books environment sustainability technology

Book review: The God Species, by Mark Lynas

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to. A couple of years ago an article in Nature explained a new way of looking at sustainability, as a series of planetary boundaries. The earth has a number of systems that need to be held in balance, and human activity can overshoot them. Climate change is the one we know about, and possibly biodiversity. The nitrogen and freshwater cycles perhaps less so, but they are also in trouble. I wrote about the planetary boundaries theory briefly here, and when I heard that Mark Lynas’ new book was about expounding and popularising the idea, it sounded like a really useful book.

And here it is: The God Species, so called because whether we like it or not, we humans are now running the planet. Since we’re in charge, we have to manage it. If you’re one of the many people who still maintains that it’s just hubris to think that we could impact an entire planet, the first chapter will set you straight. We have fundamentally changed life on this planet, from the creatures that share it with us (or don’t any more) to the landscape, to the chemical composition of the earth, sea and sky.

Since we find ourselves in the god-like position of having to manage the planet, we ought to learn what we can and can’t do with it. Hence planetary boundaries, and Lynas gives a chapter to each. Alongside the ones already mentioned are land use, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification and the ozone layer. As long as we stay within certain boundaries, this concentration of CO2 or nitrogen, or that percentage of fresh water use, we can live as we please. Push any one too far, and things start to unravel in dramatic and often unpredictable fashion.

So far, so good. Lynas approaches each topic with an eye on the science and an unsentimental approach to environmental traditions. Complex systems are explained simply and in layman’s terms, with all the references there at the back if you want the detail. It’s easy to read, and since each chapter addresses both the dangers and the solutions, there’s none of the sense of creeping dread that takes over many other books of this kind.

Of the nine boundaries, seven are quantified and three have already been overshot, but the book puts the ozone layer last. Here’s proof that we can understand our planet, recognise a limit and pull together to respond to it and return to a sustainable footing, despite sceptic movements to discredit ozone science and industry lobbying to keep their CFCs. Kudos to Lynas for ending the book on the ozone and the Montreal Protocol, which he calls the finest hour of the environmental movement.

However, the book also has a whole heap of problems. Lynas’ USP as an environmentalist is that he sees climate change as an opportunity, and is adamant that we can tackle it without any reduction in consumption. No doubt that will make the book palatable to politicians and businessmen, but I’m not sure it add up in the real world. He dismisses concerns about biocapacity as “nonsensical”.

Instead, he insists that “the planetary boundaries concept does not necessarily imply any limit to economic growth or productivity”, and repeatedly asserts that both economic and population growth are entirely legitimate for both rich and poor countries. Biological limits are not economic limits, and the second doesn’t necessarily follow the first. This is true in theory, but not in practice. I’m not aware of any model of growth that is compatible with the zero carbon world Lynas believes is eventually required.  He believes in the technofix (his own word) and greater efficiency, but if you’ve seen the maths on how carbon efficiency needs to play over the next century, you’ll know the miracle Lynas is putting his faith in. The last chapter of the book attempts to reconcile economic growth with the planetary boundaries, and is worth a separate critique at some point.

That’s not the only problem. Lynas argues for the right of developing countries to grow, but dismisses “the global inequality frequently bemoaned by leftists”. He assumes that population increase can continue, and that while birth control is a good idea because people want it, “the future of the planet doesn’t come into it.” But then later he claims that the nitrogen system “may not be a boundary that we can ever meet in practice with the number of people alive on the planet today”, implying that actually the planet does come into it. Why the contradictions? Is it just oversimplification, or is Lynas skirting some difficult questions to keep sceptical readers on side? I don’t know.

Then there are the hobby horses. Lynas is pro-nuclear, pro-offsetting, pro-GM. That’s fine, except that he can’t leave well alone. The climate change chapter focuses entirely on energy generation and barely mentions any other sources of carbon – no transport, consumption or agriculture. Instead, it’s a rather one-sided call for nuclear power. If you didn’t get it, here comes nuclear power again in the chapter on land use, to argue that the land footprint of nuclear is better than wind farms. And then in the chapter on toxics, he gets halfway through the chapter and then goes off on another 15 page argument for nuclear. At least by that point he has the decency to say that “if you are already persuaded, you have my consent to skip it.”

I happen to agree with Lynas that we can’t do without nuclear power right now, at least in the medium term. But really, we get the point.

That brings me to the biggest problem, that Lynas appears to be deliberately picking a fight with the environmental movement. There’s a dig at them on every other page, sweeping generalisations that ‘greens think this’ or ‘environmentalists are wrong about that’. He’s often right, but it’s not necessary or dignified. More importantly, Lynas needs to recognise that he’s feeding the beast. By over-doing the greenie-bashing, he’s providing a long list of quotes for skeptics to take out of context and use against the very causes he is trying to promote.

This is worth reflecting on a little further, but as I don’t want to make this post too long, I wrote it up as a separate post last week.

In summary, this is a useful book that offers a new perspective on what we can and can’t do with the planet we call home. It’s message that we are in charge of Earth, whether we like it or not, is vital and well put. It restores neglected environmental issues such as the nitrogen cycle and ocean acidification to the agenda. It deserves to be widely read, and for the language of planetary boundaries to become common currency. But it would be a better book if Lynas had just let its message speak for itself, and let readers decide for themselves whether it is controversial or not.

I realise I’ve been rather critical, but the measure of a good book is not the extent to which I agree with it, and The God Species is well worth picking up.

19 comments

  1. I feel reminded of the time when I still was involved with Astronomy (back, in the last millenium). Astronomers have long been thinking about life in space (see the drake equation) and the fact that so far we see no evidence of other civilizations is referred to as “the great filter”. The nature of that filter is unknown, but one hypothesis is that quite simply the lifespan of a civilization is much shorter than we should hope for. Musings about planetary civilizations and the search for signals from space have been an intellectual playground for far out astrophysicists for many decades, and one common joke I remember was: “If there were civilizations out there and exponential growth would be the norm, we could see all that garbage in the galaxy with bare eyes.” Space scientists tend to have a big picture perspective, and perhaps that is needed more than ever. James Hansen comes from that corner as well.

    Here is a 1998 article about “the great filter” by Robin Hanson. For a different perpective from outer space: http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html

    Recently the atmospheric chemist Jörg Zimmermann pointed out another risky possibility that has everything to do with crossing boundaries. There was a good article by Peter Ward in Scientific American a few years ago titled “Impact from the Deep”. The full article is available here: http://www.chicagocleanpower.org/ward.pdf . Food for thought for global risk analysts.

      1. This is not mainstream astronomy, which is usually concerned with highly specialized topics surrounding theoretical cosmology or spectroscopy etc. But the last factor in the popular Drake equation relates to the lifespan of civilizations, and that’s where astronomy meets social theories. Maybe it also is not a coincidence that the foreword to the Oxford Reader “Global Catastrophic Risk” was written by Martin Rees, and half a dozen or so astronomers and astrophysicists are among the contributing authors.

  2. Hmm missed this one it surprised me a little you were relatively so positive with it and with nuclear. Seems just another libertarian techno optimist

    1. Really? I think it gave it a pretty hard time. It’s angsty and unnecessarily provocative. Lynas shamelessly believes in the technofix, and he’s clearly angry at the environmental movement. The result is a mean-spirited and often counter-productive book. But, despite all that, the planetary boundaries concept is a genuinely useful contribution.

      So it’s a book I didn’t like, but that I still think is important.

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