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God species review


I wrote the following review a couple of months ago but failed to publish it. I was reminded of this when Martin Robbins asked yesterday on his Guardian blog: "Is environmentalism too left wing?"

Will we go the way of the woolly mammoth? Or can people from all sides of the political spectrum learn to work together on environmental issues? Pic: Wikimedia

If there is one reason to read Mark Lynas’ book The God Species, it’s because of his exposition of the ‘planetary boundaries’ concept. Lynas writes lucidly and passionately to make the case that there limits that the world’s delicate and complex ecosystem can operate within. This is based on the work of Johan Rockstrom and his group at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which was published in Nature in 2009 (You can see Rockstrom speak at TED). The theory is that it’s not just CO2 we should be worrying about, but also ocean acidification (which some scientists say is global warming’s "equally evil twin"), the nitrogen cycle, biodiversity, land use, freshwater, chemical pollution and aerosols (such as soot).

As it stands, we have already crossed the line on: CO2 emissions, which should be kept to 350 parts per million; biodiversity loss each year is ten times more than the safe limit; and the eutrophication of our rivers lakes and seas is creating biodiversity ‘dead zones’.

Mark Lynas argues that in our god-like dominion over the world and its species, we should take responsibility for keeping within the ‘safe operating-space’ of the planet’s various systems. Lynas writes: “With the primacy of science, there seems to be less and less room for the divine. God’s power is increasingly being exercised by us.” Lynas reasons that we have the power to save ourselves and our the fruitful ecology of our planet as long as we step up to our responsibility. He envisions that this will occur through the use of technology to progress our ability to produce energy and feed the the world’s people.

As you can probably imagine, Lynas’ manifesto therefore considers the most controversial topics for environmentalists today: genetically modified crops and nuclear energy, and to a lesser extent geo-engineering. These techno-fixes cause hot discussion in newspapers and blogs around the world. There has been ongoing debate over whether nuclear is an appropriate stop-gap ping-ponging between George Monbiot and Jonathon Poritt in the Guardian, and there has a spat between Scientific American blogger Christie Wilcox and Earth Island Journal editor John Mark over the pros and cons of organic versus industrial agriculture.

Lynas criticises the green movement for having rejected technological solutions to ecological challenges, and says of anti-GM activists (or which he was one, and has now repented), for example: “Opposing a technology a priori meant that lots of potential benefits were stopped or delayed for no good cause.”

Lynas states that technology is neutral, it is what we do with it that counts. This is something I really do agree with. Lynas uses hard science as the foundation for his polemic, so it is hard not to be infected with his enthusiasm upon reading the book. For instance, it is thought-provoking and a little shocking to read that organic farming is worse for the environment, on balance, because of the amount of land that would needed to feel the billions. I remain slightly sceptical, however, and feel a lingering uncertainty over some of these key environmental issues - mainly because of the complex web of factors to consider. Such as: Will GM really increase yields, asks the New York Times? Just how much power does is the nuclear lobby curry with our government in the UK, and will this cause key investment in renewables to stumble?

Another objection I have is that Lynas’ assertion that capitalism is a fine tool for us to create a new sustainable world appears a bit vague. One of his ideas is that one day we will get to a state in the economy where products are endlessly recycled. “At a conceptual level,” he writes, “what we must surely aim for is a closed-loop economy, where rates of recycling come as close to 100 per cent as practically possible.” Even with the closed-loop economy I don’t see how this can happen without coming up against a brick wall in the future. Surely the growth in the economy has to come from somewhere - does this not mean that the economy will always need feeding with more resources that will some day run out?

Lynas states electronics as one example of progress in using less resources, instead of producing tonnes of plastic of CDs or paper for books. This irks me, because of the ugly side of the electronics industry - the social and environmental downsides of making these devices and getting rid of them when the next new thing comes along (Disclaimer: yes, I am using a laptop to write this, and have a mobile, camera etc). Perhaps our dependence on our gadgets is better than relying on CDs and paper, but the electronics industry isn’t exactly a squeaky-clean closed-loop economy, and could be driving the destructive mining of rare earth minerals.

Robin McKie, reviewing The God Species in the Guardian was also irritated by some parts of the book, which he criticised as being inaccurate - however these appear to be minor flaws that McKie attributes to the rush the book was put together in. I also noticed this, especially when ecology jargon such as ‘albedo’ went unexplained in one chapter. This kind of slip-up made me wonder whether the book was aimed at other environmentalists or the layperson?

But even all these those quibbles weren’t enough to put me off what it an absorbing read. In one of the most fascinating passages in the book, Lynas describes how the Cancun climate agreement was hashed out. As one of the handful of people there as an eyewitness in his role as a sustainability adviser to the President of the Maldives, Lynas imparts an extraordinary shift in political power between the US and China. Lynas shares the frustrations of most environmentalists over the inefficacy of politicians to lead on the matter of curbing out climate change emissions.

For all of my criticisms, I do admire Lynes’ attempt to join the political ideologies of the right and left to work together to keep the planet safe. And - whether you like the analogy of humans to ‘god’ or not - the book is imbued with an intense feeling of our own power to destroy or to innovate and protect. For instance Lynas writes movingly of the megafauna extinctions, which he believes are strongly linked to human hunting. I actually had to call two people to tell them about the horror of this. But The God Delustion also delivers a rousing sense of optimism that we can solve the problems we have caused.

Please let me know what you think of my comments and your own views of the book if you have read it. Thanks!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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