Remaking politics in response to the assault on natural world

RevDem Editor Ferenc Laczo is discussing the book “Planet on Fire. A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown” by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton with its authors.

Ferenc Laczo: You two have just co-authored a book under the title Planet on Fire. A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown in which you develop narratives of destruction and injustice to then embrace a new sense of hope and possibility. You argue in favor of fundamental, transformative action and show numerous specific paths forwards. Let us perhaps begin our discussion with some of the basics. You start your book by stating that a focus on the climate crisis is insufficient and that there is a wider ecological breakdown going on, which clearly points to a systemic crisis. How would you characterize this wider ecological breakdown and how is it related to central features of contemporary capitalism?

Laurie Laybourn-Langton: Let us start by looking at the phrase that is often employed to talk about the environmental crisis: climate change. Our main point is that neither of the words there is sufficient to help us understand the situation we are in. 

Let us take climate first. The climate crisis, as in the steady increase of the global average temperature rise above the preindustrial average, is one of the most serious problems that we face environmentally. But a singular focus on that obscures the fact that there is an enormous amount of damage happening to other parts of the environment almost aside from the climate crisis. Soil depletion is happening in places where we are tilling farmland about a hundred times faster than the natural world can replenish it. We have seen a loss on average of around two-thirds of the size of populations in some animals since the 1970s. We have got mass extinctions in some areas, and the list goes on and on.

We have got to understand that it is not just about the climate element. Even if we got rid of all carbon emissions tomorrow, which is probably impossible, we would still be in serious trouble because of those other environmental factors. That is why we use the words environment and environmental instead of climate.

The second word is change. We think that is too benign compared to the scale and pace of what we see happening to the climate and other environmental factors as well. Our preferred word is breakdown to create the overall phrase “environmental breakdown”. The scale and pace of change that we are seeing is, in some cases, greater than at any point in human history and in other cases it is greater than potentially in millions or even billions of years. We say that, taken together, we are in a new age of environmental breakdown. 

A central point of our book is how that is not just the result of our short-termism or our psychological insufficiencies when it comes to dealing with problems, nor is it just the case of the technologies we use which are at the forefront of the immediate destruction of the environment. 

It is to do with the great global socioeconomic systems which mediate much of what is possible and happens in our lives and across our societies. It is those that we need to have at the forefront of our minds when we try to comprehend how we are driving this unprecedented assault on the natural world.

Ferenc Laczo: You indeed start the book by offering a critique of mainstream eco-narratives. Would you care to explain what is wrong with these popular narratives about humans being selfish and being basically unable to think long term? And how do these competing eco-narratives you contrast in the book relate to how we think about the relationship between the Global North and the Global South today?

Laurie Laybourn-Langton: Let me start with one story detail: we look at the story of Easter Island, which is at the forefront of people’s minds in many environmental conversations. The classical story here is something along the lines of when Westerners arrived in the 1700s, they found an island that clearly had this illustrious civilization that had built these astonishing head and torso statues, the Moai, which we now associate, at least in the Western consciousness, with the island. But then what seemed to be left of that civilization was miserable compared to that amazing illustrious past and that was because the island is in a very remote location out in the Pacific Ocean, very far from any mainland, and the local population had unthinkingly destroyed their local environment and eroded the foundation upon which their society could exist. There was nothing extraordinary about these people, they were like us, they were going about their day-to-day lives caring about the people around them. But, in doing so, they cut down the forest on the island, they overfished and that led to a situation where they could no longer support themselves. The island collapsed into civil war and ultimately cannibalism. 

It is in that way that Easter Island is often held up as this miniature version of what is happening to the planet now. We are out here in the solar system without any escape valve, and we are eroding the conditions upon which our societies can happen. We are in essence committing “ecocide”, as it were, environmentally induced suicide. The problem with the story is that it is not true, which we know based upon a lot of recent archaeological findings as well as all the testimony from the local population.

What happened in fact was that, when Westerners first came to the island, they brought with them diseases, as we saw in many other parts of the world. They took many of the local people to sell into slavery. There was a lot of sexual assault on the island and people were just killed for target practice and other horrendous incidences like that. That is what led to the situation where the society on the island had collapsed. Prior to this, they had actually developed quite a steady-state relationship with the local environment using cultural norms and other factors that actually mediated their impact upon the natural world.

Moreover, it wasn’t just for fun, or because they were inquisitive that people came to that island from Western European countries. It was because they were pushed there by the great and growing globalized economic systems of the time. They went there to seek cheap inputs into processes of profit making – and, in this case, the people and the nature on that island were those “inputs.” 

It is those issues that we need to be thinking about, and the fact that we have got two things here. That second story, the true story, is a much more useful heuristic to have in our minds about how we have got ourselves into the current situation. And the fact that the former story and not this more accurate one is more in people’s minds is itself a telling metanarrative of our problems. Yes, it says a lot about the imbalances between North and South.

Mathew Lawrence: It is important to take a step back and explore what are those dynamics that trace from the story of Easter Island through to contemporary capitalism and then how that relates to the climate crisis. There are fundamental dynamics to how capitalism in its various historical iterations organizes both labor and nature. There is exploitation in that classical sense of extracting value through the production process, but also in the reliance on expropriation as a sort of fuel for the reproduction and expansion of capital, whether it is expropriation from social relations and wage labor, the household economy, or whether it is expropriation from the natural commons, most obviously in the transformation of natural commons into privately held wealth and the processes that drive that. You can see deep linearities which drive these propulsive forces of expansion, enclosure, and extraction. Rinse and repeat and you get this expansive dynamic.

You can see that also in good news stories around the expansion of renewable energy, etc. If you actually look at the amount of primary energy generation globally, the percentage that is renewable rather than fossil fuel-based has only gone up by about two points in the last 25 years. We need to make radical inventions because as long as it is profitable to dig up, sell, and burn fossil fuels for energy, you are going to get private actors doing that who are also often backed and underwritten by the state. Even if you are adding renewables, that is not enough. We need to scale down fossil fuels and radically ramp up clean energy. 

Some of the more comforting eco stories just do not pass the empirical reality test of where we are and where we are heading. And that links back exactly to what Laurie was talking about regarding the lessons that the true story of Easter Island can impart to us.

Ferenc Laczo: You explain in the book that the natural foundations on which we all depend are being destroyed and that a period of destabilization and uncertainty is practically unavoidable now. One of the most disturbing parts for me is where you discuss how the ongoing breakdown is also an opportunity for disaster capitalists and for regressive political agendas, such as those pursued by neo-liberals, denialists, and those you call eco-ethnonationalists. Could you tell us a bit about how such groups have reacted to the growing evidence of this systemic crisis in more recent years? How do they aim to use the worsening emergency as an opportunity for their own purposes?

Laurie Laybourn-Langton: We indeed characterize the three groups you have just mentioned over the course of our analysis of how people are reacting to this situation. These three groups were selected because they were different from the mainstream of those who have been long arguing for more action on the environmental crisis.

We characterize what we called status quo neoliberals. There are many European leaders, including to some extent Emmanuel Macron, whom we would put into that group. They talk about how the crisis is severe and we need to make the planet great again. They talk about how they are the ones who are acting on the science. At the same time, they are not implementing policies that are sufficient to bend the carbon emissions curve, let alone policies that admit that this is not just a climate crisis but an overall destabilization of the natural world.The lack of such policies is evidenced by, for example, the German Constitutional Court’s ruling the other day on the basis of the legal case fought by many school strikers, among others, that the action is not sufficient. We have the lies that they are making the planet great again as the first problem. Secondly, the reaction to that growing destabilization, which currently is nowhere near as severe as we will unfortunately likely have in the coming future, is itself not reassuring. For example, we have to look at the reaction of many European nations to the so-called migration crisis of the 2010s through the prism of what is likely in the coming decades. The militarization and externalization agendas are deeply disquieting when we appreciate what could be coming next. 

The second group we look at we characterize as the denialist conservatives. Donald Trump and his former administration is the sort of archetype where you simultaneously deny the existence of the problem or talk it down while also acting to try and exploit the opportunities that exist. This exploitation could happen through continued extraction of fossil fuels to exacerbate the root cause of the problem as well as through beginning to move your political stance to better appreciate that these changes are happening. You would have Trump denying the existence of the problem or talking it down while his administration was also ramping up activity in the Arctic region, knowing that the whole area would be melting and that there would be a whole new ocean, as many of the security community put it, in coming years and decades. 

The third group are the eco-ethnonationalists, a rather clunky phrase, but one we thought was at least useful to help describe those on the far right who argue for ethno-states and who have often denied the problem but increasingly have ditched that denial. Such people now point to how there is a crisis and the way to actually deal with it, because it has reached such an awful point, is to put up walls to keep us within national boundaries. “Borders will save the world” is a phrase that was used by a Rassemblement National European Parliament candidate a few years ago. 

Our concern is that, as that destabilization grows, the first two groups, the status quo neoliberals and the denialist conservatives, are pushed by the political incentives and the ideological position they hold toward the stance of the eco-ethnonationalists. It is sadly predictable to imagine a situation in the coming years where one of these politicians, probably a millennial age person right now, stands up and says there is this massive environmental crisis liberal elites knew about, they did not do enough even though everyone was telling them, the whole world is now in serious trouble, and we have got to protect ourselves against those other people and take what is left. 

We were telling that story partly as a warning to puncture the bubble that “good will always prevail” which we often see as a model for people politically.

Mathew Lawrence:  We are all living in the most stable point in our lives and every year from now on we will have a ratchet effect in which these interconnected forms of destabilization from environmental breakdown will get worse. That will most likely be severely disruptive not just to our economies but also to our politics. Those three currents in different ways are equipping themselves to take advantage and to respond in ways that will worsen and deepen the crisis while also worsening and deepening the inequalities underlying the crisis within our societies and between societies. The uncertain effect that destabilization through that multiplication effect will have on our politics through those three different currents really underlines the need to have a much more expansive and ambitious response.

Ferenc Laczo: Let us perhaps look at the more constructive side next. In Planet on Fire, you discuss how the economy is constituted by politics and law. The way it works today is that capitalism is – to a large extent – insulated from democracy. You do insist that the current crisis is therefore primarily of a political nature. What we would need, on your account, is to assert democratic control, democratic power, over the economy to arrive at what you call “eco-socialism”. Your book discusses a host of possibilities. I am afraid we can’t quite touch on all of them. Let me just briefly mention that you suggest ways to reimagine the commons, states, household economies and markets. You then consider ways to democratize finance, reconceive the company, think of how to reconceive land and nutrition use, digital technology and data, cities and housing, and a host of other issues. Would you perhaps be willing to highlight some of the main suggestions you make in the book?

Mathew Lawrence: I think it is important to stop at that first point: that such a great ideological veil is cast over the economy which says that our institutions, how we organize our economy and our property relations, market exchange forms, all of these are somehow natural and have emerged spontaneously. 

Of course, all our economies are constituted by law, by politics, and by social institutions and are therefore malleable. They can be reorganized. The core of our argument is that our current institutional arrangements are driving climate breakdown, environmental breakdown, stark inequality, and the erosion of democratic norms. Those institutions can be remade.

We are trying not to get caught up in the labels – whether you call it eco-socialism or something else is not so crucial. It is about saying we need to respond to this moment with an expansive reimagining of our social, economic, and political institutions. What is more, we can do so. It has clearly been a political crisis if we have the political capacity to do that. We order our society through politics and politics is not just ordered by the market.

If you realize that, you can begin to think about central banking and the planning function it has. Can we use that to generate a shift of credit towards low carbon forms of industry? Can we use fiscal power, public investment, public spending, the public shaping of economies to really scale this and have the care-based economy, the low carbon infrastructures, the low carbon industries we need? Can we fundamentally rewire the governance of the company, so it becomes less a vehicle for the extraction of shareholder wealth and the consolidation of managerial power, but becomes almost a commons-based institution which is governed democratically and stewarded for long-term success? Clearly, long-term success does not mean operating in ways that are incompatible with a safe, climatically- and environmentally-sound relationship with the wider world. 

On the whole, what we don’t lack is ideas and a program. Hopefully, our book sketches one potential version – it does try and set out a strategic roadmap of what we really need. Now the question is less about do we have the ideas and more about how we can begin to mobilize the political coalitions and the social power that can reorder these institutions.

Ferenc Laczo: Let us talk a bit about the current moment. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. You call the Covid-related crisis the first crisis of the new age of environmental breakdown. At the same time, you also insist, and rightly so, that this crisis has given rise to new forms of solidarity, to new forms of mutual aid. How do you perceive the ongoing pandemic and its consequences? What has it revealed to you about the possibility of a green and equitable recovery?

Laurie Laybourn-Langton: The first thing to say is that it reminds us that very bad things can happen, and they can happen very rapidly. They can be transmitted through our globalized systems and overwhelm our constrained capacity to respond. We have seen that in pretty much every country around the world. We are based in the UK and we definitely have seen it here and continue to see it today.

There is that classical opportunity which is being expressed now in the mainstream: it has become mainstream that we should be building back better. Interestingly, the phrase is borrowed from the world of disaster risk reduction, a part of the UN system that has not really received much mainstream attention, where that phrase is often used in the context of building back a city after it had been shocked by an extreme weather event or other. It is quite interesting that it has become a mainstream frame because it speaks to how we are entering a new era of destabilization and there will be huge threats, but also opportunities for renewal at every single turn.

It is quite useful to look at the city level, particularly in countries like the UK or the Netherlands, because it shows us a very practical way in which you can have that renewal. We talk a lot about the concept that is called, at least in the UK and the US, community wealth building which for many European listeners will sound like municipalism that balances local ownership with local investment that ensures that the benefits of that economic, social, environmental investment are held within the local community.

It provides an idea of how we can go beyond what I would crudely characterize as “swap dirty stuff for clean stuff” and ensure the market mechanisms are right for that type of strategy. Instead, or in addition to that, we can also replan how our cities are physically built, how our economies distribute produce and certain products and services. We can change the types of things we eat, the way we travel, how our homes are heated and all these kinds of elements. And that provides us with a very tangible way to imagine the future and what a world looks like where we are not just making everything zero carbon, but we are actually understanding that we have to change our behavior to ensure that we are environmentally sustainable in a range of ways.

What Amsterdam is doing, for example, is seeking to apply a donor economics model, one in which a social foundation of certain living standards is maintained while also ensuring that their impact on the environment does not exceed safe limits. I think that is very instructive. 

It provides an overall framework in which we can imagine a world that is not just a cleaner version of what we are doing right now but also deals with all the elements that would make modern society in the West bad for us even if they did not have an environmental impact. 

In doing so, you can imagine building quite powerful local constituencies around those kinds of types of changes – and I do not just mean building constituencies through electoral politics here. 

Many of these things can be imagined by, planned by, delivered by and maintained by local communities. In fact, they have to be – that is how it is going to work. In doing so, you empower those people and, crucially, you ensure that they have a stake in the process of power, the political economy that can keep those things going forward in a way that is the converse of what we see currently where, depending on the city, planning decisions feel largely out of the hands of many local people. There is not enough money provided by the central state, and the development model for how local areas are developed is often given over to large companies who have no proper stake in the local area and there is very little accountability. 

In short, for it to be anything other than a buzzword, the build back better movement has to be rooted in local communities as we are already seeing in a lot of cities around the world. It is not just Amsterdam, it is not justPortland in the US, it is not just cities in the UK. We see cities all around the world implementing a new way of owning and planning that is compatible with high standards of living and environmental limits.

Ferenc Laczo: The way that I have understood it, your argument is very much about asserting that the social and the ecological is not at all external to the economy, and that we would need to center the goods and services on which we all rely. We would need to nurture life through thinking about individual, social and planetary care simultaneously. I wanted to ask you a rather broad final question: how do you view the connections between sustainability and democracy?

Mathew Lawrence: One of the things about the democratic imaginary, as it exists in the present, is that it connects the past and projects into the future through national narratives of democratic struggle. The relationship between the past, present and future is intermediated via democracy. The idea is that to sustain democratic institutions, we have to expand them. We argue for the expansion of the democratic organization of economic and social life over time while retaining and deepening a form of political democracy. 

There is that sort of temporal relationship around sustainability. We are not really a wealthy society if we, in the next two or three years, burn down the Amazon and boost GDP massively but then we have huge tipping points that are catastrophic quickly down the line. That is not really a healthy sort of economy. Similarly, a democracy that cannot sustain itself is not particularly healthy. 

One of our key arguments is that the crisis is fundamentally one of politics and power, it is about inequality and power rather than resources, technical know-how, etc. Technical know-how is a challenge, but nonetheless, it is more fundamentally about whether we can mobilize the political solutions here. 

Therefore, democracy is fundamental to sustainability. It is the key institutional forum by which we can mobilize power and legitimately sustain a new political and economic settlement.

A clear challenge to that is posed by the Chinese model of state capitalism, which has tried to transition to a sustainable future. Hopefully, there is a healthy relationship between democratic struggle, democratic power, and the movement towards a sustainable future.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton: I would just like to add to that by using the UK again as an example and drawing on what I was saying earlier about Covid-19. There has been a lot of chatter in the political rhetoric around Brexit of taking back control and communities in parts of the UK that were often hit disproportionately by the failed attempts, or lack of attempts, to manage the impacts of globalization. We look at the impact of Covid and many communities who are said to have been left behind by mainstream political commentary have suffered disproportionately from the impacts of the pandemic. One of, if not the main reason or set of reasons, why that is the case is because of the social determinants of health. They are in a poor state in the UK as well as in other countries around the world. These are the causes of the causes of ill health. 

For example, people who were obese had poor respiratory or cardiovascular health in the lead-up to Covid and were more likely to die, particularly among certain age groups. They were not suffering under high levels of obesity or poor heart and lung health because they were feckless or because they were lazy, even if some people may have been, but because they did not have opportunities to get nutritious food and have the amount of exercise that they needed, to have education or other opportunities that would have made them healthier. We know they would have made them healthier.

One of the reasons why the social determinants of health were in such a poor state in many countries like the UK in the lead-up to Covid-19 is because there had been such a power imbalance between the interests of local people and what really should have made sure that their lives had the opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Over the course of the last many decades, it is like democracy is a plant that is underneath the paving stone. It is trying to grow and keeps rising up through the cracks. We see that time and again with everything from the mutual aid societies, that you mentioned earlier, that just could not help but pop up in the course of the pandemic, through to this new wave of municipalism that we are seeing around the world, all the way through to the effectiveness of modern movements in pushing arguments about, for example, the environmental crisis.

Within that context, it should hopefully be pretty obvious to anyone that there is going to have to be a great rebalancing of power in the world within countries, but also between countries, to unlock our response to dealing with the environmental crisis and doing so in a way that maximizes the huge co-benefits to health and happiness. It stretches credibility beyond belief to say that we will just be able to do this under the political economy and power balance that we have had over the last many decades that have led us into this mess. 

For me, certain constructions of democracy are both a key enabler, but also an element, of the end state that we need for what is going to have to be a vast multi-generational project to live more harmoniously with the planet and with each other.

The transcript has been slightly modified.

In collaboration with Isabel Lasch and Oliver Garner.

Contact Us