Mark Lynas “The God Species”

ISBN 978-0-00-731342-6. “The Gods Species – How the Planet can survive the Age of Humans” was written by Mark Lynas and published by Fourth Estate in 2011. Lynas’s “Six Degrees” remains one of the finest books on Climate Change that anyone should read. It is for good reason that it won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and is one of Post-carbon Living’s top rated books. So when Lynas turned against his old buddies in the green movement and called for the support of GM crops and Nuclear power he turned from being just an awesome author but also one with interesting views. Views we have a lot of sympathy for. Since our work has never stemmed from a set of green orthodoxies we certainly are also free to turn over the mish mash that is the cultural legacy of 40 years of environmentalism. Some of it is good, some bad and some darn-right ugly. We live in enlightened era of breakthrough environmentalism where the likes of Chris Goodall and George Monbiot feel comfortable expressing concerns over resource depletion alongside support for technologies such as nuclear. There was nothing new in what Lynas was attempting. What proved unfortunate was the style in which he has attempted this renaissance. He likes to bang his own drum.

We first noticed it when we started to follow Lynas’s Tweets. It became quickly clear that Lynas had no great vision of using social media to explore new ideas. No. He used Twitter to promote the sale of his books. This in itself is not wrong (it is his only income next to a retainer paid by the government of the Maldives) but what left us feeling jaded was the abrasive manner of his self-promotion. His Tweets started to resemble those of Bjorn Lomborg. But it goes further than this. Lynas now castes himself in the light of some great iconoclast. He feels that now there is now sacred cow of the green movement that he should not now, personally, seek out and destroy. He set about this task with the pointless pleasure of a graffiti artist who thinks he is creating great art when in fact he is just being a vandal. Take one example: in “The God Species” he briefly mentions the work of Jared Diamond and the collapse of civilisations such as the Mayans. He cites Diamond’s work as evidence. However, after the book was published he found some published work that poured scorn upon Diamond’s work on Easter Island. Lynas blogged at length at how this seemed to prove how the very concept of civilisation collapse for environmental reasons was wrong. I wrote a response on the blog itself to point out that there is nothing wrong with critiquing Diamond’s work, indeed it was nothing new. We have already reviewed “Questioning Collapse – Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire” (Patricia A. McAnany & Norman Yoffee, Cambridge University Press in 2010, ISNB 978-0-521-73366-3). However we went on to show that the editors of this book had actually agreed with Diamond’s hypothesis and only differed in the details of the examples. Lynas was not to be deterred. He launched a pointed attack on what he called “environmental determinism” which he described as “utterly flawed”. From this point on we are to conclude that Lynas not only believes in the redeeming features of some of mankind’s technology but that he now also believes that civilisation itself is somehow immune from ecological overshoot. In this he seems to have fallen in love with the views of the self-styled “rational optimist” Matt Ridley whom Lynas name-checks on a couple of occasions.

In “God Species” Lynas explores nine “planetary boundaries” which are biodiversity loss, climate change, nitrogen cycle, land system change, freshwater supply, chemical pollution, atmospheric aerosols, ocean acidification and ozone depletion. (These are sourced from J. Rockstrom et al, 2009: “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity”.) Lynas’ thesis is that mankind can pretty much do whatever it likes on the planet as long as he doesn’t transgress certain boundaries (those listed above) over a long term timescale. This will be familiar to anyone who has read “The Limits to Growth” and anyone familiar with the process of ecological overshoot. However, this is where Lynas steps into a self-created paradox: he writes an entire book about boundaries but then states (repeatedly) that there are no boundaries. For him the circle is square and in this there is no contradiction. In fact I had to read as far as page 235 to find Lynas making any kind of rationale for his case “I differ from most Green thinkers in believing that in the short to medium term ecological limits need constrain neither our numbers as a species nor the growth of our economic activity”. What a wonderful fudge! In one sentence Lynas sets himself aside from the entire green movement because of some disagreement over timescales. At no point does Lynas analyse exactly how long his version of the “medium term” is. Ten years, twenty? Maybe one hundred? On page 197 this: “barring some unforeseen worldwide civilisational collapse – humanity will have developed the technologies needed to avoid the holocaust of runaway global warming.” Thus Lynas declares that everything will be alright, unless it won’t be. How reassuring. Not.

Which brings us neatly onto peak oil for which Lynas says nothing until page 237 when he makes this astounding assertion: “planetary boundaries do not deal with resource constraints, which were central to earlier thinking about ecological limits like the Club of Rome’s groundbreaking 1972 report Limits to Growth. Again, this is to misunderstand the physical and ecological nature of the proposed boundaries: it makes no difference to the biosphere if humans run out of iron” He goes on to say that “peak oil might also be a good thing if it adds to rising prices of fossil fuels” – quite the humanitarian isn’t he? Lynas’s entire vision of the problem is laid out thus: something called the “planet” is in danger. In order for it to survive the infestation of humans on its surface the human race most voluntarily hold back from infringing a set of scientifically based boundaries – and we can do this using nuclear power, GM foods, ecosystem markets and carbon trading. I suspect most readers may well start to see the obvious flaw in this narrative. Whilst Lynas models himself as a very post-modern environmentalist he has no regard whatsoever for socioeconomic factors that effect the long term wellbeing of a billion of his fellow humans. This places him firmly inside the rhetoric of the mid-1970’s eco-socialism movement: essentially human beings are scum and the natural world would be better off without us. Although this is implicit of course that is NOT what Lynas is trying to say. But what is he trying to say? This makes this book a confusion of ideas. He honestly expect his fellow humans to obey a rather abstract set of scientific boundaries yet set aside the very basics of their own wellbeing: food and energy?

This left us puzzled. It seems our planet doesn’t care about peak oil therefore we shouldn’t either. Rings hollow for us. But this is not all. The reason why this book is confusing is that Lynas sets up a straw man of the green movement and enjoys tearing it down. He repeats a rather sad and inaccurate claim that the greens want poor people in third world nations to forsake economic growth. In reality nothing could be further from the truth and you only hear such tosh out of the blogs from the most rabid right-wing think tanks all of whom believe that all environmentalists are fundamentally anti-human. So how is it that Lynas can not give a jot about genuine physical limits upon growth, that can cause genuine human suffering, yet, at the same time, proclaim that it is environmentalism that is the real limit to growth?

So here you have the dilemma. Lynas seems stuck between two contradictory positions: one is the eco-socialist view of mankind as problem whilst the second is his new re-invented view of man as solution. Lynas’s entire supposition that mankind is the “God Species” is questionable. He states this simply because we have access to some technology that could undo some of the damage we have done upon our own ability to sustain life on this planet. However, we would argue that we are a long way from having such godly powers. The true “God Species” would be closer to the mankind in the visionary world of Gene Roddenberry. In Star Trek mankind has mastered a form a energy that gives him access to unlimited power. He then can use this power to turn energy into matter and vice versa. When mankind genuinely has unlimited access to energy from the very fabric of the universe, AND can then turn this energy into anything he dreams of; only THEN are we the God Species. Until such time we are nothing more than the apes who mastered fire. All we have mastered so far is the power in fossil fuels and some pretty crude forms of atomic fission. Genetic Modification may impress the readers of New Scientists but for the majority of Joe Blow public out there – they don’t give a damn. You cannot bend the fundamental laws of thermodynamics. You cannot get blood from a stone. We really are like yeast in a petri dish from the point of view of a real god. We are unable to escape our true planetary boundaries because we do not yet have the technology to escape our planet. We are still slaves to fossil fuel and it is running every corner of our modern industrialised economies.

It is all very well proclaiming that some technology can come bounding to the rescue. But this is to misunderstand the relation between our civilisation and the cheap energy that drives it. Abundant cheap energy allows our civilisation to become ever more complex and specialised. Our first reaction to resource constraints is to devise ever more complicated schemes to overcome our boundaries. But complexity cannot be supported without the assumption of cheap and ever expanding supplies of easily accessible energy. You reach a point of diminishing returns whereby the decline in energy undermines the expansion in complexity designed to mitigate the resource depletion. Hence this contradiction tears the system apart in the process of ecological collapse. The only way to overcome this collapse is to discover an expanding source of cheap energy that can give the marginal utility to stay ahead of the loss of utility extending from the increases in complexity. This is a conundrum, since if you had access to such abundant cheap energy then, in theory, your wouldn’t need such complexity. In essence you are looking for the next breakthrough. The next magic bullet to make all your problems go away. Without this breakthrough you have an energy gap. To avoid collapse you need a planned energy descent.

Which brings us neatly to Transition Towns. Or not. They are not mentioned anywhere in Lynas’s work. Indeed he may not be aware of the Transition Movement or similar of their ilk around the globe. So obsessed he is with slaughtering the myths of the green movement he may well have just classified Transition us another element of the environmental movement he so despises. This on page 214 “Currently the Green left seems determined to dig itself still further into this political cul-de-sac, preferring to urge an unappealing narrative of communitarian austerity on an unwilling public”. Ouch! That big Green straw man marches up and down Lynas’s written words demanding that humanity must “give up cars, live in colder houses or holiday closer to home”. Again, we have to ask, what the heck is Lynas on about? To be fair there is some truth in what Lynas is writing but we have to wonder exactly where all the resources will come from to give the world’s poor these luxuries. Of course Lynas has an answer on page 68 “The London based New Economics Foundation (NEF) for example, writes in a recent report: ‘If everyone in the world lived as people do in Europe, we would need three planets to support us.’ This is nonsensical for everyone in the world is going to live like Europeans within this century”. Say what now? With one flourish of his word-processing-keystrokes, Lynas has done away with overpopulation, hunger and resource depletion. He has declared it “nonsense” thus it is so. Although Lynas embraces the free-market (as we do) you get treated to this on page 75/76 “Decisions about the extent to combine the different technologies cannot simply be left to the market if the target is a carbon-neutral electricity supply.” We agree but it sounds like the knee-jerk ecosocialist Lynas from the 1970’s doesn’t it?

On page 82 this: “I reject the implication that carbon reduction should be held hostage to a wider ideological programme seeking to change people’s lifestyles and patterns of behaviour.” For Lynas has also declared that mankind will not change its culture nor its values. To attempt to do this is just “ideological” and thus not practical. This implies that it is a waste of time trying to make this happen. We disagree. Not only does human cultural values change all the time, in this case, they will HAVE to. We are an adaptable species. We can change. We just have to want to. We agree that the Green movement are often the least qualified to tell people what they want but there are a LOT of good people out there who possess enormous wisdom when it comes to communicating what people “want”. People genuinely do want a post-carbon economy, they just don’t know how to get there. Such a world can be better than what we have now. We just need to sell it better and stop pretending that we will all have to live in colder houses. It is about living in warmer houses and eating better. None of this sort of argument enters Lynas’s vocabulary because, for him, human beings cannot be changed thus we should not try. Tell that to the advertising industry who makes us buy all kinds of shit we don’t need. They will laugh in your face Lynas.

Now an admission: we did learn something new from this book. In the sections on land-use it seems convincing that it is good for the environment that we all stay huddled in cities. However, cities are not necessarily resilient are they? When the lights go out you can sure count on there being a long line of refugees heading for the country. Although Lynas expects us to believe that some environmentalists wish to have a Pol Pot style “year zero” and march everyone off to a bucolic lifestyle in the country – this is unlikely to happen through ideology. It may happen for survival. On page 238 this remarkable statement of near-self-loathing: “It is no accident that environmental groups like the New Economics Foundation, which worry about the psychological and social evils of overconsumption, only flourish in rich countries. To a semi-destitute family picking over a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Manila, such concerns must seem as irrelevant as they are self-indulgent”. Those poor rich people! This is pretty low. Once again, the straw man raises his head. How the NEF must tremble at the destruction of their white, rich, middle class paradigm. To Lynas the views of the NEF are “patronising” to the world’s poor (page 239). On page 240 Lynas went on to suggest that the work on steady state economics by Herman Daly and Tim Jackson had “palpably failed”. He goes as far as claiming the Tim Jackson “candidly admits” this in the 2009 “Prosperity without Growth”. He does no such thing of course. Jackson actually shows in his book that scientific and economic absurdity of the idea that we can maintain economic growth whilst de-carbonising the economy.

So, what we have from Lynas is a lot of hot air and iconoclastic ideology. He does occasionally make his point well. His analysis of carbon markets, nuclear power and GM foods is well put together but even here he is prone to being a tad bombastic. Whilst successfully arguing that Nuclear is safe he rather stuck his neck on the block with the economics of nuclear power. This on page 71: “According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, the cost of nuclear electricity is roughly comparable to gas, less than coal, and much less than wind, giving the lie to the oft-heard objection that nuclear power is too expensive” and he backs up this statement with just this one sentence and one citation. He thus ignores all the other evidence that strongly suggests that the economics of Nuclear is largely “voodoo” and that it represents an astounding opportunity cost too. Check out the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute. It largely depends on how you calculate the cost. If you add all the externalities, such as taxpayers having to underwrite the project in order to socialise the private profit from such ventures, then it is the world’s most expensive way of boiling water. If you wish to encourage work in a sexy industry for your none-too-discerning disciples then you will calculate this cost only on the direct costs. Voila! Cheap as chips. Anyone familiar with Nuclear power accounting over the last fifty years knows how it works. Voodoo indeed. Lynas really should know better than believing industry hype like this. For a science writer he may need a course in economics if not basic accounting. The reason to choose nuclear is that it is easy. Not that it is cheap. If he argued that it was expensive because of the low volume enforced by the green movement he might be on solid ground.

In the entire second chapter Lynas visits what appears to be his favourite topic: biodiversity. In this he truly is the unreconstructed ecosocialist from the 1970’s. He just loves his fluffy bunny wabbits and argues strongly for the proper monetary valuation of ecosystems. In this we have no argument but to describe this as a planetary boundary is to put the cart before the horse. It is ironic isn’t it that through chapter two Lynas makes a very good case for just how resilient our ecosystem is without all the species we have killed? In fact it largely doesn’t seem to matter if we have twenty living species of tiger or none at all. Nobody cares. Genuinely. If Lynas truly is so post-modern and techno-optimist, as he makes out, then surely he can see that his “God Species” can simply use genetic modification to make new species as we wish. With all the nuclear power then we don’t need ecosystems. We will use out abundant energy resources to simply replace the systems that clean the air and water with machines. For this is what it means. So where do you draw the line? You’ll find few answers from Lynas’s ideology. His best answer is to grab a number out of thin air for a cap on species extinction. And whilst we are on the topic: of the nine “planetary boundaries” mankind has only tripped over the limits of three of them. Another two of them are so vaguely defined that we don’t even know what the limit is. Lynas happily prints these facts whilst dismissing all of mankind’s economic and resource woes.

After I finished reading “The God Species” I picked up Thomas H. Greco, Jr’s “The End of Money and the future of civilisation”. In it he quickly introduces his readers to three things that are growing exponentially (and thus unsustainably): “the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, human population, and debt”. He goes on to write that the “mega-crisis” we face is “not only environmental, but also simultaneously economic, financial, cultural, religious, and political.” This is a healthy reminder that there is an awful lot wrong with our world. In comparison to the real-world problems of Lynas and his “semi-destitute family picking over a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Manila” the academic requirements of “planetary boundaries” seem to be largely of only partial interest. They are the views of one bunch of scientists most of whom seem to have selected boundaries they know of, from within their own field of study. By definition this would always be self-selecting and limited in scope. If you chose a different bunch of economists you will get a different set of boundaries. Indeed Bjorn Lomborg did this exercise of priority setting in Copenhagen a few years back and came up with an entirely different list. It includes trying to stem the spread of AIDS and malaria in Africa. All very noble. The truth is that every sphere of science has it own concerns about “boundaries” – its own priorities about the sorts of things we should be tackling as a species. Lynas has attempted to popularise just another list by another bunch of scientists. But his focus is too narrow. Our problems are far broader and he forgets how little people will genuinely care about some of his planetary boundaries when they are hungry and the lights go out. We do need a new set of priorities. This MIGHT help but it isn’t a definitive answer.

We picked up this book because we knew Lynas had a solid background of science writing and we knew his views chimed with our own. Disappointingly we found this book to be problematic because it is trying to deliver radically new ideas cooked over a hotbed of very tired old clich├ęs. If you study “The God Species” carefully you will quickly find it is riddled with inconsistencies and half-baked arguments that go nowhere. We are not against Lynas for his pro-Nuclear or pro-GM views. No, we are disappointed because of the internal inconsistencies in Lynas line of thinking. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s “1984” Lynas appears to have finally embraced Big Brother and now truly believes that 2 + 2 = 5. This is a stunning piece of self-delusion. 2 + 2 always = 4 and you cannot have exponential growth of ANYTHING on a finite planet as long as you do not possess the technology to truly overcome your energy and resource limits. Lynas has no real answer because he hasn’t even truly got his head around the scale of the problem. He thinks it is only a matter for scientists. In truth it is a challenge for us all and it spans the boundaries between science, culture, civilisation, economics and all the rest. Lynas has created but a one-dimensional study of the problem and come up with no answers at all.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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Mark Lynas “The God Species” — 1 Comment

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