Blog & PodcastDealing with the Climate Crisis

Anthony Day helps you plan a sustainable future with expert guests and reports on green technologies from across a warming world.

Can Covid help us solve the climate crisis? This week I'm talking to authors Graeme Maxton and Bernice Maxton–Lee about their new book. It's a very wide-ranging discussion and I think you'll find it interesting.

Anthony:

Welcome to the Wednesday interview. And today we're talking about a book called Resetting Our Future: A Chicken Can't Lay a Duck: How Covid-19 can solve the climate crisis. And I'm joined today by the joint authors of the book, who are coming in from Taipei in Taiwan. So welcome, welcome Bernice Maxton-Lee and Graeme Maxton.

Graeme:

Thank you.

Bernice:

Thank you.

Graeme:

Thank you, good to be here.

Anthony:

Yes. Well, thanks for joining The Sustainable Futures Report. Now, before we start discussing the book and what that title really means, I'd just like to ask you to explain a bit about your background, your journey, where you've come from, and what's brought you to this point where you're publishing the book. So Bernice, would you just like to start on that?

Bernice:

Sure, yes. So where to start? So both of us have a background in investigating climate change and in system change. We've both been concerned with climate issues for quite some time. My path then took me to do a Master's in Environmental Science a lot further ago than I can care to remember. And then after that, I joined an NGO, the Jane Goodall Institute in Singapore, which is an environmental NGO. And of course, I thought that I was going to save the world, that was my big chance.

Bernice:

I had all the tools and I was going to do it. And very quickly, of course, I found out how complex that was. We were in Singapore at the time and I, several times a week, could smell the rainforest burning across the waters, across the straits in Indonesia. And so started investigating that, which led me then to do a PhD in the causes of deforestation in Indonesia. And then, yeah, eventually that long story led us then to, eventually to Taiwan, and taking a break from climate change issues, and then writing this book. Graeme will then fill in the gaps, I think. That's a very long story cut very short.

Anthony:

Okay.

Graeme:

So my background is, I actually started working in banking. I mean, I was a fat capitalist, but not very fat. I started working banking and I had worked for The Economist, the magazine. And while I was working there, I began to look at the economic system, and I began to wonder exactly what it was achieving. It seemed to be creating an awful lot of pollution and a lot of misery in much of the world, I was working in Hong Kong at the time. And so then I started working the environment. I left The Economist and I started working in the environmental field. And then I got involved with the Club of Rome and I became a member of the Club of Rome. And then I became a secretary general of the Club of Rome, and marched around the world trying to solve the climate crisis.

Graeme:

And after doing that for a while, decided that I wasn't getting very far and that we weren't having enough of an impact. And so, as Bernice said, we decided to take a break. We came to Taiwan, started writing the book and then COVID hit. And now we've got the book published and we're kind of stranded here, marooned in Taiwan, unable to leave right now.

Bernice:

We were only supposed to be here for a year, taking a break from the climate change battles, and yeah, three years down the line we're still here. So yeah.

Anthony:

I see, right. Okay, a chicken can't lay a duck egg. Now, I believe that's a quotation from Malcolm X. What's he trying to say there?

Graeme:

So Malcolm X was a civil rights activist in the 1960s. And what he was saying is that a system which is designed to do one thing, can't achieve something else. So a chicken can only lay a chicken's egg, it can't lay a duck egg. And what we are saying by that at the economic system that we have today is not designed to solve the climate problem, or protect the environment. It's designed to maximise short-term profit for big corporations, and increase the gap between rich and poor. That's what the system does. And so this system cannot solve the climate crisis, we need a new system, the chicken can't lay a duck egg.

Anthony:

Now, in the book, you suggest that the shock of the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, may be sufficient to give us the opportunity to fundamentally change the system, and change it in a way which will allow us to tackle the climate emergency. It's moved on a lot, it's evolved, it's changed. But as I see it, there is still tremendous emphasis on business as usual. So how do you see it?

Bernice:

Yeah, I mean, I think in many ways we see it the same way. I think we suspected that after the initial surge of locking down, and stopping production, and stopping flights, that there would be almost a panic reaction to try and get back to business as usual, because that's what the system does, that's what we've been doing for these many decades. So I think we anticipated that, but we still feel that there is an opportunity to learn from, particularly the early stages of the pandemic, where, for the first time, we learned that it was possible to shut down large sectors of the economy. It was possible to shut down production of many products overnight, it was possible to ground aircraft, and it was possible to pay people to stay at home instead of going to work. And so those lessons, even though we're going back to business as usual, and the economies are trying to go back to growth again, and emissions have risen, those lessons have not been unlearned, they're still there, waiting for us to tap into them.

Graeme:

I mean, what the virus has done is, it's taught us that it's possible to have radical change in a short time. I mean, the virus is not over. And as we see with this new variant that's coming out, it's going to go on for some time yet. And so the chance for change, for this radical change, which we still think is very unlikely and very difficult, but the chance for change is better now than it's ever been because of this, because of this sudden shock to the system.

Anthony:

But we still have the ruling establishment. I think the key thing is we don't see a crusader, a leader or anybody who is actually leading people, who's a role model, a role model of a global level who can actually focus people towards making the fundamental changes that are needed.

Bernice:

And if I can jump in there, I would say that part of the problem that we've had these many decades has been waiting for that crusader, that messiah figure, the hero to step in, and take control and everything will be okay if that one person can just lead the way. And the sooner, I believe, the sooner we ditch the idea of the great campaign of the great crusader and the Messiah figure, the sooner we'll get on with the business of doing it ourselves, because we don't have time to wait for that global leader anymore.

Graeme:

It has to be a collective response.

Bernice:

Absolutely.

Graeme:

It has to be a lot of people coming together. This is not about one person. And it's about maybe one country or one group of people beginning the process like the snowball. Superman's not going to come and save us.

Bernice:

Yeah, we've been conditioned to think, from many Hollywood movies that, the meteor is coming towards the earth and is going to strike, but somebody, probably from Harvard, is going to go out there and figure out a way of pushing it away. No offence to fans of Elon Musk, but Elon Musk isn't going to be the guy that saves us here, neither is Jeff Bezos.

Anthony:

Right. But so we need a group of people, we need a movement. And yet, reading your book, you're very skeptical of things like Fridays for Future, and in particular, Extinction Rebellion. Are they not the sort of groups of people what we need?

Graeme:

No, I mean, I don't like to say, I mean, the interpretation you've got there is not what we mean at all. I mean, we're huge supporters of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future. We've tried to focus on what the individual can do, because the question we're most asked is what can I do as an individual? But we've said very clearly, you can do this, this and this, but you can't achieve any magical change unless you work with others.

Bernice:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Graeme:

So individual actions, yes, do them. But you will not achieve anything unless you act collectively. And that's Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future are right on message.

Bernice:

Absolutely. I think we're very supportive of both movements. I think perhaps we'd say that one movement alone isn't going to do it. It needs a lot of different groups of people all coming together. But importantly, all pursuing the same goal. And something that we have certainly noticed in our work is that there tends often to be a fragmentation of goals and ideas. People are, are working for saving the rainforest or, say, working for saving the blue whale, or saving the orang-utan. We need to keep in mind that one goal, which is climate change.

Anthony:

Right. Now, you say we need more younger people taking control, effectively displacing present governments. But where are these people going to come from? How are they going to take power? And are they going to have the experience that they need to actually take leading roles?

Bernice:

That's a very good question.

Graeme:

This is a good question. Generally, I don't want to make a generalisation but I will, the people that tend to change the world tend to be the elderly and the young, because they're more open to new ideas. People in middle ages tend to very fixed ideas and they find it very difficult to move from that. Young people are more open and more ambitious, elderly people, they've lived enough and they don't really care enough because they've seen it all. And this is why I think Fridays for Future in particular is very interesting because it's a lot of young people who see that their future is at risk, and they need to be encouraged and nurtured, and helped to power, so that they can begin to do what's necessary. It's their future that matters most. And they're the ones I think that... When I was in my twenties or early thirties, I wanted to run the world. I wanted to try and do something to make a better world. And I think it's finding these people that are ambitious and that are intelligent, and that are able to just understand the scale of the problem.

Bernice:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I think one of the things that comes up here is, you talked about experience, so young people potentially lacking experience. We have actually seen this and we can learn from the long play of history, where there've been revolutions, even in our lifetimes, we can see that the old order is toppled by the new people. And then they come in and they realise that after all the glory of revolution and toppling the old order has faded away, there's the business of running the country, there's the business of governance. And those newcomers often have lacked experience, and so they've fallen back then on the old guard, who are still waiting in the wings. And there's a temptation then, a need to then bring back in those old ideas under the cloak of newness, the cloak of revolution.

Bernice:

And that means then you don't end up having a new system. You end up having the old system, just in new clothing. And I think that's something that we also talk about in the book, and we say we need to be very careful to avoid. And so this is the time when we can plan for what the new system needs to look like. And we can really start training people up to take over those important roles in governance. And we see precedent in that as well. Unfortunately, not in the directions that we think it should have gone in, but in Indonesia, for example, the CIA, the American CIA was involved in training up the people that would come in and then overthrow, at that time, the Sukarno government in the 1960s. So we can learn from history and do it better, we believe.

Anthony:

Right. You talk about revolution. In the book, you say the future may not be democracy. So what are you looking for? Are you looking for autocracy or a dictatorship or what's the future of government?

Graeme:

This is a difficult topic because everybody's, wedded to the idea that democracy is the best way to run a country. And it's kind of, I mean, it's true in some ways, but it's also kind of a zeitgeist that people believe in democracy without actually thinking about it. And we have systems that are actually not very democratic. But also, when it comes to something as large and complicated as climate change, if you ask people's opinion, if you want to get everybody on board, then democracy's a disaster because it's the changes are coming in, decades in the future, and people's lifestyles will have to change, often for the worst. And so they're not going to vote for that.

Graeme:

And it's often the case, I mean, you think about somewhere like China, which is not democratic, I mean, they can take big decisions much more easily than the Western countries because they're not democratic. And so what we're wanting to see is something like a technocratic government, a group of people who have been elected, who have the support of as many people as possible, who understand the problems, and can make the difficult decisions. That's not because that's the best system, it's because we don't have time. We don't have time left to go through this long process of convincing everybody. We have less than 10 years to make some big decisions. And so we have to compromise somewhere. And the democratic system is one area we have to compromise.

Bernice:

Yeah, I mean, let's use the analogy of a surgeon. If I go along to my doctor and she tells me that I need brain surgery, or I need a heart transplant, I don't really want to have very much input into where she's going to make the incision or which parts of my brain she's going to twiddle around with, because I'm not an expert in that. So I think there is a place for democracy, and perhaps we're saying it's not in the policy decisions that are going to get us out of runaway climate change.

Anthony:

Right. You say that things are going to be more difficult for people in the future, and that is going to be a really hard sell. But across the world, particularly in the UK and in the United States, inequality is becoming more and more obvious, and accentuated. The vested interests, the people like Jeff Bezos that you've mentioned, the people who you made have heard less of: the Adani family, and Jim Ratcliffe who runs Ineos. There are a number, a relatively small number, of incredibly rich people. And to a large extent, I suppose Elon Musk is an exception, but to a large extent, they are invested in old technologies and they have an awful lot to lose and an awful lot of power. Have we got any chance against them?

Graeme:

Yeah. I mean, this is always the question. I mean, they said David and Goliath, and financially, that's true, but it's actually the other way around in terms of numbers of people. I mean, we have 8 billion people on the planet, we have perhaps a few tens of thousands that are the problem, and a very small number of them that really are very financially rich and very powerful. It's a small number against a very large number. And one of the things we always say is that the changes that we're talking about will happen, there's no doubt that they'll happen. It's just a question of them happening soon enough. People will eventually be forced to change because of what's happened to the environment and the climate, and crop yields, and energy problems. Change will have to come, it's just a question of when. And the more we can help people understand the need for change, the sooner that can happen.

Bernice:

I think there's also, there are different levels of vested interest. I mean, what you mentioned, the big powerful people with a lot of money, that's a very serious problem. But there are also vested interests at more the sort of the you and me level, there are vested interests at the everyday level, for example, the person who is facing losing their job in a car plant, or a steel production plant, then those are vested interests that we can actually start to plan for, and to sure they don't become a problem. By recognising those vested interests, the person who doesn't want to lose their job, the person who fears losing their identity in the career that they might have done for 40 years, and that their parents did and that all their families do, we can help them make that transition, and make sure that it's as painless as possible for them. But that requires us to start planning now.

Anthony:

Transition, I think is a key word, isn't it? You say change will inevitably come, but surely there are different sorts of change. The ideal change would be a change that means the 8 billion people on the planet have enough to eat, have somewhere to live, and not flooded off their lands, and so on and so on. But another change is where we shut our eyes to those people in those developing worlds, just as a lot of people want to shut our eyes to the people just trying to come across the channel, to immigrate into the United Kingdom. And we will put up the drawbridge and we will enjoy our privileged standard of life, and pretend that all those other people who are suffering from climate emergency don't really exist, or at least if they do, they don't matter. So how can we be sure that the change is benign rather than catastrophic?

Bernice:

That's, again, a very good question, just before, I think Graeme's going to answer this very comprehensively, but I also believe it won't just be the people from the developing world, it will be also the people who can no longer live in Southern Italy, who can no longer live in Greece.

Graeme:

Florida.

Bernice:

In Florida. So there are going to be people in the developed world who, within the next 10 years, find that there is no longer anywhere to grow food, or that the summers are just too hot to bear anymore. Or indeed, as you mentioned, being flooded off the lands, I mean, we've seen that, you are calling in from around the York area, you know how much flooding affects you there very often. And if not every year, if not several times a year. So these are issues that are going to face us in the rich countries too.

Graeme:

Yeah. And I think this is an opportunity for humanity to show the best of itself or the worst of itself. And we've seen both happening with COVID as well. We've seen some countries handle this well, but some countries handle it very badly. Most of the English speaking world has been particularly badly, they've done particularly badly I think. And it's the same with climate change. We're going to see many people displaced, we're going to see many people desperate. And I mean, I think it's interesting that in Germany, for example, they're more open to immigration, they're more understanding of the plight of other people, and they want to help other people.

Graeme:

Whereas in England and Britain, they tended to up the borders and say, "Let's keep people out." So it's a question of openheartedness, it's a question of understanding, it's a question of humanity. We have a chance to do the right thing. And that's one of the reasons we're writing this book, and we're doing this work, is because we want to help people understand what's at stake. This could all go horribly wrong, or we can find a good way through it. And that's what we want to try and help people do.

Bernice:

One of the things that we've seen is that, in times of crisis, as Graeme said, you see the best and the worst of humanity, you can see some awful things happen, but you also see some great act of kindness and love. And I think, again, we keep using the word planning and plan. We know we have a very good idea of how things are going to develop in terms of climate change, of how difficult things are going to get. If we do some careful planning, then can make it easier for those great acts of kindness to come to the surface, and not the acts that are stimulated by fear.

Anthony:

Well, thank you. As we draw this to a close, let me ask you how you see the future and what you are going to be doing towards creating the future that you want to see.

Graeme:

We're not utopian dreamers. We know this is going to be very difficult, we've seen that people are very reluctant to change. We've seen that COVID has, in many ways, reinforced the worst aspect of humanity. But there is still, I think, a chance that we can pull through this. When you see people like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, and if I just think back to four or five years ago, when we were in Switzerland, the momentum is building all the time. There is more and more pressure for change. People realise that COP’s a waste of time, people realise that we need to find a fundamentally different way. And we are doing everything we can, everything we can through talking to you, through writing these books, through everything we do from day to day, talks and presentations and lectures, to try and help people understand. That's what we can do, certainly for the time being.

Bernice:

Yeah. I think as we go forward, it will become increasingly clear that the policy options that are on the table now, and that will come onto the table in the next few years, won't work. And as it becomes clearer that they're not going to work, we expect, we hope to engage more and more to try and help people see what needs to happen, and to help influence and guide that process, and to just give as much support as we possibly can.

Anthony:

Bernice, Graeme, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas with The Sustainable Futures Report.

Graeme:

Thank you.

Bernice:

Thanks, Anthony.

 

A lot to think about there. A lot that governments don’t want to think about, and I suppose with the continuing pandemic concentrating the minds of the voters the pandemic is going to occupy them before all else. But if we can upend the economy and our lives in order to defeat COVID should we not be prepared to take the same drastic action to address a very much greater threat? I think a lot of that depends on whether the government and the people accept that the climate crisis really is an urgent emergency. Many people remain to be convinced, and many others with vested interests, are determined that they should not be convinced.

Find links to the book and to Bernice and Graeme’s websites below.

On Friday I’ll be talking about more reactions to COP26 - which remains the responsibility of the UK until COP27 next year. Can there ever be such a thing as net zero travel? I address the question in next Wednesday’s interview. The following week I bring you the inside story of sustainability at York Minster, one of the greatest cathedrals of Europe.

Before I go I’d like to thank you for listening. I’d like to thank my patrons for their support. They contribute a small amount each month to help me cover my costs and keep the Sustainable Futures Report ad-free and independent, and emphatically non-profit. Normally publishers and publicity agents who request these interviews agree to provide a transcription for me to post on the website. On this occasion they declined, so this is a perfect example of where patrons have helped me cover a specific cost.

Always ready to welcome new patrons. Find the details at patreon.com/sfr.

That was the Wednesday Interview from the Sustainable Futures Report.

I’m Anthony Day.

Until Friday.

Links

Graeme’s website

www.graememaxton.com

Bernice's website 

www.leemax.org

Their thoughts on life in Taiwan compared to Kirkbymoorside in Yorkshire. 

www.taiwan-tales.com

The Book

https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/changemakers-books/our-books/resetting-our-future-chicken-cant-lay-duck-egg 

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A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
And also, I do address conferences.

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