'Return to earth' review: a convincing read of how to build a new civilisation in the next 10 years

A group of researchers, among which Dominique Bourg and Sophie Swaton from the University of Lausanne, sets out 35 policy measures to tackle the ecological crisis and social inequalities. Though adapted to specificities of the French society, many of the measures in the book have a universal character and are applicable to other countries and continents.

Written during the lockdown, this text initially published on the website of "La Pensée écologique" became so successful that the Presses Universitaires de France decided to print it in full last June. In September, three editions have already been printed. What does it actually say?

A political programme for a new era. Acknowledging the new era that is dawning, the authors - Dominique Bourg, Gauthier Chapelle, Johan Chapoutot, Philippe Desbrosses, Xavier Ricard Lanata, Pablo Servigne and Sophie Swaton - propose 35 economic and institutional measures to start building a “new civilization”. A sharp turn needs to be negotiated to "face the world as it has become" and turn our backs on productivism, the accelerated destruction of nature and rising inequalities. With climate change and the collapse of biodiversity,

the issue at stake is none other than maintaining the liveability of the Earth for humankind and other species. We only have about ten years to begin this changeover.

Why you should read this book. While the Covid-19 pandemic and the gigantic fires in California and Australia provide to the global threats a sense of immediacy that will only increase over the coming years, Retour sur terre has the merit of offering to the democratic debate concrete avenues for action. It aims to regenerate the relationship between humans and living things and lay the foundations for a turning point in civilisation. It also tries to convince why, in the face of various forms of ideological belief - in future technology as the solution to all problems, or in "green growth" to ensure a bright future - realism has changed sides. There is still time to draw conclusions and "return to Earth".

Change, now. Because of the critical risks involved, the book recommends organising a "general slowdown" and reaching "an economic cruising speed compatible with the rhythm of the biosphere, i.e. a global consumption of less than 1 planet" [compared to 1.6 today, and above 3 in rich societies]. Living without economic growth requires a total restructuring of the production apparatus, as well as strengthened democratic institutions to ensure the protection of citizens, the public good, common goods and civil liberties.

With modern times, we sought to tear ourselves away from the "valley of tears" of misery. We set ourselves the goal of always producing more. (...) We are now threatened with a return to the "valley of tears" in the form of a burning desert.

Failure to act in time will lead to far more serious shocks than Covid-19, whether physical, social, or political. There is little other option than to follow an alternative path, admittedly radical because of how dire the situation has become, but allowing a gradual "landing" that respects fundamental rights. For the authors, a "return to normal" after the Covid-19 would simply be "lethal" given the countdown on global warming.

A real economy at the service of common goods. Aiming to reconcile the reduction of the "destructive potential" of our activities with improved well-being and social justice, following are some of the economic measures that could be adopted in stages over the coming decade:

  • The relocalisation of sectors essential to the life of the nation such as food, health, energy, electronics, internet and defence, accompanied by a form of internationally coordinated and cooperative protectionism.

  • The modification of the corporate purpose of companies to include their contribution to the common good, and the introduction of new accounting rules that disclose "natural" assets alongside traditional and social assets/capital.

  • An account of physical resource and energy spent with an allocation of quotas to individuals, collective and territorial entities, so as to respect an ecological footprint of less than 1 planet.

  • The establishment of an ecological transition income to value the high community impact of activities and skills that the market otherwise does not remunerate or not enough.

  • An ecological and social taxation based on VAT exemptions and a modulation of income tax according to the energy/physical resource balance of each person.

  • The development of an ecological agriculture that would represent 15 to 30% of the working force, in order to transform the agricultural sector into a carbon-fixing and biodiversity-friendly sector.

  • A massive development of public transport, with individual transport or carbon emission quotas.

Towards a State that guarantees public and common goods. With the aim of strengthening democracy, the steering of the long-term interests of society and the ability of the state to protect the public good, common goods and liberties, the authors propose several measures, among which:

  • A reform of the Constitution to include the respect of an ecological footprint within the framework of planetary boundaries, as well as a recognition of ecosystems or certain elements within them as subjects of rights to be protected.

  • The strengthening of legislative power with the creation of a Chamber of the Future, a third parliamentary chamber located between the National Assembly and the Senate [in the case of France], acting as guardian of long-term sustainability objectives with the support of an agency for “democratic participation” organizing qualitative public debates.

A refounding of the international order. In order to coordinate the collective effort in the face of current health and ecological crises, an international policy would make ecology "the foundation and horizon of the international order" while developing a long-term strategy of convergence between countries. Among the measures on a global scale:

  • The convening of an Extraordinary General Assembly of the United Nations to coordinate, as a first step, the global response to the health crisis, in all its aspects - economic, migratory and environmental.

  • The drafting of an international Declaration putting life at he heart of public action, setting a framework for the rights of humans and other species, prioritising "essential needs" to be secured while "curbing the claims of human societies to satisfy secondary needs to the detriment of terrestrial ecosystems".

  • The cancellation of "odious" debts - those of low-income countries, corrupt regimes or those contracted in 2008 to save the banking system - and the establishment of a strict framework for the use of public debt to prevent the liquidities created from being tied up in speculative assets.

  • Finally, international capital controls to accompany a negative growth pathway and relocalisation of the economy, as well as international coordination favouring greater self-sufficiency and sustainability of political regions.

A new relationship to the world around us. Calling on countries - and France in particular - to radically transform their model of prosperity and change their relationship with the world, the authors specify that their measures have no other aim than to lead to a socially just and ecologically viable world, by reducing "destructive flows", pacifying society, putting an end to the war against nature and "restoring life as the basis of any civilisation worthy of the name".

In a word, we propose not to convert planet Earth into the planet Mars. (...) A policy to regenerate the living that we have damaged and to give it in the future absolute primacy over all other human ends, that is what we are calling for.

Conclusion. On the threshold of a decade that will require unprecedented efforts of political imagination to meet the challenge of the ecological crisis, Return to Earth sets a concrete roadmap towards a new common, consensual, social foundation from where "democratic adversity can once again unfold and express itself". Some readers will be concerned about the new constraints on individual freedom resulting from these proposals. But, stress the authors, if there is any “punitive” dimension to consider, it does not lie in those measures allowing to regain control of our destiny and protect the interest of all. It comes above all from the announced destruction of our environment, the impact of which on our freedoms and well-being will be far more devastating. At a time when greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and when advertising is still pushing consumers to rush into SUVs and other polluting objects in a damning spiral, the time has undoubtedly come for public instruments that are truly capable of reversing the course of events, preferably through anticipation and democratic participation, and if not, with a lot of pain at the end of the road.