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7 February 2023

Review of ‘How to Fix a Broken Planet’, Julian Cribb, CUP, 2023

by Peter Martin, science writer

This short book is a remarkably comprehensive overview of the serious environmental and associated social problems facing humanity on a global scale. It reviews the suite of issues that scientists and other informed commentators have been writing about for over 50 years, and does so in non-technical language that makes it very accessible. As such it is an ideal introduction to the complex set of interrelated issues that make up the broad field of sustainability. In particular, Cribb seeks to go further and lays out a series of strategic and practical measures that we might consider pursuing in response, at global, national and local levels. There are very few comparable and concise attempts that successfully cover so much important ground in this field, as well as apply so much innovative thinking to possible solutions.

After a career in science journalism, Cribb has spent the last decade writing about a range of issues that he and many others see as existential threats to humanity, including the risk that climate change poses to food production, the peril of global pollution, and the increasing risk of warfare over dwindling resources. This background and his obvious skill as a science journalist emerge early in this book in a way that few research scientists could manage as authors. In summarising our predicament on p.5, for example, he declares the main driver to be ‘the sheer size of human enterprise’, then lists ‘overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, inequality, poor choice of technologies, and poor social arrangements’ as the main elements. Anyone who has followed the international literature in sustainability in recent decades, whether in books or journals, will immediately recognise these components as fundamental and urgent.

A major difference that marks this overview, however, is that despite the sobering statistics and the litany of woefully inadequate responses from governments for so long, Cribb is determined to lead the reader into a positive framework of thought and action. Each of the 15 short chapters is titled to suggest solutions he recommends – for example, the chapter on human overpopulation is titled ‘One Child Fewer’, reflecting the fact that having one child fewer is by far the most effective step any household could take to assist society’s transition to sustainability – and of course, it’s a transition we must make, as fast as possible.

Cribb also suggests a number of profound suggestions for global cooperation, such as a UN- ‘Earth System Treaty’. Acknowledging that other comparable treaties have been proposed before, he points out that none fully encompass the ‘ten megathreats’ to humanity that he has identified in his earlier writings. His treaty would not only address threats to global ecosystems, but would also create a circular economy at a global scale, and end waste. Drawing on critiques of modern economic and financial systems, Cribb suggests an Earth Standard Currency that, unlike money, would be tied to the natural limits of the resource base on which all human enterprise is built.

Some readers may initially feel that his suggestion for a World Truth Commission strays into idealistic territory, yet the author is simply addressing the reality of how easily misinformation is spread and how damaging it is becoming. His idea is a typically imaginative way to address a problem that has rapidly expanded to a global scale. The great alternative economist, Herman Daly, was always appalled by the dishonesty of much advertising, a situation made far worse today by the ease with which advertisements for ecologically damaging and unnecessary consumer products intrude into our personal space. The internet also spreads malicious falsehoods, perpetrated by private, commercial and public players alike. Cribb references the famous book ‘Merchants of Doubt’ on the antics of the tobacco lobby as an example. We might observe that the fossil fuel sector has not been any more honest, although the superior economics of renewable energy has rather trumped debate in that industry, making further untruths unprofitable.

It is interesting to see the journalist Cribb on board with the complaint that many have made against the media, which is that ‘a big enough lie will attract more eyeballs to their TV and internet sites, which the corporation then converts into advertising revenue from the corporate sector’. Certainly, the media seems stubbornly resistant to giving concerns about sustainability anything like the cover it continues to give to advertisement-buying business as usual, let alone suggestions that standard economics could be part of the problem, as many have concluded.

For a longer discussion on what we believe to be true, and its place in what we value and how we live, he refers us back to his book ‘Surviving the 21st Century’ in which he identifies ‘four chief human delusions’ that account for many of our problems – namely ‘money, politics, religion, and the human narrative (stories that we tell about ourselves)’. He picks up the last point in a chapter devoted to the folly of us calling ourselves Homo sapiens, or ‘wise man’, when all the evidence suggests we are on track to wreck our planet and with it our civilisation. He doesn’t suggest a new name, but calls for one. It’s a great idea, and there’s an accepted scientific protocol for changing a species name.

Whether pointing out the growing risk of nuclear war, or the potential risks of artificial intelligence, Cribb ends each section with a set of bold, visionary ideas for new ways forward. Some involve global, UN-based initiatives, but many of his suggestions are for local actions that we as citizens can undertake in our own neighbourhoods, towns, schools, farms and households.

Perhaps one issue that Cribb might have covered but didn’t in this wide-ranging discourse, is the failure of democratic political systems to address the issues he raises, and how that failure could have happened. It is worth noting that there are now many experiments in ‘deliberative democracy’ around the world, citizens’ assemblies for example, which seek to give more policy-making power to citizens at the expense of elected representatives. This has been in response to the common observation that, far too often, politicians seem to represent vested interests (or their own) rather better than the people who elected them. They are often ill-informed, and lack the incentive to think for themselves, especially those in political parties. It appears very possible that reform in this space could help get the issues that Cribb raises so well onto the action agenda of governments.

The late Professor Will Steffen, the internationally renowned advocate for climate action and co-author of the brilliant concept of planetary boundaries, put it well when he described this book as ‘essential reading for the 21st century’. Here’s hoping that at least some in the media will attempt to digest this short book and rethink what they see as a worthwhile story. In the meantime it should be basic reading for all senior high school and tertiary students.

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