Mike Berners-Lee is a climate change researcher and author of the excellent How bad are bananas?, an attempt to quantify ‘the carbon footprint of everything’. Almost a decade on from that, There is no planet B is just as informative and entertaining, but broader in scope and more urgent in tone.
Intended as a ‘handbook for the make or break years’, as the subtitle puts it, the book is written as questions and answers. It starts with climate science and the impact of food, energy, transport and so on, with some of most concise and clear summaries of the issues you’ll find anywhere. A recurring theme is that everything is connected to everything else, and so as the book goes on it begins to dig deeper into business structures, population and work. Finally, we get to the values that we hold as individuals and societies, and even the nature of truth.
“I want to go wider to look at things other than climate change”, Berners-Lee writes, “deeper into an even bigger issue of which climate change is just a symptom and more practically to look at how humanity can find its way through some uncharted waters, and what any of us might do to help.”
There are very practical questions here, no doubt frequently asked when Berners-Lee does public events: ‘should I go vegan or veggie?’ or ‘how urgently should I ditch my diesel car?’ Others open up new perspectives, such as ‘which countries have the least sun per person?’ or ‘how expensive will carbon need to become?’ Each of these get a short answer, sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a couple of pages. There are some enormous topics to deal with so briefly, but the author has the self-awareness to recognise the limits of his expertise.
It is definitely changing, but popular understandings of climate change have tended to peg it as an environmental issue. There is no planet B sets it within the context of the anthropocene, asking bigger questions about how we understand ourselves, and the role of economics. I was pleased to see questions about growth, and as a scientist rather than an economist, Berners-Lee can be more objective. “Rather than clutching onto growth as an essential or rejecting it as the root of all trouble, we need to dissect the growth question and ask ourselves, in today’s world, what kinds of growth are desirable and which are not.”
As the format suggests, the book can be read in a variety of ways. You could consider it a reference book, read it all the way through, or pick the questions you’re interested in. Towards the back, the content is spliced up and re-presented in alphabetical order as a completely different way to read the book. There’s a summary, appendices, and lots of ‘what can I do?’ sections. The chapter on 21st century thinking skills is worth the cover price on its own. So is the 14 point summary of climate science, which “every politician needs to understand before they are fit for office.”