Research Review

There is no planet B, Mike Berners-Lee

 

May 9, 2019

Cards on the table, I think everyone should read this book.

And as far as one-line summaries go, for me, “There Is No Planet B” pretty neatly encapsulates our sustainability challenge. 

Indeed, the strength of Mike Berners-Lee’s book is exactly in the neatness with which he charts the challenges in front of us, and in the empowerment of making them resolutely ‘ours’ (1). This is a refreshing “handbook for the make or break years” that combines optimism, pragmatism, humour, and urgency.

It also unashamedly confronts issues of values, truth, trust, and doing the right thing. I think we are often guilty of avoiding or downplaying these elements, particularly in the world of work. But they are central to making ‘Planet A’ a sustainable and thriving place to live.

On a note of personal importance, this book also ticks the box of being easy to read. Structured as a series of questions, it makes a great reference book to dip in and out of, and whenever my copy isn’t on loan to others, I’m taking the “handbook” sub-title quite literally.

Keeping on the personal, I’m a sucker for amazing stats, and most pages have plenty to offer here. A few of the more powerful come to mind:
- We have already discarded (let alone produced) enough plastic, that if it were all cling film, we’d have enough to wrap the whole planet (with enough spare to wrap the moon four times over as well)
- Driving a mile in a congested urban area in a diesel car takes a 12 minutes away from the lives of everyone you drive past through its pollution (2)

As you read through the chapters on food, climate, energy, travel, and realise the scale of issues across antibiotics, balloon squeezing (or rebound effects), waste and inequality, it is easy (and tempting) to think individuals can’t do much. However, I don’t buy this, and particularly for us with the enormous privilege to work in the investment industry – we have an outsized opportunity (and I would argue, responsibility) to do something.

Many issues, for example around climate change, require effective global governance, and a fair deal that works for all. Achieving this is a fantastically hard task – the scale and fragility of our achievements thus far clearly illustrate the difficulty. But the investment industry in some ways provides exactly this global framework. In particular, large asset owners are amongst the most influential pools of capital on the planet with global allocation and stewardship powers. Asset managers and service providers should see the scale of their endowment and concurrent duties similarly. For me, the mandate and necessity is very clear for us to use these powers to cultivate a society and environment in which humanity can thrive.

It’s perhaps worth a very brief side-note here on the balance between allocation and stewardship activities which seems woefully out-of-whack in the investment industry at present. The former takes up nearly all our industry’s collective resources and attention. This seems so at odds not only with the role our industry should play in society, but also where it has the potential to add true value.

Going back to the book, but sticking with work, ‘There Is No Planet B’ again strikes a powerful note when capturing what jobs and organisations should really be about. The three-pronged test which both need to pass according to Berners-Lee focuses on them being useful, fulfilling and distributing wealth appropriately. I think we are very lucky with our jobs in the investment industry that we should be able to tick off the first two (useful and fulfilling, noting that those are heavily linked for many people), but I would argue that we’d mostly fail the assessment of whether our jobs are appropriately paid (and for the sake of clarity, that’s because we generally get paid way too much).

The summary of when an organisation should exist is done with characteristic simplicity:

“They should exist to meet three purposes. First is the provision of useful and worthwhile goods and services – things that stand to enhance wellbeing of people and planet now and in the future. Secondly, they should provide meaningful and fulfilling ways for the workers to spend their days. Thirdly, they need to contribute to the appropriate distribution of wealth such that all people have the resources they need to have quality in their lives.”

It’s beholden on all of us to align ourselves to organisations who meet these tests, or at least are working on them as fast as they can. And we should all use our influence to encourage and enact change from within if we think our organisations could do a better job here.

Like the book, I have left values, truth and fairness towards the end. Too often we shirk away from such ‘soft’ and contentious subjects, and too often we hide behind structures and organisations which we dehumanise in part to strip away these traits. But values are unavoidable. And we must bring them into our work, alongside an authentic commitment to truth and fairness.

The fundamental underlying value in ‘There Is No Planet B’ is that “all people have equal intrinsic value as human beings”. A disarmingly simple statement.
To go alongside this, there is an emphasis on the importance of intrinsic values, primarily respect and care for the world, and respect for truth.

Growth is an awkward concept in the world of sustainability – after all, the only sustainable growth rate is zero. However, the good news for growth addicts out there is that whilst we absolutely have to curtail growth of things like our energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, we desperately need growth in many other areas: global empathy and fairness, and big picture and joined-up thinking, to name a few.

And through all of this, we need to do things for the right reasons. Even if it has the same initial outcome, doing something with the wrong motivation only serves to enhance that motivation in the long run. So next time someone asks “why”, we should be confident in the answers “because it is the right thing to do” and “to make the world a better place”. 

As individuals, we will often feel powerless to make an impact, especially on the critical global challenges outlined in ‘There Is No Planet B’. However, there is some solace that lies in the power of networks. Everyone reading this is in a privileged position that we can make a very real and meaningful difference – and so many of us have vast and impactful networks that we should be harnessing and leveraging as best we can. As Mike Berners-Lee says, “we have the opportunity to live better than ever”, so let’s take it!

Footnotes:
1. We live in the Anthropocene, where human activity is the dominant influence on climate, ecosystems and the environment – a big people, small planet era. This shift in context necessitates a shift in how we conduct our relationship with the world around us.
2. Whilst the VW scandal has been extensively written about, a MIT study concluding that the insertion of emissions-cheating software by VW into its diesel cars – the ones sold in Germany alone – will result in the premature deaths of 1,200 people, losing over a decade of their lives, gives a shocking perspective and raises questions about the scale of our reaction to it. Chossière, G.P., Malina, R., Ashok, A., Dedoussi, I.C., Eastham, S.D., Speth, R.L. and Barrett, S.R. (2017). Public health impacts of excess NOx emissions from Volkswagen diesel passenger vehicles in Germany. Environmental Research Letters.