Review: Journey to Earthland, by Paul Raskin

Paul Raskin. Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization (Boston: Tellus Institute, 2016).

The idea of a new, humane global civilization emerging from a mid-21st century “Time of Troubles” is a common theme in near-future science fiction. Probably the most notable example is the post-scarcity moneyless communism of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which emerged from the global collapse that followed the Eugenics Wars. Other examples are Roy Morrison’s 22nd century Eco-Civilization and the future society in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (founded by the victors of a global civil war against neoliberal capitalism).

Earthland is very much in this tradition. Raskin’s book is a speculative scenario on one possible outcome of economic and ecological crises occurring in the next few decades. He begins by outlining several alternative possibilities:

1) Conventional scenarios that involve roughly the same institutional forms as we have today: either something like existing global corporate capitalism, or a limited set of social democratic reforms;

2) Barbarisation scenarios: authoritarian elites retreating into a network of fortress cities and abandoning most of the human race to squalor and poverty, or a total collapse of civilization and a new Dark Age;

3) Great Transition scenarios: an eco-communalist variant of small-scale artisan production and autarkic direct democracies, and a New Paradigm combining such localized economies with a cosmopolitan global society.

Most of the book focuses on developing the New Paradigm transition scenario. Raskin begins by describing a period of “Rolling Crisis” from 2001 to 2023, growing out of the neoliberal order that developed from 1980 to 2001. The foundation of the Global Citizens Movement with its local organizations in most major communities, as an outgrowth of global civil society, wasn’t enough to prevent the full-blown “General Emergency” of 2023-2028. But it provided the nucleus of the society that was to emerge from the General Emergency, without which the world would likely have descended into one of the Barbarisation scenarios instead.

The General Emergency was followed by a twenty-year period of reform, from 2028 to 2048, in which nation-states pursued a mixture of conventional social democratic policies and attempts to promote resilient economies. Although the Global Citizens Movement was initially dominated by moderates willing to let national governments take the lead in reform, it was increasingly radicalized as reformist efforts achieved limited results and stalled out in the face of obstruction by neoliberal institutional forces.

In the 2040s, the GCM developed a new consensus in favor of more radical action and achieved political dominance in a growing number of nation-states, local governments, and multilateral bodies. Its Earthland Parliamentary Assembly — originally an internal deliberative body for the movement — became the federal legislative body for the emerging network of national and local GCM governments. When this growing collection of GCM-dominated governments reached critical mass, it culminated in the formation of the global Commonwealth of Earthland in 2048.

The Earthland of 2084 is a patchwork federation of pre-existing nations and metropolitan centers, bioregions, and autonomous regions in former nation-states. Raskin classifies Earthland’s component regions into three broad categories: Agoria, Ecodemia, and Arcadia. Agoria, with an economy still organized primarily around corporations (albeit with multiple stakeholder governance and a radically altered market incentive structure), would be most recognizable to someone from the early 21st century. Ecodemia, with an economy organized around economic democracy and worker-owned/community-owned firms, would be the least recognizable. Arcadia emphasizes local self-reliance and small-scale artisan production. Of course, none of these models is exclusive or monolithic, and larger regions have considerable local variation (like the Arcadian Pacific Northwest in the larger Agorian North American region). All three regional forms also have large, thriving informal and household sectors.

The average per capita income has roughly tripled since the early 21st century. In areas of the Global North, it is actually slightly lower; but with the elimination of parasitic super-rich rentier classes and wasteful production, the actual standard of living for most Americans and Europeans is significantly higher. Population has stabilized around 8 billion, compared to predictions of a 12 billion population peak early in the century. Average work weeks are 12-18 hours (the “pathologically acquisitive” work far more, but it’s not necessary to do so to live comfortably).

Although population patterns range from highly urbanized areas in Agoria to small towns and villages in Arcadia, there is a common emphasis everywhere on mixed-use communities. Residences and workplaces are integrated in ways that minimize automobile ownership and commuting.

The dominant form of democracy varies from representative in Agoria, workplace-based in Ecodemia, and direct in Arcadia. Aside from setting the gross parameters of the system (like minimum global standards for basic income and carbon emissions quotas), the Commonwealth and regional governments strike me as more like governance platforms on Bauwens’ “Partner State” model than states in the classic sense (“administration of things rather than legislation over people”).

At the outset, I mentioned the common theme in speculative fiction of a near-future “Time of Troubles” characterized by multiple intersecting terminal crises, and a new humane civilization emerging in the medium-term from the ashes. In most of these scenarios, the emergent successor societies feature technologies of abundance, reduced dependence on work, decentralization, communitarianism, and governments which — if they still exist at all — function as neutral administrators rather than engines of political and class domination. In my opinion, the unconscious cultural perceptions behind these fictional scenarios make a great deal of sense. Our current system is manifestly unsustainable and in its last days. At the same time, the organizational and technological building blocks already exist to create a society of plenty that’s freer, more humane, and more ecologically desirable. We’re already in the process of putting these building blocks together through our cooperative labor. It’s just a matter of minimizing the harm that the forces of the old world can do to us on its way down.

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