'The things we need to do [to avoid climate crisis] are very often things we need to do to improve our quality of life, to reduce inequality anyway… the debate comes down around tools, the emphasis on priorities, scale, pace.' Martha Dillon speaks to Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Mathew Lawrence about new book Planet on Fire: a manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown.
‘There are so many brilliant books about the scale of the crisis’ says Common Wealth director Mathew Lawrence. ‘Then the end is like “UBI and some rewilding.” That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not going to cut it.’ Lawrence is right, it’s not going to cut it, but luckily he, and Laurie Laybourn-Langton of the IPPR, have provided a convincing alternative in new book Planet on Fire: a manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown.
Released after a year of limp green recovery strategies and billionaires having opinions, Planet on Fire is a refreshingly confident and tightly woven read. Its scope is precise, highlighting the political and economic structures that are failing to deliver flourishing, environmentally safe societies, and setting out more effective strategies. This isn’t a vision of techno-fixes and silver bullet solutions, it’s a pragmatic and knowledgeable reworking of left-wing ideas with climate centre stage: ‘the things we need to do [to avoid climate crisis] are very often things we need to do to improve our quality of life, to reduce inequality anyway… the debate comes down around tools, the emphasis on priorities, scale, pace, whatever…’ says Lawrence.
This isn’t a vision of techno-fixes and silver bullet solutions, it’s a pragmatic and knowledgeable reworking of left-wing ideas with climate centre stage
Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton, whose careers have centred around developing policy responses to environmental breakdown and other political challenges, are unequivocal about what these priorities should be. One-by-one, Planet on Fire works through key political and economic areas: what would it look like if we were to rework how we engage with power, and the values our politics promotes? What might corporate green finance look like within a framework of equity – ‘re-anchored in the real economy’? How do you modernise the concept of ownership, or redefine jobs in a way that is both equitable and non-extractive?
Planet on Fire is at its strongest when at its most detailed. A chapter on ‘rewiring’ corporations reminds us of the ‘veneer of naturalness’ cast over our current corporate arrangements – but demonstrates that in reality companies are governed, owned and run, tyrannised by shareholders, while also being dependent on extraction, labour and regulation. Corporations are governed by rules, Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton argue, why not expand those rules to give employees and other stakeholders a voice? Rules that ‘operate with different rhythms to a conventional corporation’ have already been proposed – from worker-management and sector funding pots to social enterprise models and cooperatives. Planet on Fire outlines these models clearly, explaining what they should look like, and how we might get there.
The movement of power into the public domain is a recurring theme as each of these questions are unpicked and reimagined. Public funds are, they remind us, intended to support the public: ‘younger generations… look on, aghast, at the grotesque spectacle of baby-boomer politicians investing in fossil fuel power plants.’ Since corporations and financial transactions are regulated, shaped and shielded by governments, there is no reason why failing capitalist structures cannot be changed. In interview, the authors note that COVID-19 has taken the environment out of the spotlight (‘it has choked off some of the organising… it really was campaigning that suddenly made [people in senior leadership positions] start to talk properly about environmental crisis’ says Laybourn-Langton), but in print and in practice they are clear that COVID-19 has underlined the idea that all systems are ultimately in service to societal prosperity – financial bailouts, for example, are only possible if you accept that the corporation is just a ‘publicly sustained entity organised for public good’. It is essential that power is redistributed if climate breakdown is to be avoided. These observations are not new, but they exemplify how neatly Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton put familiar ideas in a new, climate-conscious context: we’re on the path of environmental collapse; we’re riding out a crisis which taught us that ‘actually really bad stuff can happen’. These changes are practical and pragmatic.
Planet on Fire presents an important roster of ideas for new policy and alternative systems
Planet on Fire presents an important roster of ideas for new policy and alternative systems. It is harder to gauge how these proposals, pragmatic and convincing as they are, will be absorbed by those activists and readers whose work sits less squarely in the scope of the book.
‘The ultimate angle has to be to reconfigure how we use materials and space’ agrees Lawrence. ‘What we were trying to get at in the book,’ explains Laybourn-Langton, ‘was trying to build this pyramid… A central state has a role because, as we saw with the coronavirus, it can marshal astonishing resources and coordination at a scale and a pace that no other actor in society can. But that has got to be a way which genuinely empowers local levels…’ The ‘foundation’ of the pyramid, they say, is purposeful regional and local collaboration between state and grassroots movements. ‘You've got heads, say in your local area, say Greater Manchester, of the local authority, you've got a number of local community groups, you got the head of Fire Service, head of the police service, you've got the Growth Commissioner… and they can have these amazing genuinely cross cutting conversations that you wouldn't see in central government.’
Allowing local people to allocate materials and funds in a climate-aware and community-centred way is therefore central to unlocking the manifesto proposed in Planet on Fire. It’s no trite point. This is a practical starting point for reworking power structures that are dependent on extraction and initiating the new, society-oriented systems that the two authors propose. Prioritising local engagement might also enable us to build in resilience to the physical impacts of climate crisis – at the very start of Planet on Fire we are reminded that, while the prevailing elite stand to make money from the ‘opportunities’ of climate breakdown, those shouldering its burden stand only to become more disenfranchised: ‘[in global collapse] the global good of cooperation is crowded out by domestic stresses.’ Reading from the UK, under the constant threat of government austerity and ongoing state efforts to disempower local council and grassroots protest movements, the point is particularly compelling.
Allowing local people to allocate materials and funds in a climate-aware and community-centred way is therefore central to unlocking the manifesto proposed in Planet on Fire
Many of Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton’s ideas are already familiar and popular, regardless of the state of the climate. But this is a deft, tight primer on both the failings and barriers wrought by current capitalistic structures, and their non-extractive ecosocialist counterparts. The touchstones and examples used are perhaps more tilted to the political economist than the eager climate activist, which may make the direct consequences of the book hard to track. Still, Planet on Fire is virtuosic in embedding climate in a fabric of socialist ideas, and for that reason is essential reading.