The God Species by Mark Lynas

Mark lynas’ book ‘The God Species’ is one of a number of recent books that offer planet-scale strategies for a sustainable future. See Stern’s ‘Blueprint for a Safer Planet’ for a good example. Lynas’ book is a welcome addition to the canon, not because I agree with it all, but because it is sure to spark debate about these strategies and debate is much needed.

I enjoyed the strategic reach of the book; he doesn’t get into much detail on any strategy but concentrates on setting out the problems and highlights some solutions. He doesn’t suggest that he has all the answers, but instead says that identifying the problem and agreeing to solve it is the first major step that we need to take.

The book looks at the large scale impact of human activity and suggests that there are planetary boundaries that we should not cross. The concept of ‘Planetary Boundaries’ was developed here and posits that there are nine limits or boundaries that we must stay within if we are to maintain the biosphere as it is, and guarantee a safe future for mankind. Some of these, such as the maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (350ppm) are familiar. Some others, such as the amount of nitrogen in the planetary system, are not widely debated or understood. There is a table of the boundaries and our current position in relation to them here

Lynas argues persuasively that because human impacts are already global and cannot be undone, we should accept responsibility for them and act to actively manage them. This gives rise to the title, and suggests, unhelpfully in my opinion, that we should stop acting like people and act like gods instead. (I disagree here, we need to be more humble as a species, not more arrogant)

Lynas is critical of some members of the environmental movement, saying that they focus too much on Utopian ideals and not enough on practical solutions. He is prepared to sacrifice some of the sacred cows of environmentalism, such as opposition to nuclear power, limiting growth, the use of Genetically Modified Organisms and reducing consumption, and suggests that the way to environmental success is to direct activity towards management of these activities through technical ingenuity rather than confronting them head-on.

He argues persuasively for fast breeder reactors and thorium fuels, even for Genetically Modified Organisms, but I was unconvinced by his argument that ‘...our job as modern, knowledgeable humans is to use all the tools at our disposal to avoid trespassing over these boundaries-at the same time as we must seek to allow the growth in human prosperity and numbers to continue for the foreseeable future

It seems contradictory to me that we would decide to behave like gods to manage our food supply, energy supply and our land but decide to step back from population, behaviour and growth. He even contradicts himself by suggesting that we need to change our lifestyles in terms of the amount of water that we use, and that this should be privatized and metered to restrict supply. I agree that behavior and aspirations are among the more difficult issues to tackle, but what are ‘gods’ for if not to tackle the difficult issues?

Underlying the concept of the book is the optimistic belief that we humans are capable of understanding Nature, redesigning our impacts to manage away the damage that we have done and continue to do, and to develop our role as benign managers of Nature. This is an appealing prospect, but there is little evidence presented of our ability to do so. Lynas uses the example of our success in dealing with ozone production as evidence of our ability to act as planetary managers. This is dubious; the production of a relatively small amount of a relatively small number of pollutants by a relatively small number of companies was fairly easy to change and doesn’t really tell us anything about dealing with other planet-scale problems. What the ozone layer problem does teach us is that even small amounts of tinkering with the biosphere can have unexpected and potentially disastrous consequences, it was more luck than design that we managed to find this problem and solve it before it became a serious problem.

Lynas then goes on to suggest that further tinkering with the biosphere may be necessary to avoid climate change impacts, as though science has passed some technical boundary and the impact of such tinkering can now be quantified and anticipated in virtual laboratories. This seems like hubris to me, and postulates a level of comptence for our species that we are not able to match.  I don’t deny that we may be able to at some time in our future, but that future seems distant to me. There are small pockets of the world where we have managed our impacts by creating reservations for protected areas and species. But the level of management in these reservations is extremely crude and doesn’t always work, and we cannot turn the planet into one giant reserve. Lynas makes an ambitious claim on behalf of humanity, that we are capable of managing our future, but cannot back it up.

I welcome this book, its scope is ambitious, and the questions he asks are some of the most important questions for our species. What are the safe limits to our impacts on this planet, and what must we do to manage our impacts to stay within those limits? Lynas cannot answer them all, no-one can. But he should be congratulated for asking them, and in popularising the concept of Planetary Boundaries he does us all a valuable service.

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