There is no planet B

15 March 2019 16:23
Composite image including the dark blue cover of

A new book by Professor Mike Berners-Lee asks a wide range of questions about how we live today and what needs to change in the way we farm, eat, work, generate energy, travel, do business and think. Questions - such as are biofuels bonkers? what should we invest in? why are most Americans poorer than most Italians? should I fly? and is it possible to have a more truthful culture? - are answered in an accessible and entertaining way.

“For a long time we humans could get away with treating the planet as robust, but now we have got ourselves into the situation where we will smash the place up if we are not really careful”, Mike told a packed audience at the launch of his book, ‘There is no Planet B’, at the Lancaster Environment Centre, earlier this month.

“Problems we are facing are global so it doesn’t work to look at them in silos. This book is my attempt to do joined up, all systems thinking: if we want to see a more sustainable world what can we do to help bring about the systemic change that makes that possible.

“How much of how we do life now is still fit for purpose? We have the opportunity to cut the junk out from our lives”

Junk and creating a better, more equal world is a recurring theme in Mike’s book, which is full of astonishing facts and analysis such as: “If all the discarded plastic in the world was clingfilm, we could wrap the world up one and a half times,” and “2/3 of the antibiotics in the world are fed to animals.”

His section on growth and money tells us that: “the ten wealthiest Americans could quadruple the wealth of poorest half of Africa, and still be billionaires.”

He has calculated how many miles we can travel using one square metre of Californian land for a year, either for solar panels or growing wheat or biofuels. The extraordinary answer is that we can walk 22 miles powered by bread, 1-5 miles in a biofuel-powered car, more than 1000 miles in some electric cars and a gob smacking 21,243 on an electric bike (which is nearly 500 times more energy efficient than a pedal bike).

While Mike acknowledges the value of going vegan or stopping flying, he argues that we don’t need to go all the way - what is required is that we moderate our behaviour, reducing our harmful activities and thinking carefully about what we do, while enjoying the simple things in life.

“Some people think growth is the root of all evil, I ask what kind of growth can we get away with, are there some kinds of growth that are good such as growth in our happiness, in global empathy, mindfulness and systems thinking.

“And we need more farmers not less if we are going to manage the land in ways that encourage biodiversity.”

Mike, whose company, Small World Consulting, advises organisations on sustainability from an office in the Lancaster Environment Centre, said some business leaders are trying to do right thing. “One such business leader is the chief executive of IKEA - IKEA is serious about the circular economy. They make their furniture from sustainable sources and make it to last.

“In some ways I feel more optimistic than I have felt ever, which is weird because our energy use curve hasn’t changed at all. But I know you can get really sudden change, and I wonder if we are seeing the start of the cracks.”

Mike argues that focussing on values and changing our thinking are both vital if we are to create a better world.

“There are three values we can no longer live without: all people are of equal inherent value; respect for the world including all its life forms; and respect for truth - for its own sake.

“We need to get better at seeing the big picture, at global empathy, self reflection, future thinking, at appreciation of the small, local and present, at dealing with complexity and joining it all up.

“You may be asking yourself: ‘What can I do?’  My answer is: learn to think; insist our politicians have those skills; support and insist on truth; take these messages to the pub, workplace, everywhere; be discerning about how you spend, earn and invest money; be a role model - but don’t beat yourself up and enjoy life; dream of the future we want.”

Mike, a Professor at the Lancaster Environment Centre and senior fellow at Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures, thanked university colleagues and interns for their help with the book, in particular Professor Nick Hewitt with whom he carried out much of the research on research on food and land systems.

See for more information about the book, where to buy it and Mike’s upcoming talks. Mike hosts monthly Global Futures seminars at the Lancaster Environment Centre covering many of the questions raised by the book.

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