Written by Mike Berners-Lee, brother of the more famous Tim, this book is difficult to categorise. It is part economic text, part philosophy, part psychology; sometimes worldly-wise and sometimes quite naïve. It continually switches the spotlight from the universal to the personal, from the state to the individual. The author appeals to the latter alternately – sometimes abruptly – as sensitive planet-lover, average citizen and fellow-sinner. Thought-wise, Berners-Lee is the descendant of Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Malthus and Tom Stoppard, with sprinklings of the Archangel Gabriel for good measure. The book triumphs because of Berners-Lees’ racy, informal style: he has achieved the difficult coup of turning a disquisition into a page-turner.
Mike Berners-Lee is described by Wikipedia as “an English researcher and writer on carbon foot-printing. He is a professor and fellow of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University and director and principal consultant of Small World Consulting, based in the Lancaster Environment Centre at the university.” Berners-Lee is the mature adult’s Greta Thunberg. He tries, and mostly succeeds, not to fall into knuckle-rapping piety. The great strength of his book is the force of the scientific and statistical evidence he has amassed about the sustainability – or otherwise – of Planet Earth as we know it. A huge corpus of data has been packed into this relatively slim volume. It exposes the plight of what he memorably calls the “Anthropocene” – “the era in which human influence is the dominant source of change to the ecosystem”.
That statement immediately raises the question of the fake news peddled by those who claim that global warming isn’t happening. He repudiates this with a workmanlike definition of what truth means to a scientist:
“…there is no such thing as one person’s truth as distinct from another person’s truth. If something it true, then it is a fact. Period. There is nothing subjective or personal about it. A person’s view of the truth is a different thing altogether and always is personal.”
He provides a statistician’s bounty of lists and charts that illustrate the carbon footprints of different foodstuffs, the relative benefits of and damages caused by different kinds of fuel, the energy consumption of the rich versus the poor, etc. They certainly make you think, and there are some surprises: for example, relentless facts demonstrate that production of biofuels steals food from the starving.
The charts contain so much information that it can be difficult to absorb it all. Consequently, and because the author appeals directly to the reader so often, it is tempting to view the data through a personal prism, rather than objectively. Thus I can award myself gold stars for not consuming beef – which he proves incontrovertibly is the most carbon-expensive food on the planet (even more expensive than the asparagus flown in from Peru, so often the beef eaters’ favourite retort) – and for running a very old car. If I’m honest, I deserve no praise for either of these – I don’t like beef and cars per se have never interested me. What brings me up sharp, though, is that dairy products are also environmentally greedy. As a very occasional meat eater, I consume a lot of dairy; as a small-boned woman, I have been persuaded by my doctor that this is essential to avoid osteoporosis. Should I consider reducing my intake drastically, for the sake of the planet? Leaving fossil fuels in the ground also makes perfect sense, but I live in a place where there is currently no viable alternative for heating.
Berners-Lee is not an economist in the conventional sense. Neither am I; but, as it was my misfortune to have to teach Economics as a subsidiary subject for three years when I was MBA course director at an English university, I understand the basic principles of ‘the dismal science’. I therefore admire the chutzpah of the counter-economics feats he has pulled off. For example, when acting as consultant for the Booth’s supermarket chain, he persuaded them to offer “buy one, get one free next week” as part of a push to reduce consumer waste of food. This runs entirely against the first economic principle of retailing, which is to get people to spend at least the same – and preferably more – every time they go shopping.
Another economic principle he tries to buck, but only hypothetically and much less convincingly, is the dynamic of scarce resources. He gives the example of two charities, one of which is doing well, the other less well, and suggests that the latter will applaud the former and be glad for its success, because both are working for the greater good. I have on several occasions either taught or worked with charity officials and I can report that they are at least as cut-throat as all but the most thuggish businesspeople. Not only is their own charity – of course – very close to their hearts, but their personal prestige and, in all probability, their livelihood, depends on its success. And who is to decide which charity is most worthwhile? Enter the Archangel Gabriel?
This brings me to the nub of what’s most difficult about this book. Even the most public-spirited of us cannot comprehend, in absolute terms, of what the greater good consists. In a world of seven billion people, most of whom are, shamefully, living from hand to mouth each day, how do we decide and who makes the decision? The one per cent in whose hands most of the world’s wealth lies? And what difference can we humbler – but still by world standards very affluent – individuals make? Berners-Lee offers advice on this in almost every chapter. Much is of the ‘no-one is too small to make a difference’ Greta Thunberg sentiment. Some seems over-optimistic or impractical: for example, only vote for politicians who are in sympathy with saving the environment; if no-one meets your standards, vote for the least bad. (I should be intrigued to know how Berners-Lee voted in the 2019 UK general election.)
The least satisfactory chapter is the one in which he describes how he and colleagues have worked with clients to reduce carbon emissions. Because he must summarise, his accounts seem both arcane and too much like plugs for his mates. The systems thinking he illustrates is a bit clunky, too. (I wonder if he has come across the work of the – sadly, late – Peter Checkland, another scion of the University of Lancaster, whose subtle and flexible Soft Systems Methodology was my bible when I taught strategic management.)
These are minor quibbles, however; There is No Planet B is an astonishing achievement, a seminal work that just might change Anthropocene Man’s hell-bent pursuit of his trajectory suicidal. The lockdown offers a perfect time to read this book and reflect on the messages it sets out so eloquently. Perhaps we can emerge from the current crisis stronger, more thoughtful and kinder to both ourselves and the planet and, in the process, find ways of avoiding the much bigger crisis that is hurtling towards us.
There is No Planet B is published by Cambridge University Press. I read it in paperback format (978 1 108 43958 9; £9.99); it is also available as an audio book, read by the author – more details here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/audiobooks-from-cambridge The book is also available online to academic institutions from: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108545969.
This has been a strange weekend for everyone, despite – or even because of – the blue skies and sunshine, now replaced by a cold, grey front from the North Pole. On Friday, it was seventy-five years since ‘VE [Victory in Europe] Day’. In the UK, all kinds of celebrations had been planned for this, most of which haven’t happened because of the Covid-19 lockdown. There is some hope that they can be held on 15th August, on ‘VJ [Victory in Japan] Day’ instead. I wonder. When the lockdown started, no-one imagined it would still be in place towards the end of the summer, but it may well be.
My daughter-in-law, who is German, told us about a conversation she had with our five-year-old granddaughter about this European anniversary, providing her with the relevant history that she really did want to know about, for, though the family lives in Cambridgeshire, she has relatives in the Münsterland and elsewhere whom she visits regularly; she also speaks German very well indeed. She knows that her great-grandparents chucked bombs at each other. Her mum’s words speak for themselves:
“VE Day. I’ve been thinking about the right words all day. It is one of the very few days when I find British life… awkward.
For me, the 8th of May has always been a day of commemoration and, primarily, of remembering the liberation from fascism and the Holocaust. I have absolutely no problem with celebrating this and the end of the war, but I suppose what makes me feel uncomfortable is the choice of the name for this day. Victory in Europe.”
Between them, she and her daughter decided to rename the day ‘Peace in Europe Day’ and – in and with, socially distanced 😉, their local community – to celebrate peace, not victory, as something perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been since 1945.
Here, at home in the Pennines, we have reflected a lot on how far we have come as a nation since the Second World War and I don’t mind saying that we are both committed Europhiles, who are happily English but also proud of being European. We love the country we were born in and all that makes it unique, but we love Europe too; we identify, quite rightly, with our nation, but not to the detriment of other nations; we are not jingoistic and we are weary indeed of the ultra-nationalistic nonsense we’ve heard all our lives and, especially, over the past three years or so. When our son and daughter-in-law were married in 2011, we hung German and British flags in our hall, where they have remained ever since, accompanied now by a banner of the twelve Chinese horoscope characters in silk and an Indian textile designed to celebrate Diwali, both acquired on my forays abroad. They hang there together in solidarity, companions in peace and shared interests from four very different countries, a testament to new global friendships with likeminded people. Our granddaughter takes it for granted that they are a permanent part of our household.
In the village where I live, several families hung out Union Jacks. Flags are evocative props – they stand at once for national pride, military prowess and a strong sense of identity. When my husband was a child and his family were living in the south of England they made a pilgrimage back to the north once a year to visit his grandmother, who always hung out Union Jacks on the hedge to welcome them after their long journey.
In retrospect, these same flags were probably the ones she purchased to celebrate the original VE Day. When I was a child growing up in Lincolnshire, we all waved flags on Flower Parade Day (though I never understood why) and, when we visited the seaside, our parents would buy us little packets of paper flags to stick in sandcastles. There was always a Union Jack among these, though my brother and I both liked the red and green Welsh dragon best. Children enjoy the simple realities, rather than the symbolism, which they only later come to understand. We are delighted that our granddaughter has shrugged off naïveté about this very early.
The celebrations were meant to mark the return to peace rather than victory and those creative people who managed to put their mark on yesterday expressed this. My favourites were the staff of my local convenience shop, who dressed as – very glamorous – land girls to cheer and amuse their customers.
They all work very hard to support everyone in their neighbourhood, with no discrimination, even though they have their fair share of – how best to put it? – awkward individuals! I’m led to consider that EVERY nation has its own fair share of, frankly, unpleasant people.
Because of my day job, I’m in daily touch with people across the world, all coping with lockdown. Some have very challenging situations to cope with: they live in densely populated conurbations, are looking after newborn babies or have underlying health issues that have confined them to their homes for months. As the effects of the lockdown here make life seem ever more like living in a science fiction novel, I’m conscious of how fortunate I am that my home is in a beautiful place, from which I can walk out for my daily exercise in woods bursting with bluebells and with the air a tumult of birdsong.
The spring has seemed particularly lovely this year, perhaps because the enforced stay at home has helped us to notice it more. Listing the positives associated with the lockdown, both the warmth of the season and having access to technology that allows me to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family are jointly top. I’ve learnt some new skills, too: several culinary ones, including a Nigella chocolate cake that guarantees domestic bliss (at least in this household!); I’ve helped my husband make John Innes-style compost for the tomato plants because the garden centres were closed; and I’ve plucked up the courage to tackle my grey roots and for the first time to experiment myself with hair dye (I’m pleased to report I’ve emerged neither orange nor bald!). I’m working on a new venture with an old friend. I’ve had more time to get in touch with other authors to discuss writing; I’ve managed to read even more books than usual. The British Library, which I joined last year, has sent me links to virtual tours of its collections which have enthralled and delighted me.
Of course, there are negatives. Social networking can’t replace face-to-face contact in the long term; the future of my day job is uncertain; and a significant reaction to bee stings has been harder to deal with than if the chemist and the doctor’s surgery had been working as normal. But these things are trivial compared to the most profound truth: that in villages such as mine we know we are cocooned from reality: it’s hard for us to imagine the distress and suffering that is being experienced by patients and NHS workers across the country, or by those in care homes, those who are grappling with Covid-19 at home or those who are afraid because they need ‘shielding’.
Flags and silk figures can’t help here: they symbolise important values, but they are inert. What can and does help tremendously are the small acts of joy that people like Paula, who works in the convenience store and took the trouble both to research and glam herself up in style, bring to the people they meet, by spending time and thought on how to celebrate sensitively.