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Mike Berners-Lee A Handbook For The Make or Break Years

Ahead of his appearance at Off The Shelf, we focus on the positives of human possibility to overcome the escalating effects of planetary abuse.

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Phil Rigby

A welcome sequel to his impactful book, How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, Mike Berners-Lee's There Is No Planet B: A Handbook For The Make or Break Years develops the no-choice imperative to repair the physical damage inflicted by "the era in which human influence is the dominant source of change to the ecosystem", what has become known as the anthropocene.

Speaking to Berners-Lee ahead of his appearance at Off The Shelf Festival of Words in Sheffield this month, we take an interview pledge to focus on the positives of human possibility to overcome the escalating effects of planetary abuse. This proves simple, because in common with his accessible writing style, in person Berners-Lee is firm, fair and focussed.

In Bananas, the researcher and carbon footprint expert lays out the utility, efficiency and production costs to the planet of over 100 things we buy and do. De-bunking myths with the science behind everything from plastic bags and nappies to the process of ironing, Berners-Lee makes clear that the way we use such things needs urgent change. His personal favourite is the hand dryer question: Which is best, air or paper towels? (Answer: 'airblade' dryers, which use a strong force blast, but no heating).

This is the powerful message of both books, ramped up in Planet B; unless and until we think differently about the way we use energy, and why, a behavioural model underpinned by science and logic, then reusing your carrier bags will not in itself make a difference. The concept of truth re-emerged frequently during our conversation, showing his unswerving determination that Planet B is designed to make a difference.

In Planet B, he provides the science but, as he so strongly imparts throughout the narrative, facts are only one element of the jigsaw (otherwise, why give power to those who lie and mislead?) Facing the truth about how and why an ever-growing community of disenfranchised people exist is central, be they your neighbour who cannot find care for their elderly relative or a migrant adrift in the Mediterranean.

Science and technology can, and frequently do, work for the good of humanity, but unless those who have the power to choose finally accept, examine and reduce their consumption of fossil-based energy, all the Star Trek power sources in the universe will not save us. But ultimately, we can modify both micro and macro aspects of our existence in order to make a difference.

Thankfully, as an architect of this new level of analysis, Berners-Lee can see the signs of productive, game-changing human action which will lead to the necessary "deep system change". The UK, for example, has improved its energy reduction targets, a success he attributes to the grassroots protests of groups like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future.

The latter, he maintains, points to the positivity of the young. Unfettered by the current wave of nihilism and apathy in their parents' generation, they are free to think and act spontaneously and with courage. They are part of the scene change, not only due to sheer numbers on the streets, but in their central approach, "their emphasis on truth and respect for all". Maybe such activism has tapped into the experiential part of our material, over-consuming lives.

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Mainstream political parties have severely weakened their connectivity with their memberships and the wider electorate. If such mass movements can help us to cut through what Berners-Lee terms "this fog of confusion", then we can do this. Citizen assemblies - or any inclusive engagement model bringing disparate groups together to learn, debate, dissent and share views which are not their own - are part of what he calls the "hopeful experiment".

His favourite word throughout our interview is, thankfully, "doable". He is always cautiously confident that humanity can meet this challenge. The One Planet Living Model, outlined in Planet B, provides the systematic thinking tool, moving all organisations across civic life towards an inter-linking mindset.

Take, for example, the media. Berners-Lee argues that The Guardian's 'Keep it in the Ground' campaign remains an important beacon encouraging fossil fuel divestment. Planet B lists many other feasible, 'do it today' changes, with carbon capture being the vital component. The message is clear: "In the anthropocene era, corporations can no longer operate solely on the primary profit motive."

For him there is no excuse for non-implementation. We just need to dispense with any political ideology which can no longer provide the language of change for its own worth and, in this case, to repair the damage caused. Only when we accept our individual and collective collusion in the damage caused will we be able to take the required leap. "Neoliberalism cannot deliver a sustainable environment." Period.

Haven't we been here before? In the 1980s on every student economic booklist was The Brandt Commission report on global inequality and its prescient warnings. Berners-Lee acknowledges this, but corrects those outcomes now by advising that we focus on inequalities within nations, not only between them.

Our conversation broaches the topic of a global, emerging middle class. If a large part of the world accepts the need for new styles of thinking and lifestyle changes, how will a fast-growing, new consumer group impact on this? Berners-Lee's relentless optimism addresses this.

There is, he believes, nothing pre-destined or automatic about the perceived jump from poverty to consumerism. Western styles of consumerism have not, if you re-frame the narrative, necessarily led to a life of wellbeing. To quote the much-missed Jeremy Hardy, "You spend £25,000 on a kitchen, before you realise that this wasn't the main problem in your life."

To counter any concerns that Planet B is more a spiritual call-to-arms than logical and scientific, Berners-Lee sets the record straight. Whilst being respectful of faith systems in their broadest sense, he recommends avoiding anything which supports determinism or fatalism at this pivotal point in human history.

We need to concentrate on the primary pressure points, he tells me. We need to reduce our need-greed-want of energy-consuming things and the associated lifestyle, understand the inter-relationship between energy sources, utility companies, vested interests and political ideologies, choose better leaders or - even better - create fairer systems.

There is a total absence of shame-blame in Berners-Lee's stance which will almost certainly ensure that Planet B captures the zeitgeist. He takes people with him. Rather than castigate, he facilitates and invites us to change our views, providing the scientific implications should we choose otherwise. His phrase, "misdirection of attention", is a powerful contemporary version of the historical 'false consciousness' - happy to be fooled because it fits our personal narrative.

And what, of all the aspects of Planet B, does he think is most crucial to run with? "Raise the game on truth," he replies, without a moment's hesitation.

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Mike Berners-Lee speaks at Firth Hall on Saturday 19 October as part of Off The Shelf Festival of Words in association with Festival of Debate.

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