20 Books of Summer #15 – Berners-Lee

There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee

Back in 2010, I read Mike B-L’s first book, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything reviewed here. Apart from being very informative, I found MB-L (yes, he is the brother of Sir Tim) to be an entertaining host as he talked us through his analyses of the things we do and things we eat etc in terms of their CO2e (Carbon dioxide equivalent) which can factor everything in an items’ life. I read it vowing never to buy air-freighted asparagus again (something I’ve stuck to most of the time, she said guiltily). Although the book is now ten years old, MB-L states that the broad principles in it still stand although some figures can be updated, and he’d take a much stronger line on plastic now.

This brings me to his latest book which was published last year. Subtitled ‘A Handbook for the Make or Break Years’, MB-L presents his ideas for what we, whether at governmental, business or personal levels, need to do to stop making things worse, as the effects of climate change and other environmental challenges threaten our planet. It is,:

“a book about the big picture of life on our small planet. An evidence-based practical guide to the make or break choices we now face. … It is about the difference any of us can make, despite the global nature of the challenges.”

The evidence and suggested actions are broken down into many questions, and grouped in themed chapters: Food, Climate and Environment, Energy, Travel and Transport, Growth Money and Metrics, People and Work, Business and Technology, Values Truth and Trust, plus some final conclusions. These main chapters are supported by several appendices, including an ‘Alphabetical Quick Tour’ of topics. From food waste to biofuels and solar power, electric cars (and bikes) to ocean acidification, MB-L presents the facts, contrasting performance and what’s happening around the world, supplementing his text with charts and diagrams.

For me, having read a lot about the more thing-based and straight-forwardly quantifiable food and science topics, perhaps the most interesting chapters were those considering the more conceptual themes of economics and taxation, and truth, values and trust. Questions like “Why are most Americans so much poorer than most Italians?” stood out amongst those in a section on wealth distribution.

“The USA is one of the richest countries in the world per capita, but most of its people are poorer than most people in many other countries that we think of as being poorer places to live. Examples include the UK, Norway, Denmark, Japan, Italy and even Spain. The median Italian is about twice as well off as the median American, despite Italy having only just over half of the wealth per person. […] The problem is that, in the USA, so much of the wealth is concentrated in the pockets of so few. “

The graphs show that the median wealth as a proportion of mean wealth for the USA has fallen to just 15% in 2016 from about 20% in 2000. Italy is at around 55%, Spain 50% and the UK has dipped to around 35% since 2000 when it was 44%. China has gone down the most though from 45% to 25%, only Denmark and Norway show upward general trends of those countries featured. MB-L challenges the wealthy to commit to a “thoughtful attempt to direct all investment and spend in positive ways,” not as he says, “a bit of high profile philanthropy around the edges.”

Each question has suggestions for personal action where applicable, which include urgings to use our votes well alongside practical things such as being “sparing with meat, dairy and waste.” Although he extols the virtues of a more vegetable-based diet, MB-L doesn’t get preachy about it.

His style of writing is self-deprecating and he admits he’s no saint. He’s chatty and funny and so enthusiastic, aiming to win us all over with Puckish charm, while presenting the facts with sufficient seriousness. There are things that everyone can do here. This is a book that makes you think, but it also brims with positivity and encouragement which makes such a change from all the doom-sayers. I should have read it sooner and put more of his ideas into practice rather than leaving it sitting on my shelf for so long.

Mike Berners-Lee, There is no Planet B (Cambridge Uni Press, Feb 2019) paperback original, 302 pages.

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4 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer #15 – Berners-Lee

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    This would surely chime with the Extinction Rebellion handbook I read last year. I’m glad it seemed practical, and not all doom and gloom — that helps no one. Years back I found The Spirit Level very eye-opening on social inequality in various countries.

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