Interview: Professor Mark Maslin - ’We really have contaminated everywhere’

Mark Maslin
Mark Maslin

Professor Mark Maslin (UCL Geography) discusses the damage that humans have caused to the planet and how to save the world.

If you ever want a fact that exemplifies how the climate crisis has reached a new low, just look downwards.

’Something that struck me as iconic was when divers found a plastic bag in the bottom of the Mariana Trench, seven miles below the surface of the ocean,’ says Mark Maslin, a professor of earth system science at University College  London  and author of punchy new book How To Save Our Planet.

’That, for me, was just like, oh my word, we really have contaminated everywhere. As an oceanographer, you think, no, nothing can get... oh yeah, it did.’

Here’s something else that will bring you back down to earth when it comes to plastic pollution: there are now more Lego people in the world than there are real people.

’There’s something like ten billion of them,’ he says.

’And there’s 7.9 billion of us. If you have children, God you have a lot of Lego. Even in my study, which we have actually cleared out, I can already spot two of them sitting in a Lego car, like they’re watching me.’

The engaging Maslin, who stuffs his work with colourful shockers of facts, will be irresistible company when he holds court at New Scientist Live in March.

His talk will be based on How To Save Our Planet, which is an easy-to-gobble-down book for people who don’t read books.

Rather than a written-through narrative or long paragraphs, it’s a series of bullet points stating climate stats, facts, implications and tips perfect for an attention-shy Twitter age that’s running out of time.

Its manner mimics Sun Tzu’s ancient military classic, The Art Of War - though the fact it does is a happy accident.

’I will tell you the full story and you can then have a good laugh at me,’ says Maslin.

’I was desperately looking for a different way to communicate, because I’d written "worthy" books.

’And so there I was listening to the podcast In Our Time, and they were talking about The Art Of War, one of my favourite books. It’s something like 3,000 years old and it is literally written in bullet points. It’s like, "do not put men on a ridge with sun behind; do not fight a battle unless you can win it", you know, really simple things.

’I thought, wow, I could write a book like that. So I went to my agent. She just looked at me and went, "What?"’ Happily, Penguin got the idea, even though, on first edit, ’it just read like one long Twitter thread. So basically, what I’d done was taken the ancient wisdom of Sun Tzu and accidentally produced a perfectly modern social media book.’

We’d need a whole edition of Metro to properly spell out his tips on how to save the planet but, essentially, it involves thinking about Earth like you’re looking at paint pots in Homebase.

’Some of Greta Thunberg ’s analogies are good, like our house is on fire,’ says Maslin.

’But I prefer a different analogy, which is, we’re running from room to room in our huge house, kicking the absolute s*** out of it. And then basically going, "Oh, why does it look so bad in here? Oh, the toilet doesn’t work." Well, not a surprise.

’If you think of Earth as just one big house, wouldn’t you want to do it up? "I think we should have more of the  Amazon - You know, I quite like the tundra."

’Perhaps we need interior designers to come in and say, "OK, no, no, no, darlings, we need to look after Earth, we need it to look good just in case the aliens turn up!"’

This article first appeared in Metro on 24th January 2022.