For the planet, normality has resumed all too quickly. After falling by a record 7 per cent in 2020, global carbon emissions are forecast to rise this year at the second fastest rate in history. That it took the worst pandemic for a century to briefly reverse this trend is indicative of a broken model.
Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown, a new book co-authored by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton, offers an urgent alternative. “The meteor has already struck… This is not something abstract down the line,” Lawrence, the 34-year-old founder and director of the think tank Common Wealth, said when we met in a park in east London. Earth does not have the luxury of time – we are living with the consequences of climate change: drought, famine and disease.
For some environmentalists, it is humanity’s materialism that dooms the planet. “Nature is healing, we are the virus,” declared a popular slogan in the early months of Covid-19. The supposed ecological collapse of Easter Island at the end of the 17th century – exemplified by mass deforestation – is cited as evidence of humanity’s death drive.
But Lawrence turns this orthodox narrative on its head: “What new evidence has shown is that the islanders developed a sophisticated, almost steady-state society in which there was a thriving culture and it was actually European imperialism that drove ecological collapse.
“So maybe Easter Island is a parable for the world, but in the sense that it’s about how power is organised to extract and transform nature and labour into very unequal wealth.” (It is estimated that the poorest half of the global population contribute 10 per cent of annual emissions, while the richest 10 per cent contribute half.)
In 2020, Extinction Rebellion declared that “We are not a socialist movement”. Lawrence, by contrast, argues that “ecosocialism” is essential to “help us thrive as well as survive”. Through changes in ownership, regulation and taxation, governments would seek democratic control of the corporations and financial institutions that perpetuate the fossil-fuel economy.
“There’s no doubt that you can detach environmentalism from a transformative left agenda,” he told me. “But that will be an environmentalism of the few, it might be able to keep nature ‘pristine’ but it will do so through the exclusion and harm of people who should be at the heart of sustaining the environment.”
Lawrence’s world-view was shaped by a childhood partly spent in the scrapyards of Johannesburg, South Africa (his father was a scrap dealer). As he saw economic inequality widen despite the end of apartheid in 1994 – 0.01 per cent of the population holds 15 per cent of the country’s wealth – he recognised that “formal democracy is not enough. We need to democratise society as a whole: how wealth is generated and held.”
It was this vision that inspired the launch of Common Wealth in 2019, an institution rooted in a tradition of English radicalism: the Levellers, the Diggers, Thomas Paine, Tony Benn. In recent years, Lawrence, who was previously a senior research fellow at IPPR, has become one of the most influential thinkers on the left. His signature policy of inclusive ownership funds – under which companies would transfer a share of their annual profits to workers – was embraced by both John McDonnell and Bernie Sanders. Common Wealth’s board includes Ed Miliband, who last year returned to Labour’s front bench as shadow business secretary.
Does Lawrence fear that under Keir Starmer the party has become devoid of radicalism? “The jury’s out on whether transformative ambition on climate will be front and centre. And that’s an open challenge to social movements inside and outside of Labour.”
He warned that Starmer’s emphasis on competence had left the party “floundering” in the face of the government’s vaccine roll-out. “It’s not like this government isn’t offering radical disruption. Leaving the EU is the most disruptive act since the neoliberal shockwaves of the early 1980s.”
Labour, Lawrence continued, was “missing a trick” by failing to align itself with Joe Biden’s economic radicalism, most notably the US government’s $1.9trn stimulus programme. “What Biden did was bring in Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement, and harness the energy of that wing of the Democratic coalition.”
The leftwards turn in economic debate since Covid-19 has imbued some progressives with new hope. How optimistic is Lawrence?
“The pandemic has bust through this myth that ‘we simply can’t afford that’. It’s exposed the economy as an object that emerges from politics, not something that sits outside of politics. It’s blown up the neoliberal effort to insulate the economy.”
For Lawrence, the Covid-19 crisis has offered a preview of the tools that governments must deploy against climate change: “Public investment at scale, the centring of new values in our economy over profit maximisation, the nurturing of public health.
“These are all things that we will have to use if we are to steward ourselves through this crisis in a way that is democratically just, rather than simply decarbonising while retaining all the injustices and inequalities hardwired into our economic model.”
[See also: Politics for the end of the world]
This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?