Episode #51 The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Responding to Climate Change with Dr Paul Behrens
We live on the edge of change – the facts can be terrifying, but the creative potential of our times is inspiring and just as jaw-dropping as the horrors of the reality we inhabit.
Paul Behrens is assistant Professor of Energy and Environmental Change at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He has advised governments and his work on climate change has appeared in leading scientific journals, as well as on the BBC, in the New York Times and Scientific American. He’s got a clear, un-sensational view of the way things are – and how we can bring ourselves back from the brink.
In our conversation, we explore the realities and the possibilities – and where we might go from here.
My guest this week is a physicist, an academic, an adviser to governments, and author of a book called The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, which is easily one of the best books on the current climate and ecological crises that I have read. Paul Behrens writes beautiful, flowing prose. It’s easy to read, it makes sense, and it’s full of the kind of facts that go in and stay in. Some of them are disturbing, but because he’s looked at the balance between the pessimistic reality of where we are and the optimistic potential of how fast we’re changing, how good are the green shoots of progress, it left me with a genuine sense of hope. And most of all, Paul has created pathways showing how we get from where we are to where we need to be. And there is nothing more valuable, as we head so fast towards the tipping point. So people of the podcast, please welcome Paul Behrens.
So, Paul Behrens, welcome to Accidental Gods podcast. You’re out in Ireland, in beautiful Connemara, and I can see little bits of it through the window behind you, including a palm tree. So you are author of an amazing book called The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, which is almost as Dickensian as that title makes us believe. And full disclosure: we share an agent, which is how I got to hear of it, though I think genuinely, having read it several times now, it’s the kind of book anyone listening to this podcast will want to have read, partly because clearly you know your stuff hugely, but also because you have balanced it into: OK, here’s the bad news – and people listening: it is very bad – but also, here’s the good news. Every section has the pessimistic view and the optimistic view, which for me puts it streets ahead of some of the other ‘Here are the facts about climate’ books, which tend either to say basically the only possible option is to shoot yourself now, or it’s OK, guys, we’re going to fix it. And you do both. Or neither, depending on which way we choose to look at it. So, tell us a little bit about Paul, and how you came to write this book, before we kind of go into the guts of what it says.
Paul: Well, thank you for the kind words about the book, Manda. So you basically described it pretty well. I’ve often found myself, depending on the day, the side I get out of bed, hopeful or pessimistic about the future. And I think there’s an underserved community of people who are probably a little bit like me in the sense that, you know, there is nuance in the world. There are lots of very, very hopeful signs that we see in the media, and around us. And there are lots of really, really quite terrifying outcomes of current climate change and biodiversity loss. And so keeping these things in mind at the same time is just where the difficulty is. And then being a scientist, there are things that are coming down the road that is very difficult for the public to appreciate now. I mean, we’re to some extent, reaping what we’ve sown over the last few decades, right now with climate impacts. And so, you know, the longer the time goes on with the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and biodiversity loss and land change that the more impacts that we can expect from that, and the more people will realise those impacts.
So you’ve really highlighted exactly why I went about writing the book in the way that I did and why the book’s out there, while there are many, many wonderful books. But you have to read quite a lot of them from different perspectives to get a sort of nuanced picture there. And I thought, well, what happens if you actually commit to this? Because the other thing that does is it allows you to see the step change that’s needed. What exactly is needed to go from that pessimism to that hope? What is the difference? Because you read one book on pessimism, and one book on hope, you may not be quite so sure as to what’s actually needed to make that jump. And so that’s really the fundamental driver. And for me to figure this out as well, myself, in the process of exploring that as a scientist, and as a member of the public and as somebody, as a human in society.
Manda: Yeah, who wants there to be a future. Tell us a little bit: you’re a scientist. You’re an academic scientist. Give us a kind of brief history of Paul that brought you to this point.
Paul: I’m a physicist by training, but very quickly I was interested in public policy, how decisions were made, governance, these sorts of things. So I did my PhD in atmospheric physics, but then afterwards quickly left to give advice to government on scientific issues and so gave advice on… there was some regulatory stuff on genetically modified organisms. There was also some some work on languages, and what multilingualism brings to countries. So I had this very diverse process of exploring how policy decisions are made given what information, what scientific information, or what other evidence there was. And then I decided that I wanted to go back into academia, and went to the Netherlands.
And now I work in what’s called industrial ecology, which is a fairly new research area, which focuses mostly – you probably know it mostly by the things it focuses on, which is footprinting, circular economy, figuring out the impacts of sustainable development goals, these sorts of things. That’s the sorts of things that industrial ecology looks at. Some of your listeners might know about lifecycle assessment. So when you when you look at the impacts of a particular product or things like this, some of your listeners might be thinking, well, is this product better than this product? And often the data that comes from that is lifecycle assessment. So I work in these sorts of areas of the intersection of society and natural impacts. And I also have a keen interest from the atmospheric sciences side in climate change, of course. So although biodiversity does appear in the book too, there is a heavier emphasis on climate change as part of my background. And also, some of my research interest, too.
Manda: So, you’ve been advising the British government?
Paul: It was actually New Zealand. So when I was in New Zealand, I was working on wind turbines and renewable energies in New Zealand for my PhD about a decade ago.
Manda: You have had a very exciting life. And now you’re in Ireland, which is beautiful, although New Zealand, I have to say, is beginning to feel like one of those places that might end up politically being the only safe place left on the planet. However, since the American elections, that feels less the case. So we get to the book, and wanting nuance and balance, and wanting to give people the track from how we get to where things are – which having read the book is is a lot scarier than I thought. That’s one of the very interesting things that I found, was you’re very good at highlighting the data that really sinks in.
So, a couple of things that really struck me: every litre of fuel that I use in the car melts one ton of Arctic ice. That – I stopped driving for about three weeks. I mean, we are in the middle of lockdown, and I didn’t have anywhere really to go. But my goodness, that single data point blew all my fuses. OK, how do I not drive when I live in the middle of nowhere in the nearest town is eight miles away? And then I talked to a friend in Australia, and her hairdresser is a three-hour drive away. I thought, OK, so me deciding to park the car forever in Shropshire isn’t necessarily going to to change the world, but it will make a difference to how I see the world. And I think anyone who’s read the book and continues to fly has not been paying attention.
For instance… Let’s look at the book for a bit, because you divide it into energy, food, climate, economics, which is one of my favourite topics – very exciting – and look at where we are in each of those, which is scary. But also, human ingenuity is an extraordinary thing. And so in each of these, you bring forward the ways that we are making progress. And so, I’d like to look a little bit at each topic. Shall we look at energy to begin with in terms of what you wrote? But also, it’s a year since you wrote the book, or at least a year since you finished it, publishing cycles being what they are. It was published six weeks ago, I think, at the time of writing, thereabouts. So life has changed.
And I wonder, is there anything particular in the field of energy use, or particularly the politics around energy. Because what struck me reading the book was, our use of energy is catastrophic. Again, another factoid that you brought forward was each of us in the Western world daily uses as much energy as we would create if we cycled the Tour de France five times, which is a lot of energy. Also I can’t imagine doing that, even once. But we’re using vast amounts of energy, and most of it is still fossil fuels. And most of it, Britain particularly, is massively subsidised by our governments. And the key, it seemed to me in each field, I have to say, but particularly in energy, was political will. And so I wonder, in the last year, if you were to update the book now, is there anything new that you would put in there, or anything that you would particularly want to highlight?
Paul: Yeah, I would just add a few things there on what you’re mentioning. One is that we are to some extent stuck in the systems that we have. So your not driving, you know, means that you can’t get to shops. I mean, so the factoid about Arctic ice is not to guilt anybody into not driving ever. I mean, we are stuck in systems and we have lives to lead. And that totally makes sense, that it is difficult to transition. I mean, this is one of the reasons why transitions are very difficult.
For flying: I don’t fly myself anymore. Obviously, I used to work in New Zealand and there was a bit of quite a bit of flying there. But I think for people that it gets to the stage where you just think, well, this is just not tenable anymore. And then you basically stop flying. But that’s for everybody to make those decisions; for each person. In terms of the changes in the Covid situation and the lockdown in terms of energy, I think the biggest impact is in the oil markets; is in the global oil distribution system, and extraction system. And it may be that these years will be peak oil. So we will have peaked in our oil use. We really already have in coal. We are looking to peak very soon in oil. Even without Covid, we would have been looking to peak very soon, and then eventually peaking in gas too. And the disarray that the oil markets are in has been one of the biggest impacts. I mean, a lot of the oil companies have now dropped from the highest rankings in different stock markets, and there is a lot of excitement in renewables.
So just watching the way in which businesses and markets are moving, there’s obviously a lot of bullish attitudes towards renewable energies, and the technologies that facilitate them. I think there is always under appreciation, and a lack of focus, on energy efficiency and reducing energy use while still having the same – what we call in science – energy services. So as Amory Lovins, who is an energy expert, once said, we don’t really care about gas or a litre of oil: that does nothing for us. What we’re really interested in is warm showers and cold beers. And if we can get warm showers and cold beers in any other way, then that’s totally fine. And that’s one of the disappointing things I always get disappointed with, is that the really low hanging fruit, which is just so obvious and not high technology, is things like insulation. We know how to do insulation. Typically we can upgrade many, many houses across the UK. And yet it never happens because of policy issues, because of the split incentives between landlords and tenants, because if a tenant is paying the electricity bill, or the heating bill, the landlord has no interest. And so a lot of this stuff is just getting the stuff done. And I haven’t seen that.
Still, there’s been another plan or proposal after the last failed attempt to improve insulation in the UK. But I haven’t seen that commitment to that side of things, the demand side of things. So there are some very promising signs in the supply side in terms of the oil and in terms of electric vehicles, in terms of having better street planning, basically blocking off streets for traffic and things like this during Covid; appreciation of urban space, and what urban space means. Because, you know, if you want to keep two metres distance from people, you’re going to need the urban space, and you’re going to need those roads to be open for people, and for children to play, and these sorts of things. So hopefully there’s a realisation that not all of this energy use is needed, and there are other alternatives which are much healthier for us. Not, you know, not even mentioning the fact that a thousand Europeans die prematurely from air pollution each day. So this is what we need to be looking at. And I think this has been an eye-opener for lots of people.
Manda: Yes. I’m wondering, has it been an eye opener for the people in power? Because, again, one of the things that really struck me was that the WHO knows that air pollution, which is a side effect of burning fossil fuels to get us from A to B. If we were to cease to burn fossil fuels, but still be able to get from A to B, the savings, the overall financial economic savings in our health systems would far outweigh the cost of having made the transition to other forms of transport. Did I understand that correctly?
Paul: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.
Manda: Then, even for people who are embedded in the current economic model, and I think it would be useful to talk a bit about how do we change the system, because exactly as you said, we’re stuck in systems, and systemic change has to happen. But even for people who want to maintain the current system, that’s a no brainer. So there must be, and you do write in the book about the lobbying impact of the fossil fuel industry, and I’m wondering, since Covid, since air got cleaner, if we used less carbon. I was reading yesterday on Bloomberg a whole article about stranded assets and oil, that people are getting out of oil faster because they can see that shares in oil are going to plummet at some point very soon. And they don’t want to still have them at the plummet, and that’s what makes them plummet. It’s enough people making that decision.
And it doesn’t need to be huge numbers of people, it just needs to be enough to start kicking the price down. And I was remembering about April in lockdown, where oil futures had become negative. They were paying people to buy up their oil. So has that, in policy terms and in economic terms, changed significantly, or are we kind of rebounding back to where we were, do you think?
Paul: I don’t know what will happen after the vaccines come out, and after people feel a little bit safer using more energy and flying and things like this. For the time being, yes, it has made a huge impact on the viability of the oil market. I mean, if you look at pandemics through history, the broad consensus view seems to be that it accelerates trends that were already happening. And these trends were already happening. It was just that most people didn’t realise how cheap the transition was going to be because it’s just been getting cheaper and cheaper all the time, has been just astonishingly cheap. And how expensive the current system is. And we’ll get down the line, and we’ll probably think to ourselves, well, why didn’t we do this earlier? When you’re walking down a street and you don’t have to smell those diesel fumes any more, when your children who are at exhaust height of the cars, aren’t choking down those those particulates anymore, I think finally this is starting to hit home. I hope, I think, especially if you look at the number of people who are concerned about the future, we do have some sort of anxiety even in the UK, even amongst the broader public. So I think this is starting to make a difference. I think that as the power of those oil interests wanes, we will see a faster and faster acceleration.
One of the things that we always think about as humans is linear change. We think about change as just being step by step by step. But actually it’s just these critical points that accelerate really quickly away, like what you were just mentioning. As people start realising there’s just no future in these stranded assets anymore, they’re just going to write them down. This is actually one thing that the central banks of different countries are really worried about, because they know where the science is going. They know how fast this has to be, to avoid some of the really catastrophic impacts. And now they’re thinking, well, if our banks are supporting carbon intensive assets, if we’ve got these people building more carbon intensive infrastructure, this is a huge loss to our economy. And this is where hopefully there’ll be more regulations coming out about how this is accounted for, which will really push a lot of sustainable investment. So I think we started to see sort of tipping points in society even last year. But I think Covid to some extent has accelerated parts of that, and perhaps gotten in the way of other parts, because I think it has really gotten in the way of the momentum of sort of activism, and marching, and some of those climate movements.
Manda: Yes. Although XR is becoming much more creative and doing different things to try and maintain the momentum. Yeah, it’ll be very interesting, I imagine, to see if a post-Cummings UK government cuts back on its fossil fuel investments. Because once I began to see the numbers of how much of our tax money our government is pouring into the fossil fuel industry… I know we live in a kleptocracy, but it’s so blatant, the funnelling of public money into private hands, for presumably personal gain of either the people doing it, or the or the system doing it, is terrifying. One other factoid that I think would be very useful: you said the kids are at exhaust height, but also in the book you said that schools that are downwind of major roads have significantly lower educational reach, or the kids get lower scores on their exams than the kids upwind. Was that right?
Paul: Yeah, yeah, that was one study in the U.S., I believe. Yeah.
Manda: Yeah. You know, once parents know that, and once they’ve experienced what the air smells like when you’re not breathing diesel fumes all day, every day, then one assumes we can begin to get movement behind that as well. It seems we just need these data points to be out there.
Paul: I think there was a public health official who spoke about smoking, and why it was so hard to ban smoking. And what they said was somebody said basically, if it causes all this damage, why haven’t we stopped it yet? And the public health official turned around and said, show me the bodies. You know, if you’re not seeing the damage that’s doing, because the damage is internal and over a long time, it’s very difficult for humans to get that feeling of ‘wolf at the door’ type thing of like, oh, my God, a few thousand people were dropping dead in the street every day due to the direct impacts of air pollution, Yeah, we’d be definitely doing something about it. But unfortunately, it actually happens down the road.
Manda: Yes. And I am watching the States, and 800 people a day were dying from Covid in the middle of last spring. And we still had people claiming that it wasn’t happening. So, the capacity of certain people to believe what they want to believe is quite scary. So let’s move on to food, because that also, I think, is one of your four key areas, and it’s something where everybody has skin in the game, and and it seems to me that particularly the concept of regenerative agriculture as being a way of turning food production into negative carbon rather than the huge carbon production that it is at the moment. So I’m wondering, what were your key takeaways in terms of agriculture? Because I’m guessing it wasn’t your area to begin with. Did you find anything that really surprised you when you came to look at food production and its impact on the climate?
Paul: Yeah, so, well, I do work in food as well, Industrial ecology is one of these areas where you can do quite a bit because, you know, you’re combining economics with the rest of it. But there should be also be a caveat, because I’m not much of a gardener! The studies that look at how we can go forwards with the food system, and continue the way that we’re doing, basically suggests that there are three main things that we have to do. One is dietary change. The other is reduction in food waste. And the other is production technologies. And if you have those technologies it can be agro-ecology, too. It doesn’t have to be automated sort of robot type stuff. But the two biggest ones by far are diets and reducing waste. So diets and reducing waste are by far the biggest impacts. And we’ve got to remember that it’s not just the carbon emissions from the food system, it’s biodiversity loss. And probably even more importantly, it’s land. It just uses a huge amount of land.
So humans use about 80 percent of ice-free land globally. About half of that is for the food system and most of that, about 40 percent of all ice-free land in total is for animal agriculture. That is where the key part is. And so over and over and over again, you just have to keep repeating over and over and over that animal agriculture is the biggest thing. And if you want to look at one area, and I’m sure most of your listeners already know this, so many times we’ve heard it, but it really is red meat. And if you want to look at one area and get removing as many ruminants from the system as possible is the biggest impact. And I like to think of things – maybe this is a bit too much like a physicist of me – but I like to think of things as where, where there’s the biggest benefits, and when you get down to the smaller, more marginal benefits, not only are they smaller benefits, but sometimes there are changes in the science, or changes in production systems, or the technology, that then inform us of better ways to do things.
But we know for sure that reducing waste and getting rid of ruminants is the two biggest things that we can do that makes the vast majority of the difference going towards 2050. And the other big thing about this is we’re going to need that land for carbon sequestration, for drawing down carbon. And so it’s a huge release of land. So it really changes the way our communities look, the way our rural areas look in different countries in terms of rewilding, in terms of afforestation, reforestation, however it’s done; there’s lots of different ways to do it. And I think that has to be more on a local basis, you know, on a region by region basis and driven by local communities. It can’t be the situation where somebody from outside is saying, well, you need to change your local region like this. I think it has to be far more community focussed than that. And I think that would be beneficial for lots of other knock on impacts and democratic values, and all these things as well. But in the food system, those are the two major areas, and production systems do have a large role to play.
I am quite hopeful about technologies being able to help with improving the environmental sustainability of production systems. So, for example, bringing back multi-cropping instead of this monocultures, potentially through automated farming and things like this. But the problem is there is always this concentration of power. Again, you know, you can imagine that agricultural businesses will get stronger and stronger, a tighter and tighter hold on those technologies. And then we’ll be in a similar situation as today, where farmers are driven to monocultures because there are basically four seed companies owning seventy five per cent of the global markets. These huge, huge companies have massive, massive impacts on both the prices that farmers are paid, and the prices that farmers can sell their goods at. So I think that’s the danger of the production thing. But on the dietary and the waste side, I mean, a lot of that is essentially up to us and the system will respond to our shifts. And we are starting to see that.
Manda: And it’s one of the few areas where personal change can begin to make a serious difference because it’s only by everybody deciding to eat less meat, that will shift. Whereas each of us, it’s harder to decide not to drive. We need systemic change making transport…
Paul: Sorry, I was just gonna say that there’s loads of evidence that because people find it hard to imagine some of their friends or family going vegetarian, for example. I mean, first of all, they can cut down on the meat, of course, and we’ve seen that. But first of all, I would say that it’s often surprising how willing people are to make that change, because I think there’s this bubbling anxiety under the surface for a lot of people, even if they’re not paying attention to it like your listeners might be to some of the ecological stuff down the road, there’s this bubbling tension. So I think that they do feel it. The second thing is that as you get more vegetarian and vegan options in restaurants and in supermarkets, meat eaters do engage. So there’s studies in the US, for example, where meat eaters who are self-professed meat eaters will eat more vegetarian food if those options are there, because it’s exciting to try new things out. Also, they kind of know they should be, but often they’re not really turned on by the one vegetarian option on the restaurant menu. And so your individual efforts really do make a difference there. And I try to explain that to students all the time because they feel so powerless and they say, oh, well, I’m vegetarian, I’m vegan, what difference do I really make? And so I explain this to them that it really does make a huge difference. You just can’t see it.
Manda: Yes. And even within the current system, it does. I have bought to try – because I have dogs and cats – a dog food that is primarily insect based, which I thought was the proteins are all from insects. So I thought that was an interesting move. My worry always is if the entire eight billion of us become vegan, how do we supply that in ways that, exactly as you say, aren’t the four big companies turning the entire globe into monocultures? Which is probably not as bad as Brazil taking down the Amazon in order to feed beef to send to American hamburger markets. But 100 acres of lentils is also not a good thing. So what your book is saying, is we need to change that. But I’m wondering, as individuals seeking agency, how do we move towards where we need to go that isn’t supporting the industrialisation of agriculture simply on a vegan level?
Paul: Well, that’s a great question. First of all, I would say that we can provide enough food. We already provide enough food for everybody in the world. There’s a distribution problem, and that’s often political, and to do with power. But we even have enough food for 10 billion people right now. And if we were to reach some of the lower projections by 2050, we could still save land and produce enough food, even with that increased population and increased consumption if we’re going vegan, or vegetarian. The issues in middle and low income countries is very, very different to the issues in high income countries. So I do want to make clear to the listeners that there is this difference and in low and middle income countries, often that there are not appropriate proteins that are available other than animal proteins. And so you can’t make this blanket statement that everybody’s going to follow the same diet, because people are going to need to transition to a system where those proteins are available and those nutrients are available. In high income nations it’s very, very clear that there’s ample opportunities in terms of vegan and vegetarian options which do have the nutrients needed.
And so your point about how do you get away from this extra concentration in vegan and vegetarian options? Part of that is that you are seeing this great diversity right now building up, I think, in a lot of the businesses that are growing at the moment in the vegetarian and vegan space. Often a lot of the inputs of the plants that are going into those processed foods, you know, ‘Beyond Burgers’ and things, are coming from the big companies.
And, you know, long term, that stranglehold or that sort of concentration will need to be broken in some way. I’m not at the moment sure what that’s going to look like, but it’ll probably look like some combination of open access seed vaults, you know, people being able to… because at the moment, a lot of the seeds are proprietary, or at least companies don’t want to collaborate with either academia or with farmers on that set. But you’ve got a lot of efforts, like Open Bios and the Open Seed Foundation. So I think it’s some combination of those, and this increasing interest in diversity to protect against climate harms. Because right now, focussing on four main types of cereal crops is going to be quite worrying given climate damages. We’re going to need to diversify away from that.
In some cases, that may be modifications to the plants, so GMOs. In other cases, it will hopefully be increasing the diversity of the types of cereals, the types of vegetables, the types of things that are available to us. And that will also offer an opportunity for us. There’ll also be a world of exploration, rather than narrowing down to just a few products like lentils, or soy, for example. So, yeah, it’s hard to see. As with all monopoly issues, it’s hard to see the system reforming itself. But as time goes on, and as the Overton Window of what’s acceptable shifts, suddenly we’ll look back on it I think, hopefully, in the future and go, wow, how did that shift happen and how did we move? That was amazing how we moved away from those main sort of four suppliers or whatever of seeds, for example.
Manda: And because not everybody listening knows what an Overton Window is, can you just give us a very brief look at an Overton Window? And then I want to move to politics, because I’m aware of the time, and climate and economics, your next two sections. And it seems to me that both of those are highly political. So let’s use the Overton Window as a step into politics.
Paul: Oh, well, the Overton Window is what’s broadly acceptable to the public at any one time. So there’s a narrow set of acceptable responses to political issues that runs slightly to the left or slightly to the right, and this Overton Window itself can shift over time. So the window of acceptable policies in the US, despite being a First Past The Post system like the UK, is so totally different to the UK. You know, the things that they discuss, the things that seem less acceptable, things that they could countenance changing in society are so different to what the UK looks like. And other Westminster systems: it’s the same for New Zealand compared to the UK, which has a Westminster system. So this Overton Window describes this sort of shifting acceptance over time. And it’s not a clear-cut thing, because if you look at the Climate Assembly, so this was this was an attempt in the UK to bring together ideas for policy change for climate change. And the idea here was to get a representative sample of people across the country to suggest what they would like to see in terms of policy changes to meet climate goals. And whilst it still didn’t go quite far enough from a scientific perspective of what we need to do, it went far beyond where the politicians were at. You know, they were talking about banning SUVs, cutting down meats, frequent flyer taxes, stuff that politicians aren’t even mentioning. So the Overton Window doesn’t necessarily have to be what’s being discussed in politics any one time. It can be broader than that. It can be what basically is acceptable to the nation itself, or at least the sort of the general feeling within the public.
Manda: Yes. And I think one of the key things is that radical action at either edge beyond the current reach of the Overton Window has a tendency to drag it one way or the other. So the obvious example in Britain for me is Nigel Farage screaming on what used to be the very, very, very far right fringe, has succeeded in moving the Overton Window quite a scary way to the right in terms of what is considered centrist and acceptable responses to immigration, or particularly to the EU. At the 2010 election, the EU was apparently twenty-sixth on the list of things that people found important. And by six years later, we voted the way we voted, and now 10 years later, we are where we are. So, one particularly vocal individual moved the window that way. But then I’m also noticing that Extinction Rebellion and actions that were considered really radical in terms of asking for people to tell the truth about the climate has moved the Overton window of our concept of climate quite radically, to the point where the BBC hosts David Attenborough saying things that he did not say five years ago, that were nonetheless true five years ago, but there wasn’t the political space for him to say that, I think.
And so I think what’s very interesting from the view of political activism is noticing how activism can shift the window. So given that the next two of your sections were climate and economics, the climate section, again, had a lot of factoids about where we’re actually at, which did lead me… you said at the beginning that one of the questions you tend to be asked at dinner parties – at the beginning of the book, you said this – was, is there still time? Are we completely screwed, or basically do we have a possibility of moving? And in reading the pessimistic section of your climate chapters, I was struggling to imagine that we still had time. But if we have time, it’s because we create the political will, I think. And your economics chapter made it clear that it’s within the economic system that we need to make the biggest changes. Does that sound fair to you?
Paul: Yeah, I mean restructuring it, but I think those only come about because of the other changes in the other systems, by both individuals and the other actors in society, law and finance. And so I think it’s fair enough to say that we will need this revolution in economics. And there are plenty of people pushing for that directly. So some of that will come directly, and some of that will come indirectly.
Manda: Ok, so from my perspective and it’s probably skewed because I did a Masters in Regenerative Economics, but if we don’t change the profit motive, and the primacy of shareholder value as a primary thing, and if we don’t change within people the sense that there is a finite amount of stuff that accrues to people, either through their effort or through their ownership of a rent, rental systems in its largest form, then we’re not going to change the way that people try to accumulate more value to themselves. And that we need an absolutely ground level conceptual change of the system of how we interact with each other, and the ways that we interact with each other tend to be economic. In your view, how do we get to the legal and conceptual changes, in time, that will shift the balance of power? Because we started at the top saying when the fossil fuel industry has less power than the renewable industry can rise, but the people who run the fossil fuel industry, the kind of the silent – the Koch brothers, and the others who we hear of less, these are the people who own more value than several small African countries, in and of themselves as individuals. That’s a huge amount of power that we give them, because we say that this green thing called a dollar has value.
If we could get to a point where we go, you know what, your dollars are valueless. We don’t value dollars anymore; we value a block chain that comes from creating renewable energy, or something. Then then we change the balance of power. But if we don’t do that quickly, I’m not sure we’re going to have the time. Have you any ideas of how we can do it quickly, or even whether that’s what needs to be done?
Paul: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I mean, eventually – when I say eventually, it depends on the time scales, of course – what we need to get to this situation where we account for these externalities, the impacts on society, and not just in monetary terms. Because if you account for externalities just in monetary terms, then it can still be the case where you tot up both sides, and with some creative ideological accounting in economics, you can still get a cost benefit analysis, which basically degrades long-term thinking. So we absolutely need to get to this broader conception of value and welfare and well-being. And there are huge movements around the world to get this going; not just get this going, but it’s actually being actively engaged with in some nations. I mean, the ones that people always mention are things like New Zealand, which embraced this and turned away from GDP. But there’s this desire in basically all areas of society to move away from GDP. Then you also have to restructure the ways in which the profit motive, as you mentioned. And in my view, you couldn’t get much more hierarchical and more dictatorial necessarily, than the structure of corporate structures. I think they’ve become a lot more flat in recent years, but they’ve traditionally been very, very hierarchical. I mean, very, very dominating from the top down.
I personally think that democracy – and worker-led enterprises have a much larger role to play in the future because they can bring in a broader set of values – that democracy is also very, very important. And potentially, instead of the profit motive, what we’ll need to replace it is ‘the least risk for the long term’. So whatever whatever calculation needs to be done for that will need to be need to be undertaken. I’m always a little bit nervous, as a scientist, I’m always wanting to measure things. And the classic statement is, you can’t manage what you can’t measure.
Manda: But once you measure it, it becomes the thing that you have to manage. That’s always the corollary. And if we didn’t have GDP, if somebody hadn’t invented that as an index, we wouldn’t be frantically trying to raise it by three percent a year. So the snake bites its own tail on that one.
Paul: It can be self-fulfilling. So one of the options is a dashboard approach, where basically you take in all the values that we might have in society, and you do try and quantify them, because basically a centralised state is not really possible without quantifying. This is one theory, by the way, so I’m not saying this is the answer. I think it’s far more decentralised, the answer, than this. But this is one thing: you basically have a dashboard. And in this dashboard, you have your economic values, you have your social values, and you have your environmental values. And people say, well, how would you measure your social values? Well, you can measure atomisation in social networks, you could look at rates of depression. You could look at mental health issues. There are things that you could measure, and then you could be reporting this dashboard to the public each year, like, well, we’re not doing so well here, you know. One good example of this is Doughnut Economics, where you basically have the planetary boundaries, and you have the social foundations. And in general, these are left to be very localised, you know, so that local areas can focus on which areas of the foundation, the social foundation, they’re going to measure. Well, in what way they’re going to measure them. How do you get to this point? It’s something that we’re still, I think, working out. You only get to find… you have to leave these old ideas behind, and explore these new ideas as you go.
But I think this is one way in which this could work, is that you broaden this dashboard. This dashboard is reported internationally. One of the reasons why GDP is so powerful is that basically it’s the lingua franca of macroeconomics around the world. But once you start setting down in stone a separate set of quantitative assessments, then this can start to overturn the ways in which people think about it. And so you explore these new ways of being, by this transformation, by exploring these different areas and these different quantifications, and then later down the road it’s moving away from that quantification. Then that’s all for the good. But at the moment, I do think that this quantification is necessary in this broader conception of well-being, so that at least policymakers in this very centralised system that we currently have can get a grip on what we really need to do to ensure long term survival. And then the second question is like, how fast is that actually can that actually happen? I mean, it needs to happen astonishingly quickly, let’s just put it that way. But as we mentioned before, tipping points once reached can be very quick in society. In nature, they tend to be much longer, drawn out, protracted affairs, which we may not know when we’ve passed, but in society they can be very, very quick. And so it really depends. I think it’ll be dictated a lot, actually, on the timetable of the ecological changes themselves that people experience. And unfortunately, people may not realise how bad things have got until it’s too late to save a lot of those things. So it probably won’t be fast enough, but it’ll probably be faster than most people think.
Manda: In terms of how fast does it need to be, because one of the arguments that I kept hearing when I was sitting on the streets, for example, was 2025 is not doable politically. And the answer was yes, but that’s what we actually need to do, to not crash and burn. So therefore, we need to make it possible politically. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re trying to do this. And I wonder from your perspective, as someone who seems quite involved at the governmental level, first of all The IPPC says we need to… it has 2050 as a kind of a deadline, but then that reduced, and a couple of years ago we had this concept of we have 12 years to turn everything around. So that would by now be 10 years to turn everything around. 2030 has become a bit of a deadline. If you were put in charge of world government and were able to create the systemic change that we need, and we’ll talk about how are you going to do it in a moment, when would your internal deadline be? For reaching carbon zero and beginning to become carbon negative, which, as I understand it, is what we need to do, if we’re just looking at carbon.
Paul: Yeah, I would say as fast as the productive and adaptive capacities of human civilisation would be, basically. I mean, so there are things we can do on the demand and the supply side which prevent energy poverty, food poverty, whilst making the transition as fast as possible, because there’s only so fast that things can scale whilst keeping the welfare of current people in mind. Suffice to say would be it would be much, much faster, and aiming for that as early as possible. So the main thing that I think I would focus on is also this concept of the just transition. I’m not a global dictator, and none of us are. And one of the reasons why within our politics, we have a handbrake on the system because there is a lot of people who, yes, they’ve been fed misinformation, but also, quite rightly, fear for their livelihoods. You know, people in animal agriculture, people in the energy system who are by and large, these are people who are wanting to do good. I have a very positive view of human behaviour and human attitudes here. And so these people have to be looked after.
So one of the main things I would do would be to realign these subsidies to help people basically even do the things that they would like to do. There’s so many farmers, you know, you hear these interviews all the time with farmers where they would love to be doing things in an easier, more environmentally friendly way. They don’t have the time or the space or the economics, the money to to make it happen. And I would be doing all the things that we know, whether we need to do in terms of raising taxes on flights that increase with the number of flights that you take, carbon taxes potentially much larger than that being talked about now, because the research actually shows that if you have a larger carbon tax now and then maybe tail it off in the future, this is a much more effective way to get change. But that’s just one area. I mean, carbon taxes are totally needed, but they’re not they’re not enough on their own. So I would put in a broad policy suite of all the things that we know we need to do whilst paying really, really close attention to the areas of society that are looking to lose out from this, the winners and losers, and really, really speaking to the people who are going to lose out in this transition very, very directly, very, very competently. And talking about what it is that the future’s going to look like for the people who have jobs or incomes that rely on the current way that the system looks.
Manda: Ok. You mentioned UBI and UBS in the book: a Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services, which seems to me to speak a lot if we could get the political will behind that too. Giving people the security to work, work their way through the transition period, do you want to say a little bit about those two? UBI and UBS?
Paul: Yeah. So one of the things that is becoming increasingly clear is that not only do we have these environmental issues, we have these automation issues, too, and that’s an awful lot of work. As David Graeber, the anthropologist who sadly died recently, says, is ‘bullshit work’ that does not contribute to society or community in any way. Lots of people, about 50 percent of work, according to two surveys in the U.K. and the Netherlands, is not – by the people who are doing this work, is not seen as contributing to society. And how have we got ourselves into this state? Well, one of the ways out of that is to have Universal Basic Income and Universal Basic Services in order to relieve the stress of scarcity, which right now in high income countries should never really be the case.
So this idea of the UBI and UBS is extremely powerful, because it frees people. Scarcity does strange things to the mind, because you’re always just moving from moment to moment, just trying to keep up, just trying to make ends meet. And getting rid of scarcity does allow you to reach that sort of level of thinking long term about the future, but also achieving some sort of fulfilment and reassessing what you want from life. And so these two policies are actually absolutely crucial. And they also relieve a lot of the stress from this transition, from losing out of this transition if you have the safety net there. It also addresses issues to do with equality, and issues to do with inequality between the sexes, but also racial inequalities, all these sorts of things. So the UBI and UBS are absolutely crucial at some point down the road.
Manda: Are you involved in policy in those areas? Because one of the things that has always struck me, particularly with UBI, is that if you don’t have rent controls, using rent in its broadest sense, then you give everybody a thousand pounds a month and and their rents go up by nine hundred ninety nine pounds a month. And what you’ve done is the fastest and most efficient way of shovelling public money into private hands yet invented. And I still think it’s a really, really good idea. I want UBI, but I want us to work out the rent controls first. And it seems to me in the bits that I’ve looked into, that Universal Basic Services, if we had food, shelter, health, transport, power and probably now these days, broadband, has a universal provision. Then there’s less option for the rents to suck up the basic income.
Paul: That’s exactly right. So this is one of the things that I think people worry about a little bit is this money is being moved back into the existing channels of rent, mentorship across the economy, power and control . And not only that, but as an excuse then to draw back on those in the services in society, the help, the medical services and these sorts of things. So, yes, I think that the UBS is probably, on the whole, a lot more exciting. I personally don’t know how this plays out. You can see a very, very clear case for public transportation. It just seems like a clear winner. How you control for usage then is very difficult because you need some way in which you can ease off in the peak periods. So, you know, pricing that allows… I don’t know how that works out, but in terms of shelter, shelter is the hardest one there because obviously it’s geographically stuck in one place. But I think that there’s a lot of opportunity there for providing in the systems that we currently have, shelter: a roof over people’s heads.
Manda: And as a principle that everybody deserves and needs some kind of home. If we get to 2030 and everyone’s read your book, taking it all on board, we’ve got the political change that we need. What do we look like? How does it feel to be in a 10 year future from now where we did everything that we needed to do?
Paul: Well, first of all, a massive relief. So we’ve got to remember that by 2030, at least in the sort of day to day changes, we’ll still be experiencing these impacts. Yes, the temperature may have stabilised. We may have stabilised some of the tipping points around the world, natural tipping points around the world. But we’ll be still experiencing something a little bit worse than today, because we’ll be increasing the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere up to 2030 at least. So it will be a massive relief that we finally got a handle on the problem. And then the focus will be how quickly can we draw this carbon down, this excess carbon in the atmosphere down. By that stage, if we have made it to 2030 and we are at net zero, I can see the massive will to do that. You know, if we’ve made that change already, then it’s basically going to be all hands on deck to make that happen.
And then it’ll be fingers crossed time that we haven’t transgressed serious tipping points in nature that might unfold in terms of raising sea levels much further than we thought, in terms of changing where arable land is, much faster than we thought, or much more deeply than we thought. So it’s not all wonderful, but it’s a massive relief that we actually got there and that we can take it further. The second thing is that life looks very, very different in terms of the social connections that we have, the water quality, the air quality, to expect the sense of community and collective action on this collective problem.
Because if we do get there, then it will require this idea of collective action and this idea of being in it together, a little bit like Covid in the sense that we are protecting one another. So if we do get there, we’re protecting one another from these environmental harms. We’re looking out for one another and we’re doing that in a sort of very tight, socially linked way. You know, our energy is coming from renewables and solar. So it does change the way our countryside looks because we will need quite a lot of space for that. But the entire system will be far more efficient. So we’ll be needing less input energy. So we’ll have a very, very efficient system that looks like it’s running very slickly and smoothly, and using the least amount of energy necessary for people to meet the services, the energy services, and the things that they need will have landscapes that are totally different. We won’t be seeing as much animal agricultural pastures. So we’ll see far more rewilding and afforestation. And so we’ll have far more parks nearby. So we’ll be able to just, you know, to get to nature much, much quicker and experience higher levels of biodiversity within those areas. And that will have huge impacts on our health.
So all of these sorts of things will have impacts on our mental and physical health, because all of these impacts, all of our lack of access to nature right now and air quality and water quality is causing cardiac and pulmonary illness. And so we won’t have these issues anymore. And hopefully we will avoid the next Covid-19 if we do everything we need to do by 2030, we can be sure that another Covid-19 is more unlikely. We may still get viruses due to biodiversity loss and these interactions between nature and society, but the chances of getting them will be much, much lower. And so we won’t be struggling with that next one on the horizon. There’s, of course, lots more that we could say .
Manda: Lots more. And much less stress, if we’ve got the UBI and the UBS we’ll be much less stressed and if we’re less stressed, our imaginations have got more scope because we can let our imaginations go free. And so I think also we’re much more creative. And that thing that you said first, that sense of relief and we’re not having constantly to run like hamsters on wheels doing the bullshit jobs to achieve nothing, that we know are making the world worse, would be gone.
Paul: It’s that level of fulfilment, self actualisation. The way I put it in the book is it is a little bit like Maslow’s pyramids of needs, you know? I mean, if you’re looking at this hierarchy of needs: first grub, then ethics. So you need food first, and then you’ve got shelter, and then you’ve got all the rest of it. And now we’re at a stage where we can finally reach for that last part of self actualisation. If we can drop this idea of bullshit jobs, drop this idea of eco angst, because we’re actually addressing the issues that we have, drop the competitive consumerism, which typically makes us very unhappy, and drop the comparisons between each other and measuring them as outcomes of income. You know, I’m richer than somebody… keeping up with the Joneses. If we can drop all of these things and focus on the self actualisation and the fulfilments, then that’s the hopeful picture that we can get to.
Manda: Brilliant. That’s a fantastic place to stop. Paul, thank you very much. And yet again, I would remind everybody that your book is out there, and it’ll make a very good Christmas present for people.
Paul: Thanks so much, Manda.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Paul for his nuance and balance, for his wide, wide range of expertise, and the pathway he has created, showing how we might get from where we are to where we need to be. I will put a link to his book in the show notes. Honestly, it’s a totally inspiring read. It is quite scary, but I think if we’re going to get the motivation to get from where we are to where we need to be, being a little bit afraid isn’t necessarily bad, if that fear is based on actual accurate facts. And Paul is, above all else, totally on top of his facts – and a really amazing, fantastic human person. We will be back next week with another conversation. But in the meantime, thanks as ever to Caro C for the music at the head and foot of the podcast, and as ever, for the stellar sound production. Thanks to Faith Tillery for being the other half of the creative team that is Accidental Gods, and for designing the website. If you want to visit us there, we’re at Accidentalgods.life. And you will find the show notes, including the link to Paul’s book there, the other podcasts, the visualisations and meditations in the resources section, and access to the Accidental Gods membership programme, which is a structured training designed to give you, or anybody else, the ways that we can connect fully in a heartfelt way, in an authentic way with a more-than-human world, because it’s not just the facts that are going to help us get through.
We need also to be able to become more than we are now; to be able to become the absolute best of ourselves, together and alone. And for me, the best way to do that is to connect with the more-than-human world and ask for the help that we need: to know what it is that we need to be, so that we can truly believe that we are the best people, in the right place, at the right time. Each of us doing what only we can do. So that’s what Accidental Gods is about. And if you’re interested, head off to the website and explore. And in the meantime, if you know of anybody else who would really like to get from where we are to where we need to be, who would really appreciate the immersion in ideas that we offer them, please do send them the link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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