Friday, March 8, 2013

The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans / Mark Lynas -- London: Fourth Estate, 2011.

In 2007, Mark Lynas published a brilliant book entitled Six Degrees (reviewed in this blog).  In it, he presented in a clear and readable format, the consequences of a warming planet.  Each chapter described the scientific research that predicted the effects of an additional centigrade degree of global warming, up to a six degree warming.  Currently, there is a debate in the scientific community about whether we can prevent the planet from warming more than two degrees centigrade.  It is likely that we will not be able to keep the increase below two degrees and four degrees is frighteningly possible.  Lynas's book provides a clear picture of what is at stake.  While we may have to suffer a two degree increase, a concerted effort to curb our greenhouse gas emissions can prevent a four degree increase which will make a huge difference to the well-being of future generations.

Based on the strength of Lynas's Six Degrees, I had high hopes for his 2011 book, The God Species.  I also understood that he had joined a faction of environmentalists that has parted ways with the mainstream opinion among environmentalists.  So I hoped his work would offer constructive challenges to how I thought about the strategies for mitigating our unfolding environmental crises.  To a limited extent, I was not disappointed, but Lynas's main thesis is not generally well-established.  Lynas attempts to argue that because our species has fundamentally changed the planet's ecology, we must now accept responsibility for "our new task of consciously managing the planet."  This involves a number of traditional conservation measures, but more to his point, it involves embracing a number of technological solutions to environmental threats or "geo-engineering."  It also endorses a strategy of continued economic growth which Lynas believes is important both to developing the necessary mitigating technologies and to persuading a growth-hungry public to support mitigating efforts.

The work is organized around nine "planetary boundaries," a term coined by Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center.  The boundaries are natural limits which we must not cross, lest we push the planet into a state which will not support life.  Specifically, they are (1) the biodiversity boundary, (2) the climate change boundary, (3) the nitrogen boundary, (4) the land use boundary, (5) the fresh water boundary, (6) the toxics boundary, (7) the aerosols boundary, (8) the ocean acidification boundary, and (9) the ozone layer boundary.  According to Lynas's research, we have already passed the first three boundaries and must find ways to quickly return to within these boundaries.  Two of the boundaries -- the toxics boundary and the aerosols boundary -- cannot be sufficiently quantified at this point to know whether we have crossed them.  Encouragingly, Lynas believes that we have not yet crossed the others, but that we are in danger of doing so. 

To better understand the notion of a planetary boundary, consider the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.  Currently there are approximately 390 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It is now well-understood that we must reduce this figure to at least 350 parts per million if we are to avoid a change to the ecosystem that will spell disaster for human civilization and possibly life on the planet.  350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is the planetary climate change boundary.

Each of Lynas's descriptions of the nine boundaries are replete with sobering scientific research, emphasizing what is at stake.  In that respect, The God Species is a lot like Six Degrees, but Lynas's main purpose in writing this book is not so much to alert us to these dangers, but to suggest what we might do to remain on the safe side of the boundaries, and as I a mentioned earlier, the solutions involve embracing technological advances.  He discusses four at some length:  nuclear power, genetically modifying crops, injecting sulfates into the upper stratosphere, and pouring alkaline substances into the ocean.  

Lynas stongly and repeatedly promotes making a quick transition to nuclear power.  He argues that the "Greens" opposition to nuclear power is unjustified and is as misguided and anti-scientific as the attitudes of climate change deniers.  This is perhaps the most useful contribution he makes in The God Species.  While his arguments may not be completely convincing, they are strong enough to unsettle settled opinion on the topic of nuclear energy.  Given the enormous and growing threat of carbon pollution, it may be wise to re-examine the role of nuclear power in the planet's energy future.  Certainly many responsible scientists and environmentalists are coming around to this opinion, most notably James Hansen and George Monbiot, but also James Lovelock, Barry Brook, Gwyneth Cravens, and Patrick Moore.

His advocacy of genetically modified crops (and genetic engineering generally) is less persuasive.  Lynas believes genetic engineering will help solve the problem of feeding our growing human population, while not contaminating the planet's water with excess nitrogen.  Unfortunately, the track record of genetically modified crops is not long enough to really understand its dangers, and while significant dangers might not have become apparent yet, the very notion of making drastic and quick changes in the genes of long-evolved organisms (or creating new organisms from scratch) invites disaster from the law of unintended consequences.    The same is true for Lynas's two other geo-engineering fixes.  Lynas is correct in noting that we have already been engaged in accidental geo-engineering with the massive release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  Indeed, the unintended consequences of the industrial revolution threaten to ruin us, but it borders on the reckless to suggest that we understand the complexities of Earth systems sufficiently to avoid equally or even more disastrous unintended consequences that might result from an intentional and concerted effort to change Earth systems.

To a large extent, Lynas's prescription for mitigation is in line with the views of Bjorn Lomborg who has advocated continued, even accelerated, economic growth on the theory that a richer future society will be better equipped to solve environmental (particularly climate change) problems.  His argument depends on the claims that economic growth will increase faster than our emerging environmental problems.  This seems highly dubious.  First, it disregards the likely phenomenon of "tipping points" that would quickly launch the Earth into a new and drastically different physical state -- one to which we or our civilization will not be adapted.  Second, it relies upon continuing economic growth that is similar to what we have seen in the past.  Given that we are reaching the limits of our natural resources and given that we will be seeing increased economic disruption due to resource scarcity and climate change, the likelihood that economic growth will continue as it has is doubtful.  All that is necessary is for the climate change to slightly out pace economic growth for our current crisis to become soon unsolvable.  Lomborg misunderstands that "growth" must be replaced by "sustainability" as the supreme economic value as we approach planetary boundaries.

Lynas appears to follow Lomborg on this score.  He is an unapologetic booster of expensive technological fixes and he emphasizes the importance of economic growth in finding solutions.  Lynas is a critic of socialism and endorses "market solutions."  Most of all, he believes that pretty much any mitigation strategy that requires social or cultural transformations will fail.  He appears to believe that certain market forces act, in effect, like laws of nature, and that we must recognize this in our mitigation plans. 

So for example, to remain on the safe side of the water boundary, Lynas recommends privatizing water resources.  He claims that public water systems are corrupt and inefficient, and that private systems provide water to populations more effectively.  He provides little support for these claims.  Corruption in the public sector is, of course, problematic.  Many public officials will use their position for personal gain, but the use of resources for private gain is the very essence of the private sector.  Simply because the legal system accords private actors the license to personally gain from the distribution of resources does not make it morally legitimate, particularly when these resources are essential for human survival.  Private sector business as usual is effectively the legitimization of public corruption.  See post-soviet Russia as an undisguised exmple of this. 

Regarding the inefficiency of public utilities, one must look into the goals of the utility.  Fred Pearce reiterates a well-established point in his excellent book When Rivers Run Dry (reviewed in this blog), when he notes that "water flows uphill to money."  That is, in an unregulated market, water resources will be trucked, flown, sailed, and piped to the whatever wealthy market will purchase them, leaving the poor without.  If the point of the water utility is to deliver water resources to those who can best cover the cost of delivery, then a private system is more efficient.  If the point is to ensure water-sufficiency to all sectors of a population, then a regulated system is necessary.

Lynas's enthusiasm for technological fixes is born of his appreciation for science.  His desire to make sure that mitigation strategies are firmly rooted in the best science available is extremely laudable.  Indeed sound science is essential to successful mitigation strategies.  No serious observer would disagree.  Where Lynas goes astray is in limiting the options for mitigation strategies to those which he believes the public will accept.  Once he has done that -- once he has assumed that cultural and social norms are like laws of nature -- he is driven to seek drastic and potentially very dangerous technological solutions.  To make his case, he must downplay their risks

Nothing makes this point more clearly than his dismissal of vegetarianism.  In a ten page section entitled, "Meat and Energy," Lynas devotes less than a single paragraph to reducing our meat consumption.  He writes, "campaigners are on to a loser if they try to convince convert en masse to vegetarianism....People's desire to eat more meat as they grow more wealthy is so deeply embedded in most cultures...that it is not something that is amendable to outside influence."  Lynas's appreciation for science doesn't seem to extend to the social sciences.  Changes to cultural and social norms and to social, political, and economic institutions are commonplace.  Lynas is perhaps too young to remember the days when vegetarianism was so unheard of in the U.S. and Europe that virtually no restaurant offered a vegetarian entree.  Today, it is rare to find such restaurants and many wholly vegetarian restaurants are flourishing.  Just a couple decades ago, catered business lunches and conferences would not include a vegetarian entree and airlines would offer only meat on their flights.  Now, vegetarians are accommodated.  These changes have taken place despite significant government subsides for the meat industry and vigorous marketing efforts by that industry.  No similar support has ever existed for vegetarianism and yet vegetarianism is becoming more and more common in the U.S. and Europe.

Just as there are tipping points in the progress of natural phenomena, there are tipping points in social, economic, and political phenomena -- perhaps even more so.  Consider, for example, the French and Russian revolutions, the Arab Spring, the reaction to the Tet Offensive in the U.S. during the Vietnam War, and fads and fashions of all sorts. If the 100 most prominent environmentalist (including Lynas) came out forcefully in favor of vegetarianism and made clear the extent to which meat consumption is pushing us toward trespassing the biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen, water, land use, and toxics boundaries, it could easily make vegetarianism a de rigueur practice among environmentalists.  This might well push us over a cultural tipping point that would dramatically reduce meat consumption; but given the significant impact that meat eating has on the environment, it would not take an "en masse" conversion of the population to yield important benefits.  Furthermore, our diet is central to our daily lives.  So becoming vegetarian for the sake of environmental concerns will transform many people's self-image and the importance they place on othr environmentally beneficial actions.

Government support for vegetarianism would also be made easier to institute.  For many years (particularly beginning with policy put in place by Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz), the federal Farm Bill has privileged big agribusiness.  Butz's mantra was "get big or get out."  The result of this was a huge expansion of land devoted to animal feed crop, making meat production artificially inexpensive.  Increased recognition of the damage that meat eating does will make removing these feed production subsidies and instituting financial disincentives much easier, resulting in rising meat prices and a further shift toward vegetarianism.  Given what's at stake, it's hard to understand why Lynas does not advocate this.  In contrast, he does advocate a law banning palm oil biofuels that are produced on Malaysian and Indonesian plantations that wer formerly rain forests.  Why such laws should protect Malaysia and Indonesia and not Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska is left unexplained.

Vegetarianism is not the only opportunity that Lynas misses.  He is surprisingly dismissive of efforts to control our population, claiming that the only measures that have successfully curbed population growth are economic progress and authoritarian prohibitions.  None of this is clear.  There is certainly a correlation between economic progress and birth rate reductions in Europe and North America, but many other factors might be involved in the trend.  Ready availability to birth control, the presence of a social safety net, and the education and liberation of women come immediately to mind.  Only the social safety net depends in part on economic development, but even there, with a more egalitarian, less plutocratic society, a basic social safety net can be established.  Lynas asserts that the number of children that one chooses to have is "an intensely personal" matter.  This may well be true, but so too is the habitability of one's planet intensely personal. 

Lynas's The God Species is an important work in that it publicizes important "planetary boundaries" that we have either crossed or appear to be about to cross.  While each of these boundaries has been describe in greater detail in other works, bringing them all together in a single volume ensures that we do not get too fixated on one and neglect the others.  Furthermore, it highlights the importance of understanding their interrelationships.  Lynas's advocacy of mitigating strategies that have been more or less taboo among environmentalists is also a welcome addition to the debate.  Unfortunately, his views are much too limited.  He fails to recognize the flexibility of cultural and social norms and the role that they can and must play in addressing the our environmental challenges.  Consequently, he reaches for a number of potentially dangerous technical "solutions" to our crises.  Geo-engineering programs may well be something we will need to implement, but we need to understand that some are certainly harmless, while others are desparate throws of the dice.  Much can and must be done before we toss those dice. 


  1. I'll need to read this a second time when I've calmed down. Right now all I can think is that the "solutions" author advocates (e.g., privatizing water) are practically guaranteed to push us all the more quickly through the boundaries within which life can be sustained. His faith in GMO technology alone would give me pause, but there's so much more. Sorry, must go let my blood pressure come down again....

  2. Pamela, yes, Lynas's views are a bit irritating. There are a number of other criticisms that I could have made, but this review was already much longer than I usually write. I don't, though, dismiss all that he says. He's an intelligent observer and often makes side comments that blunt his more provocative views, but the main thrust of his book does touch on the dilemma we face: how to "save the planet from the humans." I just read that the rate at which carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere is increasing. That means time really is running out. If we can't change popular thinking about this soon (and I'd say in the next five years) we will be facing a terrible future and geo-engineering may be the only option. In that case, I think it is actually more likely to create new problems, but the existing problems may kill us if we don't choose geo-engineering. When things get bad enough, one may have to bet everything on a long-shot.