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RACE FOR TOMORROW: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis by Simon Mundy book review

RACE FOR TOMORROW: Survival, Innovation and Profit on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis by Simon Mundy book review
01 Dec
by Simon Mundy • Harper Collins

Simon Mundy’s Race For Tomorrow is a work of hugely impressive breadth. Over the two years he spent travelling the globe, seeking to document the impacts of climate change, Mundy visited 26 countries on six continents and pulled together hundreds of individual and community stories. It amount to an excellent compendium of climate change in the world today, providing more than enough answers for anyone who knows full well that climate change is real but lacks concrete examples of its impacts. 

The stories here are as varied as the countries Mundy visits. Some are to be expected. We meet hunters in Greenland whose traditional way of life is crumbling along with the sea ice that no can longer bear them or they prey. In Nepal, Mundy examines the truly terrifying threat of glacial outburst floods. In Iceland, he chats to Cliemworks, the company working to capture carbon directly from air.

We also encounter many people whose lives or businesses have been upturned by flooding, particularity in the Philippines. These are among the most harrowing stories in the book – none more so than that of Joanna Sustento, who lost every member of her family, bar one, when a typhoon eclipsed her village. This brave woman now stands alone in protest against the energy company Shell, holding a placard outside its offices in Manila. 

Other more familiar stories include a trip to the Amazon, where Mundy meets the Indigenous people fighting for their homeland, as well as the farmers slash and burning to make way for cattle. While in Brazil, he also delves into the workings of JBS, the largest meat processing company in the world. It’s a good example of the way Mundy combines individual stories with wider geopolitical analysis, solutions-driven projects and the big corporate stories that will really make a difference (positive or negative) in the future – a necessary move that protects the book from becoming relentlessly depressing.

In some ways this is where things get really interesting. Aware that public opinion in some countries is turning (JBS supplies several UK supermarkets with their own-brand beef), Marcio Nappo, the company’s first director of sustainability, commissioned the creation of an artificial intelligence system which now runs on blockchain technology. It can detect deforestation and track it against the company’s list of suppliers. Any supplier found to have illegally deforested land is blocked immediately. It’s a strangely positive story for a company still largely owned by two brothers convicted of massive fraud and a country run by Jair Bolsonaro.

The story of Alberto Scotti in Venice is equally intriguing, sharing the same characteristics of one man’s hard work against a backdrop of vast corruption. Scotti is the architect who designed Venice’s flood-defence system, a barrier that rises from the water when required. Astonishing mishandling and graft by the Venetian authorities mean the system is only just in place, despite being decades in the making. 

Other stories are less well-known. In Yakutia, a federal Russian republic, rapid warming of the Siberian ice has spawned a boom in the collection of mammoth tusks. In Lagos, Mundy takes in the contrast between the huge land reclamation project taking place in the rich part of town, and the worsening flooding in the nearby region of Alpha Beach. These are welcome insertions, preventing the book from becoming a run-down of stories already covered widely elsewhere. 

Mundy is impartial in his reporting, ultimately allowing everyone their say and letting the quotes speak for themselves. He doesn’t interrogate people or the technical schemes being advanced as climate solutions in any detail. Occasionally this can give the book a bloodless feel. You crave to know what he really thinks of the big-time cattle farmer, Sebastião Gardingo, accused of using local policemen as a private militia to defend Amazonian land illegally cleared for pasture. And what he really felt when, taking a drink in the same area, a bleeding man ran past, having been stabbed in the stomach.

And yet, in a book with so many voices, he has obviously deemed it best to keep the author’s at bay. As he says himself in the Afterword: ‘I’m a reporter, not an activist or scientific expert, and in this book I’ve tried to let the stories speak for themselves’. There are still enough descriptions to bring characters to life, such as the man behind Lagos’ luxury development project, ‘vegan 36-year-old Ronald Jr, who has embraced the millennial health fad of regular day-long fasts, and since yesterday’s lunch has been consuming nothing but mushroom coffee’.

What I did find impressive was the way Mundy applied the same dedication to highlighting individual voices to his corporate stories as to those of destruction and devastation. So, we meet the woman at the forefront of lab-grown meet in Israel and the man behind the faceless giant, JBS. While it’s always difficult to get much of interest out of anyone operating with a PR department hovering over their shoulder, this is still important if we are to solve the climate crisis and is often missed. After all, those who run large companies are people too, and if they can be encouraged to wield their power in the right way, the planet faces a better chance. Mundy clearly has prodigious skill in setting up interviews and making friends in high places. 

There are no overarching lessons offered by this book – it wouldn’t fit with the tone –  but one thing stands out regardless: as the climate crisis bites, versatility will be king. It is the people already adapting to change that provide the most hope, be it the wine producers in Chile moving to new pastures or the determinedly upbeat locals in Lagos’ floating village, simply building taller stilts. Their can-do attitude will need to be embraced by all of us in the year’s to come. 

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