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Book review: What's Really Happening to our Planet? - Tony Juniper

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The new book from Tony Juniper, former Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, is all about taking the big questions and vast amounts of data about sustainability, and making it accessible in the form of engaging infographics and facts. 

Juniper suggests that it's a text for those aged '12 to 112'. He said: “It's trying to convey the scale, scope and rapidity of the changes shaping our world, and their interconnected nature. It's set out to show the different faces of what's going on, taking in population growth, economic growth and resource depletion, and presents some of the broad-scale response.”

Change needed—now

So what is the right response? He added: “The conclusion I have reached is that we need a different kind of economy. Looking at the issues through a data prism, you see it's not a political choice – it's more of a necessity.”

Asked about what elements of the sustainability agenda are less known about and understood by the public, he added: “Probably an even more urgent issue than climate change is the extinction of animals and plants. There's some astonishing data. 10,000 years ago, 99 per cent of the vertebrate biomass on our planet was wild animals. Now, it's 96 people and their domesticated animals. It's a remarkable shift to the dominance of one species.”

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World wealth in the spotlight

It's the actions and organisation of that species that receive some serious analysis in the book. The book's top line is, conversely, the bottom line: the wealth of nations and how its achieved, and the demand for the resources to keep up to the living standards of a booming global middle class. 

The visuals hit the spot. An enormous battery dwarfing the rest illustrates the United States' huge energy demands on the world stage; a series of smaller national buckets drip into Europe, illustrating the fact that a large swathe of the continent's water footprint lies outside its borders. 

High profile voices add to what is already a powerful statement. Sir David Attenborough bemoans our dependence on natural world while becoming estranged from it, while HRH The Prince of Wales provides a foreword which points out that while young people will surely be an important audience for the book, business leaders should value it too, while even experts can make use of a well-presented summary like this.   


Striking facts and stats

It's an extremely breezy 200 pages, and you can flick through at random and happen upon something you didn't know on pretty much any page you land. A couple of personal favourites are the fact that one hour of sunlight hitting the Earth is roughly equal to the planet's annual energy consumption (a case for solar power that needs no further explanation), and that Paris has a population density four times that of London. 

At times, some of the big facts and small asides can make quite grim reading: thousands of species being carried around the world in ship ballast water, 10 million people affected by coastal flooding worldwide, a plastic bottle taking 700 years to break down. 

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Making environmental agreements stick

But the starkness is all part of an essential wake-up call to our consumerist societies. It's certainly likely to be a favourite among high school teachers trying to engage students in these key issues – and it is thankfully not short of proposed solutions.

Juniper suggests that it's not more international environmental treaties that are needed, but much better implementation of the many already in place. 

The book does end with a 'much more needs to be done' – but this is inevitable. Another illuminating graphic highlights that while some progress has been made on the back of agreements around the atmosphere, biodiversity, waste, land and water, only phasing out ozone-depleting substances and removing lead from fuel have seen what could be thought of as significant progress. Indoor air pollution, fish stocks, wetlands and corals have seen further deterioration since agreements to curb them were made. 

The road to a sustainable economy

Among Juniper's conclusions is that there's plenty we could learn from nature in trying to curb our own consumption habits. A building in Zimbabwe that mimics the ventilation of a termite mound and cuts energy use by 90 per cent is cited as one such example among many. 

The ten-point programme for a sustainable economy laid down by the University of Cambridge in 2015, with goals for government, finance and business, is given a double-page spread. So too is the concept of the circular economy – an opportunity to break the linear economic structure that has resulted in such unsustainable planetary change. 

While the question of whether there's the will to make the change required with the urgency it needs is left unanswered; that, too, is to be expected. 

We are yet to see how the recent Paris Agreement on climate change bares its teeth in the real world, and while there have been positive noises and trailblazers in both business and political spheres, far from all the key players have accepted that business as usual just isn't working any more. 

If there is a criticism of the book, it's one on a basic, practical level. It's fairly big and heavy; more for the shelf or desk than the handbag. Admittedly this does allow the visuals to have their full impact, but there would surely be a case for a more pocket-sized edition, so no-one has the excuse not to have it close by – because the more hands this meaty but accessible book finds itself in, the better. 

Let us know what you think - post a comment below or tweet us at @energysvgtrust. Be sure to follow @TonyJuniper on Twitter and discover more books by Tony Juniper.

Gary Hartley's picture
Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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