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“How Bad Are Bananas” Mike Berners-Lee 10 Years On

July 2021 by Maudie Cooper

Understanding carbon footprints is key to instilling a ‘carbon instinct’ – where an individual just ‘gets it’ on what has a high or low climate impact. As ‘How Bad Are Bananas’ is a valuable resource to many of us, we had a chat with Mike Berners-Lee about the latest edition of the book to understand the differences between this version and the original, as well as getting Mike’s thoughts on where Carbon Literacy can make the most impact…


How did you land on the title ‘How Bad are Bananas?’

“The title of a book is really really important. I wanted to get across what the book was about, but also the flavour of the book which is that it was trying to be fun, as well as informative. And because it’s a question that everyone asks, and the answer to it is a chance to get across a really important concept that most people don’t get.”

So it’s not just about the bananas in our own lunchboxes…

How do we balance individual action and systemic change?

“I think this book talks a lot about systemic change. I try to link the micro to the macro all the way through. In the new edition, I added a section ‘What can we do?’ There’s cutting your carbon, and then there’s pushing for change. And actually, this is about everything else you can do to exert pressure on the whole system. There are fossil fuel companies trying to put the blame on the consumers to divert attention away from themselves.

“What we do in the workplace is really important [too]. No matter how senior or junior you are.”

That really epitomises Carbon Literacy – that we can do more when working together than we can in isolation.

In the wake of the pandemic, what other changes did you make for the latest edition of the book?

“It changed in the wake of everything! It’s been 10 years since the original was published so it’s a decade on re-write. It was actually harder work than writing the original book! All the numbers here needed refreshing, the products have changed, the economy has changed, there are items in here which weren’t around ten years ago. Even further than that, the whole context has changed. The way we talk about this has changed. 10 years ago we just had this really serious thing called climate change – now we have this climate emergency on our hands. In the first edition, I was really careful not to tell people what to do. I didn’t want to be too preachy. This time around, I was much clearer about the need to be taking action. There’s more for policymakers and businesses as well.”

Do you feel optimistic from both the climate science and climate action fronts?

“From the science side, I’m really optimistic! The technologies that we need to make the transition are there.

“[Though] time is running out, so I don’t know. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic. If you fell overboard and you were a long way from land but you could see it in the distance, you wouldn’t bother speculating about [what] your odds were, you’d just get swimming!”

Looking forward, what do we need to do to make COP26 as impactful as it can be?

“I think we need to let our government understand that the world needs a level of seriousness and coherence that it has not yet demonstrated. I’ve heard ministers saying ‘Oh I’m not the climate change minister’ when actually, everyone should be. Everyone has [to have] sustainability completely integrated into their job now – that’s the only way to take this on.”

We’ve seen that you’ve more recently done some work with BrewDog. What project has been the most challenging to work on so far?

“BrewDog was an interesting but rewarding challenge: the challenge of taking a whole company that says ‘We get it. How can we integrate it into everything we do?’ That’s exactly how every business should approach this: but it is still really challenging because you’ve got to bring everyone with you. It’s been pretty full-on from all sides.

“We have also been working with tech Businesses for quite a long time, if someone like BT or Microsoft can be managing their supply chain, then we all can, because that’s about as complicated as it gets.”

If you could choose one sector to go Carbon Literate, what would it be?

“I think I would choose hospitality actually. Food is about a quarter of the whole picture. On the global level, and on the UK level. It’s not just about carbon, it’s about biodiversity, and it’s about feeding the world. It’s a really important agenda. Much more than a quarter of what we are thinking about. And they can influence you elsewhere: if all the best restaurants are cooking vegetarian food, that’s what inspires you when you are cooking at home as well. It has a huge reach, and it’s so doable, not millions of pounds worth of investment.”

What would your Carbon Literacy action be? Presumably not fewer bananas?

“I am happy with the diet stuff, and, for me, I’m moving in the right direction. I have an electric car and leave it at home when I can, so I think I would actually go with home energy. We live in an old house, which has an oil burner. It’s tough and technical and takes investment and time. It’s the area which a lot of people forget about.”

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