‘There is no planet B’: the best books to help us navigate the next 50 years

‘There is no planet B’: the best books to help us navigate the next 50 years

As wildfires burn in the western United States and the second wave of Covid-19 sweeps across the world, it’s becoming impossible to ignore the disasters we are hurtling towards.

The population biologist Joel Cohen examines one central issue in How Many People Can the Earth Support?, approaching this question from various angles to help us understand why it has received such widely varying answers. I’ve seen published estimates ranging from 100 million to 12 trillion people, but even if you dismiss these polemical outliers, the range extends from two to 30 billion. Since values are inherent in this discussion, there can be no “true” answer. But Cohen’s clear description of all the factors involved offers an excellent starting point to inform future debates about the Earth’s carrying capacity.

One potential solution to the climate emergency is to alter the biosphere to slow further heating – actions that now get called geoengineering. The science writer Oliver Morton outlines both the promise and the perils of the leading ideas in The Planet Remade. He explores how we could inject sulphuric acid into the stratosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, or cultivate plankton to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or build fleets of unmanned ships to seed clouds that would reflect sunlight back into space.

Whatever we are going to do, we are going to have pay for it. And yet saving the biosphere is not profitable, so capital will not invest in it. To break out of this impasse, we need to make the necessary work an international public project – the kind of project that is only possible with the involvement of central banks. But what are these mysterious institutions? The German philosopher Joseph Vogl analyses these powerful bodies in The Ascendancy of Finance. Understanding their history and their current operations will help to make them work better for us during the climate emergency.

As someone who has spent many years thinking about how we could live on Mars, I can assure you that there is no planet B. Adjusting ourselves and our society to the planet we actually live on will require us to create and enact a new structure of feeling. The feminist theorist Donna Haraway urges us to take care of our animal cousins in her provocative study Staying With the Trouble. We must establish enduring relationships between generations and species, she argues, and recognise that an improved political economy is both necessary and possible.

Novelists can also help us imagine a better future. I’ve made some attempts myself, and science fiction writers such as Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Lethem are looking ahead with ingenious and savvy takes on how to cope. Molly Gloss astounded me with The Dazzle of Day, which tells how a large group of Quakers crosses interstellar space in a generation starship – a restricted environment that resembles ours in many ways. Their method for making decisions has much to teach us, while their encounter with a planet much like ours is a stunning reminder of how much we need to keep in balance with the biosphere that supports us.

o The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is published by Orbit (GBP20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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