Professor Brian Cox and Chris Packham: 'We have to hurt before we fix things'

If there’s a way out of our perilous ecological situation, Professor Brian Cox and guest editor Chris Packham are the people to find it. The Big Issue brought them together to share their wisdom and revel in the wonder of science

Chris Packham and Professor Brian Cox are two of the most respected broadcasters in this country. One looks up to the stars, the other focuses on the forest floor, but both share a deep love and understanding of planet Earth. So when Packham took over as The Big Issue’s guest editor, who better to talk to about the future of the planet than the man he affectionately calls Brian Wonders?

In an Earth Day special for The Big Issue, the pair find common ground and explore new ways to address the climate crisis with long-term scientific thinking – and not short-term political gain – at the heart of the conversation. They even consider the meaning of life, or at least, why meaningful life only exists on Earth. Here’s how it went…

Origin of the species 

Chris Packham: Let’s talk about life. Firstly, could you bring me up to date? Years ago, I read a book by Paul Davies called The Fifth Miracle. What I liked about it is that it defined what life was, as best they could at the time, and it looked to see where that life had originated on our planet and whether it had originated here. Is there anything to update from that publication?

Professor Brian Cox: There are several theories about the origin of life. What is known is that life was present on Earth three-and-a-half billion years ago, give or take. That’s significant, because it tells us that life began here pretty much as soon as it could. The Earth formed just over four-and-a-half billion years ago, it had to cool down, the oceans had to form, but pretty much as soon as things settled down you see evidence of life. So that gives us a sense that whatever the origin of life is, it’s a chemical process that, given the right conditions, happens.

CP: What about other life? We often talk about protecting ourselves because we are at this point the only known life in the universe. In the past, haven’t you said you thought there isn’t other life out there?

1458 InConversation Chris Packham
Chris Packham Illustration: Matthew Brazier

BC: No, I think there’s a distinction. And this is all speculation, right? It’s all guesswork. As you rightly say, there’s only one place we know where life exists, which is Earth. The fact that life began pretty quickly on Earth leads many people to guess that given the right conditions it will emerge elsewhere. However, there’s a big difference between simple, single-celled life and multicellular life. Anything other than bits of slime, you’re talking about multicellular organisms. They don’t appear in the fossil record until about 650 million years ago. So on Earth the origin of life was three-and-a-half to four billion years ago, but everything stayed single-celled for three billion years, which is a quarter of the age of the universe, right? This is a long time, even in cosmological terms.

That suggests there’s something in that change from single cells to multicellular life, a prerequisite for consciousness, which is difficult.

If you ask astronomers how many Earth-like planets are potentially out there in the Milky Way galaxy the answer is 20 billion. But how many of those were stable – liquid water on the surface, a stable climate – for three billion years? Very few. My working hypothesis is that there will be microbes all over the place but we may as well assume we’re the only planet with a civilisation in the Milky Way galaxy.

It’s a reasonably sound assumption but a very good political assumption. People ask what it means to be human. What is the meaning of it all? And meaning doesn’t sound like a scientific term, but it really is. I think meaning comes from life. A lifeless universe is a meaningless universe. A lifeless planet is a meaningless planet. But that means that if this planet is currently the only one with multicellular life and consciousness and a civilisation, I would say it is the only planet where meaning exists in the galaxy. And we have a responsibility to protect it.

CP: That brings into question ethics really, doesn’t it? In the sense that if we accept what you say…

BC: It’s a guess!

CP: So if we accept your informed guess, then we have an ethical responsibility, because of that meaning or consciousness, to look after life. Not just our own, but life itself because it’s unbelievably precious and unique.

BC: Yes, is the answer! So even if you’re the sort of person who only cares about humanity, you are forced to care about the ecosystem on which humanity rests. The oxygen we breathe comes from the plants. The plants are at the base of the food system. So if you get rid of all the plants, you get rid of all the food. The interconnectedness of our ecosystem is such that even if it’s the consciousness that you care about, you really do have to pay attention to the rest.

World in union

CP: I like to say that we’re one species at one time with one big problem and one chance to sort it out. Do you think at this point in time, we’re not acting as one species?

BC: I know Sir David Attenborough likes to cite the Apollo 8 Earthrise photograph from Christmas Eve 1968 as the beginning of the modern environmental movement because it demonstrates very viscerally the fragility of our planet against the black surface of the moon. We’re just beginning to explore our cosmic neighbourhood. But the more we’ve explored, the more I think we’ve discovered that the Earth is very special, which is a first step.

CP: So things are improving on that count. Do you think ultimately it’s down to us all as individuals or that we will have to rely on a few people to make massive decisions for us, or technologies, which will alleviate our need to change our behaviour?

BC: A key point is that we, at least here, live in a democracy. And democracy’s function is that the path of the country is determined by the majority of people and the views of citizens. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the way we like it. Therefore, it is crucial that we as individuals form an opinion and actively work to make our country and, hopefully, our world go in that direction.

All research science, and I speak from bitter experience, is about being wrong!

CP: At the moment, we don’t have the potential to elect scientists so our elected representatives are dependent on scientists to allow them to make the best-informed decisions. Why isn’t that working? Could scientists collectively do more to shout above the noise of all of our short-termism politicians?

BC: It’s a very good question – what is the role of science in politics? I think about this a lot. I think the role of scientists is to try to be visible. So we want a society where scientists are visible and respected and our voices are heard, but if we want more scientists to make decisions then maybe we have a responsibility to become more political. Not to sit in our ivory towers making pronouncements, saying listen to me, I’ve got a PhD. But more directly participate in the political process. Stand for election. Which unfortunately in our current system means join political parties.

CP: One sort of idealism is that we might take environmental care out of our current political system, which is run to terms of office. And we’ve got party politics which are constantly in sometimes rather trivial conflict as well. Basically that mechanism of governance can’t deal with the longer term and investment required.

1458 InConversation Brian Cox
Brian Cox Illustration: Matthew Brazier

BC: You’re absolutely right. The solution is continuity of funding and effort. It’s how to achieve that. Maybe an example, directly from my field, is CERN, the Large Hadron Collider, the largest scientific experiment ever attempted, which sits under Geneva and France and is a collaboration of 80 countries around the world and was set up after the Second World War for Europe, initially, to come together in the endeavour of understanding basic science for peaceful purposes. It’s in its charter that it’s nations collaborating together for peaceful purposes.

There’s democratic oversight, each country funds it, but CERN was set up by international treaty in a way that makes it difficult for individual countries on short timescales to pull out or change their budgets. So it was very smart. I think that sort of thing is the way forward.

My personal view is that the answer is some kind of CERN-type model for the environment, set up by international agreements between countries.

CP: We’ve got the COP26 coming up at the end of the year, which is another means of bringing nations together and signing off on some ideas and protocols for the future.

BC: We have an extremely complex problem here. We’re talking about the governance of the planet, ultimately, aren’t we? And we’ve never governed the planet before. One of my great heroes, Richard Feynman, said he was surprised he was alive in the 1950s because scientists’ knowledge had been handed to politicians who did not have the wisdom to control it. Remarkably, we got away with it.

He said one of the most important things science delivers is “the satisfactory philosophy of ignorance” – that scientists have a great deal of experience in being wrong. All research science, and I speak from bitter experience, is about being wrong! And every time you learn more about nature and make some progress. But it’s that humility. That’s what democracy is – the acceptance that we don’t know how to do it. So therefore, we change every four or five years.

Trust in science

CP: Given what Feynman said, do you think one problem we face when it comes to trusting our scientists is that they basically get things wrong, that they establish, if you like, temporary facts? How do we get people to listen to and trust scientists?

BC: Knowledge is temporary. Our models of the way the world works is temporary. There’s a famous saying that all models are wrong, but some are useful. I think the pandemic has, with some caveats, changed our relationship with science. It’s remarkable that we’ve gone from discovering a new virus in humans to genetically sequencing it and developing a series of vaccines which work against it in less than 18 months. The way out of this pandemic will be a combination of vaccination and treatments.

The caveat is that we see a politicisation of that process. Politicians across the world have been tremendously irresponsible. You see this spectre of vaccine nationalism rising, which is not only morally but practically idiotic. You only need one country with an out-of-control spread of this virus and the likelihood of mutations that evade the vaccination programmes of all the other countries goes up rapidly. So it is nonsensical to make the claim that a vaccine was developed in a particular country so therefore it should stay there.

I hope that when we have control of this pandemic, what remains when the fog clears is an understanding that the way it was defeated was through the generation of knowledge and expertise. And then it’s back to politics again, and public spending priorities.

CP: You’ve hit on a point that I wanted to address there. Because the development of the vaccine in that space of time is remarkable. But it’s also a testament to the fact that the human species, for all of its intelligence, ingenuity, imagination, and resourcefulness, is very good at cure. That’s what we’ve just done. The problem has come – a predictable problem – and we’ve cured it very quickly. What does it say about us as a species that we’re pretty good at cure but we’re awful at prevention? I always see it as a sad indictment of our collective intelligence.

BC: You’ll be surprised to hear me say it, but I have some sympathy with politicians in this respect. Because there are legitimate demands on public funds all the time – the cost of social care, the money we spend on education, public transport.

One demand is longer-term investment, and scientific research is a good example. The success we had in producing these vaccines that are digging us out of the deepest hole since the Second World War was built on previous investment. I’ve spent 20 to 25 years of my scientific career fighting for more investment in science. The UK is behind all international averages in the money it invests. It’s easy to take £100m out of the science budget and move it where you get a quick political hit.

1458 In conversation - what's next
CERN is responsible for major technological developments Photo by LAURENT GILLIERON/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

CP: You’ve spoken about CERN. Many people like ourselves are firm fans of what we might call Blue Sky science. What you’ve just said underpins why it is so important. But many people perceive the acquisition of knowledge as a luxury. That’s one key thing education needs to address, isn’t it? Otherwise, we will not get that science budget back. So how much does science need – to build that infrastructure, to acquire that knowledge, to have those PhDs and post-docs, all those people in place?

BC: You’re talking about single-figure percentages of GDP. I don’t think anybody claims more than three or four per cent, in a golden scenario, to invest in R&D. In the UK we have this pretty much unparalleled scientific heritage. We already have the great universities and research labs and the science base that’s been built up over centuries. We hear a lot from politicians at the moment about things being ‘world-leading’ – but we ARE actually world-leading in education and science. The bit you destroy by under-investment is the people. It’s investing in post-docs and in students and in academic positions. If you reduce science budgets, you reduce the number of PhD students and when the next pandemic comes along, you haven’t got anybody who knows what to do.

CERN is extremely cheap. The whole budget of that place, glamorous and high-tech as it looks, is roughly the budget of the University of Manchester. So it’s one extra European university, which does something unique – which is try to understand the fundamental building blocks of the universe.

And it’s an argument I don’t like to make because I agree with the sense of your question, that generation of knowledge in itself is worth spending on – but it has also generated tremendous expertise in particle accelerators, which are now mostly used in hospitals for cancer treatment. And there’s the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee said you couldn’t have made that anywhere else. The reason we all type ‘www’ into our web browsers is that machinery was developed at CERN, whose remit was to develop knowledge and technologies for the benefit of all humankind, for peaceful purposes, in an open way.

Trying to push our technology and expertise to the edge generates useful spin-off technologies. Public investment in research and development has been shown time and again to pay back, not only when things like the pandemic happen, but in a pure economic sense.

What comes next?

CP: One last question in two parts Brian. The first requires a brutal honesty and the second requires more of your informed conjecture. If you were to gaze into a crystal ball what do you see happening in the next 10 to 15 years with regard to our addressing environmental care? And because that may not be too optimistic, if you go to the loft of your new house and rubbed a lamp and a genie came out, what would you change to ensure we get through the next 10 to 15 years?

BC: The thing I would change first goes back to the central theme that I genuinely believe – which is deepening public understanding of this issue. There’s a very loud minority of climate sceptics but I think they are being sidelined – maybe not as quickly as we would like – so I would like to accelerate that process. It would have been nice if people had trusted the modelling before the evidence began to become overwhelming. I spend a lot of time in Australia and if you look at the bushfires in Australia a couple of years ago, it really did change people’s minds.

We’ve seen it in California as well. So I think we’re beginning to see the evidence, which is unfortunate – because we knew these things were coming. As you alluded to earlier, human beings have this tendency to have to see the evidence with their eyes, but you’ve got to trust the modelling.

We have to hurt before we fix things

CP: And given the current state we’re in, what do you think will happen in the next 10 to 15 years in terms of addressing climate and biodiversity loss?

BC: It may surprise you. I’m not naively optimistic but I think there is a shift if you look at younger generations. Probably because they’re growing up with the consequences of climate change. It is unarguable now because of the physical evidence. So the so-called climate sceptics – that is an attitude of a generation that will not be in power in 10 or 15 years.

It’s also you and me. It’s our responsibility as people who have a profile to try to make the arguments we’re making today and make sure that generation, when they get into power, take this problem seriously.

CP: I fear it’s predictable that we have to hurt before we fix things. Like you said, we’ve ignored the modelling. The writing has been on the wall, we haven’t been reading it. As an ecologist, I see climate change impacts all the time. Measurable, subjectively and quantitatively. But we haven’t had bushfires and therefore our populace is a bit too comfortable to realise how dangerous this scenario is. Communities that have been flooded have become much more politicised and proactive. In Hebden Bridge, there are all sorts of locally run schemes. I find that sort of empowerment heartening at the community level.

1458 In Conversation - what's next
Dry run California is on the brink of a major drought Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

But this takes us back to our original point. We are one community. Our planet is one community. And we need to be working collectively as that community. You are right, the more fires, floods and famines there are, the more we will wake up to the fact that we have to do something – but we will only then fix it if we have educated people and listen to the science. If the scientific infrastructure isn’t there, if we haven’t got ecologists to go and mend the soil, then we’ll be in trouble. So I’d be ramping it up to that four per cent of our GDP and making sure we invest in a future knowledge base. Because if we can’t draw upon that, we don’t get the vaccines, we don’t get the alternative energies, we don’t know how to rebuild from the soil up.

BC: Absolutely. I couldn’t have put it better. I’m very happy to leave it on that superb answer.

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