To most of you, the words within this book are going to seem like the ramblings of a mad man.
And you know what? I am mad!
I’m mad we’ve let it come to this.
Honestly. Do you ever feel that the world has gone completely insane?
No matter where you look, it seems like humanity is on an inevitable collision course, a very rapid path towards becoming completely obsolete.
Behind door number one is the rise of hyper-nationalism, unseen since the Second World War. Instead of reaching across borders to form a more global society, countries are starting to close themselves off from the rest of the world. Xenophobia and a sense of “us versus them” are now driving political discourse in many places. Some scholars point to a backlash against globalization as the reason for this rise.1 In more developed, western nations like the United States, France, the UK, and Italy, we are seeing extremist parties—with related political views and proposed policies—rear their ugly heads. Bitter rivalries between states, such as those of India and Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, or the Koreas threaten stability in those regions. A growing global dominance by China is fueling a sense of pride among the populous and contributing to rising nationalist fervor there. In the background, as it has been since 1945, is the threat of nuclear annihilation. Whereas we once thought this danger would come at the hands of embattled superpowers, it’s not certain in our current times just who might be in a position to press the proverbial red button.
Open door number two and you’ll find greed, corruption, and covert lawlessness by the privileged and ultra-wealthy members of society. It doesn’t matter which country you come from, the story’s the same. The more money you have, the more power you wield. For those at the top of the pyramid, cash is king. They seem to be able to buy their way out of any problem with no more than a slap on the wrist. Sure, this behavior’s been the same since the beginning of time. In today’s democratized society, though, you’d assume it to be a relic of the past. The terrible case against billionaire Jeffrey Epstein is a great example of how far wealth and corruption can stretch.2 Heinous allegations of pedophilia and sex trafficking were met with a well that’s how those guys get around attitude. A sickening abuse of power, but unfortunately par for the course.
Next, you peer hesitantly at door number three. After seeing the other two, are you sure you want to open it?
Okay, here goes.
Contestants choosing door number three have won themselves a planet almost devoid of life, complete with acidic oceans, poisoned air, and probably countless cockroaches ready to take their rightful place at the top of the food chain. You won’t need to bring a map with you to this planet; everything’s changed. The places you used to put on your bucket list are probably now sitting underwater: New York, Shanghai, Rio. If you’re lucky, you can hire a boat tour to take you around the spire of the old Empire State Building, but I hear it gets busy this time of year. Emaciated, disease-ridden beings might greet you along the way. Don’t worry! Catching the once-eradicated ailments afflicting these folks, things like smallpox, polio, and measles, is a step up from getting caught in some of the wild weather the planet’s been having. We long for the days where a category 23 hurricane was the worst it got.
Yet while all this may seem like a stretch, I’d guess that the scientific community would back up a good part of the story. From human-made climate change to widespread extinction, worsening severe weather patterns to the reemergence of once eradicated diseases, we’ve entered an era that will certainly be one for the record books. What’s worse is that we’re wholly unprepared to deal with it all. Just look at the current Covid-19 pandemic and how bungled responses have been. Right now, it’s not looking like students of the future—in their cute little spacesuits and shiny helmets—are going to have a very good impression of us today. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies, it’s like we’re taking crazy pills here.3
Ironically, just a few years ago, things seemed so much more hopeful.
Early one April morning on the outskirts of Paris, we find ourselves inside a beautiful white marquee. Hundreds of people clad in bespoke suits and colorful pashminas are celebrating like its New Year’s Eve. Why? They’re hailing the passage of the 2015 Paris Accord, history’s most ambitious attempt at curbing climate change and the destruction of planet Earth.4 For months in the lead up to this meeting of minds, talking heads the world over were hailing this as the critical moment where humankind would wrest back control of our future from the hands of environmental degradation, corporate pollution, and global ambivalence. We put so much hope into what this successful Paris meeting would mean. For many, it was our last chance to try and make things right.
The international community did come together to make things right. Those delegates had great reason to celebrate, too. In all my time working at the United Nations, it was a rare day when you had consensus on much of anything. A simple majority vote was hard enough to get. At the Paris meeting, you not only had a majority of countries voting in favor of the Agreement but also significant compromise. Through negotiation, hard work, and perhaps even enhanced by a magical alignment of the stars, delegates from 195 countries reached a consensus. What’s more, it signaled a clear agreement among all governments towards the importance of climate change and an urgent need to do things differently. It was a massive leap of faith for many nations, especially those in the developing world. In the end, collective humanity won out over individual national interests. It was a rare decisive victory for the United Nations and Earth-loving humans alike.
Fast forward to today and I bet those delegates aren’t celebrating anymore.
In such a short space of time, we’ve seen the legitimacy of the Paris Accord called into question by a massive shift not in the Earth’s climate but the geopolitical climate. As previously noted, the rise of nationalism in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the United States is calling into question the long-held direction of globalization. Countries are now pulling out of the Accord, the most notable being the US under President Trump. Others, like Brazil, led by President Bolsinaro, are set to follow suit. This was unthinkable only a few years ago when delegates lauded their monumental win. In Australia, a land we often associate with being one of the greenest on Earth, loosened governmental policies now threaten endangered species, local communities, and even the Great Barrier Reef. What’s worse, accounting firm PriceWaterhouse Coopers has found zero countries are doing enough to meet their targets as outlined in the Paris Accord.5 This means that although delegates that night in Paris were happy with what the Agreement set out to achieve, convincing the rank and file back home to take action was proving much harder to accomplish.
Even with a majority of countries still aligned with our shared responsibility for a more sustainable future, it doesn’t seem like it’s enough. The performance of those people at the highest levels of society, who are entrusted with taking care of us and future generations, would get them fired from any other job. They’ve failed us, and it’s not because they didn’t have the vision. They’ve failed us because they didn’t dare to turn their vision into reality. The Paris Agreement, the last great hope for saving humanity from environmental destruction, now seems to be going up in smoke.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re exposed to so many negative messages in any given day that it’s no wonder many have lost hope for a brighter future. Research in The Journal of Applied Public Economics found this is the first generation in human history where children are worse off than their parents.6 Pretty startling stuff, which is even more jarring when you look holistically at our place in the human story.
If you’re reading this book, it could be assumed that you are part of a society that is by far the wealthiest, most learned, and most interconnected in human history.
A little over one hundred years ago, immigrants from all over Europe crowded ships bound for New York Harbor. All were fleeing different things—war, famine, persecution—but the commonality among them all was hope for a brighter future. The “new world,” with streets lined with gold, would offer opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. While in transit, these immigrants heard stories of the great families of American history undergoing the same dangerous journey: the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Morgans. These families were also immigrants who went from rags to riches in the most American way possible. Although these people, and others like them, received most of the headlines, they were far from the norm in the US at the time. In 1910, a decade after the rapid economic growth of the Gilded Age, the average American worker could expect to bring home about $750 per year. Adjusted for inflation, this would equal a little over $20,000 today.7 Remember, though, most immigrants weren’t making nearly this much. Those immigrants, if they were able to make it past inspection on Ellis Island, would probably end up in crowded, rat-infested tenements in the Lower East Side. They were likely to spend their days in a hot, cramped, and dangerous warehouse, operating machines that could quickly turn into torture devices for misplaced limbs. If they did injure themselves, it was more than likely to be game over. They could attempt to rely on the charity of others, yet given how stretched most budgets were during this era, it was probably the end of their American dream.
However, their modern-day decedents now pay top dollar for the same apartments (of course, they’ve been gentrified to include a boutique café downstairs, rooftop swimming pool, and floor-to-ceiling windows with exposure to great natural light). If they go to an actual work site at all, it’s highly likely to be an open-plan office with ergonomic chairs. They pop downstairs for lunch, hammer through a few more e-mails, and head home before the sun goes down. These folks are likely to earn four times more than their counterparts did in early 1900s New York, with an exponentially lower risk of losing an arm to the grinding jaws of a machine.8
Seventy years ago, and much further east, two decades of war had decimated Chinese society. As caskets returned from the front, younger and younger boys had to take up arms to fill the gaps. Like many other cultures, women were left at home during times of war. Little efforts were made for education when there was war going on all around you. By the end of the Chinese Civil War, and the founding of The People’s Republic in 1949, only 20 percent of people in the Middle Kingdom could read. Through policy changes and a focus on education, the Communist Party was able to raise the average literacy rate to an astonishing 97 percent of the population today. On average, 86.3 percent of humans today can read and write. While there is still a lot of improvement to be had, especially in other countries of the developing world and for women, humankind is more educated than ever before.9
Now, in our post-millennial culture, our social systems have been radically changed by mobile technology. In only a few decades, we’ve gone from having to plan nights with friends a week in advance to direct communication with them via the smartphone in our pocket. Technology has done more to change the fabric of human society than probably any other advancement we’ve mustered our brainpower to create. We’ve also achieved this in such a short period of time and continue to make exponential technological advancements every day. We hold access to more information in the palm of our hand than past kings and presidents would ever have had at their disposal. You can talk to someone on the other side of the world as if they were in the same room as you. From coastal megacities to isolated mountain villages and everywhere in between, our everyday worlds are connected to a vast resource the planet has never known. As of 2019, 53 percent of the world had access to the internet, and along with it all the information, opportunity, and advancement one can imagine.10
But, what do we do with all of it?
Watch cat videos.
You have to ask yourself the obvious question: if we are so much more advanced compared to our ancestors, then why have we done such a bad job of taking care of things? Sure, immigrants sitting in those New York tenements didn’t get to watch hilarious videos of kids doing stupid things. But you know what? They also didn’t have to worry about the Earth ending on their watch. Mao’s soldiers may have had to keep guard against the Japanese, but not for rising sea levels. Even with our access to technology, we’re tuning out at the exact time we should be tuning in. Why are we sticking our heads in the sand as if nothing is going on?
I’m writing these pages from a cute café in Shanghai’s Former French Concession. Right now, a girl is sitting at a table opposite, angling for a perfect selfie while trying not to spill her ice cream. Phones are on display all around me, taking pictures of little tarts and baked goods. While accordion music plays on the speakers above, few can hear it with their headphones on. With a room of nearly 30 people, there are only two people actually talking to each other. The rest, including myself, are buried in some form of technology (credit to the one boy I witness reading a physical book … the future looks bright for you!). We’ve tuned out from each other and we’ve tuned out from the rest of the world. In a time where we are overburdened in our everyday lives, all most of us want is to escape to a technological safe place we can make our own.
So, then, how have we come to this impasse?
It’s certainly not because we don’t care. There are people all over the world doing their part to save humanity.
It’s also not because we don’t know. We’re inundated with news from around the world twenty-four hours a day.
It’s not because we can’t. For goodness sake, we’ve put a monkey into space.
It’s because we’re overwhelmed, desensitized, apathetic, and scared.
Another lesser-known statistic about the modern world can help to start explaining why. Humans today consume more information in a single day than our 15th-century forbearers did their entire lifetime.11 From vast amounts of print, billboard, and online advertisements through to news, views, and yes cute cat videos, it’s nearly impossible to not be impacted by all this information. While we may assume this is now part and parcel of our modern world, I’d like you to take a second and ask your brain how it feels about all this. Just over a century separates us from the invention of electricity, yet we’re now asking our brains to adapt to what would normally take millennia. We’re simply not built for all this and the result is pretty clear.
Perhaps it’s because we are so overwhelmed and desensitized that many have also become apathetic. Saving the planet is no longer my problem. Now, I put the burden on someone else to solve it. This is especially true in more developed countries which by and large experience the impacts of climate change far less than those in the developing world. Sure, we see maps of what we perceive to be a far-off future New York City being swallowed up by rising tides. But, what about those places we’ve already lost to increasing sea levels? What about large swaths of the Maldives, Bangladesh, and the Solomon Islands? We think we’re doing our part by purchasing a consciously made pair of jeans, never questioning how we’re able to have clothes cheaper and more abundantly than ever before. Oh, and let’s not forget about trash. Do you honestly think your local landfill can take it all? Places like China, Indonesia, and India have been your dumping ground for years. Only now are they starting to fight back, forcing leaders in the west to finally come to grips with an issue punted off like a candy wrapper.
Admit it. You’re scared too. When you’re scared, what do you do? You stick with what you know, what’s comfortable, and what’s familiar. It’s a new type of rat race. We perpetuate an endless cycle of similar actions to keep us from thinking about all the scary things going on around us.
Let’s run through a typical morning.
You wake up to the sound of birds outside your window as the sun gently hits your face. After a quick stretch, you get up and roll out your yoga mat for a few vinyasas. Your last namaste leads into a gentle meditation session where you place your intentions forward for the universe to answer. Smiling, you head to the kitchen for a fresh cup of coffee to energize your mind before sitting down for an hour of personal creative time. The dog gently taps your leg, letting you know they need to go out for their morning walk. Gently strolling down the tree-lined streets of your town you greet each person by name and truly take the time to hear how they are. Once home, you pack your bag and hop on your bike, headed for work. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of peace and calm in the morning as the wind flows through your hair. Another amazing day is upon you, one where you can truly show the world all the things you have planned.
Oh, wait. You’re not an Instagram influencer? Sorry about that. Let’s try again.
It’s the sound of the garbage truck which wakes you a good half an hour before your alarm is set to go off. Frazzled and blurry-eyed you grab your phone to check the weather, your e-mail, social media accounts, and maybe a bit of news. That post you put up before bed didn’t get half as many likes or comments you wanted it to. What’s more, every headline on the news sites seems to show some kind of tragedy, death, or despair. Your massive golden retriever jumps on top of your stomach, a sure sign he’s likely peed somewhere in the house overnight. You wanted to get some stretching in this morning, but you put it off until tomorrow. A quick jog around the block with the dog and you’re in the shower, your morning schedule already running late. You toss on whatever’s not wrinkled, race to the subway, miss the train, and wait for the next one. By then the platform is heavily crowded with an army of mobile phone zombies, ignorant of your very existence. After an arduous journey of pushing, prodding, and stepping on toes you reach your final stop. It’s another ten-minute walk to work, and you end up sneaking in just before the boss gets there. Another morning whizzes by, most of it on autopilot, and all of it spent two steps behind.
Both are pretty extreme examples of what a typical morning can entail. I’d hope most of you reading this fall somewhere in the middle. It’s highly probable that you do not have the life of an influencer, nor are you so disorganized. Yet even though you may be somewhere in between, this still isn’t particularly great, is it? You might have time to work out or meditate in the morning a couple of times a week. Perhaps you do have a job that lets you make your chosen contribution to the world. If you’re lucky, your dog never pees inside. Regardless, how often do you actually take the time to mindfully go about your day? This isn’t a metaphysical book about mindfulness, of course, but it’s an important question nonetheless. You can only go about on autopilot because you instinctively know your routine. You’ve become trapped in the dreaded rat race.
Now if that includes trying to do your part to save the planet, excellent!
But, does it?
If you’re on autopilot all the time, there’s very little opportunity to inject new actions into that routine. Life becomes just an endurance challenge to try and make it from task to task. Add into that this very human instinct to keep up with the proverbial Jones’s (have you ever wondered who they actually are?) and those things the most distant from you become those you care about the least. With the hustle and bustle of daily life—work, family, that all-important cocktail hour with colleagues—there’s little time left to care too much about anything else.
And that’s where we return to the purpose of our story…saving the planet.
It all seems so overwhelming, doesn’t it? The fate of the planet, its nearly 10 billion people, not to mention countless other non-human beings, and your responsibility for it. Your singular action is what is going to make the difference between leaving a world for our children to live and play in or the inevitable hellscape where they have to hide underground. I’m going to tell you right here and right now: what you do won’t make a bit of difference in the long run. It might make you feel good today, or save a turtle tomorrow, but this idea that you can be the change you want to see in this world is nonsense.
I’m also here to tell you, right here and right now: even though your individual actions will make little difference, humankind is much stronger when we work together. That’s the step change I hope this book leaves you with. It’s time to take a more sensible view of saving the planet, rather than this radical view of individualized progress propagated for decades. This view will force you to place a critical eye on the things you’ve held as sacred for so long. It will also require a change to the saints and idols we’ve come to admire. In short, to save the planet we need a drastically different, no-bullshit approach because as the adage goes, to do the same thing over and over expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
Right now, we are all insane. Every. Single. One of us.
“But, John, I’m already on the front lines of climate change.” Great, but there’s more to saving the planet than keeping our temperatures stable.
“Hey. I give my money to some of the best charities there are.” Awesome, and keep it up. I’m here to tell you, though, there’s a better way to support these groups.
“Ugh. Not another book talking about how we’re all doomed. I’ve heard it all before.” I highly doubt you’ve heard my take on things which, you may say, is a little unorthodox. Some of the material in this book is putting me at risk of becoming a pariah, but obviously our status quo just isn’t working.
With this book, I hope to change all of this insanity. I’ll discuss how we’ve come to this point in our shared human history. I’ll also show you real-world, contemporary examples demonstrating the good, the bad, and the ugly of saving the planet. You’ll get a fair dose of something I particularly enjoy doing: naming and shaming those responsible for the mess we’re in today. People have become well too scared of offending, and that’s a bad thing. If we keep pussyfooting around things and mollycoddling those who would aim to destroy us all, we’re not going to get anywhere useful. This book will also arm you with some of the key ways you can truly make a difference. I mean… a real difference. Not a recycle-your-cans difference. A holy-shit-I’ve-saved-the-world difference.
In that respect, I’ve not produced a book with a million different tips and tricks, most of which you’re probably not likely to do. I’ve opted instead for a concise, five-point plan to help make a better future. Everyone, regardless of how committed you are to the cause, will be doing a whole lot of good just by putting these points into practice as part of your everyday lifestyle. Some are conceptual, like having a full understanding of what sustainability is all about. Others are practical, like learning how to prioritize the precious time, resources, and talent you give. All are critical if we want to stop being so apathetic, get off our lazy asses, and solve this pesky issue of saving the world.
Before we go any further, a quick note on terminology to keep us all on the same page. If you haven’t realized already, there are a lot of terms used when talking about saving the world. For example, sustainability is typically the umbrella term for anything related to saving the world or humanity. That could include environmentalism, human rights, worker rights, supply chain, governance, transparency, to name a few. Basically, anything good will probably be rolled up into “sustainability” somehow. Environmentalism and ecology usually deal specifically with the Earth and its natural resources such as trees, water, and air. Corporate social responsibility (CSR), has to do with a company’s actions concerning sustainability. The public sector is the government. The private sector is the corporate world. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), non-profit organizations (NPOs), and government-organized non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) (phew) are all organizations you’d probably best associate with charities. I’ll do my best to keep the jargon to a minimum and make sure you can figure things out by context. I mean, this isn’t Thoreau. If you’re still confused, there’s always Google (which you’re probably using right now to figure out who Thoreau is).
So, how about a little preview of what’s to come? In the next chapter, The Sustainability Industrial Complex, I explain some of the history, actors, and ideas that have influenced modern-day sustainability. The goal is to give you a solid foundation for, and shared understanding of, points in the rest of the book. Then, we move into your no-bullshit, five-point plan. Point #1, Know What You’re Talking About, explores a lot of the terminology and concepts associated with sustainability. It also dispels the myths we often hold so dear. Point #2, You Can Do Anything (But You Can’t Do Everything), encourages you to focus your time and energy when it comes to saving the Earth. Don’t Be a Dick, point #3, talks about how to take back control from those energy vampires doing the world a disservice. In point #4 we discuss pragmatic altruism, the most important piece of this entire book. As you’ll hear me say over and over, passion without pragmatism is just complaining. Finally, point #5 will serve as the swift kick in the ass you need to get up and get working.
One final note on how to read this book. As an avid reader myself, I know there are a million different ways people digest information. That’s why I’ve tried to create something that each reader, no matter what their style, can become engrossed in. You can read it from front to back. You can read each chapter independently in whatever order you want. You can read one chapter and none of the others. As long as you don’t start with dnE ehT and continue to read each letter backward, things should make sense.
Now, let’s get to work.