books climate change waste

Book review: Earthshot, by Colin Butfield and Jonnie Hughes

I expect you’ll have heard about the Earthshot Prize, as it’s one of those climate initiatives with global ambitions. It’s easy to be cynical about it, with their celebrity judges, billionaire funders and corporate partners. But ultimately, the value of the prize is going to be its outputs. Does it highlight great projects from all over the world? Will it look beyond the obvious candidates? Will it be truly international? Or will it deliver a Bill Gates toilet*?

You can look up the first round of winners and decide for yourself which way it’s going, but another of the outputs is this book: Earthshot – How to save our planet, by Colin Butfield and Jonnie Hughes. They’re producers of nature documentaries, both with Studio Silverback, and here tell the story of the prize and the problems it seeks to address.

The book looks at each of the prize themes in turn: nature, air pollution, oceans, waste and climate. Each chapter presents the state of the problem and highlights individuals and projects that are making a difference – the kind of people the prize is out to celebrate. A number of the people featured were interviewed for the Earthshot TV series, and I presume the producers saw the opportunity to double up on the material and tell the story in more detail in book form.

And in book form, Earthshot is well presented, a solid hardback with generous photographic sections. It jumps from location to location, with a focus on solutions and optimism. It’s a great introduction to each of the five global challenges, with some inspiring people telling their stories. Readers learn about mangroves in Guinea Bissau, high-tech recycling in Sweden, winding down coal in Indonesia, locally owned safari lodges in Kenya, food waste in France, air pollution in Mongolia. It’s impressively global, and nicely combines eyewitness accounts with summaries of the science.

Like most big tent environmental initiatives, it does make the mistake of talking about a single human experience – “the problems our species have created”. There’s a lot of ‘we’ involved – we burned coal, we drove cars – which glosses over the fact that not everybody did do these things. Questions of environmental justice are raised in places, but the huge inequalities in responsibility aren’t investigated in any detail. No mention of colonial legacies or interrogation of capitalism. The book doesn’t tell the whole story and that won’t satisfy some activists.

With any kind of prize like this, you do also risk conveying the message that we need new ideas to solve the problem, when actually most of what holds us back is perverse power structures and vested interests. Those don’t really get covered here, in the push to “become optimists, celebrating and reinforcing the powerful ability of humans to do good.”

Despite those hesitations, I really enjoyed the book. It’s engaging and inspiring, with a can-do spirit that absolutely has its place. If you’re feeling worn down by climate change and the gloomy prognosis of some parts of the movement, then spend some time with Earthshot. Meet the people, from all over the world, who are working for a better future. And in the challenge of the book’s last section, think about what your own contribution to that better future will be.

*Quick reminder: ten years ago a Gates Foundation competition to reinvent the toilet picked a winning design with an electro-chemical solar reactor and hydrogen fuel cell – something that would impress Bill Gates and his technologist friends, but utterly useless to the poor communities that the competition was supposed to serve.

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