"Prepare for surprises and shocks." These were the last – and, indeed, the first – words in a wide-ranging debate on the environment at the Bath Literature Festival yesterday.
The words were taken from arch -eco-pessimist James Lovelock, speaking after a 1989 seminar with Margaret Thatcher, and quoted by debate chair Michael McCarthy, The Independent's Environment Editor. But all the speakers, and most of their questioners, agreed that they apply with even greater force today.
"The future's not what it used to be," said Jason Drew, author of The Story of the Fly and How It Could Save the World. "The fewer decisions we make now, the more in future Mother Nature will make for us."
According to some estimates, said Andrew Simms, who wrote the equally optimistic-sounding Cancel the Apocalypse: Why We Need to Stop Growing and Start Living, "The time we have left to balance levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is just 46 weeks."
But the panellists, unlike McCarthy, all preferred to look on the bright side. "We have the science to protect the biosphere and achieve sustainability," said Matthew Davidson, director of the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies at Bath University. "But we need to apply it and achieve behavioural differences."
Among the examples he cited were the success of the catalytic converter in cars in reducing air pollution, the development of biodegradable plastics and the potential of 3D printers to allow short-run, on-demand production of, say, soap powders. "This would have a huge impact," he said.
Perhaps the most striking reasons to be cheerful were given by Drew, who describes himself as "a capitalist, an environmentalist and an optimist". He attacked how we are "raping our seas" to feed fish farms, the fastest-growing sector of food production. But he then outlined how maggot-breeding factories could convert abattoir waste to safe protein.
Drew went on to describe how, by selling separate-and-compost toilets in Africa, one of his businesses is "taking the p*** out of the slums" and selling the breakdown products as fertiliser.
For Simms, the challenge was "stitching all these things together to make hope possible". He saw pointers in how different European countries had reacted to the banking crisis. He said: "Behavioural change by individuals – enforced by what's considered acceptable, not just by law – can bring change on a massive scale."
What's on: Tuesday 5 March
11.15am John Batchelor on Tennyson. Professor of English at Newcastle University, introduces his new biography of the great Victorian poet.
1pm Drugs: crack down or give in? The Tuesday Independent Voices debate asks: it time to legalise Class B and C drugs?
6.15pm Tracey Thorn. The guitarist and singer from Everything But the Girl discusses her candid life story, Bedsit Disco Queen.
8pm Clive Stafford-Smith. The founder of Reprieve turns his howitzer-like fury and steely legal mind on a 26-year travesty of justice in Florida.