What does a sustainable future look like? Q&A with Mike Berners-Lee

Climate expert and author of How Bad are Bananas and There’s no Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee spoke to us about what a sustainable future could look like and the action needed to get there.

Let’s start with what challenges we face in the climate crisis today. What are we currently up against?
 

Mike Berners-Lee: I think you have to see the climate crisis as one symptom of something even bigger. We’ve got a climate crisis, we’ve got a biodiversity crisis, we’ve got pollution crises, we’ve got disease threats, a growing population that we need to feed, we’ve got an energy transition we need to do.

We have social issues or crises that we need to deal with at the same time, such as inequality; how we do economics such that we can look after the planet; how we view politics such that we can look after the planet. These things are part of the climate crisis.

We need a big systemic change in the way that humans carry themselves on the planet. All parts of the puzzle need to move at once.

When you’re trying to change a system like that, if you change little bits, you find it’s really hard work and can feel for ages like you’re not getting anywhere. That’s where we are at the moment. However, it’s a question of building up the conditions under which that big tipping point of change can become possible. 

We’re certainly closer to that tipping point than we were a year or two ago. It may be that if we all push hard right now, we might get to see the big systemic change that we really really need.

Is it a lot about individual action then?
 

Mike B-L: Yes. I think we need to be asking a question - and it’s the same question whether you’re a company, a state, or an individual of any kind. What can each of us do to help to create the conditions in which the big systemic change becomes possible?

Part of creating these conditions is about how we live and our carbon footprint and so on. Part of it is about how we influence our politicians. Part of it is about our conscience saying, “every time I spend money I’m supporting one supply chain or another. Every time I invest money I’m supporting one sort of future or another. Every time I vote... Every time I talk to my politicians...”

It’s about thinking, “every time I have a conversation in the pub, every time I interact with anyone, I’m influencing the world.”

Because we need the change so urgently, now there’s also the question, “Should I be on the streets protesting, and if so, how? What’s the most positive way that I can really insist on the change we need to see?”

It’s a lot of pressure, the idea that you’ve got to think about everything that you do. Should we be doing something about that pressure? Individuals are starting to talk about the term ‘eco-anxiety’. Other people are just completely rejecting the need for change, because it’s difficult to deal with the guilt.
 

Mike B-L: Pushing reality under the carpet does not take you into a psychologically good place. You can’t have a good time carrying on partying when you know the world’s burning around you. Once you’ve clocked onto the reality of the situation, you can’t unknow it.

The good news is that it doesn’t need to be paralysing. There is plenty we can do, so what I'd say to people that are feeling worried about the situation we’re in is that we should be feeling adrenaline. If we don’t take very strong action now, I’m pretty sure humanity’s heading for a dark place. However, if we do take strong action now, it’s very likely that life for humans on the planet can be better than it’s ever been.

 It’s a real opportunity to live better than we’ve ever done. 

We should be saying “Right, well what can I do?”. We’re happy when we know we’re doing the right thing. 

People are starting to adapt their consumer behaviour. For example, more people than ever seem to have grasped that plastic is an issue, or are buying vegan and changing banks and energy suppliers. What other behaviours would we ideally see immediate action on? How does one get to carbon zero? 
 

Mike B-L: How Bad are Bananas has just had it’s ten year update. One of the parts of it that’s new is a ‘What can we do?’ section where I talk through all of this.

There’s a diagram in there: one side asks ‘How can I cut my carbon?’, but even bigger than that is ‘How can I exert my influence in every other way that’s possible?’, as we’ve talked about already.

I’ll walk us around the pie chart for the average person’s UK footprint. It says eat less meat and dairy, eat more plant-based foods, and make sure our food hasn’t been on an aeroplane.

In terms of travel, there's driving less, making sure that when we do it’s electrified, driving carefully, (which makes a bigger difference than people think), getting on bikes or public transport, or walking. We have to fly less. It doesn’t have to be nothing, but we have to fly only for really really good reasons. 

Then there’s all the stuff that we buy. Every time we spend money, whether it’s on our energy provider or a pair of trousers, it’s just thinking: could this product be bought second hand? Do I need it in the first place? Could I just mend something that I’ve already got? If I do buy something new, what do I know about the supply chains that lie behind it and can I trust them, or feel good about them?

Then finally of course, there’s all your home energy stuff, trying to improve our leaky energy-hungry homes.

This is what the typical UK person’s footprint’s like. So based on that, make a sketch of how you think your footprint might be different.

If you’re someone who flies a lot, expand that section; and if you never fly, knock it out. Change the shape of the pie chart to fit you. Once you understand that, you’ve got a map of where your big hotspots are and the things that you personally should be thinking about the most.

Then think about the way you want to cut your footprint. Some people will be saying, ‘I really want to save money’. Well that’s great, there are lots of ways people can save money while cutting their carbon.

There are other things we can do that are really expensive, like investing in lots of kinds of home improvements for example.

Some people want to cut their carbon but not spend any time doing it. Some people want to have an interesting project, make cutting carbon a fun project to get involved in.

Go into doing it in a way that makes your life better.

Perhaps this tailored approach is realistic for most people in the UK right now. What about those in other areas of the world? Can we all think in that same way?
 

I think the richer somebody is the more responsibility they have to make sure that everything is pushing in that same direction.

There are some people in some parts of the world who shouldn’t worry about their carbon footprint and should just focus on improving the quality of their lives. But maybe as your quality of life improves, don’t get sucked into the kind of mad consumerism that we’ve got into. Bypass that phase, and leap straight into a sustainable high-quality life.

What does a decarbonized future look like and what is holding us back?
 

I think we all need to spend a bit more time fleshing this out in our minds, but the way I see it the air’s cleaner; we have as much social contact as we want to - whether that’s a lot or a little; and when we go to work, more of us are going because we’re doing something that we feel is an inherently valuable way of spending time.

The whole quality of the work environment will be different because the nature of business will change. Businesses will, to a great extent, only exist for the health of people and planet, however directly or indirectly.

Air quality will improve; we’ll spend less of our time travelling; we’ll spend more of our time in beautiful places; there’ll be less meat and dairy in our diets, but they’ll be more healthy. And I think we’ll have a greater sense of wellbeing, coming out of the sense that humanity is finally on the case. 

Right now, we know that we’re living in a way that is in conflict with how we should be. I think that this conflict is uncomfortable. It eats our energy and is not good for our psychological health. One day if we can just wake up and get beyond that, the experience of being alive will be better.

That’s some really positive messaging there amongst all the doom and gloom.
 

My generation has grown up with a total conflict between the messages from science and the messages from economics and consumer society. We’ve been living one way, and we know the logic is telling us we need to live another. 

That’s very uncomfortable. 

Lots of school kids, like Greta Thunberg, have become so powerful because they haven’t had decade after decade of living with that conflict. They just look at the world, look at the conflict, look at the science, and say: ‘The emperor’s not wearing any clothes, is he?’ We should take notice of that. 

Corporations and governments have a large role to play in that conflict of messaging - they're greenwashing quite a lot, saying one thing and doing another.
 

In the fifteen years that I’ve been working for change, I’ve seen a lot of corporate greenwash.

If a company is shown to have deliberately greenwashed, I think it needs to be really embarrassing. I think their reputation needs to be in shreds. I think their shareholders need to be divesting from them. And I think the people that work for them need to be embarrassed to work for that company.

When a company or a politician says one thing in one breath and something else in another, we need to bring the two together, confront them and say: 'what’s going on here? Are you too stupid, do you think we’re too stupid, or are you about to scratch your head, apologise and come back with a more coherent position?'

What is the wider role of corporations and governments?
 

It’s not just down to the corporations. It’s down to individuals, corporations, and politicians to push one another to change.

One thing we’ve learned is that we can’t wait for the politicians, we are going to need to push them.

Both of Mike's books, How Bad are Bananas and There Is No Planet B, have recently had an update. How Bad are Bananas contains new sections on IT, what we can do, and food.

There is No Planet B will be re-published in January with sections on negative emissions and net-zero, exploring what this means, and what investors should do.

Finally, we’d like to thank Mike Berners-Lee for his time. You can listen to a recording of the full interview below.

With thanks to the Planetiers World Gathering. This two-day event is taking place across the 22nd and 23rd of October.

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