The 86-year-old social scientist says accepting the impending end of most life on Earth might be the very thing needed to help us prolong it
Were doomed, says Mayer Hillman with such a beaming smile that it takes a moment for the words to sink in. The outcome is death, and its the end of most life on the planet because were so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.
Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, does say so. His bleak forecast of the consequence of runaway climate change, he says without fanfare, is his last will and testament. His last intervention in public life. Im not going to write anymore because theres nothing more that can be said, he says when I first hear him speak to a stunned audience at the University of East Anglia late last year.
From Malthus to the Millennium Bug, apocalyptic thinking has a poor track record. But when it issues from Hillman, it may be worth paying attention. Over nearly 60 years, his research has used factual data to challenge policymakers conventional wisdom. In 1972, he criticised out-of-town shopping centres more than 20 years before the government changed planning rules to stop their spread. In 1980, he recommended halting the closure of branch line railways only now are some closed lines reopening. In 1984, he proposed energy ratings for houses finally adopted as government policy in 2007. And, more than 40 years ago, he presciently challenged societys pursuit of economic growth.
When we meet at his converted coach house in London, his classic Dawes racer still parked hopefully in the hallway (a stroke and a triple heart bypass mean he is currently forbidden from cycling), Hillman is anxious we are not side-tracked by his best-known research, which challenged the supremacy of the car.
With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport is almost irrelevant, he says. Weve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.
While the focus of Hillmans thinking for the last quarter-century has been on climate change, he is best known for his work on road safety. He spotted the damaging impact of the car on the freedoms and safety of those without one most significantly, children decades ago. Some of his policy prescriptions have become commonplace such as 20mph speed limits but weve failed to curb the cars crushing of childrens liberty. In 1971, 80% of British seven- and eight-year-old children went to school on their own; today its virtually unthinkable that a seven-year-old would walk to school without an adult. As Hillman has pointed out, weve removed children from danger rather than removing danger from children and filled roads with polluting cars on school runs. He calculated that escorting children took 900m adult hours in 1990, costing the economy 20bn each year. It will be even more expensive today.
Our societys failure to comprehend the true cost of cars has informed Hillmans view on the difficulty of combatting climate change. But he insists that I must not present his thinking on climate change as an opinion. The data is clear; the climate is warming exponentially. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the world on its current course will warm by 3C by 2100. Recent revised climate modelling suggested a best estimate of 2.8C but scientists struggle to predict the full impact of the feedbacks from future events such as methane being released by the melting of the permafrost.