Fighting Fire with Fire?

Book review

Peter Somerville

Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton (2021) Planet on Fire: A manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown. London: Verso. 280pp. £12.99 (hb).

Jonathan Neale (2021) Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and global climate jobs. London: Resistance Books. 348pp. Available as free e-book at: https://theecologist.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Fight_the_Fire_0.pdf.

These are two very different books but with much in common. Both are concerned with how to respond to the climate and ecological emergency. Jonathan Neale’s (JN) focus is on the global level, while that of Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton (L&L-L) is primarily on the UK. Both argue strongly for a social democratic approach, by which I mean an emphasis primarily on public provision and governmental regulation to address the crisis. Both use the term ‘we’ repeatedly throughout, but never make clear who the ‘we’ are. Related to this, I think, is a lack of reflection on their own position and the possible problems with that position. Nevertheless, these are each, in their own way, superb books, with numerous interesting ideas and much food for thought – well worth reading. The strength of JN lies mainly in the priority he gives to mitigating climate change, particularly in calculating a technically detailed path to a safer world, and the strength of L&L-L is in their vision of a political way forward to prevent environmental breakdown. Both accounts, however, are limited in that they do not engage directly with the politics of the day (though there is some stirring rhetoric in JN’s final chapter) – that is, with the messy business of political parties and actual governments, most of whom do not share their social democratic inclinations.

JN’s book is the more ambitious of the two, as he sets out a programme for a global green new deal. As the title of his book suggests, the emphasis is on providing what he calls ‘climate jobs’. These are defined as ‘jobs that directly reduce the emissions that heat the world’ (p9) or ‘jobs which work directly to halt climate breakdown’ (p14). The problem here, however, is that very few jobs actually do this: examples would include restoring peat bogs and other forms of carbon dioxide removal, and enforcing regulations to phase out fossil fuel extraction and burning. Contrary to what JN appears to think, jobs in renewables do not in themselves reduce emissions. Even the term ‘green jobs’ is too broad as it ‘can be anything useful or ecofriendly’ (p9). ‘Low carbon’ might be a better term: arguably, all jobs should be low carbon, but not all jobs have to be useful.

JN calculates the amount of renewable electricity required to power a world without fossil fuels – mainly for energy, vehicles, heating and industry. But then he declares that ‘the market cannot deliver renewable electricity on this scale’ (p44) and ‘We will need public ownership of the grid and the main electricity providers if this is going to work.’ (p44). This is a good example of his style of argument – a reasonable and usually convincing calculation followed by an unsubstantiated assertion. In particular, with regard to electricity grids, he says: ‘there is no way to make a profit from these grids’ (p54), even though privately owned grids such as the UK national grid have been making profits for years. The basic point is that such grids provide a service for which users can be charged. There is an issue to the extent that such grids are monopolies, so the price of electricity has to be capped by law to prevent excess profit, but the case for (re)nationalisation simply has not been made here. Providing electricity free at the point of delivery would place an enormous financial burden on the taxpayer and arguably would serve only to increase energy demand and waste. The immediate task is to decarbonise the grid and create larger grids, both of which the UK national grid continues to do.

On transport and buildings, JN makes many useful suggestions but in the former there is arguably too much emphasis on electric cars. The reality is that there are just too many cars on the roads, and too much being spent on roads, so the priority should be to challenge car culture and reduce car use by whatever means possible. On buildings, despite rightly dismissing the use of hydrogen to heat homes as ‘a con’ (p129), JN does not recognise that heat pumps are more efficient than boilers (p122). The main priority here, of course, should be for a programme of mass retrofitting of UK buildings to make them as low carbon as possible. JN offers some useful proposals on concrete, namely to ban it for most purposes (p118), and on steel, namely to recycle more of it and use (green) hydrogen to heat the iron ore from which steel is made (p116). In order to reduce the amount of steel, he proposes banning tall buildings (p123) and using aluminium (produced using renewable energy) instead of steel for vehicles (p117).

Perhaps the best part of JN’s book is the section on agriculture. It contains an up-to-date account of conservation agriculture (no-till farming, crop rotation, organic cover, restricting the use of fertilisers, etc), the problems with rice paddies, the management of livestock and land and forests, and rewilding, among other topics. I liked his critique of the ‘rewilding fantasy’ (p185) and his advocacy of pigs! However, I cannot accept his claim that: ‘Pigs and poultry are not a climate change problem’ (p156). Maybe if there weren’t so many chickens and if pigs and chickens were fed only on human waste products, this could be true. As it is, however, the land currently used to grow crops to provide feed for farm animals could be better used to grow crops for the increasing number of vegetarians. Also, on his alleged myth of ‘sustainable forestry’ (p180), he doesn’t seem to understand that a life cycle begins with birth (afforestation) not with death (deforestation). I think this shows how easy it can be to choose the wrong starting date in making one’s calculations (if one starts with planting trees, it is blindingly obvious that the process can be sustainable). Also, it was not at all clear to me how ending deforestation could save 5GtCO2 a year or how planting new trees could sequester another 5GtCOt a year (p183).

JN calculates that a global climate transition will cost 3-4% of global GDP (p240), compared with 2% paid by governments (p259) for a climate jobs programme (compared with L&L-L’s 4-5% of GDP a year for a ‘green stimulus’ in the UK – p130). He thinks that world governments are eminently capable of incurring such expenditure, but gives short shrift to modern monetary theory on the grounds that it is biased towards sovereign economies such as the US who can control their own currency. As he says, the problem with this is that it undermines international solidarity, which is essential to achieve a peaceful global transition.

Where JN is clearer on the detail, L&L-L are clearer on the broader political context of what they call ‘environmental breakdown’, which is not just about climate change but also about species extinction, wetlands lost, deforestation, soil degradation, habitat destruction and ecosystem collapse. They argue that this breakdown is caused by ‘the economics of extractivism’ (p10), which has a long history (at least 500 years) but has accelerated in more recent years. They emphasise three political points: first, they identify a powerful elite or elites who are benefiting most from the extractivism that is causing breakdown; second, they outline an ideological formation called ‘eco-ethnonationalism’ (or ‘ethnonationalism’ for short), which supports this elite in a variety of ways, e.g. by denying or ignoring the breakdown, by pretending to respond to it (greenwash) or by blaming other forces for it (such as overpopulation or globalisation); third, they argue that extractivism, supported by this ideology, presents a serious and growing threat to life on this planet.

L&L-L’s solution to environmental breakdown is explicitly political (their book does not have the technical detail that represents the core of JN’s book). Their ‘vision of the future’ is set out in full on p82 but can be summarised in terms of democratisation, decommodification and social solidarity. A slightly different vision for ‘a pluralistic economic commonwealth’ is outlined on p140: ‘a thriving ecosystem of business forms, where ownership is held in common, governance is democratic, and purpose is rooted in serving needs.’ It is interesting to note that decarbonisation is not mentioned in either of these visions, though it is presumably implied by the term ‘green industrial strategies’ (p82). This suggests that, whereas JN prioritised the technicalities over the politics of mitigating climate change, L&L-L may be less concerned with such technical detail than with advancing a particular political project. They call this project ‘ecosocialism’ (p77) but actually it looks more like social democracy, as they describe later on: ‘providing the public goods which markets under-provide, regulating negative externalities, “derisking” life through comprehensive social safety net’ (p200). This is consistent with a long tradition of social democracy, going back to Tawney and earlier, and it doesn’t seem very radical – there is no mention, for example, of toppling the elites or just ‘taxing them till the pips squeak’ (Denis Healey) or ‘taking control of the commanding heights of the economy’ (Tony Benn) or anything similar. The vision itself looks a little blurred, with the aim being ‘to build societies of flourishing and meaning’ (p235). How is one to identify such societies? How much democratisation will people accept? How much decommodification is really necessary or desirable? At what point does an emphasis on social solidarity encroach too much on individual freedom? L&L-L don’t mention citizens’ assemblies but they could be useful for deliberating on such questions.

Perhaps most importantly, the use of the term ‘flourishing’ fudges the issue of the need to reduce our consumption of the earth’s resources. There is a certain wordplay here: ‘Growth will remain the goal, but growth of a different kind, of social and environmental progress, of equity and care’, not ‘blindly degrowing the economy’ (p236). Such vagueness just offers a green light for greenwash. This fuzziness tends to pervade the whole book. Just as fine words butter no parsnips, warm words about caring and sharing are just talk, and L&L-L’s wish list is a very long one. To be fair, there are some nuggets here, e.g. on democratising finance and taming corporations, but little that is really new. Much of what they are calling for requires good management, but they seem to assume that this is a no-brainer when the reality is that good management is very difficult and arguably rarely to be found (L&L-L are not alone here: similar naivety about the quality of public management goes back to the founders of the Fabian Society, and is to be found more recently in the works of Mazzucato, Blakeley, and other left theorists).

L&L-L seem to want to democratise everything but what exactly this means is not clear. I was taken with the phrase ‘a commitment to the primacy of democratic power over technocracy’ (p129). Some might say that this already exists since we have a democratically elected government that can exercise control over technology. This prompts the question of what the demos is here and who the technocrats might be. In the context of the book, it seems that what they have in mind is a social democratic government that will prioritise public investment, enterprise and ownership over the private sector. In addition, perhaps, to avoid the risk of one set of technocrats/managers being replaced by another, they want to hold the managers accountable to a wider public (workers, consumers, communities, citizens, etc), but it is not clear who is supposed to be doing what or how it is to be done effectively (statements such as ‘reshape and pluralise economic coordination rights’ on p203 do not help).

L&L-L have much to say about the corporation. The changes they recommend are largely uncontroversial, such as aligning strategic and investment plans with a 1.5 degree centigrade pathway, making directors liable for their company’s environmental damage, half of company board members elected from the workforce, with workers having at least 30% of total voting rights, investing in socially useful activities, and promoting worker ownership and social ownership (pp151-60). However, they do not seem to understand that this does not challenge the fundamental rule of capital – indeed, such changes would serve to incorporate the workers more closely into the capitalist system. They do not seem to understand that businesses are both exploitative and generative, and government interventions generate both good and bad outcomes at the same time, which are often unforeseen, anyway. Labour itself is a form of capital, as it generates expanding value, which has to be abolished if we are to move away from capitalism. Cooperatives, for example, are a clear advance on mainstream shareholder-owned companies but they still have to compete in capitalist markets – and it is the same for all the other alternative models of ownership and institutions and practices of workplace democracy (multi-stakeholder boards, general assemblies, and so on – p213). At the end of the day, the democratisation of the corporation means giving labour and other ‘key stakeholders’ their ‘proper share’ of the corporation, making the corporation fully accountable to the people. This may involve taking the corporation into public ownership, so that it becomes ‘a democratic commons’ (p150). To make this work, however, a high degree of popular participation will be required, so maybe the people should be consulted first, and maybe they will just want the government to do the right thing and make sure corporations decarbonise and flatten their hierarchies.

Whereas JN makes a reasonably clear distinction between technology and politics, L&L-L tend to confuse the two. For example: ‘the political crisis of environmental breakdown consists precisely in knowing the technical solutions needed to become sustainable rapidly’ (p143). This is the same mistake that the IPCC have been making for over thirty years (as well as promoting unicorn technology such as on carbon capture and storage), namely to show what needs to be done and then assume that policymakers will respond accordingly. Still, on some technical points, L&L-L have got it right, e.g. (and comparing favourably with JN) on the need for a ‘retrofitting revolution’ (p174) and the need to reduce car use (p175). Proposals for a progressive frequent flyer levy and the banning of non-electric private jets (p176) are also most welcome. Stopping new fossil fuel projects and subsidies for fossil fuel production, and fair carbon taxes and rules to shift investors out of carbon intensive assets, are of course all no-brainers, though they come only at the end of the book (p244). The discussion of agriculture and food, however, is not as good as in JN’s book: if the problem were really one of ‘cheap natures’, as Jason Moore claims, then the solution would be to make them more expensive, which does not seem as if it would serve the aim of ‘reducing hunger and poverty’ (p181). So there is clearly some confusion here.

On the concept of a technological or digital commons I don’t feel competent to comment but I doubt whether innovation can be regulated or directed as L&L-L appear to imply (p186). Thinking about the BT monopoly in the old days, I’m not sure if digital infrastructure needs to be publicly owned, and it is not clear how the new forms of public ownership will be different from the old forms. Also, the issue of the vast amounts of energy consumed by the use of digital technology is not mentioned here. L&L-L’s vision of a hi-tech future does not sound attractive to me: ‘a raising up of ordinary life to a higher plane of intensity, scope and capability’ (p211). I simply do not understand why they deem it necessary or desirable to accelerate automation (p210).

Work emerges as a key problem for L&L-L (contrast JN, where ‘climate jobs’ are proposed as the solution to a problem). For some reason they want to ‘weaken the link between income and the labour market’ (p204). This seems to mean increased benefit for those who are not in the labour market (e.g. a minimum income for all and free public services), which is fine but arguably should not be at the expense of wage-earners. A real transformation of work would involve challenging managerial power and equalising of wages and salaries at the very least – not to mention a transition to 100% low-carbon jobs (to be fair, they do mention ‘dissolving the authoritarian relationship at the heart of work’ on p242, which displays another fine rhetorical flourish). But they are right to stress the importance of care work, which they interpret widely to include free universal childcare, public and cooperative provision of adult social care, building green infrastructures and urban rewilding (pp205-7) and the foundational economy generally (though it is not entirely clear what this term includes or excludes – p208). On the other hand, they are wrong to assert that: ‘The key [to transforming work] is expanding leisure time for all’ (p219). Arguably, transforming work should be about making work (more) attractive and enjoyable, so that the gap between work and leisure is reduced. For example, writing this book probably counts as work (it could have done with a proper bibliography and an index, but that would have involved more work!) but my writing of this review counts as leisure because I am retired. Also, leisure services are themselves labour processes, and leisure spaces can also be workplaces.

Finally, politics. L&L-L call for ‘deep constitutional reform, democratising political power and experimenting with new forms of voice and participation, and decentralised governance’ (p229). They do not elaborate on what this all means but one can guess that it involves things like proportional representation, an elected upper house, maybe citizens assemblies – detail is sadly lacking and of course the devil is always in the detail. There is at least a recognition that a coalition of a variety of forces is necessary to build and win state power (p230), but these forces are not clearly identified, nor is there any sense of how this coalition might be able to transform and democratise the state. There is also a nod to green community wealth building and green enterprise and investment (p231), but there is no assessment of what this might be capable of achieving. They say: ‘if done right, municipalism and community wealth building could drive rapid sustainability from the bottom up’ (p245), but it is not made clear how it is to be done right (as in Preston?) or what the real capacity is for change at community level. Suggested ‘structural reforms’ do not look particularly structural, e.g. ‘the expansion of paid holidays’ (p232), changing company rules, a public banking ecosystem, scaling democratic media. The proposal to ‘democratise capital’ (p238) sounds suspiciously similar to the Conservatives’ property-owning democracy, with the property being public rather than private. This may well be the intention but it can only serve to buttress and even enhance the power of state capital (as happens in China), especially if it is managed well (by whom and how?). The vexed issue of the relationship between centre and locality is fudged thus: ‘Local action should be connected and coordinated by a centralised and better democratised state’ (p246). The nature of such a state remains to be developed, though I would have said that the English state, if not the UK, was already well centralised, and I thought that L&L-L were in favour of a certain amount of decentralisation. As a manifesto, therefore, this leaves much to be desired.

Both books warn of the dangers of right-wing extremist nationalism (JN, p291; L&L-L, pp227, 251). This is a new version of the old trope of ‘socialism or barbarism’. Like the latest (but very different) fashion of ‘deep adaptation’ (e.g. Bendell and Read, 2021), however, this narrative is based on scare-mongering and fatalism, and appears to foreclose a number of possible alternatives (e.g. degrowth).

Overall both books inadvertently serve to reveal the weakness of social democracy that was highlighted in the 1970s. The key problem here is that the tribalism of the left cannot solve the existential crisis of climate and ecological emergency. There are many very good points in both of these books but a coherent, comprehensive, convincing and realistic path to a safe world remains to be developed. This is the key challenge for our times.

References

Bendell, J. and Read, R. (2021) Deep adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Blakeley, G. (2019) Stolen: How to save the world from financialisation. London: Repeater Books.

Mazzucato, M. (2020) Mission economy: A moonshot guide to changing capitalism. Allen Lane.

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