Neoliberalism: The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed by neoliberalists as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, says Monbiot. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are seen as both counterproductive and morally corrosive.

neoliberalismSunrise: “We are Americans from all walks of life.” The Sunrise Movement has embraced people across “colors and creeds, from the plains, mountains, and coasts.” They acknowledge that the power of the wealthy might be a divisive force, but, through valuing each other in their differences, the Sunrise youth can unite in a shared fight to make real the promise of a society that works for all. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez already has shot back to the Green New Deal’s vocal opposition, noting that most queries into its financial grounding seem to arise in bad faith. Why is it, she retorts, that these questions arise only in connection with useful ideas, not wasteful ideas?

Alongside an emerging pattern of renewable industry growth comes the major challenge to educating future professionals. There is an essential need to build a conduit from the classroom to installation worksite. Since renewable energy is still considered an emerging field, many students have a limited understanding of how to translate engineering theory into actual solar practice. Professional role models who offer their personal insights and industry experience narratives can offset those gaps and create a robust, diverse, and more equitable renewable energy workforce.

Implicit Aggression vs. Passivism

neoliberalizmNeoliberalism: A paper for the International Monetary Fund outlines how, although growth benefits are uncertain within neoliberal policies, costs in terms of increased economic volatility and crisis frequency seem more evident. Since 1980, there have been about 150 episodes of surges in capital inflows in more than 50 emerging market economies. About 20% of the time, these episodes end in a financial crisis, and many of these crises are associated with large output declines. In addition to raising the odds of a crash, financial openness has distributional effects, appreciably raising inequality.

Sunrise: “We are nonviolent in word and deed.” Understanding that maximum participation is necessary in order to achieve climate action goals, the Sunrise Movement has adopted an explicit nonviolent approach to activism. Scientific information is not prescriptive because it does not mandate or require specific public policy. By providing knowledge of the harm caused by human activities and its complex mitigation process, the Sunrise Movement is drawing upon scientific evidence of existing and potential harm from anthropogenic global climate change. That gives rise to public policy and ethical concerns, which can be upsetting to some people whose livelihoods and cultural ways of being have surrounded fossil fuels. By asking people to accept that asking people to accept an ethical responsibility to adopt urgent actions to reduce GHG emissions, the Sunrise Movement is interrupting many people’s flow — that feeling of calm and certainty — in order to accept the reality of a value–neutral scientific problem. Agreeing to non-violent discourse is a necessity if the Sunrise Movement is to inspire real institutional change.

The unwillingness of policy makers in the US to date to reduce GHG emissions in some proportion to its historical emissions, given that they have known for over 30 years about their impacts, mocks principles of democracy. In a report on climate change in the journal Ethics, the authors ask of fossil fuel companies and climate change, Do all citizens actually have equal rights? Does anyone have the right to knowingly impose preventable harm on those who have not given their consent to being harmed?

A Closed Circle vs. Telling and Respecting Multiple Perspectives

Neoliberalism: The problem with transparency does not begin at the highest echelons of the government. A transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists, and activists funded a series of think tanks which promotes the neoliberal ideology –the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Adam Smith Institute.

Think tanks are quite opaque.neoliberalism

Sunrise: “We tell our stories, and we honor each other’s stories.” From Elizabeth Warren to Nina Turner, to the Occupy alumni who embraced the 2016 Sanders presidential candidacy, now more than ever, there is a stronger field of what Klein calls a “coalition-inspiring progressive leaders out there than at any point in my lifetime. We are ‘leaderful,’ as many in the Movement for Black Lives say.” Voices like those from the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez are fear-inspiring for the fossil fuel industry, hence the oft-cited media positioning of the Green New Deal as “dangerous.”

False Meritocracy vs. Open Discussions of Financial Privilege

neoliberalsimNeoliberalism: The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

Sunrise: “We ask for help, and we give what we can.” Dedicated to each activist offering an individual contribution, the Sunrise Movement recognizes that youth come from different financial backgrounds which frame their activism. “Some of us give time through volunteering anywhere from 1 to 50 hours per week. Some of us give money. Some of us donate housing or meeting space. We invite our community into the movement by asking for the help we need.” Massive change in the factors that affect US household finances have occurred in the last 30 years : jobs, wages, benefits, education, technology, and financial products. A report by the Stanford Social Innovation Review states that it’s clear that we need new products, programs, and policies designed for the actual financial lives and choices that American households face today.

Right to Profit vs. Making Change Incrementally

neoliberalismNeoliberalism: The Adam Smith Institute feeds into a clearly delineated ideological assumption: “The private sector, rightfully driven by the profit motive, tempered by tolerance for risk, rewards innovation.’” Such a statement illustrates the trust’s commercial basis.

Sunrise: “We take initiative.” Thomas Friedman, New York Times opinion columnist, says he likes “like the urgency and energy she (Ocasio-Cortex) and groups like the Sunrise Movement are bringing to this task. So for now I say: Let a hundred Green New Deal ideas bloom!” And maybe that’s the key: it’s time to celebrate innovation in practical and amazing, far-reaching ways for clean tech to really become everyday in our lives.

Financial Rewards for the Few vs. a Rising Tide

neoliberalismNeoliberalism: Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era, which Monbiot describes as since 1980 in Britain and the US,  than it was in the preceding decades. Oh, but there’s one caveat:  the very rich haven’t experienced this slow economic growth at all. Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatization, and deregulation.

Sunrise: “We embrace experimentation, and we learn together.” Like the Sunrise Movement, Friedman envisions what such experimentation might look like.

“If I were drafting a Green New Deal platform today, it would put in place steadily rising mileage, manufacturing and emissions standards; stronger building codes; and carbon market prices that would say to our industries and innovators: Here are the goals, here is the level of clean power or efficiency that you have to hit every year — and may the best company win.”

Consumerism vs. Mutual Care

Neoliberalism: Neoliberalism grabs onto competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. That means people aren’t citizens but consumers. Consumers prove their patriotism by buying and selling. Klein decries neoliberalism as the causal factor for the political turmoil around us, arguing that policies of deregulation, privatization, austerity, and corporate trade have forced living standards to decline precipitously. People, she says, “have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.”

Sunrise: “We take care of ourselves, each other, and our shared home.” A 2019 report by Oil Change International states that the US is on pace to release 120 billion tons of new carbon pollution—”equivalent to the lifetime CO2 emissions of nearly 1,000 coal-fired power plants”—into the atmosphere between 2018 and 2050. “If not curtailed, US oil and gas expansion will impede the rest of the world’s ability to manage a climate-safe, equitable decline of oil and gas production,” the report warns.

Glass Ceiling vs. Intersectionality

Neoliberalism: Neoliberalism is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties, argues Metcalf. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practice and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organizing principle for human activity. He adds, “There was, from the beginning, an inevitable relationship between the utopian ideal of the free market and the dystopian present in which we find ourselves; between the market as unique discloser of value and guardian of liberty, and our current descent into post-truth and illiberalism.”

Sunrise: “We stand with other movements for change.” Guided by the knowledge that it takes numbers to foster political and social change, the Sunrise movement is motivated by an intersectional approach to gaining, winning, and holding power at every level of government. “We work with other movements who share our values and are also working to win political power.”

“Great” Again vs. Resilient Determination

Neoliberalism: The greater the failure, the more extreme the neoliberal ideology becomes, according to Monbiot. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatize remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations, and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state, he says, now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.

neoliberalismSunrise: “We shine bright. There are hard and sad days, to be sure.” Who believes that America can remain a great country and not lead the next great global industry? Friedman asks. The Sunrise coterie is well aware that the activism ahead won’t be easy work, but they are committed to bringing a spirit of positivity and hope to their work. “Changing the world is a fulfilling and joyful process, and we let that show.”

This optimism is reminiscent of social activist, Rebecca Solnit’s plea in 2004.

“I want to illuminate a past that is too seldom recognized, one in which the power of individuals and unarmed people is colossal, in which the scale of change in the world and the collective imagination over the past few decades is staggering, in which the astonishing things that have taken place can brace us to enter that dark future with boldness. To recognize the momentousness of what has happened is to apprehend what might happen. Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibilities are sisters.”

Final Thoughts

Klein asserts that the neoliberal agenda is not the only way forward for the US.

“A good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table. An agenda to take on the billionaire class with more than rhetoric, and use the money for a green new deal. Such a plan could create a tidal wave of well-paying unionised jobs, bring badly needed resources and opportunities to communities of colour, and insist that polluters should pay for workers to be retrained and fully included in this future.

“It could fashion policies that fight institutionalised racism, economic inequality and climate change at the same time. It could take on bad trade deals and police violence, and honour indigenous people as the original protectors of the land, water and air.”

The Sunrise Movement has embraced the idea that those affected by environmental problems must be included in the process of remedying those problems. This group of youth activists are proof that citizens of all walks can engage in activism on behalf of environmental justice. After all, in a democracy, it is the people, not the government, who are ultimately responsible for fair use of the environment.


Solnit, R. (2004). Hope in the Dark. New York: Nation Books, p. 12.

Copyright-free images from Pixabay

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Video

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

Carolyn Fortuna has 1281 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna