I was sent a copy of this book to review, and my first thought was ‘what on earth is going on on the front cover?’ Is it a man wearing a bear suit? Is he being hugged by a lion, or attacked by it? Maybe the creature is trying to prevent the man from stealing the world.
Better to move swiftly on to the contents of the book. How to be a Humankind Superhero: A manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate is a twelve step programme for engaging in climate change. It aims to show the reader a broad set of actions, some lifestyle change, some campaigning or lobbying. “My intention” says Harold Forbes, “is to provide a focus for action that will allow you to make an impact where it matters and avoid getting sidetracked by tokenism or unfocused good intentions.”
After a brief introduction to the underlying problems behind climate change – fossil fuels, and accounting that doesn’t factor in the environment – we begin the tasks. They include transport, waste, energy generation, food and shopping. Once our own households are in order, there is work to do writing to MPs, and writing either to chastise or to thank corporations which are moving in the right direction. If you were to do all the actions, says Forbes, you’d cut your CO2 emissions by between 20 and 50%, and you’d have helped others along the road as well.
There are a few missteps, like the section that equates Fairtrade with sustainability, something the Fairtrade Foundation makes no claim to, and the supermarkets get off very lightly. But there are also some nice ideas here. For example, there’s a code at the end of the energy chapter that will get you £50 off your first bill if you switch to Good Energy. The shopping chapter points out that services are generally less energy intensive than goods, so “if you feel like a little retail therapy, head to the spa instead of the shopping centre.” Most environmental writers would lambast the idea of retail therapy, but Forbes just puts a twist on it and sends it in a more sustainable direction. Ultimately, that’s much more realistic for those who are not fully paid up greenies.
Among the little ideas however, is one big one that serves as the structure for the whole book: the legend of the labours of Hercules. According to the legend, Hercules was set 12 quests that would make the earth safe for humankind. Most of them involved slaying or capturing some hideous beast, which Hercules had to do as much through cunning as through strength. There are parallels to climate change, not least that for many of the challenges, “we cannot hope to defeat the opponent, but must find an alternative way to win”. Assigning each of the specific quests to the climate change tasks is tenuous, (‘Plant trees – the labour of the Erymanthian Boar’, ‘Using your house as a generator and keeping it warm – the labour of the Apples of Hesperides’) but it is imaginative and playful, and sets the book apart from the many other books on what you can do about climate change. George Monbiot’s Heat starts each chapter with a quote from Faust, so why not?
Having read the book, I now realise that the cover depicts Hercules, robed in the pelt of the Nemean Lion. By why is there no indication of this either on the front cover, or on the back? Why doesn’t the title mention Hercules or Herculean tasks in some way? Structuring the book around the labours of Hercules is the book’s biggest distinctive, and there is no reference to it anywhere. The book hides its light under a bushel. Perhaps the editor was afraid it was too conceptual and would put people off, but then they should have followed that through and not put such a strange illustration on the front.