Review: How We Can Save the Planet

By Ian Roberts
Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

I read How We Can Save the Planet on a beach in Crete. It slapped me across the face with the reality of climate change. I felt embarrassed that I knew so little about the most important crisis facing humanity and was ashamed at the realisation that my personal carbon profligacy was part of the problem.

The author, Mayer Hillman, of the Policy Studies Institute, London, has a track record of speaking uncomfortable truths even before they become uncomfortable. In the late eighties, while the Department of Transport was congratulating itself on reducing pedestrian deaths, Hillman pointed out that death rates were falling because the roads were getting more dangerous—not less. He was right. Road danger was driving a massive decline in walking—so there were fewer pedestrians to be killed—and today’s epidemic of fat kids is one of the direct consequences of this.

Like most people, I like to feel good about myself, but when the budget airliner taking me home from Crete thrust its engines and belched its way skyward, I felt like a pathetic environmental hypocrite. I was taking something that did not belong to me and trashing it. Blissfully ignorant on the way out to Crete, on the way home I was burdened by the guilty secret that I had personally soiled the upper atmosphere with nearly two tonnes of carbon dioxide. It will steam there for more than a century, contributing to the deaths by hunger, infection and war, of millions of people living in wretched poverty and whose collective carbon footprint is lighter than that of a sparrow walking on sand.

Don’t read this book if you want to feel good about yourself. Kid yourself that the evidence for climate change is not that strong, that technology will come to the rescue and that the government can be relied on to sort it out. Just don’t tell your kids because they will never forgive you. Once you have read Hillman’s book, you will be saddled with a personal responsibility for the rest of your life. You will understand why greater use of public transport and hydrogen power are not the answers. You will know why personal carbon rationing is the only viable solution, that it must happen now and that it will impact on every aspect of your life. Read this book and there is no going back.

Published in the British Medical Journal on 10 June 2006.

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