1 March 2019
There's a real mix of material in this environmental guide from Mike Berners-Lee (let's get this out of the way: brother of the better-known Tim). Some of it presents scientific information in a superb fashion, really getting the point across, while other parts feel more like a personal blog post. Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist quoted on the cover, is certainly correct in describing this as a 'compendium', though when he calls the book 'massively entertaining', my immediate thought was 'Bill, you need to get out more.'
What Berners-Lee sets out to do is to give us a more personalised picture of where we as the human species are environmentally - obviously climate change is the biggest factor here, but he covers much of the environmental gamut from feeding the world to environmental economics to sourcing energy and the bête noir du jour (thanks in no small part to David Attenborough) of the dreaded plastic.
For me, the bit that works superbly well is the first section where Berners-Lee deals with food, and specifically whether it's feasible to feed the world. He does this using a brilliant approach of taking a (fairly generous) daily energy requirement for a human being of 2350 calories (I sort of wish he'd used joules, but I understand why the calories) and breaking down the energy per head (this is the really clever bit) of crops grown (human edible and pasture, 5940 and 3810 respectively), then following through where these calories go. The result is segments of energy breaking off to go to wastage, feeding animals, biofuels and so on, trimming down through distribution losses and waste in the home.
This approach is so wonderful as it gives a clear picture of what's going where and how it would be easy to increase the available food energy. As Berners-Lee points out there's two bits of good news here. We already have more than enough to feed the current world population (though it's only an extra 180 calories on that average) - and if some of those places where energy is lost could be fixed, it should be perfectly possible to cope with the predicted peak human population. Relatively easy examples are cutting down the amount of meat eaten (no need to go completely vegetarian, he emphasises) and cutting down on waste. The only thing I could take issue with is the assertion that tofu is delicious - I eat quite a lot of vegetarian food, and it really isn't. Where the book falls down a bit, though, is that it doesn't then follow through with the much harder problem of how you get the surplus food to the right places at the right prices.
Berners-Lee is also strong on climate change, with a few oddities, which I'll come back to in a moment. But some of the other sections feel poorly addressed, for example when he claims 'Equality in the UK has plummeted' while showing us a graph where it goes from 43% in 2000 to 39% in 2016 - that's not my definition of plummeting. And his odd assessment of how companies should operate, which could only have come from an academic. The biggest problem with some of the rest of the material is that he makes regularly use of mean (average) values, which worked for world food, but in many applications are meaningless when it comes down to what a particular person or country needs to do. We need to know more about both the median (which he only deploys in income inequality) and the shape of the distribution to understand what's going on.
The result of this generalisation is that sometimes his statements don't fit well with reality. For example, when talking about farming, he says 'for the past couple of centuries we have been looking to minimise the number of people working on the land. This is crazy, given the abundance of person power…' How this read entirely depends on who 'we' is. Yes, this might be true of the global average, but it clearly isn't the case in, say, the UK. You can't always apply averages to a specific area or individual - it just doesn't work. The problems Berners-Lee is addressing are global - but you don't understand statistics by taking global averages. It has to be dealt with where it's happening and each country has varying levels of different problems.
Perhaps the worst thing for me (apart from a short, excruciating section on spirituality) was the way he dances around some realities to make them fit with what appear to be personal preferences. This comes across most strongly when it comes to his defence of flying, which he says we should cut down, but then describes how video conferencing with 'some people in Silicon Valley', which should reduce flying actually led to 'six trips across the Atlantic to do some work for them' - yet, if he had stuck to his guns, he could have insisted on doing that work remotely/via video link and, as a result underlined his message rather than giving them (and us) an example of 'do as I say, not as I do.'
Although it's only in a kind of appendix, I was also puzzled by his assertion that we suffer from 'optimism bias' - having a tendency towards thinking that things are better than they are. He clearly hasn't read Hans Rosling's Factfulness, which makes it very clear from data, rather than plucked-out-of-the-air assertion, that we actually have pessimism bias and think things are far worse than they really are.
Overall, my main criticism is that the book is light on solutions, which mostly seem to be along the lines of 'we ought to be more considerate of others and think of the world, not just our own needs.' He gives no idea of how this is going to happen in countries with corrupt regimes, dominated by intolerant religions, or with tribal tensions leading to war. He’s absolutely right, solutions need a global approach - but it won't happen because nice people in the tiny UK want it - and there’s very little evidence in many countries of this kind of thinking.
Even so, this is a challenging and interesting book that I hope will make many people give more consideration to environmental issues. I wish there had been more of the sort of data-driven brilliance that there was in that first section throughout, but it is all worthy of consideration and should be widely read, if only to make the reader really think about the essential issues facing humanity. (It's also great to see a university press finally realising that to reach a wide market you have to price books affordably!)