October 12, 2011
Book Review: The God Species
"We are as gods and have to get good at it." Mark Lynas quotes Stewart Brand here, using the mantra as a guiding metaphor for his new book The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. Echoing many of the chief criticisms the Breakthrough Institute has levied against traditional environmentalism, the book offers a new perspective on the ecological challenges that civilizations face, one couched in human dignity and prosperity.
Lynas, like Brand before him, identifies the defining characteristic of humankind in the Anthropocene: we exercise god-like influence on biogeochemical cycles, more so than any other species in the 4.3 billion-year history of the planet.
This is not a new concept by any stretch; the idea that the Holocene is over and we now inhabit the Anthropocene has been around for at least a decade, and environmentalists since long before that have been lamenting the dire and destructive invasion humans have executed on natural ecosystems. But what traditional eco-apocalyptic narratives see as hubris, Lynas emotes a certain pride over: we have conquered and colonized the planet in hitherto impossible ways, extracting tremendous prosperity, happiness, and recreation from the bounded resources Earth makes available. Our god-like influence over our surrounding ecosystems does not make us wicked invaders, but masters of our own, and our planet's, destiny.
This is not to say that Lynas is naive, nor that he fails to recognize the thermodynamic and chemical limits to human activity. Indeed, the bulk of The God Species is dedicated to summary research, noting the many and often frightening ways humans have pushed towards or past the thresholds that, when respected, make Earth the only known livable planet in the Universe. His book is more or less a laundry list of planetary boundaries (the biodiversity boundary; the land use boundary; the nitrogen boundary; etc.).
But Lynas breaks from the template of the typical climate-focused tome: where others stick to recounting the many forms of human hubris and abuse, Lynas regularly notes the accomplishment and potential of human activity. He spends as much time speculating on solutions as he does dissecting the problems. In this way, he really is an optimist and proud member of the human race; he embraces the God Species concept, and asserts that we can use our designing influence intelligently. Lynas:
Central to the standard Green creed is the idea that playing God is dangerous. Hence the reflexive opposition to new technologies from splitting the atom to cloning cattle. 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 out newfound powers in disastrous ways.
Another dynamic feature of the book is Lynas's stream of tirades against anti-nuclear, anti-GMO, anti-geoengineering environmentalists. According to Lynas, the claim of many of these activists is that these measures to mitigate emissions are their own brand of hubris, and that we should not transition from one global enviro-catastrophe to another. Lynas regularly throws down the gauntlet at the feet of these groups, issuing that "[he] cannot readily accept that accidental planetary management is necessarily better than deliberate planetary management." We are already geoengineering the planet, according to Lynas, by mass interference with land-use patterns, diversion of the hydrological and nitrogen cycles, and the combustion of fossilized carbon. By demonizing our current occupation as geoengineers, we ignore the tools at our disposal for our future benefit. (Pictured: Author Mark Lynas.)
In general, Lynas's rational and optimistic approach to environmental challenges is refreshing and encouraging. His worldview accepts the constraints imposed by modern social-political-economic institutions and cultural beliefs (citing, for example, Roger Pielke Jr.'s "Iron Law" of climate politics). He regrets the high-profile environmental attempts to limit emissions and spread the green gospel, like lights-off "Earth Hour" and government-mandated birth control, which are ineffective, limit human ingenuity and happiness, and act as poor political organizing strategies. In this way, Lynas brings welcome discord to the environmental chorus.
I differed with Lynas in two of his main points. One was his regular insistence that 350 ppm is the necessary atmospheric goal for climate stabilization, which seems increasingly impossible. Second was his claim that, contrary to the traditional Green demands for cultural and behavioral changes, decarbonization will be "easier" since it is primarily a technical challenge with technical solutions.
In one sense I agree with Lynas. Green invocation of grassroots campaigns to affect social change, like civil rights or the Carson-era environmental movement, is hardly applicable to a challenge on the scale of global decarbonization. Energy's properties of ubiquity and non-substitutability make any value-centric agenda marginal at best. However, approaching decarbonization as a mostly technical challenge does not make it "easier." While there are parallels in past technological advances (see Breakthrough Report: "Case Studies in American Innovation"), no technical imperative has ever demanded such a full-scale and rapid advance that global climate change demands. The financial and institutional barriers to innovation and deployment are at least as important as the engineering hurtles, and that's after we get past the politics. Lynas's brief suggestions for these are a carbon price and binding international agreements, each of which has mostly lost its fervor in recent years.
As such, Lynas's discussion of a response to climate change is a tremendously valuable thought experiment in the ability of technology to displace and/or capture carbon emissions and promote more efficient and effective resource use. However, his omission of the political, financial, and institutional challenges to decarbonization undercuts his claims that the challenge will be "easier" than is traditionally represented. If anything, it will be more difficult. Indeed, green anti-corporate, anti-growth, anti-innovation rhetoric relies on a well-tested ideology. Alternatively, having never faced a challenge on the scale of climate change, there is no econo-socio-political template into which we can fix an agenda, which would combine capitalism, development, ecological pragmatism, social justice, and all brands of engineering. It will be very difficult to even create such an agenda, let alone implement its goals.
The God Species espouses many of the same ideals and motivations that can be found in the most astute recent literature on energy and environment, including Whole Earth Discipline by Steward Brand, The Climate Fix by Roger Pielke Jr., and the various works of the Breakthrough Institute. Many of the themes passed around the recent Breakthrough Dialogue (by none other than Brand and Pielke, among many), such as embracing modernism and hitting the reset button on climate politics, can be found vigorously occupying the subtext of Lynas's words. Adding his diagnosis to those who have already drawn lessons from environmentalism's failures, Lynas says the lesson is twofold:
First, guilt-tripping doesn't work as a campaign 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.
Lynas may have been slightly overzealous in a few areas (carbon offsets, for instance; what if the local value of deforestation is greater than the "payments for ecosystem services" he recommends?). However, The God Species is well worth reading as a scientific summary of planetary boundaries, and as a refreshing point of view into how humankind will deal with the impending limitations. From the Haber-Bosch process to stratospheric injection of sulphates to the engineering tricks that have effectively closed the ozone hole, Lynas celebrates the increasingly firm grasp humanity has on natural cycles. What's needed is a higher respect for some of these, like climate change and biodiversity. If we are gods, then care for Creation comes with the territory. The God Species is an excellent roadmap for how that care might occur.