Saleem Ali – whose Twitter bio begins “Mercurial Professor” – is not trying to be the new Stephen Hawking.
“People buy all these theoretical physics books in droves because they think having them on the shelves will make them look smart,” opines the distinguished professor of energy and the environment at the University of Delaware. “A Brief History of Time is a very difficult book to read.”
Ali believes his own, anecdote-filled book is far more accessible. Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life is an ambitious effort to bridge the gap between politics and science, drawing on his experience as a National Geographic field explorer who has worked in more than 150 countries.
Ali has three passports, having been born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, moved to Pakistan aged nine and lived in Australia for several years. In a phone interview from Delaware, he happily ruffles feathers by defending nuclear power, suggesting that democracies can learn lessons from autocracies and attacking the last sacred space on television: the nature documentary.
“Some of these nature biodiversity documentaries can, in fact, create a problem because they lead to niche thinking,” he says. “They are good for some things like biodiversity conservation but they are not making the connections often that you need to do.”
Indeed, the 48-year-old revels in complexity and loathes dumbing down – even if it means frustrating literary agents. “When I was writing the book, agents would ask me, ‘What’s your one argument?’ I’d say, ‘You know, I’m writing a book about earth systems, I can’t have one argument. I have to approach the issues with nuance.’ This is the problem we have, unfortunately, in terms of communication of environmental issues.”
To illustrate the point, Ali cites predictions that Dubai in the United Arab Emirates will soon be so hot that it will be uninhabitable. “That is such a ludicrous statement from the point of view of looking at how humans have interacted with the environment,” he contends.
“Most cities in the western world are uninhabitable in winter without infrastructure, including New York City or London – if you didn’t have heating you wouldn’t be able to survive or you could have a very short existence with hypothermia.
“We have developed adaptive mechanisms so to say that Dubai would be uninhabitable in summer without air conditioning makes no sense from the point of view of earth systems. But it makes a good headline because people immediately start panicking and they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s becoming so bad.’”
Humanity will have to adapt, he argues, for example through different types of architecture and more subterranean dwellings. He believes this is the pragmatic way forward in responding to some climate crisis thresholds that are now irreversible – while still aggressively reducing dependence on fossil fuels and refusing to surrender to the worst-case scenario.
“If we frame the conversation as, look, this is going to be a future which is not ideal, we wish we had not gone that pathway, we wish we had reduced emissions, but now we need to figure out what’s the best way to adapt to this new future, that would be much more constructive and realistic to work through with some of the people who have been climate deniers.
“But it wouldn’t mean complacency. You still need a lot of action around it. That’s where I feel as though we’ve been remiss in attacking this issue.”
Ali is among the voices who contend that nuclear power, long anathema to many on the left, deserves a second look. It currently provides about a fifth of electricity in the US, accounting for about half the country’s carbon-free energy, and some companies – including one started by the Microsoft founder Bill Gates – are developing smaller, cheaper reactors that could supplement the grid.
But the US has no long-term plan for managing or disposing of radioactive waste that can persist in the environment for thousands of years. Nuclear disasters at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan have cast a long shadow. Although countries such as France are sticking with the technology or planning to build more plants, others, including Germany, are phasing out their reactors.
Ali argues: “There has been a completely emotional kneejerk response to Fukushima, especially in Germany, which they are realising now was a mistake. If you look at the actual science in terms of the natural order of how energy is extracted from materials, nuclear energy is the most energy-dense resource.
“If you look at the data in terms of the the morbidity and mortality of Fukushima, you had not a single person die of radiation exposure; they died of the tsunami. The International Atomic Energy Agency published a report last year which showed that there were no cancer clusters around there either. And yet you had an entire energy policy recrafted. That is why Germany is in this dependency situation.”
Indeed, Ali does not believe that western democracies have all the right answers. He suggests that for decades their leaders have been talking about climate in a fashion that is too narrow, failing to join dots in the public imagination. He is donating all royalties from the book to environmental literacy programmes in developing countries.
“There was a strategic mistake made in terms of framing it just as climate change. I always like, with my students, to talk about global environmental change. We’re talking about many aspects of the global system which are changing. When people think of climate change, immediately it is just resonating as, ‘Oh, are we getting more heat or cold?’
“That’s not really what’s going on. We’re talking about water scarcity. We’re talking about the ways in which energy is going to be delivered. If we had framed the conversation around global environmental change, it would have been easier to be able to figure out all of these interconnections.”
Ali, who has a PhD in environmental planning, continues: “We assume that democratic systems are going to be able to deliver efficient outcomes but the reality is democratic systems are often very short-term-oriented because they are driven by election cycles.
“We have the same problem with reference to even business decision making, especially publicly traded companies which are driven by quarterly earnings reports. When you’re talking about long-range impacts, there is definitely a disconnect between both aspects.
“We threw the baby out with the bathwater when we started to lobby against planning. ‘Planning’ had these connotations that it was going back to somehow centrally planned economies but you need a certain bureaucracy to continue the planning programmes and we needed to have planning independent of the political apparatus. That’s been another reason why, unfortunately, we have ended up in this current impasse with climate change.”
Do autocracies, which Joe Biden warns are locked in a global struggle with democracies, do it better? Ali, whose book draws a contrast between China and India, says: “China is going to have problems in terms of their dependence on coal but there is definitely a much more technically oriented approach to decision making in China. Even if you take out the part about the central planning, the Confucian approach has been much more around let’s bring technocracy to the mix.”
Public transport in a classic example, he believes, with China deciding to switch from planes to trains as the dominant mode between major cities and getting it done within a decade. “Here in the US we’re stuck with Amtrak, which they have still not been able to change because there isn’t this sense of let’s work through all of the technical details and make it happen based on those decisions.
“That’s also linked to the fact we have a very litigious culture that makes it very challenging to be able to develop new projects. Unfortunately, in current democracies the actual process of getting feedback and stakeholder engagement and litigation becomes an end in itself. There is just no point at which you draw the line and say, OK, now we have to move forward.”
This, he continues, is one of the reasons that the outsider businessman Donald Trump was an attractive proposition to millions of frustrated voters in the 2016 presidential election. “People saw that at least there was this willingness to make a decision. Much as I lament many aspects of his policies – building the wall – there was a decision.
“In environmental discourse, we often talk about the precautionary principle, that you have to be careful about things, but if you go to the extreme, it becomes paralysis because you can’t make any kind of forward movement. That’s the main problem we have had.”
But no, Ali is not calling for dictatorship in America, as he insists: “Democracies can correct that. I don’t see this as being something that only autocracies can do. We just need democracies to be made more efficient and form processes where decisions are based on technical knowledge and, after a certain point, that technical knowledge should trump – for want of a better word – negotiations.”
By Ali’s lights, environmental awareness is no longer enough; environmental literacy is critical to the survival of the planet. Or as he puts it: “Depth in understanding of complexity is essential for functional order on Earth.”