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Faith in technology - wisdom or arrogance?
on 9 August 2012
This is a curate's egg of a book - good in parts, but leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.
To start with the good, Lynas presents the 'planetary boundaries' approach with commendable clarity. He explains why each boundary is significant, assesses likely consequences of breaching it, and establishes why environmental policy makers should do more to respect these boundaries and how they interact. His example of how encouragement of biofuels may help mitigate climate change, but at the cost of crossing critical land use and biodiversity boundaries, is particularly telling.
The more Lynas explores policy choices, however, the more selective he becomes in his use of evidence. He seems determined to avoid any policies, however effective, which might be perceived as interfering with personal choice. So changes in human behaviour that would be more respectful of planetary boundaries - reducing meat consumption or air travel, for example - are dismissed as both unnecessary and undesirable. When it comes to technological developments like genetically engineered crops or nuclear power, however, Lynas becomes quite evangelical - highlighting potential rather than actual benefits, and downplaying or even dismissing risks. He suggests, for example, that there is "no logical reason" why genetic engineering means monoculture, without addressing the economic reality that this is so often the result in practice. Similarly, he downplays the risks of nuclear waste storage by insisting that longer-lasting radioactive isotopes "can be recycled in other reactors" rather than buried, skating over the distinction between theoretical possibility and actual performance.
Lynas' faith in the capacity of technology to solve all environmental problems is in marked contarast to his accounts of past technological changes like fossil fuels, nitrogen fertilisers and CFC coolants - all of which promised so much when they were first introduced, but had damaging long-term unintended consequences that were only recognised several decades later. Lynas does not make clear why the technofixes he now supports (including massive geo-engineering projects like pumping sulphur pollutants into the stratosphere) should be any different. Perhaps it all comes down to the author's conviction, encapsulated in his book title, that it's not just acceptable but essential that we 'play God' and develop our dominion over nature in order to protect our material comforts and engineer our survival. The danger, unfortunately, is that, instead of divine wisdom, we end up with an enhanced version of the human arrogance that got us into this mess in the first place.