More satisfaction and happiness

As protests and school strikes around the world show, many teenagers are keen on climate protection. Their future depends on societies adopting sustainable lifestyles. Many young activists will find Mike Berners-Lee’s new book “There is no planet B” useful.
In Brazil, rain forest has been destroyed to create grazing grounds. Ron Giling/Lineair In Brazil, rain forest has been destroyed to create grazing grounds.

The subtitle is “A handbook for the make or break years”. Berners-Lee lives up to this promise. He is a professor at Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures in Britain. His book tackles a wide range of issues from food and energy to economics and the “dedication to ‘truth’ and ‘facts’”.

The starting point is a brief elaboration of the term Anthropocene: human action has always had some environmental impacts, but only in recent decades have those impacts become so strong that they threaten our entire planet’s ecology. “Anthropos” means “man” in ancient Greek. In geo-historical terms we are now living in a world in which humankind is shaping the entire planet in a harmful way. If our species further intensifies its grip on nature, we will destroy the very foundations our life depends on.

How the author deals with food and agriculture is a good example of how he tackles complex issues in general. He starts with the very basic information that, on average, a person needs 2350 kcal per day, and that humankind produces nearly 2.5 times more than needed: 5940 kcal per person and day. Nonetheless, about 800 million people on earth do not get enough food. An important reason is that families concerned are too poor to buy what they need.

A large share of the cereals the poor could eat is fed to animals, in order to produce meat for prosperous consumers. Animal feed sells at higher prices than masses of poor people can afford. Berners-Lee does not demand that everybody must become vegetarian, but he does want wealthy people to reconsider carefully how much meat they really want.

How to eradicate hunger

The path to eradicating hunger is not simply to increase production, as Berners-Lee elaborates. Doing so would also be environmentally destructive, given that agriculture and land-related practices account for almost one quarter of the world’s climate gas emissions. It is impossible to increase farm land, because land must be set aside for biodiversity to flourish. The author warns in particular that humankind cannot afford to destroy forests in order to create additional space for plant cultivation or grazing.

Instead, ending hunger will depend on multifaceted change. Essential issues include that:

  • less grain must be fed to livestock,
  • incomes must be spread more evenly,
  • waste must be reduced, and
  • storage facilities must become better.

Such change, Berners-Lee writes, is compatible with healthy and tasty diets for everyone, and it would also serve human health. Farm animals currently are fed about two thirds of all antibiotics. As the scholar warns, “the race between increasing resistance and the development of next-generation alternatives looks like it is going the wrong way with extremely nasty and perhaps imminent consequences” (see article by Mirza Alas in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2019/04, Debate section).

The author excels at juxtaposing big-picture assessments with micro-level options for action. In regard to fish, for example, he points out that it is not an eco-friendly alternative to meat. Problems include overfishing, harsh working conditions on fishing trawlers and the ecologically devastating impacts of aquaculture. Therefore, the professor wants individual consumers to consider seafood a treat, rather than an every-day dish.

However, he does not consider climate protection only a matter of personal ethics. He expects supermarkets to understand their supply chains and pay attention to issues of social justice and environmental sustainability. Governments, according to him, must police the industry and enforce legislation to protect people and the environment. Multilateral regulation is necessary as well, because humanity must tackle a global challenge and not one that arises at the national level.

Berners-Lee argues that transporting fresh fruit or cut flowers by airplane is unacceptable because of the related emissions. He adds, however, that growing those products in greenhouses is not better. Seasonally adjusted consumption is the environmentally preferable approach. In a similar sense, he does not suggest to stop air travel all together, but insists that consumers, business leaders and policymakers must take the carbon footprint into account and act responsibly.

Metrics matter

In order to do so, they must pay attention to facts – and consider the right kind of metrics. The scholar explains in easy-to-understand language why the growth of gross domestic product should not be what governments strive for. The point is that GDP measures monetary transactions, not human welfare. If a family takes care of a frail grandparent, it does not count in terms of GDP. By contrast, professional frail care in a retirement home is included. So are the revenues of advertising for useless products and the laundered profits of crime. GDP is not entirely meaningless, according to the scholar, but it is important to consider carefully exactly what is growing.

His take on work and employment is similar. According to him, a job is good if it is “useful, fulfilling and appropriately paid”. He considers industries like gambling or arms manufacturing to be harmful. In his eyes, far too many people hate their jobs because they know they are not serving a useful purpose.

Ultimately, Berners-Lee says that we need to change the way we think:

  • In the past, it was enough to consider local and short-term contexts, but in the Anthropocene, the big picture matters, and that includes developing a sense of global empathy and global responsibility. Policymakers normally think in terms of election cycles. Given that human action is irreversibly changing global environment, this is not enough.
  • At the same time, appreciation of the “simple, small and local” is essential. The reason is that “there is no point in having more, buying more, doing more and trying further if we don’t even notice any of it properly”. Self-reflection can help us develop the skill to feel that “enough can be enough”. The point is to enjoy what we are doing, what we are consuming and what we are sharing with others.
  • Discovering truth in today’s vast flood of information and disinformation requires critical thinking. It is necessary to check sources and diligently weigh claims and counter-claims.
  • The challenges we face have become so huge and multifaceted, that we need complex, multidisciplinary thinking. Technology in itself will not solve the problems, nor will social sciences, politics or religion.

Berners-Lee admits that this is a very demanding agenda, but he does not convey his insights in a depressing way. On the contrary, his book is inspiring. It does not only warn of looming disaster, but spells out why more sustainable lifestyles would be more fulfilling, better for our personal health and less harmful to the global environment. Berners-Lee promises more happiness and satisfaction, not miserable austerity.

Berners-Lee, M., 2019: There is no planet B. A handbook for the make or break years. Cambridge: University Press.

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