Episode #80 How to SAve our planet with mark maslin
How did we get here? How bad are things really? Is there still hope? (Yes!) and… crucially – what can we do, individually, collectively, in our businesses, in our governments, around the world, to turn the bus from the edge of the cliff? Professor Mark Maslin is a climate scientist with a mission to explain in clear terms all we need to know. And he does it with panache, enthusiasm and optimism.
Mark is a Professor of Earth System Science at University College London and is a Royal Society Industrial Fellowship, Executive Director of Rezatec Ltd and Director of The London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership. He is a member of Cheltenham Science Festival Advisory Committee and sits on the Corporate Social Responsibility Board of the Sopria-Steria Group and Sheep Included Ltd.
He is a leading scientist with particular expertise in past global and regional climatic change. He has published over 175 papers in journals such as Science, Nature, and The Lancet. His areas of scientific expertise include causes of past and future global climate change and its effects on the global carbon cycle, biodiversity, rainforests and human evolution.
He also works on monitoring land carbon sinks using remote sensing and ecological models and international and national climate change policies, and has presented over 50 public talks over the last five years including Google UK, Twitter EU, New Scientist Live, UK Space conference, Oxford, Cambridge, RGS, Tate Modern, Royal Society of Medicine, Fink Club, Frontline Club, British Museum, Natural History Museum, Goldman Sachs, the Norwegian Government, UNFCCC COP and the WTO.
He has also written 8 popular books, over 60 popular articles. His “Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction” by Oxford University Press is now in its fourth edition and has sold over 50,000 copies.
In this podcast, we talk about his most recent book, How to Save our Planet: the Facts which does exactly what it says on the tin. A crips, cleanly written, utterly absorbing book, this is one of the clearest books ever written on the nature of the problems that assail us, the fact that it’s not too late to change – and what we need to do at every level of society to change things. It’s small enough to leave in the smallest room of the house – or by the kettle in the kitchen – so that everyone who comes by can pick it up and learn something useful. This is how we change the world, one aphorism at a time.
Manda: There is no good reason for starting around this season other than me creating a completely arbitrary break. But this time, since recording the podcast with Alex last week, I’ve been away on retreat and come back feeling alive and connected and hopeful. And I just had such an extraordinarily inspiring conversation with Mark Maslin that this feels like a really good time to start off a new season, bright and fresh and sparkly. Mark Maslin is a professor of Earth Systems Science at University College London. He’s a former director of the UCL Environment Institute and a stellar leading voice in the battle against climate change. He’s published 175 papers and nine books, the most recent of which is How to Save Our Planet: The Facts, which is one of those books that you really are going to want to buy and read and then begin to give to as many of your friends and family and colleagues and neighbours as you possibly can. So people of the podcast, please welcome Professor Mark Maslin. So, Mark Maslin, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. How is it down there in London on this beautiful, sunny day?
Mark: And I have lots and lots of sun, which is quite a change from the rainy days we’ve had.
Manda: Yeah, but speaking as a farmer, trust me, we needed the rain. We had no grass at all. So thank you very much for taking the time. The wonders of Clubhouse brought us together. I completely didn’t even know Clubhouse existed, until Rupert Read sent me a link. And the first thing that I listened to was you talking about your book, which seemed really rather wonderful and a very good key to inviting you to come onto the podcast. So thank you. So as a start, could you give us a brief sense of how Mark Maslin came to be the person who wrote a book called How to Save the Planet? And then we’ll talk about what the book is and what it does.
Mark: So I’ve been a scientist for a couple of decades now. I’m not going to tell you how many years: that will really date me and how old I am. But I started off being fascinated about how climate changes. And my PhD, which was at Cambridge, was about how the big ice ages come and go and what was controlling them. And from that, my work actually extended both backwards in time, looking at early human evolution, but also into the future and trying to work out how climate was changing and how we were changing the climate. And so that all came together. And actually what I suddenly realised is that the human impact on the planet is more than just climate change. We have a huge impact. And I was getting frustrated, and I’m sure you’ve read many of those worthy books and I have to hold my hand up that I’m guilty of writing one of those worthy books as well. And so I suddenly realised I needed a new inspiration, a new way of actually trying to communicate climate change and the impacts of human on the planet in a way that basically mates of mine that play football, like or people I meet down the pub could actually understand, digest and actually get something out of it. And so that was part of the reason for this book. I wanted something that I could actually communicate all my understanding and all the solutions to people and empower them.
Manda: Brilliant. And it definitely does that. It is, you’re right, the single most readable climate book I’ve ever read. And I probably haven’t read as many as you, but I have read a fair few in the last few years. And yeah, you’re right. And the format of this one is one of the things that makes it completely unique. So talk us a little bit through the structure of the book, how you did it and why you did it.
Mark: So the structure came about because I was struggling a year and a half ago to think of how to communicate what was a good way of actually getting to people, and actually engaging them. And I was listening to podcasts, and I listened to a lot of podcasts, and one of them is one of my favourites: In our Time. And Melvyn Bragg was talking with his experts about a book called The Art of War. Now, if you haven’t come across this book, this book was written two and a half thousand years ago. And actually it is a short book which tells you how to run a war, or how to avoid a war if you need to. I mean, it has really simple things like ‘do not put men on the ridge with sun behind’, ‘have more spies than the enemy’, ‘do not attack unless you know you can win’. And this is a book that’s actually a core text of the US Marine Corps and the British Army. And I was inspired. I went back and I have to admit, I got three copies, I went through a phase, OK? So I went through them and I suddenly realised that they’re written in one or two sentences, really simple, straightforward. And I thought, great, why don’t I write a whole book like this? Because it would be really punchy. Each one would be a fact. I have a reference at the back so basically people can go and read up more if they wanted to. I pitched this to my agent and she looked at me, because this was the days when we were still able to meet, she looked at me like I was completely mad, and made me go write a couple of chapters. And once we had a few chapters, she suddenly went, Oh, I get it. And so then we pitched it to different publishers and Penguin literally bit my hand off, which was fantastic. And they did a brilliant job of actually formatting the book and actually pulling out all the big quotes as well. So a it’s a visual feast as well as just an intellectual one as well.
Manda: And it really is. And I’m so glad. Because we kind of share a publisher I was with Random House, which is now part of what really ought to be called Random Penguin, but is in fact called Penguin Random House. Why do you miss out the chance to call it Random Penguin? I mean, honestly… but they are really making an effort to bring to the public the books that will make a difference. So I randomly opened this as you were speaking, and I got to the chapter on the taxonomy of denial. And you’re right, the first three paragraphs, the first paragraph is ‘know thine enemy’. The second is ‘counter their arguments’ and the third is ‘make them your ally or make them irrelevant’. And it’s perfect, and it’s beautiful. And many years ago in my fiction writing years, I wrote a book called The Art of War, because there is no copyright in titles, and even if there were, it would have run out by now on Sun Tzu. And it was, it’s… I read it then many, many times. Because if you are going to be the kind of person who wants to conduct wars, it’s probably the only handbook you need, other than all of the technology and books that you would need nowadays.
Manda: But the concepts, they’re exactly that: have more spies than the enemy. I was writing spy novels and his definition of the five kinds of spies, I can’t remember exactly what they are, but they’re people on the other side that you pay to be on your side, people that you pay and sacrifice deliberately in order that they give false information to the enemy. All of those things, he had it down two and a half thousand years ago. It was extraordinary, really. But we’re in a new world now where simply defeating the enemy is not going to work. In many ways I think the mindsets of Sun Tzu and the imperial world that we’re in now, are what have got us to this point where, as you say, it’s not just the climate, it’s the entire planetary ecosystem, the whole complexity of complexities that is falling apart. As you were writing this book, did you come across anything that you hadn’t known before, or did you hold all of this from ‘where we came from’ to ‘where we might get to’ in your head at the start?
Mark: So I’m very lucky that I’ve been working on quite a few of these subjects through my research. And so therefore I could at least start chapters with a knowledge base. And then what I do is double check the facts. I even had one of my incredible PhD students be my fact checker just to make sure that I got them right. But no, there were certain things like there’s this list that I carry around in my head, which is really quite sad, of things that humans have done. So we’ve cut down three trillion trees, half the trees on the planet. We’ve created enough concrete to cover the whole world, including the oceans, in a layer that’s something like two millimetres thick. We’ve made three hundred million tons of plastic. And I think the most shocking thing for me was, as an oceanographer, was a plastic bag being found seven kilometres deep in the Marianas Trench in the North Pacific. But the one that shocks people is when you say think the weight of land mammals and OK, what do they weigh, and what are they, 30 percent are humans. OK, that doesn’t sound so bad. There are seven point eight billion of us, 67 percent of the weight is our livestock and our pets. So that means only three percent is those wonderful wild animals that David Attenborough goes out and films for our entertainment every Sunday evening. That for me is the human condition. That’s how much we’ve changed the face of the planet.
Manda: Yeah, and that factoid alone, I would think, would be one of the driving factors of moving people towards eating less meat, because our pets don’t weigh as much as cows and sheep, most of us, I mean people keep horses. But I’m guessing that if we were to break that 67 percent down, over 50 percent of that is going to be livestock that we keep to eat. And we’re not good as human beings at getting our heads around big numbers, but we can quite easily get our heads around proportions, I thought it was really very clever that you put that in percentage terms rather than in squillions of tons of of muscle and bone, because 67 percent is an awful lot, to be the bacon on the plate or the steak or the hamburger or whatever else, particularly given the weight of options that are not based on little trotters eating soy that’s been grown on what used to be Amazonian forest. So when did you publish this book? Let’s start with that. It’s fairly recently, I think.
Mark: So this book came out at the beginning of May.
Manda: Right. And we are recording this on the 7th of June, which is the start of the G7 summit in Cornwall, which we’ll come back to later. So it’s been out about a month. And in the old days, our lovely publishers would have packed use in a car with our agent and various other lovely young ladies from publicity, and taken us off on a book tour. And that doesn’t happen anymore. Even before Covid it wasn’t really happening because in the old days, 30 or 40 people would turn out. And last time I did a book tour, we were lucky if the janitor turned up at the library. So what have you done instead, and how has it gone down?
Mark: So I’ve been very lucky because I think the world has moved on because of the pandemic. So people are now really comfortable about listening to podcasts, watching sort of videos of things that they’re interested in. So instead of thinking, oh, I’m going to go down to the local hall and listen to someone, you can actually now have the whole world at your fingertips. And I think that’s something that’s really exciting for the new generation. So I think there were eight consecutive days that every day or evening I actually did either a radio show or a podcast or a live presentation. And I think my high point was probably BBC Radio five live with Rick Edwards, which was quite interesting. The first time I met Rick was 14 years ago, when I was doing a trip to the Arctic with young people about climate change. And he was presenting T4. So that dates me. And then the other one was Chris Evans raving about it with me on Virgin Radio. So it seems to really attach to people. People get attached to the book and actually really like its style, its accessibility. And I think because it’s sort of like a handbook, it’s like, oh great, Mark’s actually helping me. And I can tick off some of these straightaway, and I can do my bit, and I can work out what other people are supposed to be doing as well.
Manda: Yes. So let’s look at that, because for people listening, I bought this on Kindle to read so that I could talk to Mark, but it’s £6.99 in paperback. And I think this is the kind of book, I’ve already bought several to hand out to friends, because it’s a kind of what you can leave in the loo, or just lying around in the living room. And your visitors, great Uncle Tom, who votes Tory all the time, reads the Daily Mail and The Telegraph, and has really a very limited ecosystem from which to garner stuff. They can pick it up and open it at any page. And it’s pretty much uncontestable, the stuff that’s there, because you have furnished us with all of the primary research. So it seems to me this is one of those books that could be a paradigm changer, because of its accessibility. And then one of the very many facts that you put in is the richest 50 percent of the world’s population emit 90 percent of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. And the poorest 3.9 billion people have contributed just 10 percent of the carbon pollution into the atmosphere, which is, again, terrifying. And I am making a wild guess here that everybody listening to this podcast is in the richest 50 percent of the world’s population. One, they speak English. Two, they have the time to listen to podcasts, Three, they have the technology. So you go through the way humanity arose, and how we got to what we might loosely call the Anthropocene. I’d like to know if that’s what you would call it, because I’ve read another couple of other ideas. But one of the key things at the beginning is you don’t have to read this book in order, if you don’t want to. And you can come straight to the chapters on what can we do, and how can we as individuals, as corporations or as governments – if we happen to get this into the hands of government, that would be nice – can actually do. So I’d like to have a look at that, and then look at the ways you look forward to the alternative worlds, if we do or don’t actually succeed in the revolution that we’re trying to create. So there was a question buried in that, which was, let’s start off with the question of Anthropocene. Is that what you would call it?
Mark: So as a scientist, I have been central to trying to get a definition of the Anthropocene. So the Anthropocene is the idea that we are in a new geological period of time and epoch, because of the huge amount of impacts that humans have had on the planet. So at the moment we are having such an impact, we are equivalent to a meteorite impact, or plate tectonics. And so it’s really a science argument about when did the Anthropocene actually epoch start? And I think that is much more tied up with politics and people’s view of the world. And there are some other wonderful social science terms, such as Capitalocene and Technocene, Plantationocene, and my favourite, which Donna Haraway calls it: the Chthulucene.
Mark: Actually, if we step back, it’s because it’s related to H.P. Lovecraft and the Chthulu mythos, and the idea that there is horrors waiting in the outer parts of the universe. And of course, she uses this as a wonderful look at capitalism and the patriarch. So she unpicks some really interesting ideas on feminism and stuff like the world order through this means. But if we step back, I would say we are definitely in the Anthropocene. You see a human imprint everywhere on the planet. There is no real pristine area left. And therefore actually the debate about when it starts is irrelevant. We are in the Anthropocene. And because we have so much impact, we have to actually make a decision. Do we increase that impact, or do we use our knowledge and foresight? Because we’re the only animal that can actually see the consequences of our actions. And therefore what we need to do is think, well, hang on, if this is the only place that life exists in the universe and this is our home planet, why are we mucking it up? I mean, it’s a bit like going home to your house and going, I’m going to trash it. It’s just like, why would you do that? So I think that’s where we’ve got to with this concept of the Anthropocene.
Manda: Ok, and and we’ll stick with that. It was Capitalocene. And the problem with that is it’s very difficult to say. But also it’s so obviously highly political. But it does make the point that it’s the continual pursuit of growth and capital and everything aligned with the politics of that, that has pushed us here. Because if we had stayed as forager hunters, or even very early agrarians, we weren’t making that much of an impact on the planet. It wasn’t the case that in those days, 67 percent of the body mass of everything with a pulse on the planet was something that we were growing to eat. So I’m guessing however much we look at this in geological terms, in sociological terms, most of our impact has been in the last 500 years. Is that right?
Mark: So it depends how you measure impact. And I would then gently push back against that and go, yes, OK, we have this huge impact. But think about it. We have been able to double our population from 1950 to the present day, and the actual life expectancy of humans has actually doubled in that same time period. So the human condition has improved markedly for most. And I have to say there are still a large amount of people we need to lift out of extreme poverty. But it’s had this consequence, which is we have unfortunately trashed our environment and our atmosphere by trying to improve the human condition. And so it is basically in the 21st century, we have to say, well, hang on, we want to improve the human condition. We have all the technology, we have all the experts. Therefore, why don’t we actually improve the human condition and actually improve the environment in which we live in at the same time?
Manda: Yeah. I think there’s probably a whole different podcast, which might be an interesting one to come back to at some point, which is the discussion of would it have been possible to improve the human condition without trashing the planet? I’m guessing.. but we are where we are. So it all becomes a bit hypothetical. And then there’s an entirely separate conversation on what is it that improves human condition? Because we have gone down the route of more stuff. He who dies with the most stuff wins, which plainly hasn’t, actually, the fact that we have hot and cold running water and central heating is lovely, but I’m not convinced that people are necessarily happier, or feel more safe. So we could go down an entirely different path onto the improvement of human condition. But let’s start with where we are, because it is where we are, and your question of why are we trashing our house? And I moved straight from your book onto Michael Mann’s book, The New Climate War, which is devoted – as far as I’ve got, and I’m only 30 percent of the way through – Kindle tells me these things – to a really terrifying, deep insight into exactly the ways in which the disinformation campaign of climate denialism was created, and perfected, and pursued, and led to the point where one of the reasons we’re trashing our house is that very large numbers of people who might otherwise choose to take action have been persuaded that there is no problem. In the world as you see it, from a scientific point of view, are you seeing shifts in your ability to get the message across?
Mark: So the whole view of climate change and its popular support and how governments are reacting has changed markedly in the last two years. I think everybody is feeling this. And from what I found, which was quite strange, is during a major global pandemic, you would have expected climate change to have just literally disappeared from the agenda, like it did when we had the huge financial crash in 2008. So climate change became an irrelevance. Too expensive. However, what’s interesting is this background, and actually a huge groundswell of concern that this is just a single pandemic. And actually we’ve got a bigger problem to deal with, which is climate change. And I think a lot of this can be taken back to youth activists such as Greta Thunberg mobilising the youth voice. So before the lockdowns, we had five million young people striking on a Friday saying, look, you old people, you’ve mucked it up. Could you please sort it out before we get into power? Because this is something really important. You then also have Extinction Rebellion, you have lots of people around the world realising and actually feeling the effects of climate change. I mean, you’re having people around the world seeing spring turn up two to three weeks earlier in Western Europe.
Mark: You’re having the amazing cherry blossom turn up 21 days earlier in Japan. So people are seeing this all around the world, they’re also seeing the extreme climate events, such as they are seeing the massive wildfires, the storms, the floods, in their own country. So it’s a sort of… One, they’ve suddenly realised this disinformation is wrong. And secondly, what they’re seeing is they can see it with their own eyes that things are changing, and they know that the experts are linking this back to greenhouse gases. So we’ve got to a really interesting balancing point. So we now currently have the United Kingdom, which is pledged to go net carbon zero by 2050. The US have pledged the same, the EU have pledged the same, and China have said that their emissions will peak in 2030 and then will hit net zero by 2060. So you have the three major economic blocs all saying they’re going to go to net zero by the middle of this century, which is unheard of. This has never happened before.
Manda: Is it enough in time, do you think, from a scientific point of view?
Mark: So this is a very difficult question to answer because it depends who you are. Most scientists would say, well, we should try and keep the world to one and a half degrees. That is the aspiration of the Paris agreement. We’re already at 1.1. So that doesn’t give us much headspace. However, if you happen to live in Tuvalu or any of the small island nations, one and a half degrees may actually flood your island and make you abandon it. So when people ask, well, what is the limit? Well, it basically is about two things. The number of people that are going to be adversely affected, and the cost. And so this is where I mean, you mentioned the uncle who basically votes Tory and doesn’t think outside of the box. One of the things I stress in the book is the atmosphere does not care what colour badge you wear. It doesn’t matter if you’re right wing. It doesn’t matter if you’re left wing, it doesn’t matter if you’re middle of the road. And what’s really interesting is there are solutions, political solutions on the left and the right that you can employ. So you can use market forces if you want. You can actually use regulation if you want. So, again, it doesn’t matter what your politics are. This is an issue that can be solved by different approaches. And I think that’s really important that we actually hone our different approaches, and actually use those. Because as I say in the book, I’m sorry, we do not have time for the revolution. The crisis is now. And anything we do now, and I think that’s the important thing. Anything we do now will have a major effect on how warm it will be in 10, 20 or 30 years time.
Manda: Yes, because carbon is so long lived. And I’m interested in the 1.1 degrees. If we went carbon zero today, but not carbon negative – and I completely understand that the whole ecosphere is collapsing, and it’s not just about carbon, but holding it about that for a moment – if the entire planet went carbon zero as a result of the G7 by the end of the year, no more carbon, would it not be the case that we would still hit 1.5 degrees anyway?
Mark: So this is the idea that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has a lag effect. The interesting thing is that the way the carbon system balances itself, if we could go carbon neutral as a planet now, most of us think that we would still stay below one and a half degrees. The actual increase in temperature for that lag will be quite small, because there will be other sinks and sources taking out carbon dioxide. So we have a little bit of warming built in, but not as much as people fear.
Manda: Ok, that’s that’s probably the most cheerful thing I’ve heard for months. And I guess I was listening to Cory Doctorow and somebody else’s podcast yesterday. He’s an amazing science fiction writer. If you haven’t read his stuff, definitely do. And he basically said that from his reading, the Arctic ice is toast, whether… whatever we do, it’s gone. And therefore, global coastal cities around the globe are going to go. And the sooner we wake up to that, the better and actually do something constructive that isn’t necessarily building a 20 foot high wall all the way along the Thames to try and protect London. So is that not the case? Is he is he misreading the science on that?
Mark: Okay, so the problem that scientists have is that the climate deniers are really awful because they underplay everything. They basically say it’s too expensive, but actually there’s also the doom mongers as well. So you have a whole group of people, many of them in NGOs, who basically go the planet’s toast. We’re doomed. There’s nothing we can do about it. And the thing is, us scientists, we have this tightrope walk between this denial and despair, because the interesting thing is, well, arctic sea ice. Well, yes, if we really warm up the atmosphere, summer arctic sea ice might go completely. But trust me, it’s really cold in the winter in the Arctic, there’s going to be sea ice in the winter. And also sea ice doesn’t change the sea level. What we’re worried about then is the melting of Greenland and the Western Antarctic ice sheet. So it’s then trying to unpick what is really scientific as opposed to what is fear mongering. And I think that’s why I try to do in the book. And that’s why one of the chapters in the middle, Chapter Five says, if we do nothing, this is how bad it will be.
Mark: Yes, coastal cities will be flooded. Yes, there will be summers in the tropics plus 50 degrees. You know, we know this from the science. But on the flip side, if we do everything we can, we can actually develop an Ecotopia. We can actually keep temperatures of one and a half degrees, remove air pollution and things like that. And actually, it’s still about just moving away from technology from the 19th century, fossil fuels, and moving to 21st century power sources to basically make sure we don’t actually pollute the atmosphere. And it’s really odd because I turn round to people go: well we’ve learnt that sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere is bad. Acid rain, we don’t like that. Well, we’ve learnt that we don’t really want mercury anywhere in the foods, okay? Because that causes birth defects. We know all this. So when we turn around and go, well, CO2 in the atmosphere is bad. Why don’t we just stop it? It’s a pollutant. People go, oh, no, no, no, no, no. This is oh, it’s it’s much more difficult than that. It’s like, no, it’s a pollutant. You just regulate it out.
Manda: Yes. So given that, I would be one of the people saying I think it’s slightly more complex than mercury and sulphur, let’s unpack that a bit. Because mercury and sulphur were not absolutely fundamental to the rise and prosperity that has happened since the Second World War, which has put a very small number of people in positions of extraordinary power on a global basis. We’ve had the gutting of the monopolies concept. It’s now really not a problem to create monopolies. We have a small number of fossil fuel companies who go on then to buy up everything else. And they hold the reins of political power in the countries where you get the best democracy that money can buy, which is the US, the UK, quite large portions of Europe, definitely Russia will use the version of democracy that spreads very wide. China. All these places are basically run by people for whom petro-dollars really matter. And you’re right, we don’t have time for the revolution. If we did, I would be out there making it happen. But part of the non-revolution that we have to have, it seems to me, is shifting the entire world economy away from one that is based on carbon. And regulating our way to zero carbon will involve major economic change, will it not?
Mark: So I think the fundamental idea that people have to get a hold of is that it’s not necessarily a failure of capitalism. So there is an assumption that all these big oil companies are basically monopolies, and skewing capitalism. Actually, no. If you look at the biggest 25 fossil fuel companies in the world, 19 are either fully owned by a state or partly owned by a state. So therefore, what happens is the countries are basically skewing their subsidies towards their own company or companies, to ensure they keep the petrochemical dollar. So what’s interesting is you can see climate change is not a failure of capitalism, but actually a failure of states, i.e., countries are competing against each other, trying to actually get as much money as possible for this resource. Now, the interesting thing is, of course, if you happen to be a country and you want to start from scratch, at the moment, the cheapest option is renewables. Now, what’s amazing is no economist predicted in the last 10 years that renewables become cheaper than fossil fuels. So this has been a huge change. And so that’s something that’s really important. So if you’re starting from scratch, you just go, right? I will have renewables. Because actually, they’re in your own country. You don’t have to rely on foreign powers from giving you coal, natural gas or oil. You have your energy security, and you can manage yourself. So there’s so many logical win-wins, why you want to move away from fossil fuels.
Manda: Do the renewables not require more rare earths than we actually have on the planet? IIt’s one of the factors that people keep throwing at me, that if we wanted every car in Britain to be an electric car, there isn’t enough cobalt around, even for Britain. And then electric cars are not renewables. But can we get that many solar panels without covering the whole of Britain in solar panels?
Mark: Oh, so this is the wonderful thing from the climate change deniers, which is ooh, you know, batteries, they use rare earth elements and ooh, they are really difficult to dig up and ooh, I think China’s got a monopoly on them. OK, we need certain things to actually produce wind turbines. We still need steel for wind turbines. We still need sort of oils because we need to lubricate them as they turn around. So it’s still part of our industrial society, but we have ways of actually producing stuff if we want to. If we need to increase mining, which again, Richard Harrington of the Natural History Museum produced a great paper showing that mining will have to be increased because we need more resources for the Green Revolution. That’s fine, but we can manage how we do it. That doesn’t say, it’s not an excuse to say, ooh, it’s going to be difficult and we’re going to have to do something differently. That is not an excuse to say, oh, let’s just stick with the same. And, you know, it really doesn’t matter if the temperature goes up by four degrees. So I find that a really insidious argument. The other one you hear is ooh, the human rights violation of rare earth mining is terrible. And you just look at the person, you go, have you seen the human rights abuses with fossil fuel rights? Drilling of oil in certain developing countries, sort of like the ripping up of huge, large areas of pristine forest to get to coal. You cannot say, that’s bad, but I know this is worse, but we already do it. So there are some really… it’s not going to be simple. And this is something in the book I point out, which is it’s a complex problem but we’re very smart animals, and we know how to deal with complexity.
Manda: Do you reckon?
Manda: Do we know how to deal with complexity? Do we not… because this has always been one of my core beliefs, is actually we don’t know how to deal with complexity. We can iterate towards an end goal, but no economist on the planet suggested that renewables would be cheaper than fossil fuels 10 years ago. We don’t, I was under the impression, and you are the scientist, actually understand how to deal with complexity at all. That’s.. I thought that was pretty much the definition of complex versus complicated, was we’re pretty good at complicated problems because they’re linear, and the non-linearity of complexity generally leaves us somewhat lagging. Am I completely wrong in that? That would cheer me up enormously actually, if I was.
Mark: So, I would argue that our brain is developed as an incredible social tool. So our brain is there to be able to work out who’s our friends, who are enemies, who the alliance is, and therefore we have incredible flexible brains. So if something new comes along, for example, a mobile phone, you find that almost every generation, maybe some of the older generation resist, can adapt. It’s a bit like – I remember in London, we had the congestion zone charging coming in and a certain writer, a very famous writer, said this is the end of Western civilisation. Yeah, guess what? The day after the congestion zone charge came in, everybody went yeah, OK, just got on with it. So we are incredibly adaptable. We don’t like change, and I’m with everybody else. None of us like change, but we are incredibly adaptable. And I think what’s even more exciting is every generation comes into a completely different environment and different society, and therefore the way their brains are wired up is completely different. I jokingly say that my kids are a different species to me, because you’ve seen one year olds toddle up to the TV and push the screen, because they think it should be a touch screen. They have now a completely different way of thinking about the world to the way that we do. And I think that’s why we can deal with complexity, because each generation, because things are accelerating, they basically are wired in complete different ways. I mean, we’ve got whole generations that have no idea of a world without Google. You know, why learn anything? We can actually just ask Google. You know, it’s a very different world.
Manda: It’s a very different world. But we have a government run by 70 year olds who may have the emotional intelligence of five year olds, but they’re still insisting that they sit in lines in schools and learn Latin, because that’s what they did in the 50s. And if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for the kids. So it seems to me that one of the things that you really stress in terms of the power of the individual, and I’d like to move on to that, because I’m noticing the time and thinking this is the most important bit, is that we need to move towards political change in order that it’s not the old white men with their emotional spaces locked back in their childhoods who are making all the decisions. And I wonder if, not just what you’ve written in the book, but in your own concepts of the world we could get to if we really tried, how is it governed and how do we get there?
Mark: Oh, my word. Not a small question then.
Manda: No, why would we ask small questions, Mark? That’s boring! We’re here to save the world!
Mark: OK, so my frustration is that you are right. What we need is the ideas that are coming out of the brightest and the smartest, and mainly in the youth because they think differently. And you’re right, we have leaders, many of them who are much older, who are probably two or three generations older. But have a look at the difference, OK, just because you’re old doesn’t mean you can’t think in new and exciting ways. So you have a particular politics in the UK. But if you then look at America with Biden, you have a very different politics, sort of like very open, looking at sort of increasing racial harmony and things like that. So I think it’s really difficult just to blame: they’re old, therefore they can’t think in the right way. So there’s lots of people… I think it’s trying to move people away from that tribalism. That’s sort of like, we think about ourselves. We think about our family. We think about our collective. And then we jump to thinking about the nation state as being really important. But actually, what we need to do, and this is the challenge that I throw down in the book, is in this century we need to start thinking as a global species. We have to say, okay, there’s me, there’s my family, there’s my tribe, there’s the group of people that I hang out with.
Mark: But also then there is the whole planet, and all humans. How do we maximise, I would say, the aspirations of every person? I mean, because what frustrates me is sort of like we only need one or two Beethovens or Schuberts or Einsteins, et cetera. Well, what upsets me is they could be in other countries, but not have the opportunity, because they haven’t got enough food. And so for me, I want everybody to be lifted up, because actually that’s going to improve my life. They’re going to invent things. They’re going to produce more music, make incredible films, etc. And so it’s about thinking of us selfishly as a species. How can we improve the chances of our species, improve everybody’s well-being at the same time as making sure our house in which we live is as beautiful and as pristine as possible? And I think the frustrating thing is, as I say in the book, we have the technology, we have the experts, we have the entrepreneurs, and we certainly have the money. Okay, do not be under illusions. We have the money to do this now, and actually improve everybody’s life at the same time. What we don’t have, which you’ve picked up, is the policies and the politics that are required for the 21st century.
Manda: Yeah. So given that we don’t have the policies of the 21st century, but the G7 is meeting as we speak in Cornwall. If they were to pick up the phone now and say, Mark, get onto Zoom, we want to hear from you, what are the policies that we need globally and nationally in the UK, assuming other people can iterate out from those, to make the biggest difference in the shortest possible time? What would you recommend that they do for what?
Mark: Climate change, human wellbeing, environmental?
Manda: Well, I don’t think that these are interchangeable. I became a socialist when I realised that it wasn’t possible to solve… generally speaking, in the kind of XR movement, I met a lot of people who had come to a concept of climate change because they were interested in social justice. And I came to understanding that social justice was essential because I was looking mainly at the destruction of the ecosphere and wanting that to stop. So I’m not sure those things are dissociable. However, we’re talking about a book that focuses a lot on climate change. So let’s take that as the exemplar, but assume that, unless you want to tell me why I’m wrong, that we need, that climate change and climate justice and ecosystem survival pretty much all hinge on the same set of policies.
Mark: So I think if we go right back to basics and say, what are the policies we need to actually change people’s lives, and therefore their perception of the world and then how we run it, I think one of the things we need to do is unpick and undo the damage of neoliberalism. So my most scary fact is currently 26 billionaires of one of whom is, of course, Bill Gates, who’s written a competitive book against my own, the same wealth as the bottom 3.7 billion people. Now, that just can’t be right in anybody’s science fiction novel. You know, it’s, when I tell people that they go no, and I say, just add it up. And so I think that is the first thing. It is, we need to empower people, and lift them out of poverty. So it sounds really strange, but actually sharing out the wealth generated around the world is really important. I think that concepts like universal basic services and universal basic income are really important, because what they say is actually that human existence is more than just 9:00 to 5:00 work. We all do things that really benefit society, but nobody counts in financial terms. We look after elderly relatives. We might organise an art group for our local community. We might become an entrepreneur and actually try and actually develop a new company idea or new technology, all of which would benefit from having the idea that the services you require to actually have a healthy life are free.
Mark: So that’s health and education. But you also have enough money, so therefore you can actually survive and actually live on that, while you do other things. It also is wonderful because it means at any point you suddenly go, hang on, I’ve got to a certain age and this isn’t working out for me. I know: I’m going to drop onto UBI, and I’m going to go back to university. I’m going to retrain. Or you might become an apprentice at the age of 50. Absolutely brilliant. It just gives that flexibility. It also breaks that whole thing about I’m working so hard so I’m going to treat myself, I’m going to suddenly buy another car, or I’m going to go on a really exotic holiday, because you don’t need that drug or consumption, because you’re actually doing it from the job. You’re doing it. You’re doing it through your interactions with your friends and family. And I think that’s what we need to do. We need to step back and say, what do humans really want? What do we really like doing? And how can we actually make sure that everybody actually is allowed to do that and to improve themselves? Because that’s something that humans love to do.
Manda: Yes. Yes. To find a sense of self actualisation. In fact, if we go back to Maslow, the hierarchy of needs was never a hierarchy of needs. But self actualisation does seem to me to be part of what we’re here for. And you’re right, universal basic income, universal basic services would definitely get here. And I love that one of those beautiful, bold statements in your books of ‘UBI could break the link between work and unsustainable consumption’. And thank you, because I really wanted us to get to that. And you got there effortlessly. I have to say, having read your book and Bill Gates’s book, that I think they’re complementary rather than competitive. I found them both really interesting. His is very technocratic. But then that’s what you would expect from a technologist. I think at least he’s not suggesting that the answer is to colonise Mars, which has got to be one step in the right direction. And I’m guessing one of the other group of people who own most of the wealth in the world is the one who thinks we should colonise Mars. Let’s leave that one. I’m very interested, as an aside, about your idea that we’re unpicking the damage of neo liberalism, but earlier in the conversation you said capitalism is not the problem. Do you internally make a distinction between capitalism and neoliberalism? And if so, how would you separate the two?
Mark: Ok, absolutely. So capitalism and neoliberalism are very different. So if you look at what happened at the end of the Second World War, when the allies sat down and they redrew the world order, what they were very clear about is they wanted sort of capitalism, they wanted competition, but they also wanted lots of safety nets because they didn’t want failed states. They didn’t want countries to go spiralling into massive debt, as had happened with Germany. And so what happened is there were huge amounts of regulation put in place to basically say, look, this competition between groups of people and companies is actually really quite good. You know, we actually get lots of technology and things like that, but we’re going put very strict boundaries around it. And what happened in 89 and then then onwards was that the economists said, look, this is great, but why don’t we take the training wheels off? You know, sort of like just unfetter the market, because that would lift everybody out of poverty. And I genuinely believe they thought they were actually doing the right thing. They really thought that actually not having any controls in the market would be the best for everybody. And it turns out that basically, no! Look at 2008 and the financial crash. You have to control things. And this is where governments have learnt really powerful messages through the pandemic, and so have people, because what they learnt was when there is a major crisis, the only organisation you can actually rely on is government.
Mark: And some have done better than others. OK, we all wish that we were actually in New Zealand. So suddenly it isn’t companies that care about us, because actually most companies went to government, said, excuse me, sir, could I have a bailout, please? And so therefore, this whole neo liberalism has basically been shattered because people realised when the chips are down, the only organisation that actually has their best interests at heart is government. And therefore, you want a good government that actually looks after everybody, and actually manages the stuff like distribution of resources, wealth and services. And so I think we’ve had, the pandemic in a really weird way, has actually become sort of part of the death knell of neo liberalism. What emerges from that is another matter. And so the next few years are going to be really interesting as the world order alters and changes. You also to remember by 2040, that will be the first time that the Asian economic powers actually generate more than 50 percent of global GDP. That’s the first time that European based countries will not be the majority of the global economy. That’s going to change things massively as well.
Manda: Oh, and there goes a whole new podcast that we can talk about. Gosh, yes. There is so much in that Mark, and so much that I would love to… because one of the really interesting things, I would disagree wholly about capitalism being benign and useful.
Mark: But I didn’t say that. I just said there was a massive difference between capitalism and neoliberalism. So as we found, if you look at different political systems, the natural state of humans is to compete. OK, that’s absolutely fine. Whether it’s in music, whether it’s in art, whether it happens to be in companies, lots of collaboration, but lots of competition. That’s fine. You can harness that. So one of the things in the book I stress is that actually, we need lots of entrepreneurs to come up with fantastic new technology, new ideas, new social constructs to actually build a different, better world. And so we have to actually be very conscious of humanity, and how humans operate, and build a society that actually builds on those strengths and actually regulates against our weaknesses, which is 26 people earning the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3.7 billion, OK? So, yeah, no, capitalism isn’t benign in any shape or form, but you can actually at the moment tether it and actually use it, because as you and I have agreed, we do not currently have time for the revolution.
Manda: Right. I hear you. You’re right. Absolutely. OK, thank you. So we’re heading towards the end of our time. That was, I still think there’s a huge and wonderful and fascinating podcast. But we’ll do that another day. As we’re heading down towards the end, one of the things that I love about your book is that you give lists of what people can do: individually, within government, within companies. And one of the other Clubhouse conversations I listened to was a group of tech people working out how to make their tech companies move towards a circular economy, which was glorious. I noticed in the comparison between the complementary books that you and Bill Gates both wrote that he put ‘voting and politics’. He said the single most important thing that anybody could do was to become politically active. And that was the top of his list of individual actions. Top of your list of individual actions is ‘talk about climate change’. And voting comes at number 15 of 15. And I wondered if you could explore that disparity.
Mark: So the difference between Bill’s and my book, and I have to say I’ve been very lucky, the Journal Society asked me to review his book, and I did so with great glee, because he is, he sets out the problem beautifully. I mean, I love the way he splits up the emissions of the global economy into these five big chunks and how to deal with it. I mean, my problem with Bill’s book is it is very technocratic, which is we don’t have to change society. We just have to change the technology. But he also then has a whole chapter, say, which I love because it’s clearly for an American audience, there’s a whole chapter: this is why governments matter. You don’t have to explain that to most other people in the rest of the world, which is governments actually are the incentivisers. They’re the people that actually do all the basic R & D. I mean, again, all the drugs that we’ve been using to combat sort of Covid, the basic R&D was paid for by governments around the world, financing universities and brilliant academics to actually come up with these incredible vaccines. So I think that there is a disconnect between his view of the world and everybody else’s. Well, as you know, there might be 25 other people that agree with him because they’re all billionaires.
Mark: But, and I think this is where I come to, which is, yes, we have lots of technology. We need new technology, but we also need to change the way we have our societies. We need to change the way we structure international organisations. We need to restructure how individuals actually get money and interact with the society around them. When it comes back to my list, my lists are about empowering people to allow them to do things. And so therefore they’re in order of what can you do first? OK, so talking about climate change, you can do now, OK, you don’t have to wait four years to vote. OK, so again, changing your diet, that might be tomorrow because you might go to the shops and choose perhaps to have more vegetable based foods instead of meat. And then there are ones that take a bit more thinking about, which is how do you actually use your car less? How do you swap your car? And then, I don’t disagree. Protesting and voting are incredibly important in countries where they’re allowed, but they don’t always happen every week of the year. So again, it’s just the same with the company thing. The company list is about what are the things you can do straightaway and then build up to the huge ones, which at the end are things like, right, as a company, you need to build your whole economy around the circular economy.
Mark: Now, I don’t expect any company to do that overnight. Those are things that take time, planning and falls. The other thing that I don’t mention in the book, which I have become very aware of, which I should have done, is that individuals are brilliant, not just on their own power, but as agitators and viruses within companies and government. What I found, and I’ve been so lucky to work with so many inspired, passionate people, you just need one passionate person within a big corporation. And they basically in fact, a lot of people think, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, we can make this company really green and profitable. And that spreads out, sometimes even gets to the CEO. So I think individuals forget that they are powerful. Not just what they can do in their individual life, but in their role. I mean, I remember one absolutely brilliant young woman turning around and going, I work for certain fashion retail shop, which most people consider evil. I feel really guilty about that. And I said, no, you’re in absolutely the right place. And she said, Why? I said, because you just by agitating, being a little bit sort of radical, giving some suggestions about sustainability, mentioning how about going green, you probably have more impact than somebody working for a sustainable fashion brand. And she just looked at me, went, oh, my word. You’re right. Yeah.
Manda: Yeah, there’s a book called Be More Pirates, she needs to read it. Brilliant, brilliant. I had so many more questions, but we’re over an hour and that feels like a very empowering and wonderful place to stop. So we recommend that everybody goes out to read your book, How to Save the Planet: The Facts, by Mark Maslin. I will put links in the show notes at the end. Is there anything you wanted to say as a final goodbye to the listeners?
Mark: If you are able to buy the book, firstly, thank you. Also, I would just point out: just dip into it. Don’t take this like homework, OK? Pick up the book and just pick a chapter that really resonates with you. Whether you happen to be an individual, you have someone in your family you want to argue against because they are a diehard denier, just pick the chapter that you most like. And if you pick up the book and you go, I can’t, I don’t know where to start, just go straight to the back of the book, because there are just some wonderful facts that I’ve slipped in in the back, because I’m a geographer, about how brilliant and how big and wonderful our planet is. So if you can’t decide where to start, just start at the back, and then that hopefully will inspire you. Just pick little different places in the book to go to.
Manda: Brilliant. And buy one for your MP. And if enough of you buy ones and send them to your MP so that they get hundreds of copies, they might actually begin to read them. You never know. I think that would be brilliant. And that would combine being activist and starting at the beginning talking about climate change and it would go around full circle. So there we are. Mark Maslin, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Mark: Thank you for having me.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Mark for the depth and integrity of his understanding, for the ways that he has thought things through and come to answers that feel to me as if they could genuinely work. This really was one of the most inspiring books I have ever read, and it has left me with great hope. As ever, Mark and I continued to talk at the end of the podcast, we got around to the revolution and nuclear fusion and asteroid mining. So I really feel there might be another podcast due someday quite soon.
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