By Mike Berners-Lee


I have mixed feelings on this book. Let’s start with the good.

For people seeking their first overview of some climate issues, this book is helpful. It contains short summaries of a selection of climate-related problems, along with the author’s commentary and suggestions for what various actors can do to create change.

The way that much of the data is analysed is innovative and more insightful than traditional ways of presenting the same numbers. For instance, looking at food production and waste in terms of calories (not kilograms) is far more informative.

The book also looks at problems by region – for instance, examining how food waste occurs in different stages of the process in different parts of the world. There is also good (if brief) discussion of the associated global politics.

I hesitated to include specific criticisms in this review, but on balance decided to follow the author’s own advice: 'confront bullshit, rather than letting it go. Make it risky to propagate disingenuous nonsense'. For me, the disingenuous nonsense of this book is the reduction of complex issues into over-simplified, privileged suggestions. I reject the “climate issues are too complex for me to do anything to help” narrative, but I also reject narratives that encourage people to gloss over the issues and accept the opinions of others without understanding the issues themselves.

I thought this book was an exploration of the facts behind a collection of climate issues, but it is dominated by opinion. I don’t find the discussion of the issues convincing, and I find it difficult to believe anybody else is convinced by so short a description of an issue.

We don’t need to be experts to decide how to change our behaviour for the better, but if you’re looking for an overview of the key issues, I’d recommend Climate change: what everyone needs to know or a subscription to the New Scientist to get a better ratio of fact to opinion.

Will you benefit from hearing some of the suggestions in this book? Maybe. Most of them require bucket loads of privilege, including a long list of questions to ask your fishmonger, and 'don’t borrow at interest beyond inflation unless you have to'.

Some of the advice is trite. For instance, the “advice for fishermen” (why specifically men, I don’t know) features 'don’t over-fish' and 'make sure everything you catch is eaten'.

Scattered throughout are opinions or throwaway comments unsupported by data but presented as fact, such as ‘if a couple chooses not to have kids so they can afford to fly off on more skiing holidays, the environment does not win.’ I doubt data exists to support the proposition that a few extra flights have the same environmental impact as two extra humans eating, travelling (flying!), consuming, and probably eventually having more children of their own.

At times, the privilege of the author leapt from the page. He commented that ‘the profit motive has to be yesterday’s thinking. If you work for an organisation like this, please change it and/or leave. If you feel you can’t do either then you are a bonded labourer.’ “Bonded labourer” stands out as both inaccurate and oddly derogatory. Further, if you do have the privilege to make real change to your company’s mission or leave your job, the preceding one paragraph (yes, one) about how businesses should think about the world is unlikely to have convinced you to turn it around.

The author has spent 20 years as a business consultant, and it shows. This book is self-described as a science book but is written like a corporate self-help book. If you’ve read a lot of these kinds of books, or listened to TED talks, you’ll know the level of nuance (or lack thereof) and general approach to expect.

Given that this book provides, by any estimation, no more than a whistle-stop tour of its chosen issues, I was surprised that no fewer than 35 pages are devoted to further summarising the summaries. Whether you see this as a helpful shortcut or an annoying page-filler (often seen in corporate books) probably depends on how charitable you’re feeling.

Share with your friends

Subscribe to my newsletter

Join me in learning about our natural world and how we can protect and restore it. Get notified on my latest posts and a monthly newsletter on wider conversation topics for us to chat about.