POSTED: January 1, 2017 |
Book review

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

Paul Raskin’s Journey to Earthland is a thought-provoking essay that delivers an imaginative, compelling critique of societal problems, culminating in an ambitious description of a global eco-utopia.

Retro compass nautical badge on a stylized water background
© Noerizki / Thinkstock (modified)

Utopias have three functions: imagination, persuasion, and criticism. In the process of constructing utopia we must try to leave behind the societal constraints and open our imaginations. Utopia, as Levitas argues, is “the refusal to take at face value current judgements of the good, or claims that there is no alternative”. First and foremost, the utopian asks: what does it mean to live well?

In imagining a better future, utopias also function as critiques of the society they are written in. In nineteenth century USA and Europe, for example, industrial capitalism was transforming the economy and way of life. Among other things, the highly regimented division of labour of the factory system no longer allowed for the irregular rhythms and varied forms of work previously favoured by small holders, cottage labourers and artisans (and, today, students). Instead, work was ordered, repetitive and often dull. Utopianism responded with visions of communities organised around radically different ideas of work and economy: in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards work is reduced to a minimum and people retire at 45. In William Morris’ News from Nowhere post-revolutionary England is populated by artisans who change occupation and schedule on a whim, and infuse art into their work.

Finally, utopias often seek not to demonstrate a better way of life for its own sake, but in order to convince others to actively struggle for and try to construct utopia. The publication of Looking Backwards was followed by the formation of many “Bellamy Clubs”, who aimed to spread Bellamy’s ideas, leading to considerable influence in US politics. Taking a different tack, Morris serialised News from Nowhere in the socialist journal Commonweal – a publication that aimed to spread socialist ideas to the wider public.

Written by the co-founder of the Tellus institute, Paul Raskin, Journey to Earthland is the latest entry into the (eco-) utopian canon. Journey to Earthland provides a rich discussion of societal problems and their solutions. In doing so it fulfills the imagination function of utopia and excels in the critical function. I will argue that the sheer scale of this project means there is much here for a reader to take away from their trip to Earthland, but that it lacks a humanising element and, in consequence, may be missing a vital persuasive element.

First, Journey to Earthland is a powerful critique of society and the crises born of industrial capitalism: “climate change, cultural polarization, economic volatility, resource depletion and social disparity”. Raskin opens Journey to Earthland with theory of societal change. This theory sees society as having undergone a series of transitions from one equilibrium state to another, each time increasing in complexity. Starting as hunter-gatherer tribes in the stone-age we have advanced through to modernity organized as industrialised nation states. Now we are leaving the nation state behind, and entering the Planetary Phase, characterised by global forces. Global economies; global climate change; global governance; global everything. Consequently, for Raskin, the challenges we currently face have their roots in our history, but their form is decidedly new.

Because of this, Raskin argues that the solutions to Planetary Phase problems will not be solved through marginal reforms, and a good portion of the second part of Journey to Earthland is a convincing critique of moderate ‘reformist’ positions. Because the shift from Modern Era to Planetary Phase marks a “deep structural crisis” or “macro-shift”, Raskin says that we live in “immoderate” times. As such, the reformist position is utopian in the derogatory sense (wishful thinking) because it naively assumes continuity in historical forces. However, these forces are likely to shift suddenly and dramatically—think abrupt climate change or collapse of the global financial system. If they do, they are likely to overwhelm societies that have plumped for only marginal reforms. As Raskin puts it: “In immoderate times, moderation becomes imprudent—madness in reason’s mask”.

Instead (and here we enter the imaginative realm of Journey to Earthland) Raskin contends that if we are to flourish in the Planetary Phase we need to develop new values and new societal structures. Raskin argues that living well means addressing what he sees as the human longing for wholeness, through nurturing the values of ‘wellbeing’, ‘solidarity’, and ‘ecocentrism’.

Raskin sees seeds of these values in contemporary movements. Individually there is the quest for wellbeing found in anti-consumerist movements; at the societal level there is the struggle for solidarity through universal rights; and at the ecological level there is the eco-centrism of activists trying to move to more sustainable patterns of consumption and production. Raskin’s hope is that these movements can form together as a Global Citizens Movement and drive institutional change toward a wholeness ethic.

In the third and final section of Journey to Earthland we arrive at utopia proper with the description of Earthland itself. Earthland is huge, Raskin is a cosmopolitan and describes a truly global utopia. This makes Earthland far more ambitious in terms of scale than many historical utopias, which tended to focus on relatively insulated island communities (e.g. Utopia, Cokaygne, News from Nowhere). However, it also makes for a much more realistic utopia (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms). Could any utopia that doesn’t imagine an interconnected world really be a persuasive utopia for the Planetary Phase?

Moreover, at the system scale, Earthland is well realized. Raskin describes different economic structures found in different world regions and thus allows for tension and variety within his wholeness ethic. Similarly, we see the outline of how a wholeness ethic might translate into governance structures. Decisions take place as locally as possible, but this is combined with “an enlarged sense of place” such that many decisions are felt to be most relevant at the global scale, presumably leading to a complex poly-centric governance system.

However, even as the ambition and scale of Earthland is its key strength, it is also its key weakness. Describing such a large and complex world requires more space than is available in an extended essay. Raskin allocates only 37 pages to outline the structure of three economic archetypes, a system of world trade and a poly-centric governance structure (William Morris used 182 pages to do the same for a single system in a single country!). As a result, Raskin focuses on descriptions of high level ethical and economic drivers and neglects descriptions of everyday life. This makes for an intellectually rich essay, but unfortunately limits the possibility for readers to engage with Earthland on an emotional level. For me, the most convincing utopias (of which I would class News from Nowhere as a prime example) convey systemic theories through descriptions of everyday events. Journey to Earthland somehow lacks this humanising element.

In summary, Journey to Earthland is a compelling provocation. Raskin provides an ambitious critique of society, and in doing so makes the case for utopian thinking in general. The description of the wholeness ethic and its seeds in contemporary civic movements provides much food for thought. So too do the accounts of multi-level economic and governance structures. All of these ideas are forcefully argued and provoke considerable reflection in the reader. Ultimately, they don’t quite provide enough of a rational to convince the reader to accompany Raskin on the journey to Earthland. Nonetheless, there is plenty here for researchers and activists to think and build on, and would-be utopians will get much out of a careful reading.


  • Paul Raskin is the founder of the Great Transition Initiative, his Journey to Earthland is available for download on the Great Transition Initiative website.
  • You can read more reflections on Journey to Earthland by a diverse group of global thinkers here.

Simon is an Ecological Economist, holding a BSc in Environmental Science and an MA in Environmental Management. For his PhD, Simon developed and applied quantitative modelling frameworks to explore the sustainability of clothing supply chains. As Research Fellow with CUSP, he is working within our systems analysis theme.

2 Replies

  • comment-avatar
    Steven Smith January 8, 2017 (6:48 pm)

    I really enjoyed reading this book review, many thanks.

    I particularly liked the introduction. In your final summary you claim that Raskin “makes the case” for utopian thinking. It has been a while since I read Earthland, but I don’t recall him arguing for the social value of Utopianism in general. But you did, and you did it convincingly.

    I also really liked your “lacking in humanity” critique – how, in focusing solely on the macro/structural overview Raskin fails to emotionally engage at the personal /relational level. The failure to create an emotionally engaging narrative is a frequent and valid criticism of a lot of environment/sustainability writing. Other utopian contributions, for example Jonathan Porritt’s The World We Made, engage much better at the personal, everyday level.

    And lastly, I agree that Raskin’s link between moral cosmopolitanism and the seeds of our nascent global justice movement is an important, optimistic observation that needs repeating, with urgency (and made a staple of our diet, rather than merely “food for thought” if that isn’t straining your analogy too far). However, as I stressed in my previous thoughts on Raskin’s essay, the cultural evolution of moral concern is a slow process. Raskin’s Earthland and other similar “rallying cries” for expanding cooperation, empathy and moral concern into a cosmopolitan worldview – such as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation – correctly identify this social psychological goal as a necessary condition of a sustainable future. But they fail to fully acknowledge that it is also a process – a co-evolution of societal values and societal context, rather than an abrupt, collective act of free will. Historical studies of moral transformation (the abolition of slavery, for example) record timescales ranging from many decades to centuries, whereas the scientific evidence gives us a single generation (20-25 years) to embrace the global and trans-generational, morality required to avoid devastating climate disruption.

    That might sound pessimism and defeat, but it is meant as compassion, as defined both by the Pope and the Dalia Lama as the “call to action”.

    • comment-avatar
      Simon Mair January 8, 2017 (7:24 pm)

      Thanks for your kind words, Steve!

      I see the case for utopianism in Raskin’s critique of marginal reforms. While he doesn’t explicitly argue for utopianism, he does argue against the alternative.

      I confess I haven’t read world we made (it’s sat on my shelf). It sounds interesting though,I should move it to the top of the pile.

      Finally, I share your concern about the slow process of moral change. I didn’t want to critique a utopian work because it fails to lay out a path to the future – traditionally utopian works don’t. In fact some utopian scholars think that doing so can restrict the ability to imagine radical futures by locking the writer into the here and now. But, if I remember correctly, Raskin does say himself that he is setting out to describe not just a future but also a path to that future, so you raise a valid point.

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