Lynas on Lynas: the philosophy of “The God Species”

Mark Lynas’s new book, “The God Species” has received considerable coverage for its controversial critiques of sections of the “green movement”, its advocacy of nuclear power and geo-engineering, and whether his proposals for a way forward could work.

Whatever else may be said about it, it provides a valuable exposition of the environmental issues facing us currently, and opens wide some of the debates on solutions which need to be had – and which I’m sure will be discussed with great passion at our conference. Lynas puts his case strongly, but has definitely not convinced everyone!

What I want to say about it is not an analysis of the technical solutions, which have been covered more than adequately elsewhere by those more qualified to do so, but to look at Lynas’s underlying philosophy. Whether I agreed with his individual points or not, I found this a deeply disturbing book. Lynas’s worldview seems to me both flawed but drastically inconsistent, and in the main I shall be critiquing him using his own ideas from elsewhere in the book!

But to start, I couldn’t let his misconception of religion go unremarked. Can it seriously be argued that:

The world’s major religions, founded as they were in an earlier, more innocent age, share [the insistence that nothing we do can have a planet-scale impact]. (6-7)

To his main argument. The book considers the planetary boundaries model of Rockström and others, that there are nine environmental limits that, if exceeded, risk severe damage to life on this planet – they include biodiversity, climate change, ocean acidification and others. Lynas describes where we are on each, and potential fixes to resolve each, pointing out we need appropriate political will, and efforts from businesses and the private sector (uncontroversial), technology and free-market solutions (less so).

Lynas clearly puts a lot of faith in science, technology and the financial system. “Our culture and politics languishes decades behind our science.” (7) which, given he requires international political agreements on climate change amongst many other things, is already a little problematic. But we must act on the basis of this science, because we are clearly holding “the levers of power over the Earth’s major cycles [and should] take conscious decisions about how the planet should be managed”, rather than unconsciously doing vast damage as we are at present.

So how do we know what to do? Science tells us. But Lynas also describes the earth’s self-regulation thus:

somehow an emergent property of the system… This concept is a central plank of systems theory, and seems to apply to successful complex systems from the internet to ant colonies. These systems are characterised by near-infinite complexity: all their nodes of interconnectedness cannot possibly be identified, quantified or centrally planned…. The Earth that encompasses them is the most complex and bewilderingly successful system of the lot. (16, my emphasis)

Or consider this image of the loss of biodiversity in ecosystems:

Conceptually, this is a bit like the game of Jenga…. Needless to say, whoever removes the crucial ‘keystone’ piece that topples the tower loses. The lesson of Jenga is an important one, because it shows that there is no single keystone: each removed block makes the tower less and less stable, but no one knows in advance which piece will lead the tower to collapse (43, my emphasis)

On one hand, we are called to pull levers, but on the other, we don’t have any means of predicting the consequences of doing so, which may include damage to the ozone layer from CFCs (Lynas’s own example) or the rabbit infestation of Australia.

The earth of course may survive our efforts. Environmentalists are often accused of doommongering and saying that we risk killing all life on earth. The consensus position would not go this far, with the most likely outcome being a further mass extinction but life continuing, either with or without humanity. Lynas, however, is logically consistent here – arguing that the self-regulating system has a “gap in time between a perturbation and the ensuing correction” (19) and that models have shown that a sufficiently large shock, particularly caused by a single dominant species, can indeed cause destruction (20).

This argument, however, does not appear to have been taken into account by the Lynas trying to fix climate change by a transition to low-carbon energy technologies. He seems sanguine about the prospect of relying on several new energy technologies which are far from mainstream yet (68ff) despite the urgency of the environmental crises. If – and that is a big and highly disputed if – they fit as near-direct replacements for what we have now, the effect on society in general might be fairly small. But the economic consequences are substantial, and our economic situation currently fragile. For Lynas “the only thing holding back progress is finding the cash”, a “minor concern” (77) which can be done through widescale quantitative easing. Peak oil “might also be a good thing if it adds to rising prices of fossil fuels” (237) but the economic effects of having to pay these rising prices into the transition is not considered.

These changes will undoubtedly be a “perturbation” if not a major shock to the world economy. What is the likely corresponding correction?

Not, as many have argued, a move to some sort of no- or low-growth economy, whether intentional or forced. Lynas points out, rightly, that there is a desire for rapid growth in the developing world, that many suffer poverty, poor health and so on, and that there are aspirations there for current Western living standards. The alternative proposals by Hermann Daly and others have not been road-tested, and still have unresolved difficulties, as discussed by, say, Tim Jackson. Lynas also argues that consumption levels will top out over time. Whether this is backed up by the evidence or not, he predicts that, in the terms of the Global Footprint Network, we will be using three Earths by mid-century, like it or not.

However, to be logically consistent, Lynas needs to admit to some other possibilities. He sees himself as an optimist and that all these problems can be solved largely by the free market. If this is true, then I would question why monetising nature – “a pragmatic strategy, only to be used in desperation because the others have failed” (47) – is different. He sees a need to “[convince] people that substitutes for the energy services provided by fossil fuels are easy, cheap, and effective” (228). Were this true, surely companies would be falling over themselves to invest in such substitutes?

But more on the matter of principle, if we are to accept Lynas’s optimism for his solution, he should accept the optimism of the no-growth economic movement that their ideas can be made to work. Similarly his critique of their position should be set aside their deep concern – notably in the same Jackson book he cites – that the current economic system can survive many more decades. It is worth noting that even the most single-minded supporters of our current free-market economy would concede that it has taken a number of centuries and iterations to evolve into a state where it works, and lessons had to be learnt from (for instance) the South Sea Bubble, the instabilities of the US economy in the late 19th and early 20th century. To get to a no-growth position that works, undoubtedly there needs to be time for things to be tried out, and some will definitely not succeed.

A second flaw is seen in Lynas’s very different reactions to the Global Footprint Network’s metrics from the Planetary Boundaries one. The latter must be addressed urgently, but the former, as noted already, is fine to exceed. Perplexing, because conceptually they are very similar attempts to convey the same idea: that there are risks of excess in areas of human behaviour on the planet, and there is a substantial overlap between them. Both try to give a good coverage of the major issues, but neither would, I think, make any claim for completeness, given the sheer complexity of the earth’s environmental systems. Lynas, on the other hand sees the Planetary Boundaries model as having “[reduced] humanity’s innumerable list of ecological challenges … to just nine” [8]. The risks of this attitude are obvious, but one in particular stands out. The kind of geo-engineering proposed may in itself cause new boundaries to be breached. For instance, his proposal to de-acidify the oceans by filling them with calcium carbonate will almost certainly cause unforseen sideeffects. Might we breach the as-yet-unidentified “ocean calcium ion level boundary”. So Lynas’s reductionism is not only philosophically dangerous, but practically too.

Thirdly, I despair that his optimism about humanity extends only to our creativity in technocratic solutions. He rules out of court any suggestion that we might voluntarily reduce our levels of consumption, even in the richer parts of the world. He thus has to put his faith in technology, and in particular a historically unprecedented level of decoupling economic growth from resource usage, again something which Tim Jackson (among others) analyses and finds implausibly difficult.

This is not to rule out Lynas’s ideas completely. They need to be considered regardless of the shaky foundations on which they rest. Clearly if we have appropriate technological solutions and they can be determined to be reasonably safe, it is reasonable to deploy them. But given the magnitude of the problems, we need to attack them on as many fronts as possible. And, if we do manage to convince the population at large that there is a crisis coming our way and remind them of something inside them that speaks to the care of the planet and of future generations, there is at least some hope of them voluntarily taking sacrificial action. And that is ultimately part of what Sustainability in Crisis is all about.

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