Earth and us: are we rebel organisms or divine apes?

Sat, Jul 16, 2011, 01:00

ENVIRONMENT: The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of HumansBy Mark Lynas. Fourth Estate, 288pp. £14.99

SKIN AND HAIR are flying in some parts of the environmental movement. Committed Greens of various shades are arguing for different strategies and different technologies to put our planet on a sustainable path. Mark Lynas is in the thick of it: a Green who has gone nuclear, a campaigner against genetically modified crops who now swears by them.

This is his third book, presenting a popular explanation of the latest environmental science. The work is based on the “planetary boundaries” concept developed in 2009 by a group of leading scientists connected to the Stockholm Resilience Centre. The group has identified nine “planetary life-support systems” essential for human survival, and has attempted to quantify just how far these have been pushed to the limit already.

Lynas’s central question is whether we are rebel organisms destined to destroy the biosphere or divine apes sent to manage it intelligently and so save it from ourselves. He believes our global environmental problems are soluble. Or rather that the grounds for optimism are at least as strong as the grounds for pessimism and that in optimism we have a better chance of motivating people to support the changes we need to make.

He makes that case by showing what has already been achieved. The hole in the ozone layer was real and potentially devastating, but it is starting to close thanks to an international agreement to phase out the man-made chemicals that caused it. Acid rain was real, but again we are starting to pull back from the brink as the harmful pollutants are taken out. And though international co-operation on climate change fell into disarray in Copenhagen, the Chinese government, which played such a negative card in that jaded conference, has since pumped investment into low-carbon technologies. As the US president has said, the world is experiencing a new “Sputnik moment” where the race is on for the development of new clean-energy technologies.

The problem is that for every advance there is more than one tale of reversal. Lynas is particularly concerned about the loss of biodiversity, measurable by rates of extinction, which he argues is more important even than climate change. The latest data shows that the extinction rate is 10 times the boundary limit set by the scientists. The number of wild animals has fallen by a third in the past 40 years, and the rate of loss is accelerating, especially in our oceans. The lower the diversity of species, the less resilient and stable is our ecosystem.

The scientists say we are also over the boundary limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as for nitrogen extraction. Elsewhere, we are heading in the wrong direction, but it appears we can still avoid the boundary limits in ocean acidification, freshwater consumption and conversion of land for crop use. The benefit of this boundaries approach is that you start to see the connected nature of our earth systems and place individual threats such as climate change within the wider context of the use of our natural resources.

It is a big ask in about 250 pages to set out the research on each limit and to try to analyse the engineering solutions to each problem. Lynas has the benefit of being climate adviser to the Maldivian government, so he knows what it is like to be faced with the real-life constraints in changing a national energy system. He has also been influenced by the “rational optimist”, Matt Ridley, and shares his belief that we can continue to see a growth in human prosperity and population and that market-based solutions will deliver the technology we need.

I would argue with some of his solutions. When it comes to nuclear, I think Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has it right and that market forces are already making the call by investing in renewables and energy efficiency ahead of outdated and uninsurable nuclear technology. When it comes to genetically modified crops I would love to be so sure that there will be no unintended consequences from their use; until there is such certainty, however, I think taking a precautionary approach makes sense.

But overall my sense from reading this book is that it is good to have people within the Green movement testing every assumption we make. As Lynas says, his argument with the Greens is with the strategy, not the ultimate objectives. Far better to have someone with the right motivation questioning where we stand rather than to leave it to well-funded people with ulterior motives and a willingness to twist scientific investigation every which way for their own purposes.

If we are to become a God-like species that can avert our own worst effects on the planet, we will have to develop the better side of our nature. Doing so requires an openness to questioning, a willingness to listen and an ability to engage in rational argument about our differences. This book is one sign of how Green thinking continues to evolve. It is part of an evolutionary process we are all engaged in, the success or failure of which will determine whether we survive and thrive.


Eamon Ryan is the leader of the Green Party