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.


pip said...

Good for him, it sounds interesting and seems like the book will do well.

The interview reads a bit oddly, though. Was he actually answering the questions you put to him or have you just pasted stuff from elsewhere and added some questions above it? He doesn't mention Brockley once in his replies!

drakefell debaser said...

Interesting, and definitely one to add to my reading list I think.

I agree with the point about the importance of cities (the programme Human Planet covered some of this last night). I also agree that our collective attitude to the future is a problem – there is a tendency to talk things down all the time and I don’t think our politicians or media help.

We need more vocal optimists.

Anonymous said...

Is there any actual evidence that New Cross is gritty and dangerous?

PeterB said...

The potholes in New Cross are certainly both gritty and dangerous

Tamsin said...

And one of the Edmund Waller teachers was stabbed by the Pepys/Kitto roundabout yesterday.

But that is definitely and exception. The streets do feel generally safe.

Anonymous said...

...and you can wander the idylic village street in the Lake district and be taken out by a lunatic taxi driver. Anecdotes tell you little.

Anonymous said...

He will go down a storm in the US, they love all this sort of nonsense.

drakefell debaser said...

Yes cos having any remote interest in science, the environment or being an optimist is nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Yes individuals gunning down people in a murderous rampage random is a popular pass time in the US. That and pizza.

drakefell debaser said...

Oops, sorry anon, you've stopped making sense. Care to start again?

Headhunter said...

"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"

I know an even better way to scrub CO2 out of the air - prevent destruction of the lungs of the earth - the tracts of forest like the Amazon and plant more trees! Or better still let's not create excessive CO2 in the 1st place... Remedy rather than cure...

Mark said...


Trees are only a temporary store of carbon - as when they die they rot and return it to the atmosphere - and we need to reclaim the excess CO2 that's already there. As David Archer, a University of Chicago oceanographer and author of
The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, writes, “The lifetime of fossil fuel CO2 in the atmosphere is a few centuries, plus twenty-five percent that lasts essentially forever. The next time you fill your tank, reflect upon this.” So, nothing against trees, but we need a few more tools in the bag. You raise good points. Please come along on the 26th to hear more about many of the people I met are addressing them.


Please explain why an optimism of ambition tied to hardcore critical thinking and on the ground action is 'nonsense'. To me, lazy cynicism is the biggest nonsense there is. It's like smoking. You may think it's cool but it's really bad for you.

Anonymous said...

And breathing in car fumes is ok is it.

Anti-Mung said...


Brockley ian said...

I've read marks book and found it apsolutely facinating and, at times, laugh out loud funny. Essential reading if you're planning on being on the planet anytime in the future. The 26th should be a good night.

Brockley ian said...

I've read marks book and found it apsolutely facinating and, at times, laugh out loud funny. Essential reading if you're planning on being on the planet anytime in the future. The 26th should be a good night.

Tamsin said...

A reminder that this event coming up soon and that the Festival actually kicks off tomorrow, Friday with Transition Towns New Cross showing "Food Inc." in the Hill Station and Celia doing a one-woman show "Songs from the Ladies" in The Telegraph in Dennetts Road. She is a Brockley resident - with all the credentials of an SE4 postcode and she did a piece in the Brockley Max last summer - so those of you for whom the Tea Leaf Gallery is the outer reaches, do venture even further north west to support her.

Anonymous said...

What time in the Telegraph - and how north west is north west?

Tamsin said...

Sorry, not very helpful of me. Celia is 8pm in the Telegraph and the Telegraph is in Dennetts Road - about half a mile beyond the Telegraph Hill Centre. (Carry on down Kitto Road, past the Church of God of Prophecy, turn right down Bousfield, at the bottom turn left along Arbuthnot, then almost straight away first right into Dennetts. The Telegraph is a block or so down on the right.) Should be good. And the same venue is where Mark is on Saturday and a talk on the Space race on Sunday week - Yuri Gagarin's trip was 50 years ago this April.

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