Delightful blond child holding a homemade sign with a thought-provoking message about climate change

‘To think that technology alone will get us out of this hole is to live in cloud cuckoo land’: Mike Berners-Lee

Image credit: Shawn Goldberg | Dreamstime

When ‘There is No Planet B’ first hit our bookshops, this companion to saving the planet became an instant classic. We talk to its author, Mike Berners-Lee.

“Humans have quite suddenly become the biggest thing to affect the ecosystem,” says Mike Berners-Lee. What this new-found influence over the health of the planet means, says the author of ‘There is No Planet B’ is that, “We need to have a total rethink about society, economics, politics…”

In fact, just about everything in what is called the Anthropocene, a proposed term for the geological epoch that humans live in which Berners-Lee has adopted in his ‘handbook for the make or break years.’ It’s a tag that encompasses the sub-division of time that starts with the commencement of human impact on Earth’s environmental ecosystem – such as anthropogenic climate change – and one that significantly has no end date.

According to Berners-Lee, along with this new era comes a new set of challenges, “some of which are difficult and will require new technology to deal with,” and others that are, on the surface at least, easier to deal with, involving “more a change in the way we live and how we view society.”

When it comes to the technical aspect of addressing climate change, for example, “the top line is that the technology is almost there. The good news is that when it comes to sustainable food production, cleaner energy and what’s going on in the oceans, we more or less have the solutions to those.” But the real question, he contends, is not so much how we go about fixing these problems, but more what it would take to put the remedies in place. In other words, political engagement. “And maybe more important than that: what thinking skills do we need?”

Mike Berners-Lee - inline

Image credit: Mike Berners-Lee

One of the paradoxes that clouds our approach to global problems is that while it is tempting to take it as axiomatic that technology can step into the breach to save the day, it’s not the bits and bytes of the digital world that will have the real impact: “It’s actually our values as a species. Take climate change: the science on that has been crystal clear for decades, and yet humanity has basically been asleep on the job.”

The role of technology, he goes on to say, “is quite an interesting one, because on the one hand we absolutely need new technology to help us through the situation we’re in, while on the other, to think that technology alone will get us out of this hole is to live in cloud cuckoo land. This is because there will be no substitute for a more thoughtful approach to the world, all the species in it, and to each other.”

While humans owe a great deal of gratitude to the benefits that technology has brought us, says Berners-Lee, “and whilst the right technologies will be essential for us in finding our way forward, it is also true to say that technology has put us in the very dangerous situation we are in at the moment.” This creates what he describes as, “a compelling need to renegotiate our relationship with technology. It all depends on how you use it. We need to get much better at leaving on the shelf the developments that are not in the interests of the people on this planet.”

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‘There is No Planet B’

Global food security, spiralling climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, plastic contamination of the environment. The threats faced by planet Earth are many and frightening. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the impending series of catastrophes is that they are all knock-on effects of human action. 
So, what can we as individuals do about this, asks Mike Berners-Lee in his classic analysis of the world’s environmental problems. Do we become vegetarian? Or take greater control of technology? Or start imposing global limits on population growth?
All of these issues and many more are addressed in Berners-Lee’s often entertaining ‘handbook for the make or break years,’ in which he crunches the numbers to paint a picture of the future of the planet. It’s also packed with practical ideas for what you can do: it is after all a handbook.

Zooming in from the idea of collective global political responsibility for the environmental future of the planet’s ecosystem to the more localised duties of both industry and the individual, Berners-Lee thinks that “in a way they’re one and the same thing, whether you’re the CEO of a company or in charge of a whole country. This is because the challenges we face are systemic and can only be addressed by global system change. The way in which carbon footprints work is that you can very well have one organisation really doing something about this. But the way the system works is that it has a nasty habit of taking up the slack elsewhere. We need to all be asking what we can do to create the conditions where the system change that we need to see becomes possible. And that’s a different question from individuals asking how to cut their carbon footprint.” At this point Berners-Lee remarks that a huge help in this would be if there was “a reliable way of differentiating between fact and fiction on social media.”

One of the reasons that ‘There is No Planet B’ has struck such a chord with the book-buying public is its timing. Berners-Lee thinks that while once the idea of caring for the environment was possibly even fringe thinking, today’s sense of urgency has forced people into recognising the need to inform themselves about these global issues. “It’s quite formulaic and predictable really. Every year humans become ever more powerful in terms of the energy we use, and the more ingenious we become in its use, and the more damage we cause.”

Which means that we’ve reached the point where humans “don’t even need to do anything dramatically stupid to mess things up, because we’re already smashing the place up in earnest simply by not being careful. It’s a recent thing. When I first started my career,” says the 65-year old author, “we hadn’t even started on the project of tearing down the planet at high speed.”

The shadow looming over us, he continues, is that “having lived in the Anthropocene era for a few decades, we are still behaving as though we weren’t, and we are only just about getting away with it. But we are still thinking in ways and with values that we applied when the world was a more robust place.”

This is a critical time, says Berners-Lee because if we do not bring the way we think up to date to be consistent with living in the Anthropocene, this lack of sustainability will come back to bite us. The real question here, he says, isn’t what technology we have in our armoury, but “what will it take to get humanity to wake up. It looks as though we are inching our way into a position where we might actually wake up. I hope so.”

‘There is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years’ by Mike Berners-Lee is from Cambridge University Press, £9.99


Escalating energy

Almost every year since records began, our species has had more energy at its disposal than it had the year before. For the past 50 years, the growth rate has averaged 2.4 per cent per year, more than tripling in total over that time.

For the century before that it was more like one per cent per year, and as we go back through history, the growth rate looks lower still but nevertheless positive, give or take the odd blip. We have been getting continually more powerful, not just by growing our energy supply, but by using it with ever more efficiency and inventiveness. In doing so, we have been increasingly affecting our world, through a mixture of accident and design. The restorative powers of our planet, meanwhile, have remained broadly the same, so the balance of power has been shifting – and it has now tipped. Throughout history, the dominant cultures have treated the planet as a big and robust place, compared to everything we could throw at it – and that approach has not, generally speaking, come back to bite us.

But sometime in the past few decades, things changed. We can argue about exactly when, but let’s say it happened recently. Around a hundred years ago, in the First World War, we couldn’t have smashed the whole place up even if we tried. But fifty years ago, with nuclear energy especially, it became clear that we could totally mess things up if we made big enough blunders. Today, we don’t have to blunder at all; if we don’t try hard enough NOT to, we will wreck the whole environment. And fifty years into the future, if energy-use trends continue, the world will be more fragile still, compared with our ever-increasing might.

The ‘big people, small planet’ syndrome has a name: the Anthropocene. I use this simply to mean the era in which human influence is the dominant source of change to the ecosystem.

Edited extract from ‘There is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years’ by Mike Berners-Lee, reproduced with permission.


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