Book Review: Planet On Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown by Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton


Master’s candidate in environmental policy and regulation Flora Parkin Comments Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langtonof new book, Planet on fire: a manifesto for the era of environmental degradation, which encourages the reader to reinvent an economy that can foster a healthy and thriving environment for all.

This review was originally published on the LSE International Development blog.

Planet On Fire: A manifesto for the era of environmental collapse. Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton. Back. 2021.

As marine species leave warming equatorial waters and German insect populations drop 78%, even the Earth’s axis cannot escape the influence of increasing carbon emissions. Amid these changes and their increasing severity, policy responses reflecting the scale of the crisis are still lacking in the West. As the interdependence of social, economic and environmental crises intensifies on a global scale, the national policies of developed countries still seem fragmentary, lacking broader narratives and strategies for achieving equitable and post-carbon development.

Such a strategic synthesis is the goal of Mathew Lawrence (Common Wealth) and Laurie Laybourn-Langton (IPPR) in their essential new book, Planet on fire: a manifesto for the era of environmental degradation (2021). Drawing on five years of research at the intersection of climate change, political economy and public policy, read Planet on fire feels like walking through a buzzing, interdependent ecosystem of ideas, porous to the post-crash movements and thinkers shaping today’s progressive environmentalism. Situating how we got here in the tangled histories of colonialism and extractive capitalism, Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton methodically argue why decarbonization must mean restorative equity, social ownership, and public abundance. The following are targeted change strategies targeting slow-growing, high-carbon Western democracies.

The breadth, depth and diversity of what emerges from these pages is sometimes dizzying. The passages can seem almost overflowing with detail. The prose radiates urgency, intense with a sense of historical possibilities. Leaving aside the baggage of labels such as “ degrowth ”, “ green growth ” and “ ecosocialism ”, Planet on fire seeks to foster a new common sense in tune with historical realities, development needs and ecological limits. The terminological choices seem intentionally visceral: rather than the climate crisis, we are faced with an “environmental breakdown”; the loss of biodiversity results in planetary “destabilization”; rather than a utopia, it represents the “politics of life”. A dual approach permeates the analysis of the book: first, that seemingly permanent institutions can be created and broken through politics and law (eg, markets, finance, incentive structures). Second, savings must be reintegrated into nature, social relations and equity.

Image credit: ‘20130817-FS-UNK-0004’ depicting the 2013 Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near California. Image courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Several policy areas emerge as a result, rooted in the need to rethink holistically 1) funding; 2) ownership models; 3) work; and 4) a common good for the 21st century. First, there is the importance of definancialization, including advocacy for green investment in the real economy, mission-oriented public banks, green fiscal and monetary reform, and challenging the economy. asset management industry. Second, it is about promoting models of democratic economic ownership, limiting shareholder influence and rewiring perceived extractive compulsions of society. Third, there is a need to separate work and income, demodify the economy, decarbonize our use of time, and expand low-carbon work like care. Fourth, there is the 21st century call for a common good: the sharing of resources and managed services for the public good, from digital infrastructure to mobility to land use.

Each of these policy areas represents a spectrum – from gradual to radical, short term to long term – to be applied adaptively in the context. Interventions judged strategically can create space for new narratives and deepen subsequent changes. Immediate priorities include recommendations for green COVID collections, rewriting borrowing rules and reforming corporate governance. Many of these ideas are already happening at different scales (mission-based budgets, community procurement, rehabilitation); this argument is not about a lack of sufficient ideas. What is missing instead is a combination of cohesive stories from the past and practical strategies for overcoming the challenges of power rooted in the present.

This attention to the fundamental importance of power is what makes Planet on fire feel so believable, vital and honest. So often the elephant in the room of progressive policy design in North and South, power is addressed from the first chapter, questioning who has it, how he got it, how he exercises it and how. he clings to it. . For Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton, environmental collapse is fundamentally a political crisis, in which power structures and vested interests restrict systemic change and experimentation, both within and within. outside the state. For historical precedent, they look to Thatcherism, the engineering of neoliberal politics in the UK, and the neoclassical norms embedded in the global economy. Assessing how once radical ideas have progressed from local incubation under Conservative-led advice, to digestible election promises, to profound structural changes once in government, prioritization and strategic timing are identified as crucial to exploiting windows of opportunity. political opportunities. In the face of globalized power, however, the tools of government policy must now be combined with a majority coalition of social movements, progressive parties and pressure groups for system change. Constructive antagonism is necessary.

Attention to the tangled histories of colonialism and ecological devastation brings internationalism to Planet on fire, and an anchor in global climate justice. Advocating a “positive-sum internationalism” of joint cooperation, the authors call on developed countries to engage in accelerated and expanded grant-based financial support to developing countries, aligned with historical emissions. However, calls for “honesty” and “truth” from international negotiators seem to underestimate the complex challenges typical of global climate governance, where geopolitical tensions and vested interests compel action in perverse ways. Suggestions for rapid reform of global economic institutions appear to be underdeveloped. Asked about international strategy during a question-and-answer session on the IPPR book launch, Laybourn-Langton offered to defend human rights and equity frameworks from the implications of environmental disruption on international security, as a means of exerting influence over the UNFCCC through the United Nations Security Council. Alternatively, the bottom-up strategies proposed here to foreshadow global decarbonization at city, regional and national levels align directly with the Paris Agreement and its emphasis on decentralized action, international peer-to-peer persuasion, and the need to national leadership to amplify the global level. ambition.

In short, Planet on fire refreshingly combines a dynamic ecology of public policies with a historical analysis of environmental degradation. This leads to a focus on the main obstacles to globally just transitions today: politics and power. Although explicitly far-reaching, Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton convincingly argue that to be successful, decarbonization must be part of a political strategy that combines restorative support for the South, democratic economic ownership, and a new public good. Completely realistic while being radically radical, Planet on fire is a guide to hope for this crucial decade.

Note: This article provides the authors’ point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Flora ParkinLSE
Flora Parkin (@FloraParkin) is a Masters candidate in Environmental Policy and Regulation at LSE. She studies the role of natural capital in decarbonization policy in the UK and has written on queer natures and the Anthropocene. You can connect with Flora on LinkedIn here:


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