Eradicating Inequity is How We Will Thrive in an Uncertain World

To thrive or even survive in our Uncertain World requires creativity, empowerment and collaboration – but most of all equity. We learned this in developing Bristol’s Resilience Strategy and is strikingly evident now as we grapple with global pandemic.


In Bristol, a Plesiosaur and other prehistoric creatures cavort on the weathered side of an Edwardian building, the wall flooded with blue, the animals hovering over the traffic-crowded roads.  In the corner of the artwork by Alex Lucas are the words ‘The Uncertain World’ in a font torn from a 60s disaster novel. The prehistoric creatures, from a time when the world was hotter, sea levels higher and the life much different, have been juxtaposed with modern buildings and cars and are meant to be a starting point for conversations about climate change, our past and our future.

It was painted in 2015, when Bristol was the European Green Capital and a focus for dialogue co-curated by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, which had long sought to build diverse communities to understand ‘Living with Uncertainty.’

The Uncertain World mural at the University of Bristol, Painted by Alex Lucas and Sponsored by The Cabot Institute for the Environment

An Uncertain World is an apt description for today, as we face not only the long-term chronic uncertainty of climate change and wider environmental degradation but the acute uncertainty of a global pandemic and economic chaos.

But the issues and maybe the solutions – as many have already noted – are remarkably similar.

From Coronavirus we will learn what we are capable of to stop a global disaster. We will rethink what we are capable of achieving – as individuals, businesses, communities and nations.

We can also learn how to live with the challenging uncertainty that will come with even modest climate change.

In 2015, we aspired to use past climate research to create a more reflective consideration of action, resilience and adaptation. Such research explores the climate and life associated with ancient hot climates, potential analogues for our future. Those long-ancient climates contribute to our understanding of an uncertain future by reinforcing what we do know: when CO2 goes up, so does temperature.

It also shows the limitations of our own personal experiences and understanding.  It reveals, for example, that that pCO2 levels have not exceeded 400ppm for ~3 million years; that the current rate of climate change is nearly without precedent; and that ancient rapid warming has dramatic but complex consequences.

In short, it shows us just how unprecedented the world we are creating is.

But perhaps most importantly, it provides for us the otherwise absent personal and societal narratives of climate change.  None of us have experienced this Uncertain World.  Nor has our civilisation. Not even our species. Therefore, the geological past creates a space for considering what unprecedented really means, for considering living with not a statistical uncertainty but a deep uncertainty, an uncertainty that is not informed by our individual, familial, societal or even civilisation experiences.

So perhaps it is not surprising that our conversations entirely predicted the debates we are now having daily about how to address the Covid-19 emergency, and in particular the lack of consensus about how to act when we have no shared experience on which to draw.

Unlike the current passionate debate about pandemic (and climate) action, however, the Uncertain World also allowed us to relocate discussion away from modern divisive politics to the ancient past and unknown futures, thereby creating a place of reflection. Through this, we collaboratively explored what we know or do not about our past and future, renewing motivation for climate action. But perhaps most importantly, by focusing on the uncertainty in the Earth system, we explored the creative forms of resilience that will be required in the coming century (Cabot Institute Report on Living with Environmental Uncertainty.pdf).  And all of this contributed to the creation of Bristol’s Resilience Strategy (Bristol Resilience Strategy-2n5wmn3) and then its One City Plan.

And the findings from those discussions are identical to what we are learning today: equity must be at the centre of any society that hopes to withstand the shocks of uncertainty.

In our conversations, we as a City identified five principles that must shape our resilience. Society must be liveable, agile, sustainable and connected. And most of all, fair.  Although we might choose different words in the fire of a pandemic, the principles are fundamentally the same as those we debate right now. Of course, we aspire to live – and not just to live but to enjoy life and have a high quality of life.  But to do so, we must live and act sustainably and within the means of ourselves, our families, our society and our planet. The Covd-19 crisis is acutely showing what we really value to enjoy life, the differences between what we think we need and what we really need; and in doing so, it is showing us new pathways to sustainability.

To thrive in an uncertain world, we must also be agile. And that means that we must be flexible and creative and have the power to act on those creative impulses and innovative ideas. Some agility can come from centralised government and sometimes it must, such as the decisions to close some businesses and financially support their vulnerable employees; build new hospitals; and repurpose factories to make ventilators. However, the agility that is often the most effective for dealing with the specifics of a crisis arise from our communities and individuals. That requires a benevolent sharing of power – not just political but economic. Communities need the resources to decide how to manage floods and food shortages locally – and the decision-making political power to act on those. Likewise, we need the power and resources to support our vulnerable neighbours during a pandemic, and to support the local businesses and their employees struggling to survive an economic shutdown.

The counterpoint to agility – of an individual, community or nation – is connectivity. We cannot adapt and thrive and survive on our own. The individual who builds a fortress will soon run out of food. Or medicine. Or entertainment. The nation that disconnects from others will find itself in bidding wars for ventilators and vaccines. And perhaps eventually resources and food,

Inevitably though, every single resilience or adaptation or preparedness conversation leads to fairness; to equity and inclusion. The wealthy have power, agency and agility.  The wealthy have the means to build a fortress while remaining connected. The wealthy can stockpile food. They can hire equipment to build flood walls around their estates. They can flee famines and cross borders.

They can flee pandemic.

They can choose how they work. Or whether to work.

They can access virus tests long before the rest of us.

The bitter irony is that we have learned from the Covid-19 crisis what we always knew: that those who are often the least respected, the least paid, the most vulnerable are the most essential.  They are the ones who harvest our food and get it to our stores and homes. They work the front lines of the health services. They are the ones who keep the electricity and water operating. And the internet that allows University Professors to work while self-isolating.

And the poorest in our societies will die because of it.

The same will be true of the looming climate change disaster – but more slowly and likely far worse. It will come first through heat waves that in some parts of the world make it impossible to work; through extreme climate events that devastate especially the most vulnerable infrastructure. And then it will devastate food production and global food supply chains. It will displace millions, at least tens of millions due to (the most optimistic estimates) of sea level rise alone, and then potentially hundreds of millions more due to drought and famine.

Who will suffer?  Those who must labour in the outdoor heat of fields and cities. Those who are already suffering food poverty.  Those who cannot flee across increasingly rigid borders from a rising sea or a famine. Climate change is classist and it is racist. It is genocide by indifference.

And unlike a pandemic, the wealthy cannot simply wait out climate change. They will either succumb to the same crumbling structures as the rest of us; or they will be forced to entrench their power via ever more extreme means. There is a reason why nearly every dystopian story is ultimately a story about class struggle.

But we can address that if we are learn the lessons of today and elevate the values of equity and community that make us stronger together. And if we build societies that embody those values – societies that recognise that prosperity is not a zero sum game. We can horde or we can share food on a world where less is produced.  We can leave everyone to themselves or guarantee people a home and an income. We can put up walls or tear them down.  We can sink boats carrying refugees or we can build them. Coronavirus has exposed the inequities in our society, but it has also shown that we can end them if the desire is great enough. And in that, there is hope.

A resilient world, a strong world, a world that will survive this pandemic and that will survive the coming climate catastrophes must more than anything be an equitable world. There is no reason for it not to be.

Deep impact – the plastic on the seafloor; the carbon in the air

We live in a geological age defined by human activity.  We live during a time when the landscape of the earth has been transformed by men, its surface paved and cut, its vegetation manipulated, transported and ultimately replaced. A time when the chemical composition of the atmosphere, the rivers and the oceans has been changed – in some ways that are unique for the past million years and in other ways that are unprecedented in Earth history. In many ways, this time is defined not only by our impact on nature but by the redefinition of what it means to be human.

From a certain distance and perspective, the transformation of our planet can be considered beautiful. At night, the Earth viewed from space is a testament to the ubiquitous presence of the human species: cities across the planet glow with fierce intensity but so do villages in Africa and towns in the Midwest; the spotlights of Argentine fishing boats, drawing anchovies to the surface, illuminate the SW Atlantic Ocean; and the flames of flared gas from fracked oil fields cause otherwise vacant tracts of North Dakota to burn as bright as metropolises.

Environmental debates are a fascinating, sometimes frustrating collision of disparate ideas, derived from different experiences, ideologies and perspectives.  And we learn even from those with whom we disagree.  However, one perspective perpetually bemuses and perplexes me: the idea that it is impossible that man could so transform this vast planet. Of course, we can pollute an estuary, cause the Cuyahoga River to catch fire, turn Victorian London black or foul the air of our contemporary cities.  We can turn the Great Plains into cornfields or into dust bowls, the rainforest into palm oil plantations, swamplands into cities and lowlands into nations.  But these are local.  Can we really be changing our oceans, our atmosphere, our Earth that much?

Such doubts underly the statements of, for example, UKIP Energy Spokesman Roger Helmer:

 ‘The theory of man-made climate change is unproven and implausible’.

It is a statement characterised by a breathless dismissal of scientific evidence but also an astonishingly naive view of man’s capacity to impact our planet. And it is a statement that has been increasingly echoed by those in the highest echelons of power.

There are places on Earth where the direct evidence of human intervention is small. There are places where the dominance of nature is vast and exhilarating and awe-inspiring.  And across the planet, few places are entirely immune from reminders – whether they be earthquakes or volcanoes, tsunamis or hurricanes – that nature is vast and powerful.

But the Earth of the 21st century is a planet shaped by humans.


A powerful example of humanity’s impact on our planet is our Plastic Ocean.  We generate nearly 300 billion tons of plastic per year, much of it escaping recycling and much of that escaping the landfill and entering our oceans. One of the most striking manifestations of this is the vast trash vortex in the Northern Pacific Gyre. The size of the vortex depends on assumptions of concentration and is somewhat dependent on methodology, but estimatesrange from 700 thousand square kilometres to more than 15 million square kilometres.  The latter estimate represents nearly 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean.   Much of the plastic in the trash vortex – and throughout our oceans – occurs as fine particles invisible to the eye.  But they are there and they are apparently ubiquitous, with concentrations in the trash vortex reaching 5.1 kg per square km*.  That’s equivalent to about 200 1L bottles.  Dissolved.  Invisible to the eye.  But present and dictating the chemistry of the ocean.

More recently, colleagues at Plymouth, Southampton and elsewhere illustrated the widespread occurrence of rubbish, mainly plastic, on the ocean floor.  Their findings did not surprise deep sea biologists nor geologists; we have been observing our litter in these supposedly pristine settings since some of the first trips to the abyss.

My first submersible dive was on the Nautile, a French vessel that was part of a joint Dutch-French expedition to mud volcanoes and associated methane seeps in the Mediterranean Sea.  An unfortunate combination of working practice, choppy autumn seas and sulfidic sediments had made me seasick for most of the research expedition, such that my chance to dive to the seafloor was particularly therapeutic. The calm of the deep sea, as soon as we dipped below the wave base, was a moment of profound physical and emotional peace.  As we sank into the depths, the light faded and all that remained was the very rare fish and marine snow – the gently sinking detritus of life produced in the light-bathed surface ocean.

As you descend, you enter a realm few humans had seen…. For a given dive, for a given locale, it is likely that no human has preceded you.

Image from Nautile Dive to the Mediterranean seafloor.  Shown are carbonate crusts that form where methane has escaped to the seafloor as well as tube worms thriving on the chemical energy available in such settings.  Plastic debris has been circled in the upper right corner.

Mud volcanoes form for a variety of reasons, but in the Mediterranean region they are associated with the tectonic interactions of the European and African continents.  This leads to the pressurised extrusion of slurry from several km below the bottom of the sea, along mud diapirs and onto the seafloor. They are commonly associated with methane seeps; in fact a focus of our expedition was to examine the microbes and wider deep sea communities that thrive when this methane is exposed to oxidants at the seafloor – a topic for another essay. In parts of the Mediterranean Sea, they are associated with salty brines, partially derived from the great salt deposits that formed in a partly evaporated ocean about five and a half million years ago.

And all of these factors together create an undersea landscape of indescribable beauty.

On these mud volcanoes are small patches, about 20 cm wide, where methane escapes to the seafloor.  There, methane bubbles from the mud or is capped by thick black, rubbery mats of microorganisms.  Ringing these mats are fields of molluscs, bouquets of tube worms, great concrete slabs of calcium carbonate or white rims of sulphide and the bacteria thriving on it. Streaming from these seeps, down the contours of the mud cones, are ribbons of ultra-dense, hypersaline water.  The rivulets merge into streams and then into great deep sea rivers. Like a photonegative of low-density oil slicking upon the water’s surface, these are white, high-density brines flowing along the seafloor.  Across the Mediterranean Sea, they pool into beautiful ponds and in a few very special cases, form great brine lakes.

And two kilometres below the seafloor, where humans have yet to venture our rubbish has already established colonies. Plastic bottles float at the surface of these lakes; aluminium cans lie in the mud amongst the microbial mats; between those thick slabs of calcium carbonate sprout colonies of tube worms and the occasional plastic bag.

We have produced as much plastic in the past decade as we have in the entirety of the preceding human history.  But the human impact is not new.  On our very first dive, we observed a magnificent amphora, presumably of ancient Greek or Roman origin and nearly a metre across, half buried in the mud.


Today the human footprint is ubiquitous. Nearly 40% of the world’s land is used for agriculture – and over 70% of the land in the UK.  Another 3% of the land is urbanised.  A quarter of arable land has already been degraded.

There are outstanding contradictions and non-intuitive patterns that emerge from a deeper understanding of this modified planet.  Pollinators are more diverse in England’s cities than they are in our rural countryside.  One of the most haunting nature preserves on our planet is the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea – fraught with landmines but free from humans, wildlife now dominates. And of course, although global warming will cause vast challenges over the coming centuries, that is largely due to one human impact (greenhouse gas emissions) intersecting with another (our cities in vulnerable, low-lying areas and our borders and poverty preventing migration from harm).   And on longer timescales, we have likely spared our descendants of 10,000 years from now the hassle of dealing with another Ice Age.

But there can be no doubt or misunderstanding –  we have markedly changed the chemical composition of our atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been for the past 800,000 years, perhaps the last 3 million years.  It is likely that the last time the Earth’s atmosphere contained this much carbon dioxide, glyptodons, armadillo-like creatures the size of cars, roamed the American West, and hominids were only beginning the first nervous evolutionary steps towards what would eventually become humanity. Methane concentrations are three times higher than they were before the agricultural and industrial revolutions.  Also higher are the concentrations of nitrous oxides.  And certain chlorofluorcarbons did not even exist on this planet until we made them.

The manner in which we have changed our planet has – at least until now – allowed us to thrive, created prosperity and transformed lives in ways that would have astonished those from only a few generations in the past.  It is too soon to say whether our collective impact has been or will be, on the whole, either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for either the planet or those of us who live upon it. It will perhaps never be possible to define such a complex range of impacts in simple black and white terms.  But there is no doubt that our impact has been vast, ubiquitous and pervasive.  And it is dangerous to underestimate even momentarily our tremendous capacity to change our planet at even greater rates and in even more profound ways in the future.

*Moore, C.J; Moore, S.L; Leecaster, M.K; Weisberg, S.B (2001). “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre”. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42 (12): 1297–300. doi:10.1016/S0025-326X(01)00114-X. PMID 11827116.

The Origins of the Uncertain World

In late 2014, the Cabot Institute was in deep consultation with artists, colleagues, businesses and political leaders about our contribution to Bristol EU Green Capital 2015.  Given the breadth of Cabot, we were keen to contribute in diverse ways, especially around sustainability solutions and the range of environmental challenges we face, from plastics in the sea to procuring safe, sustainable food.  However, 2015 was also a fantastic chance to discuss climate change, its causes and impacts and how Bristol and the wider world would have to adapt – especially given that 2015 would culminate with the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris.  At the same time, we wanted to examine climate change through a somewhat different lens than had been done in the past.  Uncertainty was that lens. We wrote this at the end of 2014 announcing the Uncertain World as our framework for discussing these issues during 2015 and beyond.  It went on to inform Bristol’s strong commitments to climate change and its Resilience Strategy.

Originally posted on the Cabot Institute blog, this was our statement of intent.


Over the next 18 months, in collaboration with Bristol Green Capital 2015 artists, civic leaders and innovative thinkers, the Cabot Institute will be participating in  a series of activities in which we examine how human actions are making our planet a much more uncertain place to live.
Fifty years ago, between 1962 and 1966, J. G. Ballard wrote a trio of seminal environmental disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World.  These novels remain signposts to our future, the challenges we might face and the way people respond to rapid and unexpected change to their environment. In that spirit and coinciding with the Bristol Green Capital 2015, we introduce The Uncertain World, a world in which profound uncertainty becomes as much of a challenge to society as warming and rising sea levels.

J.G Ballard’s The Drowned World
taken from
For the past twenty years, the University of Bristol has been exploring how to better understand, mitigate and live with environmental uncertainty, with the Cabot Institute serving as the focus for that effort since its founding in 2010.  Uncertainty is the oft-forgotten but arguably most challenging aspect of mankind’s centuries-long impact on the environment.  We live our lives informed by the power of experience: our own as well as the collective experience of our families, communities and wider society. When my father started dairy farming he sought advice from my mother’s grandfather, our neighbours, and the grizzled veterans at the Middlefield auction house. Experience helps us make intelligent decisions, plan strategically and anticipate challenges.

Similarly, our weather projections, water management and hazard planning are also based on experience: tens to hundreds of years of observation inform our predictions of future floods, drought, hurricanes and heat waves. These records – this experience  – can help us make sensible decisions about where to live, build and farm.

Now, however, we are changing our environment and our climate, such that the lessons of the past have less relevance to the planning of our future.  In fact, many aspects of environmental change are unprecedented not only in human experience but in Earth history. As we change our climate, the great wealth of knowledge generated from human experience is losing capital every day.

The Uncertain World is not one of which we have no knowledge – we have high confidence that temperatures and sea level will rise, although there is uncertainty in the magnitude and speed of change. Nor should we view The Uncertain World with existential fear – we know that warm worlds have existed in the past.  These were not inhospitable and most evidence from the past suggests that a climate ‘apocalypse’ resulting in an uninhabitable planet is unlikely.

Nonetheless, increasing uncertainty arising from human-induced changes to our global environment should cause deep concern.  Crucial details of our climate remain difficult to predict, and it undermines our ability to plan for our future. We do not know whether many regions of the world will become wetter or dryer. This uncertainty propagates and multiplies through complex systems: how do we make sensible predictions of coastal flood risk when there is uncertainty in sea level rise estimates, rainfall patterns and the global warming that will impact both?  We can make predictions even in such complex systems, but the predictions will inevitably come with a degree of uncertainty, a probabilistic prediction.  How do we apply such predictions to decision making? Where can we build new homes, where do we build flood defences to protect existing ones, and where do we abandon land to the sea?

Methane escaping from Arctic
permafrost. Image:

Perhaps most worrying, the consequences of these rapid changes on biological and chemical systems, and the people dependent upon them, are very poorly understood. For example, the synergistic impact of warmer temperatures, more acidic waters, and more silt-choked coastal waters on coral reefs and other marine ecosystems is very difficult to predict. This is particularly concerning given that more than 2.6 billion people  depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein. Similarly, warming of Arctic permafrost could promote the growth of CO2-sequestering plants or the release of warming-accelerating methane – or both. Warm worlds with very high levels of carbon dioxide did exist in the past and these do provide some insight  into the response of the Earth system, but we are accelerating into this new world at a rate that is unprecedented in Earth history, creating additional layers of uncertainty.
During late 2014 and 2015, the Cabot Institute will host a variety of events and collaborate with a variety of partners across Bristol and beyond to explore this Uncertain World and how we can live in it. How do we better explain uncertainty and what are the ‘logical’ decisions to make when faced with uncertainty? One of our first events will explore how uncertainty in climate change predictions should motivate us to action: the more uncertain our predictions the more we should employ mitigation rather than adaptation strategies. Future events will explore how past lessons from Earth history help us better understand potential future scenarios; how future scenario planning can inform the decisions we make today; and most importantly, how we build the necessary flexibility into social structures to thrive in this Uncertain World.