Listening to the book launch

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

If you missed the launch of The World We'll leave Behind the other week, never fear, as you can catch up with it here c/o Bath's panopto recording of its seminars.

Sadly, you'll just have to visualise the powerpoint, especially Paul's pictures of the 1780s.  Meanwhile, I'm rather childishly happy to note that it was book of the week in atlas one bit of the Netherlands.

However, if you'd prefer to read, then here is what I (but not Paul) said:


Paul and I are delighted to be here to talk about our new book.  This attempts to do 3 things.  First, it identifies the main sustainability issues and challenges that humanity now faces and which some summarise like this:

How can we all live well now, in a way that will enable everyone in the future to live well.

The book then explains the ideas that underpin these issues, and their inter-connection, and finally, it discusses a range of strategies through which the issues might be addressed and possibly resolved.  We did this in around 63,000 words.  We’re going to talk about writing the book and the decisions you face if the contents are to be accessible, reasonably authoritative and comprehensive enough to be useful.

I’m going to begin by talking about the book as a whole.  Paul will then discuss writing one particular chapter and then say something about writing a book like this in a different age.

Why, then, did we write this?  Well, we’ve both been writing about sustainability and learning for quite a few years now.  And I think I read somewhere that a typical academic paper about learning and sustainability is downloaded by only 3 people

  • The first does so by mistake, prints it in error, and then immediately puts it in the compost.
  • The second does mean to read it but never gets round to it.
  • The third actually reads it but is so outraged by what it says that they write a paper giving their side of the story.

… which then only 3 people ever download …

This is obviously a slight exaggeration, but it was to escape this tyranny that we decided to write a book that people might actually want to read.  By people, we didn’t just mean the sort of folk who turn up to I-SEE seminars, but ordinary people as well.  We wanted to write a book for everyone who might have an interest in the environmental and social issues facing us today.  And to do so in a way that shows how intertwined all these are.

But we didn’t want to write an in-depth account of the issues, or a deep historical perspective on their development.  These books already exist.  Neither did we want to produce yet another toolkit, self-help book or a set of moral instructions for good living.  These books exist as well.  Rather, we wanted to summarise ideas in a way that would help readers think about things, and join in the everyday family, public and political debate with a little more information and insight.  That is, informed not just about a few facts, but insightful about where ideas are contested, and where values are in play.  In short, we wanted to help people think about the world that we shall – in all probability – leave behind.

But we needed to find a structure that would allow us to do that.  We needed some inspiration.  It came from AC Grayling and his book: The Meaning of Things – applying philosophy to life.  This was one of a series of books based on his Guardian column, The Last Word.  The Meaning of Things has 61 short chapters some of which are only two or three pages long – between 6 and 12 hundred words.  Here are 24 of the issues that Grayling’s book deals with :

Age             Ambition   Betrayal      Blasphemy   Death        Education     Faith            Fear

Happiness   Hate         Health         Hope            Love         Loyalty         Lust             Poverty

Peace          Racism     Revenge     Sin                Sorrow     Speciesism  Tolerance    Virginity

As you see, it covers a wide range of everyday life issues – starting with Age and ending with Virginity – and you can read these short essays in whatever order you like.  You could, for example, start with Virginity and end at Age, pausing on the way for Lust, Hope, Sin and Sorrow.  You could also, of course, make that same journey via Love, Loyalty, Peace and Happiness.

Grayling organized his 61 chapters into three sections:

  • Virtues and Attributes – including the chapters on Betrayal   Hope   Love
  • Foes and Fallacies – including the chapters on Blasphemy   Faith   Sin
  • Amenities and Goods – including the chapters on Age   Ambition   Peace

And the Financial Times reviewer said this:

“This is a book to be dipped into and savoured over time.  … deeply humane and subtle in its thought as well as being imbued with a rare spirit of the enlightenment.”

The first point was just what we had in mind.   As for the second, well: if only, we thought.

So we had our template – short chapters – around 1000 words we thought – three sections – covering the breadth and essence of things accessibly – in a non-linear, dipping in and dipping out sort of way.  We also had our subject: The Sustainability Challenge – which we hardly need explain.

So what guided the book?   What kind of thinking did we bring to it?  We had a focus and a purpose, we were bringing environmental and socio-economic issues together, and we had Grayling’s structure as a guide.

We also had a few early chapter ideas.  For example, these

Nature                             Meat eating                          The circular economy

Globalisation                  Resilience;                          Sustainable development

Climate change              Poverty                                 Species loss

Education                        Legislation                           Mindfulness

We think that if you were to set about writing such a book, you might have at least a few of these as well.  But probably not them all as this list is peculiar to the two of us.  It reflects our shared interests and experience of writing together, our different backgrounds, and our very different career and work experience.  I for example, am a lapsed chemist and a slowly recovering academic.  Paul is a frustrated artist who worked for NGOs for a long time, and is still an academic.  These differences were a great strength in bringing together disparate ideas, insights and perspectives.

Most of these chapters ideas we both knew we had to include – but we each brought our own interests as well.  For example, I contributed the circular economy idea partly because I’d worked with Ken Webster and colleagues at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.  And Paul contributed Mindfulness to the list because he spends a lot of time thinking about such things.

So, we had our grand theme and a few chapters, but we didn’t have our three sections and it was agreeing those that gave our book its final coherence.  We eventually settled on these …

[i] Issues –           These are the real challenges we now face because of our own past and present activities.

[ii] Concepts –      These are the ideas and mental frameworks that we use us to think about and understand these challenges.

[iii] Strategies –    These are the means through which such challenges might be addressed and possibly resolved or overcome.

… although in our first proposals to publishers the Concepts section came before Issues.  This switch was made over a beer at the Green Dragon Inn in the Cotswolds, which was where we made all the important decisions about the book.  Creating this structure was important as it allowed us to think more clearly about what the book would focus on.

Following this, we rapidly came up with a long list of about 70 possible chapter titles, many of which then disappeared in discussion.  These, for example:

Business as usual      Deep ecology              Earth education           a Good life

Mitigation                     Sociobiology                Technological fixes

There are no chapters in the book with these titles.  But in most cases it was the names that disappeared rather than the topics, and we were still chopping and changing chapter titles as deadlines loomed.

It might seem odd, but the sample chapters we sent to publishers were these:

Nature – an issue

Eating meat  – a concept                     and

The circular economy – a strategy

And at this point we didn’t have a title.

We had a frustrating time with publishers which we’ll talk about later if you like.  Eventually, a contract emerged with Greenleaf – which was a small specialist publisher in Yorkshire.  And it was Greenleaf who came up with the idea of the title.

Our schedule was to write (and re-write) a chapter a week.  The positive word for this is “exhilarating”.  So we set about writing, and we wanted all the chapters to have both an environmental and a socio-economic focus because they are all about sustainability.  Although we never expected anyone to read the book from cover to cover, we wanted to mix things up, so that chapters with more of an environmental focus alternate, more or less, with ones that have more of a socio-economic theme.  And you will see this in the list of chapter titles on the hand out.  For example, the opening chapters in the Issues section are:

  1. Global warming and climate change
  2. Inequality
  3. Species loss
  4. Human population

We didn’t, of course, write the chapters in this order.  Rather, we began with the easy ones.  That is, the ones we were either most interested in, or thought that we knew most about – or both.  Although we had a list of chapters, we found that writing created not just new ideas for chapters but the need for new chapters.  Sometimes this was because you really did need 2000 words and not 1000.  For example, there are two chapters on population:

CH 4    is about Human population as an issue.  It deals with the numbers, and with inequalities across the planet.                      and

CH 41  is about strategies for feeding 10 billion people.  It starts in the 1820s with Thomas Malthus and, because he’s never really gone away, it ends with him as well – as we suggest that his ghost is waiting in the wings to say, “I told you so!”

Sometimes writing was even more complicated and chapters had to co-evolve.  For example, Chapters 3 on Species loss, 13 on Elephants, rhinos and donkeys, 26 on Charismatic megafauna, 49 on Protected areas, and 52 on Rewilding had to be written with an awareness of what the others were saying.  And sometimes new chapters forced themselves upon us.  Writing about Nature also meant writing about Gaia.  And writing separately about nature and the environment meant we had to write and re-write each of those chapters in line with what the other was trying to say.  Not for the first time we owe Stephen Gough’s ideas a debt of gratitude.  Writing about natural resources and living within limits meant we had to write about the Club of Rome and Limits to Growth, about the circular economy steady state economics, and about Kate Raworth’s doughnut model.

Sometimes writing took an unexpected turn.  For example, we didn’t set out to write about ecological handprints, but writing about ecological footprints simply forced us to.  The chapter on energy policy, oddly perhaps, is mostly about Germany and the repercussions of Mrs Merkel’s uncharacteristically bold decision to phase out nuclear power.  And we wrote separately about development as an idea and sustainable development as a strategy.

The chapter on sustainable development is really about needs and wants.  It begins with Our Common Future and focuses on the most quoted (and most problematic) bit of the report about meeting the needs of both present and future generations.  This emphasis leads to Amartya Sen and then to Karl Marx and Louis Blanc.  And, as we trace ideas back, it leads to an obscure French 18th century utopian and then to the Acts of the Apostles.  And then in order to discuss wants, the focus shifts to advertising, the Indian and Chinese middle class and the circular economy.  All this in 2 pages – something of a triumph, I allowed myself to think at the time.

The chapter on Neoliberalism was, perhaps, the trickiest to write because Paul and I have somewhat different views on the value (and values) inherent in the so-called Washington Concensus.  We begin like this:

“Neoliberalism is a catch-all term that is often used pejoratively to describe a range of economic policies.”

And, then, unlike most people who write about it, we took liberalism seriously as we traced its enlightenment roots.  The chapter ends with our coming together:

“If we are to learn how to deal with our sustainability predicament, we will need to collaborate in ways that a blinkered faith in markets does not allow.  That said, the real problem might not be the market, but the blinkered faith.”

As I’ve been talking, you might have being playing the ‘What’s missing” game.  That is, saying to yourselves where’s the chapter on X”  And you might have noted that, most surprisingly, perhaps, there isn’t a chapter on the SDGs.  This is because we write about the goals in 11 of the 55 chapters – and deciding whether to concentrate writing, or spread it out is always one of the key decisions to be made in a book like this.

The final chapter in the book is about the Montreal protocol because we wanted it to have a reasonably positive ending.  The chapter is something of a history and geography lesson.  It begins with James Lovelock in the south of England, shifts to the British Antarctic survey, moves through Vienna to Montreal and then to Paris in 2015, and ends with the 2016 Kigali Agreement which promises rare good news about greenhouse gases.  In this sense the book is perhaps more positive in its end than it was in its beginning.

In a book like this which both contains data and has a focus on real-world developments, the risk of being out of date is inevitable.  So much so, perhaps, that it’s more a certainty than a risk.  The publishers suggested a few changes at the copy-editing stage to reflect developments, but sometimes you are caught out by events.  For example, although the Air Pollution chapter is largely about NOx, there is no mention of the duplicitous German car companies or the EU’s pro-diesel policies, or the latest detail of UK pollution-related death statistics.  Personally, I think that in any second edition – this is wishful thinking, of course – VW might have a chapter all to itself.  But that’s for another time – maybe.

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates, Talks and Presentations


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  • Nine months late in finding this transcript of your launch - it suggests to me that I have been reinventing the wheel that you have already constructed. But your Grayling-inspired frame for the opus and the chapter a week schedule offer a template for my own approach to writing about the Prospects for Spaceship Earth in the Anthropocene. I am writing around my numerous slides with secondary and undergrad audiences in mind, thinking that the highly visual content will appeal. So, maybe I should carry on with exhuming the metaphor of the finite earth as a spaceship, and the notion of cosmonaut as opposed to cowboy thinking (after Boulding) in relation to curbing exponential (infinite trajectory) human impact on the natural world that I term the elephant in the room for most political & corporate leaders. Whatever my own endeavours lead to - thanks for the continuing tenacious engagement with the biggest issue facing our offspring.