Solutions to the ecological crisis – a work in progress

Mike Phipps reviews Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown, by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton, published by Verso

We are now entering an era of accelerating environmental destabilisation. A 2018 report by the authoritative UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) explains that total greenhouse gas emissions must, to stave off increasingly catastrophic climate breakdown, nearly halve by 2030 and end almost entirely by 2050.

The IPCC has set a ‘budget’ for the remaining emissions the world can afford to release if we are to have a fighting chance of meeting these targets. “Yet more emissions are on the way,” report the authors. “When adding the contribution of fossil-fuelled power plants that are currently planned, licensed or under construction, let alone projected increases in car production, long-haul flights and carbon-intensive Western diets, emissions are set to far exceed that budget.”

Awareness of these issues is growing but powerful interests are at stake, underlining the deep inequalities of power and wealth under capitalism. The task is therefore clear:  “We must rapidly and equitably transform the institutions, infrastructure, and ways of life that drive environmental breakdown, and make strides towards stability in little more than a decade…  The purpose is not just to make today’s economy environmentally sustainable but to build the democratic economy of tomorrow: dismantling the injustices of the present, replacing them with a reparative economy founded on the nurture of life, common care, and solidarity, enabled by institutions that share the wealth we create in common, and where meaningful freedom is a universal inheritance.”

So far, so eco-socialist.  And the COVID crisis is a symptom of the catastrophe – a “warning form the future” about capitalism’s devastating impact on the environment. The authors see it as “a potentially transformative juncture” but that view will not be shared by many mainstream politicians who are advocating a return to traditional models of growth to overcome the economic downturn.

The book is in two halves – how we got here and how we get out of it. The Earth has plenty of examples of ‘ecocide’, where the over-exploitation of resources destroys sources for food and fuel, leading to the destruction of a civilisation. But it‘s the impact of colonialism, the unlimited extraction of resources and the spread of infectious diseases to parts of the world with no immunity that has really wreaked havoc.  Environmental destruction is primarily about the abuse of power.

“Since the 1970s, nature has been damaged faster than at any point in human history,” argue the authors. Extinction rates are at levels unseen since the end of the dinosaurs. The size of vertebrate populations – mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish – has dropped by an average of nearly two-thirds since 1970.

Nearly 90% of wetlands that provide people and animals with homes and food have been lost. Some 15 billion trees are felled each year. Soil is disappearing over 100 times faster than it can be replenished by natural processes, degraded by a global food system hooked on fertiliser use and over-farming.” Crucially, too much damage can lead to ‘tipping points’ – irreversible changes in how natural systems work, triggering a domino effect and potentially leading to a terminal phase.

As the world wakes up to this crisis, power relations come to the fore. “Western nations urge environmental restraint from former colonies while ramping up consumption at home and outsourcing pollution abroad.”

And that response is just at the milder end of eco-ethno-nationalism. The UN’s warning that environmental breakdown, as a driver for forced migration, could increase refugee numbers by over 100 million by 2050 provides fertile terrain for organisations of the nativist right. Alternatively, a break with the entire system of capital accumulation is posed.

So what would this look like in practice? International cooperation alone, even if that were happening, is insufficient. Local communities need to be empowered to act on “local environmental problems and their contribution to global trends, collectively formulating local responses that are realised through harnessing local agency.”

The Preston model is highlighted – diverting spending towards organisations and projects in the local area. Between 2012 and 2017, an extra £200 million was invested back into the local economy, bringing thousands of people onto the Real Living Wage and cutting poverty. Other publicly owned bodies such as the NHS have worked to reduce their environmental impact significantly.

Globally there is much that Britain needs to do to help clean up the mess it had a major role in creating. That includes using its power “in multilateral institutions should apply conditions to their input to the World Bank, IMF and others, to ensure these organisations become more democratic and escalate action to stem breakdown while promoting human rights and local capabilities.”

Democratising finance must also be at the heart of a Green New Deal.  The authors want “a transformative expansion in the scale and ambition of public investment to drive decarbonisation and repair nature, aided by a new network of mission-oriented public banks, to bring to life the green jobs and sectors of the future.” These are all good ideas, but we are some way away from their realisation.

Apparently ‘green’ finance has grown significantly. I for one would like to hear more about this, not least because while the authors make a passionate case for what needs to change, the actual examples cited of real existing alternatives, such as community wealth building, don’t seem to match up to the scale of the task.

The relentlessly exploitative model of shareholder capitalism is critiqued. But re-thinking the company in terms of a wider layer of stakeholders feels like a very limited reform that has been around for a while – even if this were extended to giving “labour and society guaranteed powerful control rights”.

“Powers and obligations between stakeholders would be balanced,” suggest the authors. But what if the interests of the different stakeholders – society and workforce on one side, profit-maximising owners on the other – were irreconcilable?

Integrating sustainability into a company’s objectives and introducing real economic democracy lead inexorably to the question of ownership. The authors fudge this with a social democratic model which seems to reserve public ownership only for a few of the commanding heights.

This timidity seems to be in contrast with the chapter entitled “Commoning the Earth”, which rightly condemns the privatisation of land for the over-exploitation of natural resources.  But I was left wondering why the state as a mechanism for delivering common ownership was equally rejected alongside the market: instead, alternative models of ownership were emphasised, such as community land trusts. There are many positive experiments along these lines, but they have barely dented the nature of land ownership.

On other topics, the book also highlights a lot of useful initiatives that deserve a wider audience. But as I read on, the more it became apparent that many of the ideas mixed the modest with the utopian. Taken together they didn’t really seem sufficiently transformative for confronting the emergency outlined in the book’s first half.

Time is short: we need a clear programme and an idea of how we are going to get it enacted. We are still some way from both.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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