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.