Mark Stevenson on An Optimist's Tour of the Future

Not a place usually associated with cheery progressives, Telegraph Hill has nonetheless given birth to the definitive guide to why the future of humanity isn’t likely to be quite as bad as some of Brockley Central’s more prolific correspondents would have us believe: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, described by The Wall Street Journal as ‘Sharp and Fascinating’.

Local author Mark Stevenson took time out from his US book tour to remember his homeland and help us work out what the coming centuries hold in store for the area. Will Transition Lewisham members be the only ones able to feed themselves or will a thousand pig iron factories have bloomed in a land where people are finally put before profit?

Time Out recently did an ‘Apocalypse London’ edition – imaging all the worst cases for our city. Is Brockley doomed?

The big picture is that cities are engines of renewal for the planet. In fact they’re one of the key reasons out population is stabilising. For the first time more of us live in cities than in rural areas and there isn’t a country in the world where the birth rate is higher in cities, which is one of the reasons the human race’s fertility rate is falling and why the UNs best guess is that we’ll stabilize somewhere around nine billion people (and then possibly fall in number).

Also the increased density of city populations makes it easier and cheaper to provide services like education, health, sanitation, water, electrical power on a per capita basis. Beyond that, cities are also good for biodiversity. When humans leave rural areas, natural ecosystems return, as the UN State of the World’s Forest report testifies. Tell that to the Countryside Alliance.

Does climate change mean that the Council’s struggles to get Lewisham Gateway built will be resolved by 50 feet of water submerging its town centre?

Well climate change is a big issue, the biggest. In fact at one point in the book I ended up underwater with the President of the Maldives at a government cabinet meeting to discuss all this.

But the good news is that we can feed those 9 billion I talked about, while combatting climate change with a few nifty tweaks to our agricultural system which are not only good for the planet but good for farmers too – and I cover those in the book. And CO2 is actually a very useful resource if we put it to work for us.

Can you give us an example?

Sure. I visited Klaus Lackner of Columbia University in New York who is just one scientist who has worked out a way to scrub CO2 out of the ambient air – and now he’s looking for $20 million to create a production prototype. He’s no flake. His biggest advocate is “the grandfather of climate science” Wally Broecker. Even better there are bacterial fuel companies who have engineered bugs that eat CO2 and excrete liquid fuels. A couple of technology generations on (read less than 10 years) and we could have carbon neutral petrol that takes its fuel out of the sky. That’s not science fiction, the technology already exist. The real bonus is we can keep the existing fuel infrastructure, which is probably the reason Exxon Mobil have just invested a reported $600 million with Craig Venter to look into the idea.

Will the Brockley Cross zebra crossing continue to be the most dangerous part of SE4 or will the fabric of society be torn apart?

I didn’t believe this when it was first put to me but the world is getting more peaceful even as we think it’s getting more violent. (I checked the figures and they’re in the book). Why? Because violence is becoming the outrageous exception we draw attention to, rather than the social norm we embraced just a few centuries ago.

Just last month the Office of National Statistics told us than in 2009 319 people died of ‘assault’ out of a total of 491,348 deaths. That’s 0.0006%. I know New Cross can be dodgy at times but it’s nothing on the feudal or tribal times where violence wasn’t news, it’s what you did at the weekend.

Worldwide the picture is the same. We’re killing each other less than we ever have, but reporting it more. It’s something I discussed with Vint Cerf, the guy who co-invented the Internet. That doesn’t take away from the fact however, that New Cross is certainly a damn sight grittier than many places.

Are Brockley’s schools equipping our kids for the challenges ahead?

We’ve have serious issues with our education system (it’s architected for the industrial age, not the information one). The biggest threat to our future is attitudinal – and what I’m arguing for is putting an optimism of ambition back on the table and then coupling it with hardcore thinking and action – just the thing, in fact, that many of the people I met in my book were getting on with, and not asking for permission to do so.

- Mark will be taking part in The Telegraph Hill Arts Festival talking about the book and taking questions on the 26th March (at the Telegraph Pub in Dennets Road). Admission is free.