on 9 July 2011
The paperback edition of "The God Species" by Mark Lynas has been withdrawn from sale by Amazon just as it was launched, after somebody complained it was "not as described". The author suspects foul play - and having read it I can see that he might have made some enemies.
But importantly - and this is the reason why you should read the book - Lynas's argument is so groundbreaking that there are a number of different traditional "camps" within which someone may have been offended enough to try to stop the book in its tracks. Lynas has been seen by many as on the side of the Greens, as he speaks about the need to avoid catastrophic environmental change. Hence opponents of the Green movement may automatically be opponents of Lynas. But in "The God Species", Lynas has taken the bold and innovative step of making strong argument in favour of using our technology to make us more responsible as stewards of the Earth, which he views us as now ruling with the power of Gods.
Perhaps most controversially, Lynas argues that nuclear power and genetic engineering do have a place in avoiding dangerous climate change and protecting food security - clearly views which risk alienating many traditional Greens. But the point is that Lynas has backed up his case with extensive and well-referenced evidence, so this is not an idealogical book - yes it still is his opinion, but it is a well-informed opinion which can be challenged point by point by counter-evidence if you so wish.
Lynas has successfully broken free of the chains of partisan views in the environmental debate, which must be a good thing - polarization of the argument has led to entrenched positions which will ultimately do nobody any good, and lead to underhand behaviour such as (in this this case, it seems) the suppression of free speech. But that is precisely why the book should be read - it's a novel, independent view about which you can make up your own mind.
My guess is that anyone who reads this book would find something they agree with, something they disagree with and something utterly surprising. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anybody that is interested in a fresh take on environmental matters, whichever "side" you think you are on.
There is no doubt that humans are placing great stresses on a host of planetary boundaries. Were they all to be breached, then at industrial civilisation is finished, and so perhaps all life on Earth (although of course nature could get along without us). The book describes with great clarity how near humanity is to crossing various natural thresholds, not just in pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but also lesser-known threats such as ocean acidification. Make no mistake, this is hair-raising stuff.
Not many greens are going to dissent from his analysis of the problem. But many will hate his proposed solutions - nuclear power, GM crops, for example, and his repudiation of conventional green nostrums such as advocating austerity, cutting living standards etc. So in this sense, he is by no means preaching to the converted. He shows how greens' conventional rejection of solutions like nuclear power and GM crops threatens to make the problems worse. There is no doubt for example that the fact that so many nuclear power stations have not been built has been to the wider detriment of the environment because we have simply burned more coal in lieu of nuclear, with all the deleterious consequences that entails for the planet's environment.
It is a message that I enjoyed reading. So, from my perspective, this book can be commended for the following reasons.
First of all, it deals with realistic solutions that work with the grain of human nature and not against it, and hence have a greater hope of success than the eco-purists proposed solutions (cutting living standards, abandoning air travel etc.). The sorts of solutions advocated by people who call themselves deep ecologists and such like have no broader appeal, hence no chance of success. Second, it avoids the sort of sanctimonious, preachy tone that accents a lot of green `discourse', which again puts a lot of people off. Third, it avoids talking in the language of sin and purity, again the sort of tone a lot of people associate with green spokespeople, the sort of tone which causes people to switch off as no one likes to be preached at, especially by people who appear to enjoy the benefits our industrial civilisation brings while decrying it at the same time (witness green activists jetting off to various climate-change meetings and conferences around the world).
Lynas acknowledges that much of the harm we have done to the planet is not premeditated, that the rise of living standards is not something to be deplored, because it has made huge contributions to the alleviation of human misery. The challenge is to reconcile our technological prowess with the planet's limits, not an easy balance to strike, by any means. Many will doubt that it is possible. Perhaps it is not. But the sort of gloating eco-fatalism preached by people like John Gray, from the keyboards of their home computers, sitting comfortably in well-lit and well-heated homes, has nothing to commend it.
So many conventional greens won't like being told that some of their preferred solutions have actually made the planet's maladies worse - or would, were they to be implemented. But those who fight shy of accepting the truth of man-made climate change, perhaps out of conviction that some proposed green solutions would in fact do serious harm to human flourishing, as I have done, should read this book. For our environmental problems are very real, and our species risks becoming a victim of our own success. But just as eco-dogmatism prevents us from adopting workable solutions, denial that the problem of climate change exists makes for dangerous complacency that threatens to undo the gains of our industrial civilisation. Those who wish to see these gains preserved should therefore read this book.
on 27 April 2012
This is a really important contribution to debates about human activity and its interaction with the environment.
Its importance lies in the clear discussion about 'planetary boundary systems' and not just climate change: those nine interconnected and crucial 'whole earth' systems that sustain human life. These systems can be characterised as having some room for more human intervention before the system starts breaking down, being more or less in equilibrium with human activity, or being beyond equilibrium now. He presnets convincing data and shows each system's rate of change given current trends.
Not being a planetary system scientist, there was a lot of new information for me here, some of it surprising. I would have liked a few graphs and the content is crying out for good diagrams and graphics.
The ideas are of a piece with other 'revisionist' thinking, for example Stewart Brand (on the benefits of cities) and to some extent George Monbiot (on the benefits of nuclear power, despite Fukashima). I like Lynas's fracture of 'being green' equals anti-capitalist/anti-science/anti-corporate.
Probably the biggest challenge for politically active 'greens' is the idea that, given the right incentives, 'the market' i.e current corporate capitalism and governments, can really help shape these boundaries for the better. Growth might be ok, as long as its impact can be sustained by each system, is his basic point.
However, he appears to downplay the appalling history of rampant corporate and regulatory mismanagement of the very systems he wants 'us' to deal with. While his arguments can appeal to and be understood by interested readers, activists, corporate heads and investment funders, it seems to me he is at his weakest when he appeals to so called 'responsible' captains of industry. His call to action just doesn't hit that bottom line, while some innovation simply needs to stop, such as 'fracking'.
Having said that, this book is essential reading for anyone who thinks, talks and acts on environmental issues. I guess that means you.
on 12 August 2011
Humanity is powerful enough and knowledgeable enough to take an intelligent approach to consciously manage the planet.
A group of scientists, each a world expert in their subject, nailed down the key parts of the earth system most effected by humans. They then quantified the "planetary boundaries" for each: the biodiversity, climate change, land use, nitrogen, freshwater, toxin, aerosol, ocean acidification and ozone layer boundary. Mark Lynas sets himself the task of publiscising their conclusions.
Mark contends that mankind anthropogenically now affects every one of these issues and poses a threat to each which he expounds with authority. But unlike many environmentalists he is not a pessimist nor does he believe in austerity and sacrifice as the solution. He does believe in innovation and enterprise as a solution.
Mankind has the technical ability - for example at the extreme, Craig Venter, one of the first sequencers of the human genome, has made self replicating life form out of the memory of a computer and booted it up inside an empty cell. Mankind also has the organisational ability - for example the response of the international community through the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to effectively reduce the levels of CFC's in the atmosphere after CFC's were identified as creating holes in the ozone layer. The scientific debate about the importance of CFC's as a cause at that time mirrored the raging debate about climate change today.
The strength of Mark Lynas's approach is the sheer ambition - he does not shrink from the big picture - and the move away from exclusive fascination with climate change to encompassing other critical issues. He shares the optimism of Lomberg and Ridley and advocates looking at the success stories and cautioning against disillusion. For example he celebrates the success of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001 on tackling the production and use of the most damaging endocrine disrupting and long lived chemical pollutants. But he abhors their conclusions that climate change in particular shoud not be a key priority.
He holds some unenvironmentalist views and advances unexpected ideas. Urbanisation is good for sustainablity because it reduces population growth and concentrates huiman impact on the land in a smaller area. Privatisation of water supply worldwide by the WTO and eliminating subsidies and trade barriers would make internatinal trade in water efficient and therefore conserve water resources. The development of nuclear power, genetic engineering and the rejection of crazy subsidies on ethanol into fuel are all advocated.
He believes that the international community can and must act.
The major reservation to his argument is a feeling of disjoint from some major events and the relative costs of his proposals. For example low cost shale gas is becoming a major source of US energy but there is no mention of it in the book. Offshore windfarms which he advocates are hugely expensive.
The plantery boundary approach is probably controversial among scientists but is an interesting approach. But Mark Lynas broaches no doubts about the scientific evidence and the absolute necessity of saving the planet from the certainties implied by the plantery boundaries irrespective of the opportunity costs. He places no priorities on tackling each of the issues - they must all be done. And other issues e.g. malaria eradication or education get no priority.
The confidence in the ability of the international community is encouraging. His argument that international political leadership as the only way of bringing private interests in line with community interests is convincing.
But in a world of limited resource surely priorities have to be established and whilst international government can impose limits and regulation, resources have to be allocated and so opportunity cost canot be ignored as Mark Lynas seems to do.
But an ambitious and stimulating book.
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.
on 27 July 2011
This books gives an excellent summary of the current state of environmental affairs, and the need to take action soon to prevent environmental catastrophe. Most importantly the author discusses how the shallow arguments of established power blocks (including 'The Greens') need to be countered with a more comprehensive policy underwritten by world leaders. Notably, China is seen as leading the world in introducing the right balance of policies. Where they lead, the rest of the world should follow ! The other key recommendation is to invest heavily in nuclear generation, because statistically it is the safest means of creating energy, and in genetic development of crops, to avoid the chemical pollution . More damage and deaths are caused by uncontrolled carbon, nitrogen and suphur , than in man made technologies. If you want to be informed , read this now !
on 13 September 2011
This is one of the best books I've read on the environmental issues we face and how to solve them.
He convincingly argues against many stances of both climate-deniers *and* die-hard environmentalists with a more rational and pragmatic approach. By accepting that our species can cause drastic changes to the planet, we can choose to consciously manage the planet to stay within live within scientifically-defined ecological "safe" boundaries.
He argues that this can be achieved by applying (largely currently available) technology with affordable investment. Along the way, he illustrates how the often anti-capitalist and technophobic position of environmentalists is counter-productive. All too often they are as guilty of scientific cherry-picking to suit their position as they accuse climate-deniers of being. Indeed, he admits his own formerly anti-GM stance was based on exactly this kind of blinkered thinking and it was humbling to read his explanation for his about-turn. I even personally re-evaluated my anti-nuclear stance based on the much-needed rational discussion in this book. e.g. he discusses the dramatically reduced half-life of waste material from fast-breeder reactors, something I was previously unaware of and seemed missing from any debate on nuclear fission.
Except for the damning and almost painful to read outline of the species we've driven to extinction, the book has a largely positive tone. It is within our means for even an increased population to live safely on this planet with access for all to modern "Western" mod-cons. Sound implausible? Read this book.
on 19 October 2011
As a person who knows next to nothing about the facts behind climate change or enviromentalism this book was a real eye-opener - explaining the key issues in detail whilst being easy to understand and utterly fascinating.
The writer also appears to be the best kind of revolutionary environmentalism in accepting that people and not going to sacrifice their luxuries, their modern pleasures or their wallets for the sake of higher moral reasons (or at least not enough to make a difference to climate change). Instead he puts forward realistic plans on how climate change can be tackled without damaging the economy, our lifestyle or the principles of capitalism (which aren't going anywhere, recession or no).
You may not be agree with everything in this book but if you're interested in the subject this is a great read.
on 13 July 2011
Mark Lynas has given the great Green project of this century a comprehensive, workable framework.
The nine "planetary boundaries"---biodiversity, climate, land use, freshwater, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification, and ozone layer---spell out the hazards we've created with exactly the specificity needed to fix them. We know what needs to be done and most of how to do it. With a lot more science, and a century of sustained effort, now that we know how to measure success, we may well succeed.
on 4 September 2014
This is the first review I have ever written, and I am urged to write it as this book, for me, has opened my eyes. Do not let the title of the book, 'The God Species', mislead you in to thinking it is arrogant it any way. It is not. After the first chapter, that becomes apparent.
This book is concise, clear, and actually rather optimistic all things considered. I struggled to put it down at points! Chapters 4 I found particularly insightful. Regarding GM crops, this book intrigued me to research them further, resulting in me completely changing my opinion on them. A lot of good, strong research has been done for the writing of this book. Lynas backs his arguments up with strong statistics, scientific research and references, taken from varied and valid sources.
Overall, this book has inspired me.