S02E01: Owen Gaffney Talks About Building a Sustainable Future through Climate Action and Systems Change

INTRO

Welcome to What do you understand? brought to you by Global Partners for Development. I’m your host Ria Pullin and together we’ll explore the world of philanthropy and development, confronting global disparities and the impacts of our collective efforts. Joining me is my co-host, Daniel Casanova, the Executive Director of Global Partners for Development. 

So, are you ready to question what you understand? Let’s dive right in.

RIA

We’re thrilled to welcome our guest today, Owen Gaffney, an esteemed sustainability writer, analyst, and strategist. Owen coauthored the visionary book Earth for All a Survival Guide for Humanity, which serves as a roadmap to global prosperity within our planetary boundaries.

Using state of the art computer modeling, Earth for All presents transformative steps to a sustainable future by 2050. Advocating for a re-imagined global economic system that works for both people and the planet. Stay tuned as we unpack the transformative insights of Earth for All in an enlightening conversation with Owen Gaffney. 

RIA

So, I actually want to start with Owen, like, Daniel told me, he’s like, there’s this new book out, it’s called Earth for All. You have to read it. I’m buying it for you tomorrow and you need to read it. And I was like, okay. And then we got into it, and I was like, Daniel, this is a really important book.

So, we’ve been just big fans. Just because of the kind of the work we do kind of addresses kind of these things. And he’s talked to me a lot about what we need to do to move humanity forward. And these are all the points. He’s like, this is it. This is the answer. So, I just want to talk to you about the evolution. How did how did this come about?

OWEN

Well, it’s great to be here, I mean the origin story for this is really, well, we have to go back. Let’s go back 50 years to 1972 and, and this organization called the Club of Rome commissioned this report called Limits to Growth. And that report was a pretty historic landmark report. 

It was the first time we really got computer models to really look at the whole, whole planet, like what’s going to happen with the economy, what’s going happen with population, what’s going to happen with resource use and what’s going to happen to, you know, with pollution and things like that and really, really big broad strokes and they built this really sort of system dynamics model, a complex model for the first time to look at that and they created a bunch of scenarios and some of those scenarios said well, you know, if we continue as we are on this exponential journey, things are not going to go well. 

You know, everybody will have, you know, will have more food, we’ll have more wealth in the world, etc., but we live on a finite planet. And so, if you live on a finite planet and you’ve got exponential growth, at some point you’re going to hit the walls, you’re going to hit the boundaries. And they, and they said, well, you know, if we continue on this particular really negative scenario, then we could hit the boundaries sometime in the 21st century and, you know, maybe a few decades from now.

And if you look at that scenario they created, in that picture they created and the graphs and the lines there, that’s the scenario we followed. And so, then we started looking at, well, okay, so what happens now? 

And one of them, Jorgen Randers, is still working as a modeler. He is now in his seventies and he’s absolutely incredible figure, you know, like this, you know, father figure in this system dynamics models and we started talking to him about doing a, doing an update and creating a new model, which we called Earth for All.

And we’ve had what’s called the Earth 4 Model. And then we turned project into Earth 4 All. And that was a new model to explore what’s going to happen this century, essentially. 

RIA

Interesting. 

So, you said that was started in 1970 and tracked from then until then.

OWEN

Yeah, well, the model. So, the team that built the model, they produced the report, they published the report.

It got a lot of attention over the intervening years. I mean, immediately it was completely challenged. What do you mean there are limits to growth? I mean, there cannot be limits to growth. And, you know, Ronald Reagan, a few years later, he says, you know, there’s no limits to growth because there’s no limits to human imagination and human innovation. And he’s right. But there are limits to growth that we live on and the planet. 

DANIEL

There’s limits in the planet. Yeah. 

RIA

That’s what you call the planetary boundaries, right? 

DANIEL

Yeah. So, one of the big updates, I suppose, since 72 is in 2009, a research paper was published on Planetary Boundaries, a safe operating space for humanity by one of, by Johan Rockström. One of the authors in the book and the Stockholm Resilience Center, and I used to be part of the Resilience Center. 

So that planetary boundaries framework was really, it was a huge moment for Earth system science and for sustainability science because, you know, before we had the Planetary Boundaries framework, you know, the scientific community was saying, but we have this, we have climate change, we have biodiversity, we have pollution, we have water, we have a huge range of issues and they’re all interconnected.

And we’d be telling policymakers that, and policymakers would just be looking at us going, okay, okay, everything is like, everything’s just interconnected. We’d just be nodding yes, everything’s interconnected. And it’s everything everywhere, you know, all at once, you know? And we were like, yeah, and they’re going, okay, but we can’t really do anything. And then the boundaries framework came out and said, okay, everything is connected, but there’s nine things we really, really need to worry about.

You know, and it’s those nine planetary boundaries. That’s the critical thing. And, you know, at that point, you know, we’d gone beyond three of those boundaries. And in fact, since that paper came out, we’ve now analyzed all the boundaries and we can see that we’ve gone beyond six of the boundaries. And so, we’re really—

DANIEL

And we’re really getting close to the other ones.

OWEN

That’s, that’s right. So, we’re in the danger zone where we risk very severe consequences, consequences for humanity. We, you know, with climate change, we risk tipping points. And that’s very, very apparent. Now we’re getting more, and more data on the scale of risk, the tipping points, and how close they are. So, yeah. So that’s—

DANIEL

That’s hard for people to understand. It’s hard to make that tangible, right? I mean, especially for people in our economic class. I think it’s hard to see it, right? Like it’s going to be like, it’s there, I think. Right? Like as you address, like, how poverty is so significant in terms of needing to address that to mitigate these, like most awful scenarios. But it’s like, I think it’s hard for people to understand, like it’s hard for people to feel connected to the direness of it.

Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s almost like, you know, a frog or a lobster in a pot of boiling water, you know, you know, it’s getting hotter,, and hotter and hotter, and you don’t really, you notice it until it’s too late. And I think, you know, with tipping points, for example, climate tipping points, where we’re now coming very close to losing the West Antarctic ice sheet, the Greenland ice sheet, and, you know, Arctic Sea ice, for example, in summer.

But, you know, scientifically, we probably won’t know 100% that we’ve crossed those tipping points until like a few decades after we’ve crossed them, you know? So, that’s one of the, that’s for me, that’s one of the biggest challenges with science communication. You know, people say, oh, you can’t be certain. You can’t be certain. No, we can’t be certain until it’s actually happened.

But then it’s too late. It’s like, there’s no going back on sort of human timescale. That’s it’s, you know, hundreds of thousands of years. We’re just going to lose them. They’re gonna be on the point of no return. And that means, you know, ultimately a sea level rise of ten meters, you know, 30 feet within a few centuries, which will have big consequences for, you know, for New York.

It’ll have big consequences for Los Angeles, San Francisco, for New Orleans, all these places in the U.S. And, you know, and even so, even with the state of Florida, people say, oh, well, you know, we’ll just build some walls, entire islands. Well, no, it’s, you’re built on porous limestone. 

DANIEL

Occasionally there’s going to be a sinkhole that swallows your apartment complex.

Yeah, if you’re living in porous limestone, the water just comes up regardless. And so, and then in the developed world, you know, that’s obviously a big thing that, you know, we might be able to adapt to, but it will mean, you know, desert in some places. You just cannot afford to keep it. But in the developing world, you know, you know, in places like Jakarta, which have already sank several meters, you have in the last few decades, you know, you know, the rising seas are going to have a huge impact in, you know, China and India, across Africa, etc..

So, I mean, is going to be even more devastating. But that’s just one. That’s just one of the issues that we’re dealing with. And then so in the book, this is what one of the, you know, we kind of joke that in 1972, and they had basic system dynamics models, at least they had it easy in that the planet was still operating in the same way.

With Earth for All, we know that this century, because we looked at what’s going to happen between now and the end of the century, we know that we’re going through some big transition points. So that makes it even more difficult to create scenarios or any sort of predictions on what happens if we go beyond those tipping points on climate change. What’s going to happen when it comes to migration, for example, or—

How do you deal with like 100 million displaced people somewhere like in the Indian subcontinent or something like that, like Bangladesh or anywhere like that, like we don’t know, the world doesn’t know what that’s like, the impact of what that would be. 

OWEN

Yeah, yeah. But, but even those numbers, I mean we could say that, you know, it’s, it could be an order of ten worse than that. Like 1 billion people to 3 billion people because, you know, on, on Earth we have like, there’s a human climate in each, there’s a climate range that we we’re perfectly adapted to. And beyond that climate range, we’re not adapted to. We just can’t, we can’t function and be on that climate range on Earth is a very small area right now.

It’s a little bit of the Sahara Desert and the Arabian Peninsula and places with very, very low population densities. So, they’re the uninhabitable areas of Earth, literally they’re, for all intents and purposes, uninhabitable. Those areas are going to expand. And it’s going to create a band of uninhabitable places around the planet. 

And within that uninhabitable places, we have places like India and Pakistan. And so, you know, with literally billions of people. So, these are the kind of risks we’re facing. And what will happen there? Will people be able to adapt? Will people migrate? You know, what’s going to happen? So, you know, we this is part of the risk.

I mean, we’re not going to get rid of that risk, but we can significantly reduce that risk if we can reduce emissions very, very rapidly.  

DANIEL

How do you not cry all the time when you’re trying? How you’re talking about this is hard. I mean, like, we don’t, I mean, we talk about lots of depressing things in our work, but, like, how do you, I mean, like, right? It’s like, you, you’re talking about this all the time, so. Yeah. 

OWEN

Yeah, it is. I mean, it’s really, it’s really tough. And I think for me, one of the biggest shocks in my career, and it was when myself and some of the coauthors here, we published a paper on tipping points back in 2019 and we identify that, you know, a lot of the tipping points we’ve been talking about ten years beforehand.

So, we’ve been making predictions. Well, okay, maybe by 2050, 2060, maybe by 2070, we might be coming closer to those tipping points. And so, we did an analysis again of where we stand with them and as we looked around, the 16 main tipping points on Earth, we could find that nine of them are already destabilizing right now and that they’re already going through unprecedented changes.

So, we don’t know if they’ve crossed tipping points yet, but what we can say is that ten years ago they didn’t show signs of this scale of change and now they are. But, you know, but I’m reasonably optimistic. I remain, I’m quite an optimistic person. And disproportionately, I think, you know, scientists, artists, designers, entrepreneurs, others who are creating the future, they tend to be optimistic about creating a better future, more hopeful future.

And I do think there’s still time to make some big changes. I think we’re now living, you know, today on Earth is the best time on Earth. I mean, we have a better quality of life, we have a greater longevity, we have better health, we have better job prospects, etc., than any time in history. So, this is a great time to be alive.

And it’s looking out into the future.

DANIEL

You’re reading Hans Hapsling?

Hans Rosling, Hans Rosling!

Yeah it’s good. We brought a sword for you to swallow after this. No, no. Sorry. 

OWEN

I’m not even sure you’re joking. 

RIA

Oh, well, yeah. 

So, how did you get all of these experts to come together to create this book? Because, you know, these are all people from different areas of expertise. Did you call up your friends? We’re like, this needs to be here. You know, I want to know because there’s quite a few, you know, authors in here and people who lent their expertise. How did you get it into one concise—

DANIEL

And which one of them’s the hardest to work with? No, I’m sorry. 

OWEN

So, yeah. So, I guess it’s a coalition of the willing. You know, people are really, really like, like. And so, you know, the Stockholm Resilience Center is a place of transdisciplinary working. It brings, it brings together people who love working across the boundaries of science and into policy and into business. And, you know, but across the boundaries, you know, from biodiversity to economics, from ecology to engineering, etc..

So, I mean that as a, as a hub, the Resilience Center is just this attractor for people. And what I found in working in science now for 20 years is that most, most scientists don’t operate or think like that. Most scientists are just completely in their science. I think they like the idea of maybe collaborating with others, but when it actually happens, they go, no don’t like it, that’s not working.

But there are a small group of people who just love that collaboration, who are working right at the edges of knowledge. So, I guess we have an ecosystem of people like that. The Club of Rome is, as I mentioned earlier, who created the, the, the original Limits to Growth, like we must be the world’s biggest and best network and systems thinkers.

So, we brought together, I mean, so the six main authors have been, in fact it’s the work of hundreds of people really, and what we did was put together a transformational economics commission. So, what we want to give you is like, okay, who is the leading economists who are thinking way outside of the box, who are thinking way beyond the current neoliberal paradigm and thinking, you know, where do we need to go?

Can we get them together? And then now we have the modelers and with Jorgen Randers and others and Per Espen Stoknes. How do we create a model that’s really doing something different? And then, so we have these two groups and then we’d have like a scenario where we tested on one group and that would put it into the model and the model would come out with stuff and then we go to the economists and they go, nowe don’t like that.

That’s not really realistic. And then we change things and we have this kind of circle of study, has like feedback loops of, of ideas to just really test our thinking and know that’s not going to work, but this is going to work, because the thing is, what we’re trying to do is like, you know, you can say, okay, we’re going to create you know, we’re going to take away debt in the developing world, but we’re going to have progressive taxation here or we’re going to invest in health care or something.

But well, what will that happen? What will happen at the global scale when you’re talking about 8 billion people?

DANIEL

But who are these jerks and institutions and like the US government that want to like, keep debt for like the developing world, right? I mean, like who? Like, like why, why is it that we can maintain that?

Like, how is it they’re institutions that can, I mean, I get that like there’s, there’s like bigger implications about forgiving it and stuff like that. But ultimately, it’s like, who are the people that are like, oh, no, no, we don’t want to figure out a way to like, get rid of that. 

OWEN

There’s, you know, one issue, if you know, what would debt cancellation do, though? I mean, at a global scale, would it be a big enough change to deal with some of the problems. So, would it be, you know, reasonably small? It turns out it’s a big deal. It’s an even bigger deal now when we wrote the book, we didn’t have the inflation in the world that we do now, obviously with inflation and interest rates going up.

So, the cost of borrowing is very, very high now. And that has a big impact on, you know, borrowing in the developing world. And they can’t afford to, even though solar power is like the best form of power and cheapest form of power, they still can’t borrow at rates that they can afford. You know, here in the US, if you were building a solar station outside of New York, you might be able to borrow for 4%, 5% interest rates.

If you’re in Indonesia, you’re going to be paying 12%. You know, and it’s just like, why? Everyone, you need electricity in New York, you need electricity in Jakarta. Everyone’s got the money to pay for it. You know what? What difference does it make? No, it can’t be done. So, we need and debt would have a big impact today. You know, if you can take away debt, that gives more buying power for these technologies. 

RIA

And then the five turnarounds, was that something once you had all of the modeling, all of that, when you guys made that concise five turnarounds, which is ending poverty, inequality, and then empowering women, food and energy? Yes! 

OWEN

Yeah!

RIA

P.I.E.F.E.

OWEN

Okay. So, what we were looking for was like a kind of minimum viable product.

What’s the absolute, you know, in terms of transformations. You know, it could be 200, it could be 300 transformations. Go with the absolute minimum to drive, you know, to have a good quality of life, to have well-being for all people within planetary boundaries and it dropped out as those five, I mean, obviously we need to change our energy system now.

One, if we’re going to stabilize the climate and when it comes to the environment, the biggest impact on the on land and the oceans is our food use. So, we need to change our food use. I mean, those two things are obvious. And the others, I mean, so when it comes to poverty and inequality, I mean, those two things need to be addressed because, you know, we need to have, you know, well-being for all people in those in extreme poverty need to come out of extreme poverty.

So, we need, we need to raise that GDP to these $15,000 a year. But what we found out is that beyond $15,000 a year or so, you don’t really have much money gains. You know, you don’t see— 

DANIEL

It kind of plateaus. 

OWEN

Yeah, exactly. It plateaus. You kind of, you know, you’re getting richer and richer, but you don’t actually have anymore benefits in a, in many countries it’s you know, it’s fairly negligible. So, that’s, so that was, so we need to end poverty for everybody to have. 

Well, but then on inequality I mean not only, you know, ethically is it just you know, you know it’s tough. The world’s first trillionaire, it will be a failure for humanity. You know, it’s like that’s not a success. You know, we can’t let people accumulate wealth like that. I mean, and billionaires are a failure for humanity. I mean, this is not a success story, nobody needs billions. You know, it’s all about status. And we, and if you when you get to billions of tens of billions, one hundreds of billions and everything, it’s not about the money. 

It’s about your status, because we are, you know, comparison machines. Ours, you know, super skill is comparing one person to another. And if you stay wealthy, you are always going to see like, I need to be wealthier than that. So, you’ve got this complete arms race and wealth is just completely linked to your carbon emissions. You know, the wealthier you are the big carbon footprint you’ve got.

You’re not necessarily happier, you’re not necessarily more secure in terms of economic security, you know, if you’re very wealthy, but living in a crime ridden country, you don’t feel particularly economically secure either. So, I mean, there’s lots and lots of problems there. So, we argue that dealing with inequality, not creating perfect equality, but reducing inequality to a tolerable level.

And we can see what’s tolerable.Pplaces in Northern Europe, in Scandinavia, etc., with much more equal societies, but not far from being perfectly equal. Yeah, you know, these are still very capitalist societies, but they, they function very well. There’s a lot of trust in government and you need trust in government to take long term decisions. If you’re going to make a decision that goes from that, you know, across generations, you know, across this century, which we what we need to do with food, and land, and poverty, and energy, you have to, you have to have trust in the governments to do that.

Only governments can take those really big long-term decisions. And we just argue you cannot do that without greater equality. That will that’s a foundation for trust. And then finally, this is a long, long answer on gender empowerment. And that’s just absolutely critical. Again, this is about functioning societies. And I can guarantee that, you know, men cannot take any credit or can take, can take all responsibility to the patriarchal, patriarchal society we have right now and driving the planet past planetary boundaries.

So, a more equal, more just in terms of gender empowerment will have a big a disproportionate impact on creating functional societies for creating societal cohesion. And we need that sort of social cohesion if we’re going to make it through. 

RIA

I was asking Daniel, I was like, well, there’s a citizen fund, which I think would address the poverty side of it, do you think that’s possible? Is it possible?!

DANIEL

No, there’s too many jerk faces. 

OWEN

And, you know, that’s the one thing that we’ve had this criticism in Sweden. Is that possible? They live in a dream world if they think we can have a universal basic income or universal basic dividend. And then we say, well, what happened in Alaska? In Alaska in the 1970s, a Republican and a Republican Party decided that they would have a, essentially universal basic income coming from a global commons.

They would take money from the oil companies as a tax, from the, from the oil companies. And instead of putting the tax into the government they put it into a fund and that would be shared equally among every single adult in in Alaska. And it on average gives out about $1,300 every year. Under Sarah Palin, it gave out $3,400.

You would not be able to take that, that universal basic dividend is essentially what it is, in fact, nobody, no. It’s so popular now, we wouldn’t be able to get rid of it. And what we argue, and we do some calculations is that you could, if you okay, that’s for oil. But what about for polluting the atmosphere? What about for mining?

What about the, you know, public goods like the financial infrastructure and the information infrastructure where we give a lot of our data away to Facebook and things like that? You know, if that was to go into a fund, how much potentially could you get? And that, the numbers of, you know, between five and $12,000 a year, which is, which is like a, quite a game changing amount.

And we argue that, okay, you know, this century things are not looking good. If we just continue as we are, this will be disastrous for humanity. That’s going to be disruptive. This is not good. We don’t want to go to that. But okay, we want to transform the economy. Then we need economic systems change. We need to change the whole energy system, the foundation of the global economy.

We need to change within a generation, and we need to change the entire food system. That’s going to be disruptive. How do we help people? How do we bring that trust and social cohesion? How do we bring everybody on this journey? And we say progressive taxation and a universal basic dividend will help that universal basic dividend. We provide a safety net for people.

And as that transformation is happening. So, if you work in a coal industry and you find out, okay, I’m losing my job, okay, but the government’s investing in me and now I’ve got this universal basic dividend. Oh, I could go back and retrain, I could retrain in something else so I could go to university potentially. Or, you know, I’ve got $12,000.

I could set up a business, I could become an entrepreneur. Yeah. Or, you know, yeah, maybe I could start buying some solar panels and start, you know, working out how to put them on roofs and, you know, create new industry, you know? So, we need that as a safety net. But it’s not just a safety net. I think it’s also like an innovation now.

RIA

Opportunity. 

OWEN

Yeah, it creates opportunity there. Yeah, exactly. 

DANIEL

Alright, I have two, I want to like keep us concise. So, one, so earlier when you were talking, I was thinking like, what’s impressive about what you guys are trying to do is that for me things are really complex, right? So, like Mathis, for example, is like, oh, we’re, everyone’s going to in starve to death.

Like we’ve reached this, you know, once we reach this thing. And then he was like, super wrong, right? So, because we were, he didn’t account for like agricultural innovation and whatever. And then, so we can, we can produce more things, right? So, there’s like, I think we live in a space where people are optimistic about innovation. I think we’re overly optimistic.

Like I joke a lot about like in our work, I’m like, oh, there’s the soccer ball. And it’s amazing. Like, you know, when like kids in Africa give it to poor communities, like, they’ll kick it and that’ll make, you know, like be a generator, and it gives them light and then like, it’s like got, like seeds planted in it.

They’re like aerates their, like, dry land. And when they score goals like, you know, hundred dollar bills fly out of it. But, but I think like, we lik,e overly fixate on that. But something that’s interesting when I think about it’s, like, I don’t, I think things are really, really complex. You were talking about academia in the sense of like people stay in their lane, right?

And they’re hyper focused and it’s like the nature of the way we write in academia and like peer reviewed things forces people to do that more, and more, and more. And it’s really easy to like, hyper focus because you really need to just like study this one thing. You know, you’re this is your field, right? But in trying to deal with this like behemoth of like a problem, there are, I would, I think there’s not anyone that really understands all the complex systems right?

There’s like, so much things that are happening but, and then, so, I’m complementing like, in this like, you, it feels to me like I can I can like, get a grasp of like, okay, maybe, maybe this has been simplified enough to be able to figure out how do you make that next step to do it right?

And that’s what, that was like, what you did. But I, my question to you would be, is like, is there this like, Malthusian like, problem there? Like, maybe you guys, maybe there, maybe you’re just like Chicken Little, right? Like running around saying the sky’s falling right? And ultimately, like, there’s an innovation that’s just going to fix it all.

Maybe it’s A.I., right? Maybe like they use this model, you know, 50 years ago, they use computer models to do this. And maybe like tomorrow. So, A.I. is going to be like, dude, you guys are dumb. All you had to do is this. No, I’m setting you up a little bit, but yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

OWEN

Yeah, without doubt. But we do know, we, you know, number one, you know, limits to growth and 72 actually just got it. Look this is in the media it’s talked about, you know it predicted social collapse in the 21st Century. Society would collapse, etc. There’d be just a complete crash. And but, that was one of the scenarios. They looked at multiple scenarios.

But actually, now the problem is the scenario that we followed most closely up to that point is that one, okay, so it’s a number one. So, research is we don’t just look at single scenarios and we don’t just say, oh, this is what’s going to happen. What we try to do is look at multiple scenarios and go, okay, so well, if this happens then because there’s so much uncertainty.

So, so often, you know, in climate research, we look at dozens and dozens in the book. So, we just look at two scenarios just to try to keep it really simple. The business as usual and you know, the Giant Leap. How do we yeah, how do we, is it what we wanted to ask is like, is it possible even for this population, this size, nine, 10 billion people eventually to live a good life on planet Earth?

And so, on that scenario we say, yeah, it’s from the best of our knowledge, it looks like we can, you know, electric cars are a solution, but we can’t all drive around in SUVs. I mean, yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s, that’s not going to go. We need mass transit systems that are, that are efficient and definitely small cost. But then, but the other thing about the prediction, I mean, it’s so interesting.

I mean, on, you know, a year to year to year to year thing, you know, it’s really, really difficult, you know, when the pandemic hit, you know, the financial crisis hit, you know, what’s the next year? You create a war in Ukraine, you know, with Russia, etc.. You know, these things on a very, very difficult to predict so, why should anybody have faith in models able to look at these things?

But some things, you know, we can watch the trends just changed over time. You know, poverty has just come down and down and down and down, down and down and down. Throughout all of this, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, through the global financial crisis, etc.. We’ve make inroads on that as well. One of the reasons I’m optimistic, you know, we can keep going on with greenhouse gas emissions.

You know, the other side of things, we can make all these models and things, but we can actually see, you know, a lot of the models from decades ago show is going up and up and up because we know it’s just related to economic growth. And is that, as the economy grows, then we can just we can easily, we can easily then map that to what would happen with CO2 emissions and with population.

You know, we’re very, very good at predicting population and have been now for many decades. The UN Population Statistics division is excellent because, you know, these things, you know, births and deaths and longevity, etc. how that how that’s changing. We can, we can see the patterns and we can, we can, you know, imagine how they can move out into the future.

RIA

I would love to take this so far back, because I always want to know why? Like, why is this your life’s work? Like when you were a boy, like I have a six-year-old who loves science. And so, like, I don’t know, it’s like if he thinks he’s going to be doing something like you’re doing these days, like in your background from like when you were a child, when did you know you wanted to do this kind of fieldwork? What’s like, like a quick version of your path. 

OWEN

Well, yeah, well, actually, the quick version is fairly, you know, I remember NASA published an image, satellite image of the Earth at night. And for the first time, it did this, and did this composite image of hundreds of photographs of Earth at night to put it together.

And it was like, you know, that image just stuck in my head, really saw it as a teenager. It was like, that was the Anthropocene. You know, this is like humanity’s footprint on Earth. And I was just like completely amazed because for until that point, a lot of the astronauts and NASA and co had talked about how fragile the Earth was and how beautiful it was and how humanity you could barely notice.

It was just all this beauty, this bubble, this floating ball in space, this biosphere, but humanity in a way, just kind of totally inconsequential. And then, you know, it’s like this sort of big reveal when you see Earth at night, it’s like, Oh my God, It’s like you got everything on that. You know, you’ve got the Eastern seaboard of the US, Western seaboard, you know, lit up like, you know, like Christmas trees.

You’ve got the gas flares in Saudi Arabia and everything. You’ve even got the Japanese fishing fleets shining lights down on to the surface of the ocean to draw a fish up and into the nets and everything. So, and then you know, across Russia you can see the Soviet Trans-Siberian railroad and everything. So, every part of humanity is just like lit up and it’s just everywhere, you know.

And so, when I saw that, I was like, Oh, okay, I kind of thought, you know what? At that time, I just want to live a life where I do no harm. And that’s virtually impossible. But then I did start thinking, well, how can I do something more positive? You know, how can I try to understand that?

So, I see. So, I do see, you know, I studied in astronautical engineering, you know, interested in, you know, satellite design, maybe being a space, you know, astronaut or something like that. But I changed course there as well because I felt a lot of people in that space on my degree course were just moved into the defense industry and the big opportunity in the defense industry.

And I was like, I don’t want to be part of the defense industry then, and then just moved into, you know, Earth system science and, you know, system dynamics. And so, it’s been, yeah, an interesting ride. 

DANIEL

All right. So, you touched on this a lot as we talked, and it’s, which is, so, that we talk like certainty and uncertainty.

But I’d like to put you on the spot and this would be like, if you could capture in a more like short few sentences, like what is the thing that you understand that you feel most certain about that you would want to share with people that you could when you meet a guy in a diner and you’re like, I know this thing really well and I can tell you about it is there, what’s that thing?

OWEN

Okay, well, yeah, this is a good question because a lot of what I do is looking out into these future scenarios. And so, it’s very, very difficult to be very certain about things and we have to be sort of, we have to use language very carefully of that, which is not a, you know?

DANIEL

Your answer’s like, I can’t be sure about anything.

OWEN

Yeah, I’m sure some scientists will say they can’t be certain about anything, but I really can’t. I think they could be a little bit more certain about the future. It is, it is more difficult. I think, I personally, I think with climate tipping points there, the kind of the things that really, really worry me more than anything, I think as the evidence mounts, it’s clear that we are much closer to climate tipping points than we thought ten years ago.

And that’s extremely concerning. But even with the science of tipping points is just so complex that as I said earlier, you know, we probably won’t know we’ve crossed them. We can’t be certain until we’ve actually crossed them. So that— 

DANIEL

And that’s terrifying. 

OWEN

Yeah. Yeah. No, absolutely. Absolutely. And you know, a couple of other things, I suppose, in the book were on certainties. One interesting thing we included in the model was a social tension index and, and a wellbeing index. And to the best of my knowledge, they haven’t been included in these global models before. 

And I’m not going to say they’re perfect. We have a lot of improvements and things, but I do think social tensions will increase in the world and I think we can be certain about that because the economic system hasn’t changed and if the economic system is going to drive us to have more billionaires and eventually a trillionaire, if we stay in that system, then we can expect more social tension because democracies can’t survive with this sort of level of inequality. 

And so, I feel very certain about that. I feel very confident that we need to, we need economic systems transformation, that inequality is the absolute foundation for that. We need to bring everybody on this journey. And they won’t come on this journey unless everybody sees something in it for them. And they, and they see that everybody is in it together, that we’re all working together. So, I feel certain about that. 

RIA

And it sounds like you’re optimistic, though, and that’s what gives me a little hope that that you’re optimistic. 

OWEN

I am. I’m really, really optimistic. You know, I have two kids. They’re bright teenagers, really engaged in science as well and really engaged in in arts, and football, and everything. And we talk about these issues all the time.

And they’re optimistic because they feel, yeah, you know, we got this, you know, you guys failed. We’ll sort it out. Which is, which is good, and I feel optimistic because of the young people, because of the young movement, people like Gretta and the youth movement have created a completely new energy here. I see a lot of countries talking about becoming wellbeing economies, and I can see that transformation can happen really, really, fast. You know, I can, I think the energy transformation is going to happen much, much faster.

RIA

We were just talking about. Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

OWEN

People predict and you can see that, you know, in Norway it’s like—

DANIEL

Because people are going to make money doing it. So, it’s just inevitable. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. 

OWEN

That’s right. So, it’s, it’s going to be profitable, I mean, and increasingly more, and more people see that the sustainable solution is the cheapest solution and it’s miles better than the old solutions.

So, you know, those two things are sort of unbelievable combination. So, they’re going to drive very, very rapid change. So, I’m optimistic. I’m very, I’m a promoter of social tipping points that you know, through, if we can get 5, 10% of people moving in a direction, you just create a tipping point and then soon everybody starts moving in that direction.

And so, I do think it can happen very, very fast? I’m just hoping it happens fast enough so we avoid the tipping points.

RIA

This is why he doesn’t cry at night. That’s why he doesn’t cry at night.

Owen, thank you so much for your time. This was lovely. We’ve been really excited to talk to anyone who had any involvement in this book. So, we’re really, really thrilled that you took the time to speak with us. 

OWEN

Oh, it’s been a pleasure. 

OUTRO

At Global Partners for Development our mission is to advance community led initiatives that improve education and public health in East Africa.

We envision a world in which every East African community has the capacity to implement dynamic, sustainable solutions to the challenges they face. To learn more, visit gpfd.org.

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