The Earthshot Prize shoots for the Moon and misses

I don’t want to be too critical of the Earthshot Prize; it did do some things right. But at the end of the day, the focus was almost entirely placed on innovation and green growth as our way out of this disastrous situation, rather than the real solution of slashing consumption and shrinking the economy. The parts about restoring nature were generally great; in particular the project to restore coral reefs by engineering corals that can cope with the increasing ocean temperatures. But then you had a project about reversing deforestation in Costa Rica, and it was predicated on the idea that it would attract tourists and lead to economic growth. So they fix one problem in order to exacerbate another one. There was another project in the Masai Mara doing a similar thing; protecting animals by getting wealthy tourists to fly around the world and spend their money on useless knick-knacks.

I think the undeniably best thing about the series was the name. Earthshot is a great name for the scenario we’re in. It makes perfect sense to compare it to the Moonshot decade, because it’s exactly the scale of ambition we need. The parts of the documentary series talking about the problems are also good, but they got the solutions part almost totally wrong. Yes, we need some technological solutions, but fundamentally, it comes down almost entirely to living smaller and more local with less stuff and with better diets. Neither consumption nor population were mentioned a single time throughout the 5 part series or award ceremony. The fact that not a single youth activist was involved tells you all you need to know. The more I think about it, the more it feels like it was made for sceptical boomers. Perhaps the moon landing nod was even more intentional than I realised.

Then there’s the prize money itself. Rewarding innovations with a million pounds each over 10 years seems like the wrong approach. Obviously, I believe governments should be in charge of the money and saving our world shouldn’t come down to the generosity of private finance. But, if you’re going to go down this path, at least do it better than this. Firstly, a million pounds is not that much money; and if you really believe in green growth as the solution to the climate crisis, and that these innovations can be key to our survival, then I would imagine you’d throw a lot more money at it than they are. I’m pretty sure there are enough rich people in the world who “care” about the planet to the point where you could raise billions for the prize pot relatively easily. Giving away only a million each goes against the urgent message about rapidly scaling up these businesses to save humanity.

Ideas like a solar powered ironing trike are nice, but do we really need to iron our clothes at all? It is a nice story that the young girl in question was entrepreneurial but it’s too small to make a difference on a global scale at this late stage. Having said that, it should definitely be put into production. As long as people keep ironing clothes at least. The project that allows farmers to cleanly burn their crops in a machine rather than setting their fields on fire gave me a similar feeling. Why do we need to burn crops at all? I’m pretty sure it’s not necessary.

There were so many moments I took issue with. They showed the ski slope power station in Copenhagen. But didn’t talk about getting rid of waste in the first place rather than burning it to make energy. They talked about global dimming in terms of reducing rainfall in some areas; but nothing about how dimming has limited warming and getting rid of pollution would actually increase warming. They talked about electric cars and an overall growth of vehicles. No mention of cycling whatsoever other than the ironing trike. There was a segment about tyre and brake pollution from cars and buses. Again, no mention of the key role cycling could play in reducing it. They show Singapore’s touristy green areas but ignore the huge roads and growth based economy. There was no mention of Bhutan’s model of economic stability and protection of nature over profit and GDP. At least they mentioned indoor and vertical farming. That’s something we definitely need to scale up urgently.

The city of Milan winning the waste free world prize was by far the most bizarre award of the evening. All they’re doing is redistributing food to prevent waste. This is being done in various locations all over the world already. There’s nothing unique there that deserves money. Sanergy (creating fertiliser from human waste with insects) and Wota Box (fountain with filter which allows water to be reused many times) were clearly the better ideas. It’s hard to understand why they were snubbed.

At the end, Prince William talked about how Earthshot is for young people. Well, it isn’t because young people want an end to capitalism and an end to economic growth. This does neither of those two things and you’ve just ended up patronising them yet again. Just like with climate anxiety, the establishment have proven that they don’t get it. They just can’t get past this failed model of treating the symptoms rather than the cause of our problems. Whether it be anxiety or our climate crisis, the root causes are capitalism and economic growth. Until they accept that, the young will see all of this as insult after insult.

And the final insult is to give Earthshot 2022 to the kingdom of unrestrained corporate greed, the United States. The country that is going to drop all climate funding from Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan. The only thing remaining is to see how far over 1.5c we are in 12 months time (by the 1750 baseline). Hopefully it doesn’t go ahead because they realise by then that green growth doesn’t work. Probably wishful thinking.

It will unfortunately happen again next year, but it really is debatable how long it will keep going. Prince William says it will award prizes every year for 10 years; but given how little time we have left to act drastically, what use will a prize be in 2030? Maybe they’ll need to take a page out of Bangladesh’s book and host the ceremony on a ship. Maybe one of the prize winners will be some kind of affordable houseboat. That would make sense by then. There will probably be huge demand.

As a final aside; as we were watching the episode of Earthshot Prize about clean air, near the end, I heard the neighbour’s petrol lawnmower so I had to rush around closing all the windows. You couldn’t have timed it better. But with any luck, he watched the award show and decided to buy a battery mower to boost our economy.