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Mark Lynas – The God Species – Book Review

by Mel Starrs on July 5, 2011

in Book Review

Whilst I’ve been on my holidays, I’ve had time to sit in an internet free bubble, read and digest a review copy of Mark Lynas’ new book, The God Species.

I really enjoyed the book, although my first impressions were that Mark had gone a bit Micheal Crichton on us (see this post). Anyone who has been reading Mark’s blog over the past few months won’t be surprised to find pro-nuclear arguments within the book, but there is much more to it than this.

The basic premise of the book is to frame ‘sustainability’ (though interestingly Lynas doesn’t tend to use the ‘s’ word much, with a preference of ‘green’) within the model of Planetary Boundaries. As a concept it reminded me of the Natural Step (the brainchild of Swede Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, very much en vogue a couple of years ago, but I personally found fiendishly difficult to explain to laypersons in a clear way). I found the 8 Planetary Boundaries much simpler to grasp (and interesting that the model is again of Scandinavian origin – anything to do with Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions? And yes, that’s another model for looking at the world.) Models can be very useful constructs – a way of simplifying complex issues.

Let’s start with Lynas’ central theme:

My thesis is the reverse: playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humans unwittingly deploying our new-found powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris. The truth of the Anthropocene is that the Earth is far out of balance, and we must help it regain the stability it needs to function as a self-regulating, highly dynamic and complex system. It cannot do so alone.

He warms to this theme and returns to it throughout the book:

The central argument of this book, however, is that humanity is today powerful enough, and increasingly knowledgeable enough, to begin to take a more intelligent approach. (pg 194)
In my view simply knowing what we are doing means that none of our actions in future that affect the climate can be called unwitting. Ours hands are on the thermostat whether we like it or not, so sooner or later we are going to have to face up to the need to make a decision about what temperature we want our planet to be at over the longer term. (pg 196)

It’s an incredibly optimistic view and very seductive for an engineer. However, I’m a cynical beast and if you read the post on Crichton linked above, you’ll see the Lovelock quote which I will repeat here – From the conclusions of The Revenge of Gaia (pg. 195):

“The more we meddle with the Earth’s composition and try to fix its climate, the more we take on the responsibility for keeping the Earth a fit place or life, until eventually our whole lifes may be spent in drudgery doing the tasks that previously Gaia had freely done for over three billion years. This would be the worst of fates for us and reduce us to a truly miserable state, where we were forever wondering whether anyone, any nation or any international body could be trusted to regulate the climate and the atmospheric composition. The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

Lynas is a brave man to take on Lovelock and whilst, despite it’s title, The God Species is not blatently hubristic, there was still a voice of caution at the back of my mind whilst I read it. Lynas doesn’t stop at Lovelock and takes on Porritt (on number of children), the green movement in general and most specifically and successfully on carbon offsetting:

Unfortunately the Greens got their psychology wrong. They were very successful in establishing the idea in most people’s minds that carbon offsetting was a con and a waste of money. But they were spectacularly unsuccessful in convincing the same people that therefore they needed to fly less or otherwise reduce their personal carbon emissions. What happened instead was that people carried on flying, but stopped offsetting. The net effect for the atmosphere, therefore, was that more carbon was emitted than would otherwise have been the case, and additional future warming will be caused as a result. The environmental movement fell into the trap of making the perfect the enemy of the good, and the climate – plus the health of millions of women and children in developing nations – lost out. The lesson here is twofold. First, guilt-tripping doesn’t work as a campaigning strategy. If you make people feel bad about what they do, you must give them a realistic and feasible alternative. Second, pragmatism beats purism. Every time. (pg 192)

Where has this pragmatism and change of heart come from? Lynas has for the past couple of years been working on behalf of the Maldives. The pragmatism, I think, comes from transitioning from a campaigner to a practitioner in this role. I have whinged (on Twitter and possibly this blog) about Monbiot in particular (but it could have easily been Lynas in the past, or any other environmental campaigner) for having the luxury of being able to see and write about the world in black and white, where for the majority of us trying to ‘get stuff done’ the world is in rather more shades of grey. The practical limitations of delivering actual solutions necessarily leads to a more pragmatic approach. Black and white views have their uses, but usually as a starting point before a compromise is met (oddly, I’m finally reading The Fountainhead on this holiday too. A great book on sticking to principles, although I’m sure Ayn Rand would not be on the same page as Lynas – pragmatism not really her forte!).
There’s plenty in the book which will get most environmentalists hot under the collar – he’s pro-nuclear, pro-cities, pro-CCS, pro-geoengineering, pro-GM food. It’s well written, researched and referenced, and as always with a good book has me hungry to read more (I’m going to dust off my unread copy of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth for instance). If Lynas is right and we should now be playing God, it is good news for engineers:

To achieve the planetary boundary of 350ppm, the global economy needs to be carbon-neutral by mid-century and carbon-negative thereafter. Meeting this target means we all – Greens included – need to start thinking like engineers. (pg 70)

In conclusion, I enjoyed the read. I can see it will stir up controversies but for me the biggest issue remains whether we should in fact be playing God. Lynas’ optimistic view on this betrays the the pragmatism he shows elsewhere.

I purposefully haven’t read any other reviews yet, save accidentally this defence from FOE. I’ll read the other reviews when I return next week and possibly comment further.

  • Rory_Bergin

    I agree with all of this Mel, I think that hubris is the right word. I also felt that he lacks any clear ideas for how this New World Order would work. Rory

  • Matthew Stanford

    The interesting debate seems to be just how much should we do to try and fix the planet – it seems a given that we need to consume less of most things (fossil fuels, food, water for example) but we have a dilemma about what to do after that, we could mass demolish and rebuild all of our old buildings that have a net heating load, but then there’s a lot of carbon required to rebuild a low / no carbon house, or do we invest in lots of nuclear power to get carbon neutral energy (as it seems this is the only viable wholesale solution for now) and deal with the waste and decomissioning in 50 years time (plenty more big holes in the ground required there)… or should our approach be a ‘national health service Bevan style step change central government initiative to renovate / insulate and install lots of micro generation on everyone’s homes? 

    Whatever we do it seems there is no one ‘everyone’s a winner’  solution so for now I guess it’s minimise usage and maximise zero carbon generation.