10 Years To Save The Planet? With Professor Tim O’Riordan

Maddy Harland
Thursday, 5th February 2015

Maddy Harland talks to Professor Tim O’Riordan about new science, why we got it wrong about Darwin, education, climate change and how we must transition to a low carbon world... quickly.

The launch of The Unselfish Spirit – human evolution in a time of global crisis by Mick Collins took me to the city of Norwich last summer. Professor Tim O’Riordan had written the foreword and I was intrigued to meet an eminent scientist who was so prepared to put his name to a book about psychology and becoming more conscious through spiritual development. What Tim said about science’s role in society’s response to climate change inspired and intrigued me, so I arranged to interview him for PM.

Tim began by saying that science is a culture set around certain parameters: it is based on observation and evidence (i.e. the ability to measure and record); it claims to be replicable, independent and not manipulated by a set of values, or political or commercial pressures; science must also be authenticated by undergoing peer review. Tim then pointed out, “The proof of replicability frequently breaks down... In reality, we know that science itself is subject to all kinds of biases and has been since the 15th century. Scientific institutions have shielded themselves from difficult questions for many centuries.”

In the latter part of the 20th century, the public’s relationship with science changed. “Science has moved into the realms of ethics. Areas of research like stem cell, embryology and genetically modified food are regarded as not in the public interest to be pursued. Public disquiet contributes to one of the changes that is taking place: people won’t accept evidence because of their values, regardless of whether scientific rules and regulations have been followed.”

Another challenge, most evident within the context of climate change, is that science has become involved with politics: specifically how people behave, how they consume and how societies organise themselves. Science is beginning to be seen as manipulative. “In a nutshell, we have reached the stage where science is under pressure to change its ways. One way science is responding is to say we are not always going to be right. We have to make sure we have some kind of public dialogue so that different interest groups can explain their perspective and challenge each other on a fair basis. This will create a co-productive, co-operative science, engaging science and the public in creative conversation. This is the modern way in which science is beginning to manifest itself.” 

Tim sees this process as particularly important in the world of sustainable development. “We’re dealing with very powerful, vested interests that are trying to resist change, and also fundamental principles around human rights, social justice and the long term care for future generations ... We have to be more systematic when looking at the social implications for future generations: the way in which technology can be altered; wealth redistribution and whether values allow for this to be possible or not; or whether people will resist and try to hold together the status quo, to their own detriment, and not just to the significant detriment of future generations.” 

New Science

So, science and the way in which it is understood is changing. Tim calls this ‘new science’, a science that doesn’t claim to be definitive or hold all the answers.

I asked Tim whether we can talk about human evolution in a psychological context and still use the term scientifically. “We have a notion of evolution which is essentially made clear by Darwin,” he responded, “but also by many others. All biological organisms seems to have three qualities which are extraordinarily universal:

1. They can reproduce.

2. They have devised sophisticated ways of how reproduction takes place, so the species is maintained and protected.

3. They adapt in conditions of changing circumstances, so they are more likely to survive.

“There’s no such thing as stability in evolution, it’s a constant dynamic and pressurising process. These are what most people agree as the key features of evolution.

“Where we get into trouble is when we see the ‘competitive spirit’ as evolutionary, and interpret evolution as a process that is mimicking what we now call modern capitalism. That’s why Darwinism is often seen as a right-wing agenda, which it isn’t. It is actually a biological agenda. If you read Darwin carefully, he talks much more about co-operation than competition. Competition only takes place within a broadly co-operative environment.

“A lot of people see evolution as essentially a series of genetic transformations that are in a competitive setting. There is a growing feeling that the over-arching concept is one of co-operation: that the Earth and the species that inhabit it are working towards a totality of liveability, of creating conditions of continual habitation and existence, and the competition element is only fine-tuned within it; it is actually only a small part of a much larger picture. On the right of scientific and political opinion is the reverse position: individual species have a capacity to evolve to become fit and effective in relation to each other and therefore become more perfectly adaptable. 

“Darwin hardly ever said that; in most of his writing the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ has been taken out of context by those who want to use this line of thinking for their own ends. The majority opinion growing across society is that the co-operative concept is actually the basis around which evolution takes place. When we get that far we have the fundamental framework for sustainability.”

For me, debunking accepted myths, such as evolution being driven by competition, is a profound step forward. Understanding evolution’s basis as fundamentally co-operative rather than competitive moves us into a worldview of interconnection, a perspective that is not only ecological but also challenges the way we run our societies, and specifically our economies. 

If we also accept that science is not always 100% replicable, we will have to teach science differently. I asked Tim how he sees education changing?

Firstly, I’d like to think that in the next decade or so, the science community will start to realise that there’s a new form of engagement: with the nation, with politicians, and with future generations. What we will need for this to happen is a new form of scientific learning. It has to be more humble, more open and co-operative, and certainly more willing to accept an exploration of circumstances in which we don’t know all the answers, rather than something which is predetermined and framed. For that to happen, we need a sense of structure for scientists to be able to explore these ways without being penalised. This is currently extremely difficult and also counter productive. The process of peer review has to accept that this new thinking is actually legitimate. We need to create a new scientific culture, and that’s not straight forward. The science community hates rapid change and it doesn’t like to unhinge structures that it thinks have great value.

“Secondly, we may need to change the way in which universities are organised, so we have less departmental subject-based approaches, and more inter-disciplinary, solution oriented approaches. With modern technology, internet and social media, people are much more adept at mixing disciplines and measuring things, not just by numbers, but by a combination of numbers and feeling, intuition and judgement.

“Thirdly, there needs to be a moral and spiritual revolution. The way in which science will be conceptualised in ten years time will be much nearer to what you might call a spiritual reawakening. Things that matter to people will be in terms of their fundamental beliefs and the ways in which they can feel content, confidant, connected and powerful – in the best sense of the word – and able to deal with change without being in crisis. This depends enormously on creating a spiritual and moral framework which we don’t have right now. This will allow people to be much more rounded and much more millennial, i.e. seeing things over long periods of time rather than focusing on immediate gratification. These three things are sequential and will be the great challenge of the next decade.”

A Low Carbon Society

This led me to the most important question of our age: how do we transition to a low carbon society?

“We will resolve the issue of a high carbon society in three ways. Firstly, we need to be genuinely shocked by what is likely to happen to this planet by year 2100. We are creating a world that will be unimaginably painful for people who are already alive today, no matter where we are born. This is going to be a world of great tension. The detail doesn’t matter, climate science is strong enough to give us enough of a signal that the world will be deeply problematic. We have to get that message across.

Secondly, we must provide people with the tools to do something about it... We need to start charging for carbon, not as a general tax, but within a series of local charities. We need to ask high carbon users to make contributions when they abuse carbon and put them into low carbon alternatives, so that communities themselves can club together to generate opportunities for lower carbon projects, street by street.

“Thirdly, and this can only happen after the first two points, we need a global framing of all this, ideally within the next five years. We need a general commitment globally towards a reduction in carbon, and to a series of international regulatory and financial deals that will stop carbon from being excessively produced. We need disinvestment from fossil fuels. This is a regulatory process that addresses how to get carbon facilities. For example, energy generation, including transport, and the emergence of some form of carbon taxation in such a way that actually benefits people. This is called ‘hypothecated taxation’. Money from carbon is ring fenced and used for a low carbon future, rather than simply giving it to the Treasury or local government. 

“Trying to get this kind of engagement at a local level for a global output is what this is all about. I see a coalescence of local initiatives, funded in part by charities which are taking money from high carbon users for the benefit of the next generation: to help young people who are not in work to have meaningful activity, whilst lowering carbon use across the communities in which they live. This will be what the electorate will be looking for by the next general election in 2020.”

I asked Tim what would influence this huge change. He replied, “It’s going to have to come primarily from us, as a massively self aware electorate – particularly the next generation who are in schools and universities – saying, ‘It’s our future you’re playing with.’ This is an avoidable crisis if we all work together now.

“Science needs to be part of this transformation, and not just provide information to enable the transformation. The process of transformation is a manifestation of the new science. New science itself is transformational, it is not simply observing transformation.”

Looking Ahead

With a British and American election in 2015 and 2016 respectively and the old system still in place, little is going to change on a national or international level in the next two years. I therefore asked Tim to predict average global temperature in 2100.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré, director of The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, knows more about this than anyone I know. She showed us a spread of increased temperatures between 0.5 and 4.5 degrees by 2100. Models are variable, we don’t know what the Earth will do, but it is heavily stressed in terms of carbon. It might just implode, or it might absorb much more than we think. Nobody knows.

“One group of scientists is saying there will be feedback mechanisms that will absorb carbon and another group is saying we’ve reached the edge of our accommodation of these feedback mechanisms and we’re suddenly going to get runaway climate change. They are both plausible, but they both only have statistical likelihood of about 25%. That’s why, unfortunately, I can’t give you an answer. It also hinges on whether we do something in the next five years or wait until 2050.

There’s one other major variable which is completely impossible to predict: whether there will be voluntary or compulsory reductions in emission levels or not. My hunch is that we will take too long, but this process will happen slowly and unavoidably because we’re going to get more and more trouble in the world. This will give rise to very considerable social and economic difficulty, not just the odd flood here or there, but major changes including to the way food is produced and the way the oceans work ... all of the things which are fundamental to human existence. My guess is that it will be a higher temperature than we would like by quite a margin, i.e. 3 degrees or more, certainly by 2075.

“As we go through a period of convulsion, we will do one of two things: go into a slow decline in human capacity, in effect wipe ourselves out progressively because we are incapable of adapting or too stupid not to do anything about it. The other scenario that I cling on to is that we are not like dinosaurs, we do have the capacity to change, and this capacity will make us more human. We must keep that focus because anything else in unthinkable. This situation is changeable if we apply our talents to it in the next 10 years. Once we get passed 2020, certainly 2030, without doing anything, then the difficulty of coming to terms with climate change as a species will become too great. We will be too convulsed with difficult patterns of social existence.

“People are getting this message: politicians, business people, religious groups... it’s just that we’re not quite at the point of coalescence, but we’re getting there and what you are doing is part of helping that process happen.”

So there we have it. We have 10 years left to start making a global transition to a low carbon world. We have the science, and we can initiate change if we have the will. We are not dinosaurs. I’m with Tim. I will do everything in my power to make this happen. I am sure you are with me. 

Tim O’Riordan is Emeritus Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, UK and a prominent British environmental writer and thinker. He is part of an initiative called Future Earth, a global research platform providing the knowledge and support to accelerate our transformation to a sustainable world. Future Earth represents the full spectrum of global environmental change science from natural science to social sciences, humanities and engineering. See: www.futureearth.org

Maddy Harland is the co-founder and editor of Permaculture magazine, an innovative, cutting edge publication that has been in print since 1992. Please support independent non-corporate media:


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