10 turning points to heal our society

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) releases today ‘Turning Point’, a new book that looks into a possible, post-pandemic future where people and nature can thrive together. An interview with the book’s author Nick Meynen.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced humankind to take a long, hard look at itself: two years in, the recognition is there that a return to ‘normal’ is not possible, because the ‘old normal’ was broken: we live on a finite planet with finite resources, yet live by the mantra of infinite growth. But what kind of change do we need four our society to heal?

‘Turning Point’ is neither a report nor a position paper: rather, it is a personal thought piece which aims to be thought-provoking and inspiring. META talked with author and EEB colleague Nick Meynen about the book, and why it is necessary.

What is the main message of your book?

It is now, when the shock of the crisis has subdued, that we can leap from fear to hope, that we can work on our collective immunity as humanity. The pandemic reminded us of how closely our wellbeing depends on planetary health. Keeping this at the center of the debate is an opportunity.

To re-wild nature, we need to re-wild our imagination. If you follow the journey that the corona virus took, you can only come to one logical conclusion: planetary health and human health are two sides of the same coin. The war that is being waged on wildlife was always bound to come back as a boomerang. Our ever increasing criss-crossing of the skies, our weakened lungs due to pollution, the harmful chemicals that attacked our immune systems: all of that made it easier for this virus to go viral and cause damage. We can’t go back to the “neoliberal normal” we were used to, because there was nothing normal about a system that was already pushing people and the whole planet to a burnout. Finally, I explain how a closer look at the difference in leadership during this crisis made me believe that we need more ecofeminism.

Why Turning Point?

I am convinced that not since 1945 did we have such an opportunity to turn things around. If the past 75 years need a name, it could be “The Great Acceleration”, as system scientists call it. This exponential rise of pollution, extinction, climate chaos and more is directly correlated to the installation of a rather new “God” all over the world: Growth. Growth can never be appeased and actually pushes humanity into an already unfolding climate catastrophe, the sixth mass extinction and quickly increasing conflicts over the remaining non-renewable natural resources.

But the turning point away from this madness has been in the making for well over a decade by now. First we have seen the growth of academics unifying under the banner of “degrowth” and the arrival of their debate in the European Parliament under the name of postgrowth. The climate kids from Generation Greta are pushing in this direction, and Extinction Rebellion is doing on the street what political leaders should be doing from the seats of power. Then came the pandemic. Suddenly, we saw governments back at the helm of the economy (out of sheer necessity), as it is our health that is too big to fail, not the banks (as in 2008). This is where a crisis becomes an opportunity. This is why this book is here.

There is a lot of debate about the fact that we cannot go back to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’. What makes your book and your recommendations special?

The ten turning point proposals do not start from the political reality, which is a relative reality, they start from the physical reality – the only one that will matter in the end. What makes them special is that I have had the chance to work within the EEB and consult with two dozen experts from our staff and members to get their expertise and opinions in, while I remain responsible for the content overall. This may go beyond the typical EEB publication: the point of the book is to think bigger together and talk about the things that, deep down, we want the political debate to be about. We  need to make these debates public, so that when a crisis hits and politicians suddenly scramble for new bigger options, we have them ready: how could we turn a postgrowth world into something positive for all? We need to imagine the positive postgrowth future if we ever want to get there.

Who do you wish to reach with this book? What change do you hope to trigger?

This book is meant to reach several audiences. There’s “Generation Greta”, the youth who shout “system change, not climate change” in the streets. Like them, I’m tired of half-baked, deeply flawed and even fake “solutions” – like burning trees shipped in from other continents in ovens, to make “green electricity”. I hope they feel inspired, and see what system change could actually look like, especially here in Europe. Maybe they will take a copy with them, when they have an opportunity to meet a person in power and say: here, read this and now get serious about our future. 

This book is also written more broadly for the 30 million people who we count as part of the wider EEB family: people who are members of organisations, somewhere in Europe, that have good intentions towards the natural world. Anyone who already cares about the natural world might be frustrated, anxious and in need of more than little feel-good solutions. Within this group of people who already care about the environment, I notice that many are curious to learn more about how the pandemic, the flaws in our economic and political setup and nature are connected – as well as how things could be turned around. 

And of course, the end goal is “people in places of power”. This is not a typical text for an EU policymaker, but I’m guessing that many of them would actually find it refreshing to read a truly out of the box essay like this, with some new and bold ideas on how we can overcome the current crises. The change I hope to trigger is in the language we use in our political and public debates and the scope of policy options we deem to be open for debate. Should we pay all state debts to the ECB back? Should all Europeans work 40 hours of often bullshit jobs a week? Should we intervene in the aviation and rail markets to get people from planes to trains in a bolder and fairer way?

Many people are already engaging for change. What do you think is missing?

There seems to be no lack of engagement indeed, but what do you mean with ‘engaging’? A click on a petition? Sorting your waste? There is just no greening of consumption that is green enough to stop current consumption trends from undermining the very conditions for a thriving humanity. Engagement itself has fifty shades of grey and there is a lot of scope to move up the leverage ladder – with ever more of us ready to come out of the comfort zone. A system scientist even calculated that the best hope to prevent a collapse is direct collective action that goes against capitalist culture. I personally believe the power of collective non violent civil disobedience to do what is right is the power that can alter the political equation. Of course, visionary and courageous leaders who would dare to do things like cancelling membership of the fossil fuel club, better known as the Energy Charter Treaty, are also missing. But we can push them to do what is needed, if we rise on the engagement ladder and get both more ‘political’ and more ‘active’. And it only takes around 25% of the population to get active enough to realise a revolution.