We’re all aware that we need to start making some changes in our lives to help the environment, but it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Should we start with food? Energy? Travel? Work? And how can we inspire others to make changes too?
We caught up with Mike Berners-Lee, author of There Is No Planet B (Cambridge University Press, £9.99), at Hay Festival 2019.
In this episode, we speak to Mike about the challenges we all face in our daily lives, from what to buy at the supermarket to how we go on holiday.
Photography by Phil Rigby.
Sarah: Hello and welcome to the In The Moment Magazine podcast we are here today with Mike Berners-Lee who is the author of There Is No Planet B and we’re here at the Hay Festival. So, if you hear background noises and rain and that kind of thing, we’re in Wales so it’s what you expect.
So today we are going to talk to Mike about his area of expertise, which is the environment, and he is going to hopefully tell us about how we can live greener lives. So, Mike, is it all bad news in terms of climate change?
Mike: Well, people react to my book in different ways some people say that they think it is a very optimistic book and some people say that they like it but they’re having trouble coming to terms with all the depressing messages in it.
So, I think it depends on where your start point is. If your start point is that you’ve realised already that we’re in deep trouble over the environment over climate change and some other environmental issues as well, and you actually have been starting to think that humans are so rubbish that we just aren’t capable of dealing with this kind of stuff, then I think my book is really optimistic because it says that we can if we really pull our fingers out.
But if your start point is that you broadly think everything is fine and it’s only sandal-wearing greens who bang on about the environment and basically the rest of us should get on with living life as normal, then I think my book might come as depressing news.
Sarah: Would you say we’re perhaps at a bit of a tipping point at the moment where people are starting to realise that they actually need to change how they live?
Mike: Yeah, there is kind of a race between tipping points going on at the moment because the science is getting really really scary.
And I don’t say this, it doesn’t give me any joy to say this, but since I started working on climate change 15 years or so ago and actually even in the last year or two as the science has emerged actually it’s clear we’re heading for some really nasty trouble quite soon.
And it’s not just climate change, there’s kind of a confluence of issues biodiversity – another one ocean acidification, which is kind of linked to climate change and there are other issues as well and they are really coming to a head.
We are in a lot of danger and we really need to act fast otherwise it is going to hit us like a sledge hammer probably. But on the other hand, the other tipping point that’s going on is at long last humans are starting to wake up a little bit and it’s very hard to tell whether we’re waking up enough or whether this is going to fizzle or whether this is the start of something really big that’s going to bring about the change that we need.
But it feels like a race between tipping points. Is the environment going to tip against us and create a catastrophe or are we going to wake up in time and head off that catastrophe and I wouldn’t like to call which way that’s going to go.
Sarah: Yeah, I think like a lot of people I probably feel quite anxious about environmental issues and actually it is quite an overwhelming thing. Where can we make a start where is a good starting point to start change our own lives?
Mike: Well, there are about two areas in which we can all do what it takes to help the world to get on track and half of that is about how we live our own lives and the other half is about all the other ways in which we can have influence.
And I think you know all these environmental issues they kind of nag away at the back of our minds because we know that they are there and we sort of put off thinking of them and deny them a bit and we sort of change the subject when they come up. And so on and all of that weighs us down I think and I think when the time comes when we actually wake up and get on top of it we’ll all feel great about it, it doesn’t matter how much trouble we’re in we’ll still feel great about that fact.
We’ll know we’re doing the right thing and there are loads of different places where we can start in terms of how we live our own lives.
You know we’re all conflicted people. We’re all compromised by living in a society that is deeply unsustainable and so it’s difficult for any of us to be squeaky clean and we’re all only human and none of us find it easy to change all our habits but making a start is a start.
And that takes us on to you know gives us something we can build on and so in terms of how we live there’s areas about how we eat how we do food which is really, really important and stuff about how we use energy of course and linked to that how we travel of course.
And then there is everything to do with how we buy things you know the inedible things we buy and how much of them we buy of them and so on. Then there is everything to do with how we spend and invest money and then the sort of second area which perhaps we’ll come onto in a bit is how we influence all the other ways we can influence the people around us.
Sarah: Okay, maybe a good place to start is talking about food. Obviously, there are lots of issues around food, whether we go vegan and whether that’s better for the environment and also where we source are food from.
So, would you say that going vegan or vegetarian is a good choice to make for the environment? Or just reducing your meat intake?
Mike: Well the good news is I don’t think we all need to go absolutely a hundred percent vegan or vegetarian unless you want to although there is nothing wrong with doing that. And actually, I’m finding myself kind of increasingly…
I’m kind of a flexitarian I’m increasingly wondering that way because I’m finding that that’s the way my habits and preferences are. I’m moving partly just the more I’m thinking about it and partly choices in vegetarian and vegan food are getting better and better and partly just because the more you eat that kind of food the more you realise how great it is.
But food really matters just in terms of carbon footprint the average UK person’s carbon footprint is about a quarter of it is down to food. In terms of other issues as well, we need to get a lot of things right in our food and land system.
We need to cut the greenhouse gases because it’s about a quarter of the world’s carbon footprint and we need to manage our biodiversity because which is currently haemorrhaging really really dangerously and feed everybody properly even as the population grows which it is bound to do at least somewhat.
And from all those perspectives it is absolutely clean cut that there needs to be less meat and dairy in the human diet and that’s actually happily that turns out to be good for health reasons as well. Most of us can use shifting our diet to less meat and dairy as an opportunity to improve the health of that diet as well.
So, well it’s not as if we can’t ever eat any meat and dairy. It is worth saying that beef and lamb are the highest impact animals because they ruminate them and so they burp up greenhouse gasses along with the food that they give us.
Sarah: So in terms of reducing food waste are there any tips you could give our listeners?
Mike: Okay, so reducing food waste is the second most important thing the first most important thing is cutting the meat and dairy especially the meat and lamb. The second most important thing is cutting food waste – and it sounds so obvious it shouldn’t even need to be said, but that’s just about making sure things don’t go off in the fridge and making sure that your plates are empty getting into eating leftovers.
If you go out to cafes and restaurants try to choose places that are also conscious of food waste if you can and so in developed countries we tend to waste a sickening proportion of our food and it is just so mindless and needless.
And just by the way it’s a way of saving money and it’s a way of reducing the amount of time you need to spend shopping. So, it is kind of a general life enhancement opportunity while we’re at it.
Sarah: Would you say we need to be more conscious shoppers? Say when we go to the supermarket. What are the sort of choices we need to be making?
Mike: Okay, so we’ve talked about the amount of meat and dairy. In terms of eating what you buy it’s about just having in your mind what is there in the fridge already what needs eating. Not just thinking first of all what do I fancy for tea tonight, but thinking what is there that needs eating tonight.
So, it’s just kind of a bit of a reorientation. But then there is tuning into the supply chains of absolutely everything we buy. This goes beyond food and certainly includes food. When you see something on the shelf don’t just think that thing on the shelf that looks tasty that looks great I’ll have it, think how did that food come to be on that shelf you know who grew it where was it grown what chemicals were used and how did it travel to get here.
Which takes us on to the third area of our unsustainable food. The third simple rule of thumb is just ask yourself: did this food go on an aeroplane? An aeroplane is about one hundred times more carbon intensive as a boat as a way of transporting food around, so you know we don’t know how to do a long-distance flight in a decent-sized aeroplane without burning though an excessive a hundred tons of fuel. And that turns itself into something like almost four times that weight in carbon dioxide and because all that burning happens at high altitude it has a much greater effect again because of some complex science and high altitude effects.
It really is an incredibly impactful thing to do so in the sustainable world there will not be no air-freighted food. You can guess that something has been air-freighted by if it hasn’t had a long shelf-life, if it’s out of season or comes from a long way away. So, for example apples, oranges and bananas are fine because they are in nice sturdy crates and they keep well so they can be put on a boat. But asparagus, berries, grapes from the other side of the world – they’re all a total carbon disaster.
Sarah: So just stick to your oranges?
Mike: The good news is that in January you can eat apples, oranges pineapples, melons, anything robust that come from anywhere in the world. And if you need to have raspberries, strawberries or berries that’s okay just have them frozen which turns out to be actually not too bad.
Sarah: Yeah and those are pretty good – just add them to your porridge or something like that.
Mike: Yes, they taste great. They’re really really good.
Sarah: Okay, so moving on from food shall we talk about energy consumption. So, I think like most people you know I have a smart phone, I have a TV and those things are pretty energy hungry…
Mike: Ah, okay, well the big deal for most of us in our energy consumption at home is around heat and then light. And our electronic goods you know, yes, we should turn them off if were not using them and stuff, but the big deal is heat and light.
Some of the actions that we can take are just dead simple don’t require any pre-planning or any investment that’s things like closing the door behind you turning off the lights when leaving the room and putting on a jumper if you’re feeling chilly.
And some of them require a whole load of investment. If you’ve got the money, if you have spare cash floating around and you’re wondering how to spend it, instead of spending it on a brand new Landrover Discovery or, you know, a carbon-intensive car or holiday on the other side of the world then by all means spend it on first of all installations to your house getting it top notch. And once you’ve done all that solar panels on yours roof, and down source heat pumps, air source heat pumps all the other sustainable ways of getting heat into your house.
Sarah: Are there ways technology can actually help us with our carbon footprint? Like for example, working from home?
Mike: Yeah there are, but we need to be cautious about this. I work with some of the tech giants and they are really keen to push a story line that says that the world is lower carbon because of us and all the lovely efficient products we have. So, one example would be the story line that says because we do video conferencing technology, we save people going on flights and unfortunately all these arguments at the moment turn out to be nonsense. Because although sometimes somebody will not have a flight because they do a video conference, instead it’s just as likely and in fact even slightly more likely it turns out. That somebody who wasn’t going to fly in the first place ends up having a video conference with somebody getting to know somebody really well getting on so well that before you know it, they’re getting on like a house on fire –so well in fact that they say they must meet up! Which stimulates a flight that never otherwise would have happened.
Sarah: So, they’re like: “Come see me we’ll talk about it!”
Mike: Yeah, exactly! That’s the way that all this technology and all this proficiency improvement is working. There was a guy back in the 19th century William Stanley Jevons working for the coal board, who worked out that if the UK got more efficient in its use of coal actually the demand for coal would go up not down. I
t kind of feels a bit counter-intuitive, but it turns out to be obvious when and you think about it, because suddenly coal would be more valuable, because there would be more to do with it and so more worthwhile to dig it up out the ground – and you could actually use some of that coal to help you dig it out of the ground.
That’s the way all efficiency improvements are working on a kind of dynamic by which the more efficiency improvement we get we increase resource even more than extent of efficiency improvements.
That’s why our carbon footprint for example is going up and up and up at the global level despite the fact that we’re getting all these efficiency improvements.
You know our lighting is 500 times more efficient than it used to be and our travel is more efficient than it used to be, and our information storage is millions of times more efficient than it used to be and yet the carbon footprint of all those things is going up not down.
So yes, efficiency improvements are really useful, but they only help us if we bag the savings. We need to curve or cap the total resource demand that lies behind the things that we do.
Sarah: I was thinking when I was reading your book actually: do we need to fundamentally change the way we work in order to be more environmentally friendly?
Mike: Yeah, we do and let’s stand right back and have a look at what’s really going on all right. What’s the real situation that we find ourselves in here? Humanity, okay, so we have been becoming a more and more powerful species for a long time so for a long time we’ve been the dominant species on earth.
But we were still a small species compared to the big resilient planet that we were playing around on. And as we got more energy at our disposal, so our human energy supply has been going up and we have been becoming more efficient with that energy supply and more inventive about things we can do with that energy we’ve been having more and more influence through a mixture of accident and design we’ve been having more and more influence on our planet.
The really recent thing that’s happened is that quite suddenly we’ve got to the point where the planet can’t cope anymore. So even a hundred years ago we couldn’t smash the whole place up if we tried right.
Fifty years ago, we could smash the whole place up, but only if we really tried, did something really stupid like have a nuclear war. But now we’re got three or four times more energy at our disposal than we had 50 years ago and we’re much more efficient with our use of it and we’ve invented so many new chemicals and things to do with that energy that our influence over this planet is ten or more times what it was than even 50 years ago.
And suddenly the planet just can’t cope and unless we raise the game on our stewardship massively, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble very, very quickly. And I think you know it’s not some abstract thing that we worry about for the future. You now this is going to hit us like a brick in our lifetimes.
We don’t actually know when it could be it could be within a decade seriously, we should be getting a kick of adrenaline when we think about this stuff. Because it’s immediate and it’s big time.
If we leave it too late, we won’t be able to just suddenly change our minds and become sustainable and it’ll be alright you know. We need to head this off before catastrophe happens.
This big change of context means a lot of the ways in which we think about life needs to be reengineered a bit. Actually, we need to think again about how our economics works because all our economics systems date back to an era when the planet was robust compared to anything we could do to it. That’s changed so our economics need to change.
This all started because you asked me about business. Well unsurprisingly there are some pretty big implications for business. So, in this context in which we are a powerful species on a fragile planet it is no longer acceptable for a business not to be thinking really carefully about that.
In fact, its primary purpose needs to be constructive you need to be able to say I work for a business that makes the world a better place. I need to work for a business that is geared up to help people and planet to thrive. And if that’s not the case you know the business shouldn’t exist, and the people working for it should be looking for other jobs and if they can’t then they’re bonded labourers. You know and that’s challenging. I know that’s really challenging. You know but it’s not okay to exist purely to make money it’s okay to earn a living it’s okay even for a business to make a profit but as a reason for existence it doesn’t cut it any more.
Sarah: Wow, so again that goes back to what can we do? I know we spoke quickly before we did this interview about activism. So, I was wondering whether you could share some tips about that for what people who are listening to this can actually do to make changes?
Mike: Okay, so that’s a really good question because here we are with all our big global systemic challenges and in the book, I really lay out the global systemic stuff that is going on. And each one of us is just one seven and a half billionth of the global population, so it is easy to think there is nothing I can do and in fact that’s an easy excuse to have.
But it turns out there is plenty we can all do and if we want to be effective and be genuinely influential and have a meaningful impact we need to ask ourselves the question: what can I be doing to help create the conditions under which the system change that we need can become possible?
So, half of that is about how we live and the impact of our own lives and that’s really important because it brings integrity to everything else we do. And the means by which we change ourselves is kind of parallel to the means by which the world changes itself and kind of the micro and macro link up together and we can learn about one from the personal experience of trying to do it ourselves.
All the ups and downs of it. But then the other half of what we can do is to think all right what are all the ways in which I can have a wider influence and that’s about every situation I’m in.What values do I take to work? When I’m in a meeting at work what influence do I have in that meeting? And I know that’s challenging sometimes it’s about being a bit brave and sometimes it’s about being a bit skilful to deliver tough clear messages with a big smile on your face so that nobody hates you for it.
You know whatever the skill is that enables that to be done. But it’s about how we take ourselves to work how we take ourselves to if we’re in school or education what do we take to that of course it’s about how we vote but it’s a lot more in terms of politics it’s a lot more than how we vote its to influence politicians.
So, that every prospective candidate knows we really care about climate change and we really care about the environment and we really care about truth and we won’t be voting for any politician who is careless with any of those things or incoherent with any of those things. Yeah so, we need to create an environment where are politicians who at frankly the moment getting away with murder are compelled to raise their game.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean and of course we’ve had recently people like – I’m probably going to say her name wrong – Greta Thunberg?
Mike: Well done!
Sarah: Close enough! If people haven’t heard of her, she’s a teenage girl who has been basically striking from school in protest against politicians who have been doing nothing about climate change. And she’s inspired school strikes around the world. And I think one reason why she seems do so well and get so much attention is because her message is really simple and really clear. How can we emulate that?
Mike: Well, she is incredible. I don’t want to pin too much on her, some people try to explain her away saying she’s just a naïve 16-year-old. Well she may be just a 16-year-old that’s why we shouldn’t pin so much on her but my goodness she is clear. So one of the things that she does is cut to the core straight away and when you do that. When you really say it like it is then that’s when we start taking action.
I think it’s so easy for us to blur it all and start talking ourselves into the idea that tiny little actions are all that it takes and just confuse ourselves away from the big issues. The big issues are that this planet is really heading for some trouble and we need to take big strong action on it and nothing else will do.
I think there’s something really powerful I think about the younger generation standing up and insisting on a better world and calling us out you know calling my generation out for not doing the right thing we are supposed to look after the generation underneath us and we haven’t been doing so. We should be ashamed and embarrassed, and I think it’s probably the best way into the hearts and minds of the chief execs of big powerful companies is possibly through their kids and their thoughts about the younger generation.
Sarah: Yes, of course I think you said in the book that you don’t want to look at your children or grandchildren and have them ask why didn’t you do anything.
Sarah: I think that’s quite powerful.
Mike: I think it is. Maybe I’ll try a bit of Greta-style clarity and just say you know I know this is perhaps this is a much-used metaphor or image, but just imagine on your death bed when you’re with your kids when they’re looking you in the eye whether they say it or not you know they will know how you played your cards. We all know this is true.
We all know that whatever environmental situation were in our kids will know we knew and we made choices. They may love us anyway they may accept us for all our weaknesses, but surely we will wish that we had done what we could.
Sarah: Yes, absolutely. Is there anything we haven’t covered yet that you think is important to mention?
Mike: Yeah, I think it’s really, I would like to talk about values I’m not an ethics professor or anything like that.
Sarah: Oh, absolutely yeah.
Mike: But it’s amazing how many technical scientific experts who have ended up saying to me something along the lines of you know what? Perhaps at the end of the day it all tracks back to our values debate and luckily it turns out that our values are things we can change by conscious deliberate effort. You know and I think there are three values that are going to help humans survive.
I’m not trying to be preachy about this. I’m not trying to say that these are nice values to have. I don’t think I am in any better place to say that than anybody else but just from a practical point of view right if humans are going to get by in the 21st century, we are going to need to learn to respect each other. We’re going to need to respect everybody else just because we’re all in it together like it or not.
People on the other side of the world from other countries can mess up the world for us if we’re not collaborating together and that means we’re going to were going to need to treat them with respect and have them treat us with respect back. Because like it or not we are one global tribe. So, there is a respect for each other value there’s a respect value for all the other species as well, plant and animal.
I think some people think that maybe we don’t need all the bio-diversity we have got. If you just take a technocentric view of the world and are a bit unimaginative why don’t we turn the world into some man-made spaceship and maybe, we only need about 15 species and that’ll be fine or something. We underestimate the complexity of the system that we’re part of. It’s just so unimaginative to think we can do without that complex biodiversity that we have got. So, we need to start really respecting that and tuning into that.
Thirdly, we need to get a lot hotter at just respecting truth for its own sake whether it’s convenient to us or not. That’s because the issues that we have got to find our way through are complex and they require detailed, thoughtful, trusted analysis. We can only have that if we can get ourselves a culture that honours and respects and insists on truth.
From our politicians from our media from our businesses from each other from ourselves and that is challenging but it is doable. We can all take steps to insist that in every situation everybody is truthful including ourselves and that will get us a long way.
On both sides of the Atlantic we’ve seen the consequences of moving that in the wrong direction. And we need to pull it back and push it further in the right direction than It has ever been before.
Sarah: Right, I think that is the perfect place to finish. Can you tell us about your book?
Mike: Okay so the book is called There Is No Planet B: a handbook for the Make or Break Years and it is unashamedly trying to be the chatty and fun but robust and evidence-based big picture of everything from every perspective. So, science, technology, economics, values, truth everything you can think of that matters about what human need to do in order to thrive going forwards. It is partly big picture and partly the very practical what can I do stuff.
Sarah: Okay, that’s brilliant. Thank you very much!
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