Finding Ways Forward

Saturday 24th of April 2021
Fruit on a tree

Nearly three months ago a report was issued that I have been wanting to write about ever since. I have been limited in my time and ability to work on blogs over this period and so it has had to wait longer than I would like. However, it has meant that I can not only write about the review of the economics of biodiversity written by Partha Dasgupta, a Cambridge economist, but also about two books published since then. About a month ago, Mark Carney published a book about future directions with the title Values. Bill Gates published How to Avoid a Climate Disaster a little after the Dasgupta report appeared.
My first thought is that it is good that there are books and reports like this which are appearing. My second is that there is probably a lot which doesn’t appear in worthy documents like this, which may only see the light of day in publishing terms because of the perceived credentials of those writing them. (A Cambridge academic, a former Governor of the Bank of England and a software-developer turned philanthropist are very different examples of “names”, but they share substantial reputations, if not in the field of climate change or ecology). Although contributions of “heavyweights” like this can move on the debate, there are a lot of “unsung heroes” who may be making significant contributions to addressing our environmental problems without ever having their views aired in ways like this and I want to acknowlege this. (Part of my reason for doing so is that Iain McGilchrist talks in The Master and His Emissary about the left hemisphere dealing primarily with language and so what is “voiced”, but the other side to that is that right-hemisphere considerations are not always aired in the same way).
My third is that I am not sure whether I feel that these contributions will do all that their authors would like them to do or claim for them. I confess that I haven’t yet read the Mark Carney or Bill Gates books and what little I have read of the Dasgupta report is mainly in an abridged version so far. I should also say that I am not sure yet whether I will read them all. That may not be a totally fair judgment, but my reason for saying that, at least in the case of the latter two is that I feel that their contribution may be limited by the frame of reference they choose to use.
On the one hand, the reason this is significant is that I don’t believe that we will achieve everything which is needed to combat climate emergency and environmental degradation without being able to cross boundaries. On the other, I feel that contributions of many different types and from multiple sources are needed to address this crisis. I believe that all sorts of contributions have potential usefulness, but I can’t help feeling that what we need most is commentators and authors who can pull insights together from widely different fields to create a more integrated approach.
Mark Carney may be more successful in presenting something different from what has gone before. He does at least challenge the status quo in some ways in writing about the need to move away from the current way in which a market-based approach impinges on our society. However, this comment is based on my having read others’ reviews rather than the book itself.
What I have realised in trying to find out more about what is in these books before and this report before embarking on reading them is that I am sceptical about whether they address all of what I personally regard as the real issues. I have been reflecting on why I think that and have presented that in something that I have posted separately about generalists in relation to discusions of climate change.
Having expressed that reservation, I’m aware that the point may be that addressing climate change necessitates a multitude of differents sets of skill, knowledge and awareness and that no single approach will achieve what is necessary without being set alongside others. I can now focus in a little more on the particular contributions that each of these publications aims to make. It is easiest to talk about the Bill Gates book, notwithstanding that I haven’t read it, perhaps because it is clear that there’s plenty that it doesn’t try to do. It doesn’t debate the science or people’s varying responses to it, but takes it as read both that greenhouse gases cause global warming and that we can reduce the emission of those gases. It therefore essentially looks at that issue as a practical problem. That’s an extremely important contribution, partly because it sets out the fact that this is achievable. There may be other issues around blocks which would stop us either seeing the need for these actions or prioritising them sufficiently to enable them to happen on a large enough scale, but the book does not aim to address that as an issue as far as I can see. Bill Gates explains this as follows: “I think more like an engineer than a politicial scientist, and I don’t have a solution to the politics of climate change. Instead, what I hope to do is to focus the conversation on what getting to zero requires: We need to channel the world’s passion and its scientific IQ into deploying the clean energy solutions we have now, and inventing new ones, so we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.”
It is clear that this is a very left-hemisphere approach, disciplined, targeted, bringing to bear the best of our left-hemisphere achievements in science and technology. (Perhaps the image of the “channel” is a clue to the left-hemisphere nature of this way of looking at things). As I’ve said before and again above, there are very important elements to this. Many of the issues around our care of the natural world (or indeed the lack of it) need to come out in these literally down-to-earth ways.
There’s also a huge value in being able to say that we have solutions - there are things we can do! I have some questions around seeking solutions, but I’ll come to that another time and I don’t want to take away from the significance of what Bill Gates sets out and brings to the table.
I also watched a TV programme a few days ago which was making a similar point. In the BBC’s Climate Change: Ade on the Frontline, Ade Adepitan was seeing the effects of changes in climate on people with little or no buffer between these changes and their lives. From islands disappearing through sea rises to droughts and fires devastating the environment and hence wildlife and livelihoods, it made for uncomfortable viewing, especially when one of the islanders made the point that these communities’ greenhouse gas emissions are tiny.
However, the programme did also present some beacons of hope in terms of our ability to shift away from energy generation from fossil fuels, reduce waste (and hence emissions) and even stimulate the growth of fast-growing underwater carbon sinks in the form of seaweed.
It also featured an interview with Paul Gilding. Once in a leadership position at Greenpeace, he is now associated with Cambridge University (a transition which may encapsulate that climate change campaigning has become “mainstream”). In the TV interview, he was upbeat about the potential for us to “change our ways”, saying that there is no reason why we couldn’t move to lower our greenhouse gas emissions with immediate effect. (In other things that Paul Gilding has written he presents a slightly different perspective, but I shall return to this on another occasion).
Returning to Bill Gates, he was also someone I heard speak this week at the climate change summit which has been initiated by President Biden. Here too he emphasised both what is “doable” and practical, spurred on by a desire not to deprive people across the globe access to new forms of clean or green energy.
In what I have posted about generalists I also wrote about the fact that creating action may require a very specific focus and I think Bill Gates demonstrates the value of this. Many of the things that preoccupy or concern me he succeeds in ignoring or possibly consciously bracketing off in order to reach measurable and target-driven goals. Being able to reach such goals is likely to balance out certain triggers which threaten to accelerate global warming or environmental degradation - if we are able to achieve specific targets, it is likely to encourage us to strive to do more and Bill Gates and others could be a big part of that. Hearing about this type of approach inspires me. I also have to acknowledge that it challenges me that someone like Bill Gates prefers not to address underlying issues (which I see as crucial) but feels that we can get on with things that we already know how to do.
The picture I have chosen to illustrate this piece is fruit on a tree. In posts about the other publications I mention above I will use other parts of the tree, but Bill Gates’ approach reminds of picking fruit which is clear and visible (maybe even low-hanging), addressing problems at a practical and down-to-earth level.