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There Is No Planet B

There Is No Planet B

Theos Associate, Ian Christie, reviews Mike Berners–Lee’s ‘There Is No Planet B’ and reflects on a pivotal year for environmental politics. 03/07/2019

For anyone campaigning for action on the increasing damage to our environment and the risks of ecological disruption so bad as to endanger the continuation of civilised life, the past two decades have been depressing times. As scientific evidence of local and global damage has mounted, there has been a pervasive sense of cognitive dissonance among policymakers and citizens. Over the past generation we have had a plethora of international reports, conferences, multi–lateral environmental agreements, national legislation and (from 2015) the United Nations’ Global Goals for Sustainable Development, a vision of inclusive economic growth underpinned by radical action to green our societies and protect the planet’s wildlife, wildernesses and life support systems. In spite of the mendacious activities of the well–funded anti–environmental ‘denialist’ movement, few politicians and chief executives now challenge the diagnosis that we are facing profound risks from degradation of our environments worldwide, and in particular from global heating as a result of fossil fuel consumption over many decades.

However, in the face of the immense base of evidence of climate disruption, loss of species and habitats and dangerous air and water pollution, there has been a near–total lack of urgency about implementing the radical policies needed, especially given the multiple economic and social crises in the West that were sparked or worsened by the fall–out from the 2008 financial crash. The world over, and above all in the ‘developed’ world’s governments and policy systems, Homo Sapiens stood no chance against Homo Procrastinans. To borrow the cliché of the decade from Brexit and Eurozone politics, civilisation has ‘kicked the can down the road’ for a generation in failing to act on the warnings from scientists. Pessimism over this endemic procrastination was intensified among environmentalists when President Trump was elected, a man in thrall to ‘climate change deniers’ on the American Right in politics and big business. When would we ever get around to taking truly seriously our need for a healthy and diverse natural world, and for the life support systems it provides us?

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It could be that the moment is here. The past year has been a remarkable one for environmental politics and policy. First, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report that for once cut through to the public, media and politicians. The IPCC, summarising vast amounts of research evidence on climate disruption and risks ahead, warned that the world must cut its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to net zero by mid–century in order to have a good enough chance of limiting global heating to 1.5°C (we have warmed the globe by 1 degree C in the past 150 years of industrial development). Not that 1.5C is a ‘safe’ increase: we will not escape serious harms, in particular in the tropics and at the poles. But beyond the 1.5C level global heating will produce ever more severe damage to environments, economies, societies, health and human security. The IPCC concluded that we would need to reduce GHGs by 45% (below the level reached in 2010) by 2030 in order to have a good chance of meeting this target. Otherwise we are on course towards a 3–4 degrees C average global temperature rise by the end of the century, and for more heating beyond that given the persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The IPCC analysis was often boiled down to a media story that shouted that we had ‘12 years left’ to avoid civilizational collapse. This headline achieved the difficult feat of outdoing the bleakness of the IPCC analysis and what it implies for very rapid emissions reduction and transformational change in economies and societies worldwide. However, the coverage seems to have helped achieve a breakthrough in public consciousness. Last autumn, a teenage Swedish school girl, Greta Thunberg, began a lone ‘strike for the climate’, staying away from school on Friday each week to protest against political inaction in the light of the IPCC report. Six months later, millions of school students were emulating her worldwide, she’d been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and her collected speeches to date were published. This astonishing story of an individual sparking mass civic action was accompanied by the rise of the Extinction Rebellion movement, whose imaginative street protests about climate crisis and the ruinous trends in biodiversity loss began in the UK and rapidly spread around the world. During 2019 we have seen many cities and towns, and then governments – including the UK’s – declare a ‘climate emergency’ and set demanding targets for achievement of net–zero GHG emissions by 2050. In Germany, the Green Party now seems to be the most popular, ahead of the long–established mass parties for the first time; and Greens have made significant advances in the EU elections. Alongside growing alarm over the climate crisis, there has also been a big increase in public and political concern about the lesser but still severe problem of plastic waste pollution in seas, food chains and cherished landscapes.

It is premature to announce that all this amounts to a decisive breakthrough in public concern and political response to ecological crises, after decades of complacency, inaction and ‘denial’. GHG emissions are still rising, and governments and parties who are tied to – in effect owned by – fossil fuel and extractive interests, are still in power in the USA, Australia, Russia, Brazil and other major states. The scale of the ecological crises we face is overwhelming, and they are intricately connected. It is all too tempting to ‘switch off’ from the bad news and to embrace fatalism. TS Eliot wrote that humankind cannot bear very much reality, a line that sums up much of the literature on the psychology of climate change denial and apathy over the past two decades. But Eliot’s thought does not tell the whole story. The time comes when we also cannot bear too much unreality – when the pile–up of evidence and everyday experience that tells us we must change our lives becomes unignorable.

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In December 2018, we marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 moonshot, during which the astronauts took the first photographs of the Earth seen from the Moon. The photos, and the testimony of lunar and space station astronauts ever since, brought home with extraordinary force those facts that we know in the abstract but easily overlook: we live on a planet, there is nowhere else for us to go, and the conditions which have enabled human development as we know it are exceptional and fragile. There is, as the title of Mike Berners–Lee’s excellent new book reminds us, no Planet B. Perhaps it has taken us half a century – and the amassing of so much scientific evidence and bitter direct experience of loss and damage, especially now in the global South – to absorb truly the message that there is ‘only one Earth’ and that it must be handled with care if it is to provide a viable home for civilisation far into the future.

At such a time, many concerned citizens will want to know more, and to learn what they can do to help make the radical changes needed to decarbonise our economies and create a better world for all, and to prevent the disasters that lie ahead if we fail to act. There are many good books that can do the job, but Mike Berners–Lee has written one of the best guides available to the state of the global environment and the action we need to take to cope with crisis and avert disasters. There Is No Planet B is a superbly written and well–organised handbook on the state of knowledge about what’s wrong and about what we can practically do, collectively and individually, to work for a sustainable world.

Mike Berners–Lee’s previous books include the excellent How Bad Are Bananas? (2011), a guide to the cost in carbon emissions of a mass of everyday products, services and activities. It pulled off the difficult trick of being honest and accurate about the problems while not depressing the reader into fatalistic inaction. There Is No Planet B, a much more ambitious book on the intertwined crises of climate, biodiversity, food security, resource use and energy systems, achieves the same effect. Berners–Lee manages to combine scientific accuracy and utmost seriousness about the issues with lightness of touch. His writing is admirably clear and concise. The book is well organised, and the reader comes away much better informed, and even entertained at times despite the daunting subject matter. Beginners and experts alike can’t fail to learn a lot from this handbook.

The book is a “handbook for the Make or Break years”. Berners–Lee makes it plain that the next few decades will be decisive ones. The hour is late, given the decades of delay and denial. Industrial civilisation has pushed the Earth’s life support systems into dangerous states. Our energy demand and productive power have begun to breach the ecological boundaries within which we and other creatures can thrive. In his words:

“In our global experiment, we have been adding more and more human power into the mix but for millennia the planet’s restorative power still dominated. Although we wiped out some other species, we have broadly got away with treating the world as a big sturdy playground. Suddenly it is fragile. The playground will break unless we change the way we play in it.”

Berners–Lee succeeds in blending a serious and suitably anxious big picture analysis of where we stand with a confident and clear account of the many positive steps we can take in government, business, organisations and everyday household life. The book’s format lends itself equally well to a start–to–finish read or to dipping in to explore particular themes. To encourage productive ‘dipping’, he includes at the end an alphabetical ‘quick tour’ of topics, a ‘big picture summary’ and a primer on the basics of climate change.

Berners–Lee introduces the book with a concise account of our intertwined global crises, the values of universal human needs and rights that underpin his analysis and recommendations, and a reflection on the scope for individuals to make a difference even in the face of overwhelmingly large–scale challenges. The book then goes on to consider the big systems that underpin our chances of flourishing and that also need drastic reform if production and consumption are to become ecologically sustainable. The book covers, in sequence: food, climate and environment, energy, travel and transport, economy, population, work, business, and technology. There’s a particularly good chapter on the economic dimensions of the crises of unsustainable development, examining growth, finance and the metrics of the economy. Berners–Lee covers complex and controversial issues such as the viability of the growth model of the economy with admirable clarity. Each chapter comprises answers to pressing questions – some plainly stated, some invitingly mysterious, some down to earth and close to home. ‘How can we produce enough food for 9.7 billion of us in 2050?’ ‘Should I go veggie or vegan?’ ‘Should I fly?’ ‘How can human wealth become more like the energy in a gas?’

A particularly valuable feature is the way the author manages to bring together the top–down and the bottom–up in his analysis and recommendations for actions. There is a tedious debate in academic circles about the tension between encouraging individual lifestyle change for the environment and promoting systemic change. Many books asking what should be done look at the big picture and downplay the role of the citizen. Perhaps still more ignore the systemic level of change and offer instead a checklist of small things each of us can change to ‘do our bit’ to ‘save the planet’. Both are liable to induce a sense of fatalism: either there is nothing I can do, or if there is, the steps are obviously trivial in the face of the nature of the challenges. The truth is that many of our challenges of unsustainable development are collective action problems, which are extremely hard to overcome through individual action, and which lock whole systems of institutions and organisations into patterns of behaviour that are dysfunctional. The break–out from collective action problems happens when a critical mass of people cooperate to change the rules of the game. But what makes them do that?

Berners–Lee offers an answer, and it is that we have to be serious about how changes in human values occur, and about how values underpin behaviour. Unusually in a book of this kind, he concludes with an ambitious chapter on values, truth and trust, and a conclusion on ‘thinking skills’ for sustainability–minded citizens. “All the pathways of this book seem to be converging inescapably on the question of values. It turns out to be the crunch point.” He offers a brief but challenging discussion of ‘intrinsic values’ that he sees as crucial and universalisable: equality of worth for all people; respect and care for the world; respect for truth.

These two concluding chapters are fascinating and valuable, but leave the reader wanting more: here Berners–Lee is too concise, and he could say much more about many issues now being raised by the civil society insurgents of Extinction Rebellion and the Greta Thunberg–inspired school strikes movement. What are the institutional changes we will need in order to be able to promote changes in values in the direction he wants? Should we be embracing deliberative democracy, and how? What are the forms that ‘Just Transition’ should take, in order to avoid further damage to the worse–off as we make fossil energy more expensive and as jobs are lost in carbon–intensive sectors?

Perhaps the biggest gap is the lack of discussion about the role of religion. To be fair, the author includes two pages on it, but he is clearly ill at ease with the subject. Yet the facts are stark. We live in a religious world – some 84% of the total population have some religious affiliation, and the proportion will rise throughout this century. Berners–Lee is right that the task ahead of us is one of generating cooperation on an epic scale at all levels. But that means cooperation between secular people and religious people, and between faiths and within them. It would be valuable to have much more on the challenges and opportunities here, and on the many profound contributions to the agenda made by the major faiths – Pope Francis’s magnificent Encyclical Laudato Si’ above all, perhaps.

Given the pace of change, we will need a second edition soon, giving Mike Berners–Lee the chance to include more discussion of the ‘climate Spring’ of 2019 and the evidence of mounting political and civic pressure for radical action. In a new edition it would be excellent to have more on his analysis of the values we need and the ways in which value changes and accompanying shifts in practices and institutions can happen. Meanwhile, this first edition of There Is No Planet B is a brilliant handbook for reflection, discovery and action concerning our ecological predicaments.

Ian Christie is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey.

There is no Planet B: A Handbook for the make or break years by Mike Berners Lee is published by Cambridge University Press.


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Ian Christie

Ian Christie

Ian Christie is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Environment and Sustainability, University of Surrey.

Posted 3 July 2019

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