Book Review: Twenty-Three Years to Save the Planet

monbiot_heat.jpgWhen George Monbiot, the popular columnist for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, gets interested in something, he digs and digs until he’s found what he’s satisfied is the truth. Monbiot is interested in global warming, and presents in Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (U.S. Edition: South End Press, May 2007) a heavily footnoted 215-page brisk and compelling case for why we should all be very worried. This is probably the clearest and broadest book yet published about global warming, with doses of skepticism, inquisitiveness, sobriety and optimism. Every Streetsblog reader should read it. More important, every Streetsblog reader should get it into the hands of five Streetsblog non-readers and ask each of them to do the same.

Unlike those who look at the enormity of climate change and are tempted to throw up their hands, Monbiot approaches the task of carbon dioxide reduction by tackling serial problems one by one. Yet he isn’t deluded into thinking we can solve these issues without making serious and, in some cases, painful changes to our way of life.

The carbon dioxide count in the atmosphere today is 380 parts per million and rising quickly. If the level is allowed to rise above 440 parts per million, Monbiot writes, hundreds of millions of people will face death and dislocation and the planet’s ecosystems will be wrecked. Civilization can be saved only by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide it puts into the atmosphere.

The only fair and politically plausible way to accomplished this, he concludes, is for every human being to be given a carbon ration equal to the amount of damage he or she is allowed to inflict on the atmosphere per year. Because of the wide disparity between carbon emissions per country, some nations, like Ethopia and Bangladesh, would actually be able to increase per-capita emissions. But we in the world’s "rich nations" would have to cut carbon emissions by 90 percent.

The 90 percent cut (actually a 94 percent cut for the average American, but probably less than 90 percent for the average New Yorker) can be achieved, Monbiot says, in all of these cases but one, as summarized below. It will take immediate, concerted worldwide action far stronger than anything being discussed today.

  • Electricity generation: Renewable energy, nuclear power and carbon sequestration and storage, combined with a dramatic decrease in electricity use, can allow us to keep the lights on and achieve the 90 percent emissions cut.
  • Home heating: Our homes are leaky, and should be smaller and better insulated. New homes must be made with zero-carbon heating and cooling systems, described in the book.
  • Retail: Non-urban shopping must occur via Internet-and-delivery. Suburban strip malls and big box stores must be converted to warehouses and distribution centers, which don’t need the heating and cooling and lighting of retail outlets. Small urban shops can remain, but should reduce their energy use.
  • Cement manufacture: Common cement must be replaced with something called geopolymeric cement, which is actually stronger than regular cement, Monbiot writes, lasts longer and is more fire-resistant.
  • Land transportation: "The speed and acceleration of our cars," writes Monbiot, "is a form of profligacy at which all future generations will goggle." Some limited in-town travel for some people might continue to be plausible, but for intercity travel, we must switch to buses and trains. The greater the extent to which cars could be run from carbon-free energy, the better, but there is more to gain more surely by driving less. "Most of the means of persuading drivers to use other modes of transport are — by comparison to the billions spent on building roads and bridges — simple and cheap … We need governments to start deciding how best to run a transport system, rather than how best to accommodate the private car."

The one area where Monbiot says he has failed to find a solution is aviation, which he writes (fortunately) "happens to be the one which is least necessary to our survival. Unlike heating, lighting, travelling to work, building or shopping, aviation is not required to sustain civilization, though its loss from the lives of most of the people who use it today will be keenly felt."

Commercial aviation as we know it, according to Monbiot, must cease to exist. Airplanes simply produce too much carbon too high in the atmosphere to be allowed to continue flying, and after a thorough investigation, Monbiot found there is no alternative fuel or energy efficiency measure that will allow planes to keep flying while achieving the 90 percent carbon cut. However harsh this may seem, it would be less painful than the alternative. "I have sought the means of proving otherwise," he writes. "But it has become plain to me that long-distance travel, high speed and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible. If you fly, you destroy other people’s lives."

Though he does not grant urban planning the weight of a full chapter, Monbiot does mention planning in connection with the topics above. All road widening and construction must be stopped, as this releases carbon itself, encourages driving, and drains money needed for carbon-reduction programs. Similarly, all plans to increase airport runway capacity would be doubly counterproductive.

He humorously mocks "carbon offset" programs as modern-day indulgences and an excuse to avoid real action to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Paying someone to plant a tree is useful only if it survives to maturity without killing other trees elsewhere. But more important, its benefit can be measured only against what would have grown in that spot in absense of the offset program, an unknowable fact. The carbon emissions one purchases "the right" to create are real and now, but the so-called offset is hypothetical, potential, and measurable only in the future. 

In many respects, we’ll just have to do less. Referring as he frequently does to the Faust of Marlowe and Goethe, Mobiot writes that the world will be saved by self restraint:

Accepting that we no longer possess the powers of angels or of devils, that the world no longer exists for our delectation demands that we do something few people in the rich world have done for many years: recognize that progress now depends upon the exercise of fewer opportunities.

  • Many of his prescriptions involve consuming less, such as living in smaller houses and driving less.

    The prescription would be more successful if he pointed out that consuming less also means working shorter hours. For more details, see my 4-page white paper Work Time and Global Warming at

    We can aim for an economy with an adequate standard of living and abundant leisure. This would be better in many ways than our current economy, which requires long work hours to support a consumerist standard of living that provides little satisfaction.

    I think environmentalists would be more successful politically if we advanced this sort of positive view of the future. We are doing it for urban planning, talking about building cities that are more livable than our current sprawl as well as being more environmentally sound. We also need to do it for the economy as a whole.

  • Monbiot certainly has the best action plan on how to get out of this mess in the remaining years…Its a hell of a mountain to climb though.

    Reading his work makes me feel good and terrible simultaneously. I don’t see America making these changes in time, not when it takes so long just to pass (or not pass) something like congestion pricing.

  • Free public transit. The beginning of the end of autosprawl.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    In regards to air travel: with the help of Dan Savage, I’m going to come out of the closet … as the ultimate transportation nerd: an airship fan.

    I’ve always thought of airships as the most civilized way to travel: relatively quiet and sedate, and more efficient and less polluting than a plane. Savage quotes a Monbiot article from the Nation that says “The total climate impact of a zeppelin, blimp, or airship is 80 to 90 percent lower than the impact of a jet airplane.”

    Of course, a 43-hour trip to Europe would be a major pain, especially in economy class without room to move around. Still, I’d like to see them brought back into service on some routes.

    As far as passenger ships go, I’m wondering if Monbiot was right to use the energy consumption of a luxury cruise ship as representative. I think it’d be possible to get people across the Atlantic in a few days with enough comfort to keep them sane, but not all the swimming pools and Wayne Newton. It seems like that would use a lot less energy, but I don’t know how it would compare to airplanes. Does he address that in his book?

  • anonymous

    Regarding free public transit: yes, it often works pretty well in cases where there is fairly limited service, and fare revenue covers a negligible part of the operating costs. But in NYC, a free subway would require increasing the operating subsidy by a factor of 6, partly to account for lost fare revenue, and partly to account for the increase in ridership that would mean a correspondingly higher cost of operation. And I honestly don’t think the city has a spare $3 billion a year lying around for that purpose.

  • Free transit in large cities should be a federal, if not international, effort. The savings from free public transit more than pay for the cost. It replaces a minimum wage boost. It replaces the need for oil wars. It has an economic multiplier of anywhere from 4 to 9, compared to 1 to 2 for general govt expenditure. It gets unsafe autos off the road. It reduces auto traffic deaths. It might save the species. What is the value of that?

  • gecko

    Most likely the greatest emission reductions will come from life and human-centric activities like the large-scale poverty reduction, healthy sensible living, education, intelligent advancement, and sound environmental stewardship.

    The benefits are obvious. It’s not clear what the real hardships are.

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