August 21, 2009
Mark Lynas Receives 2012 Paradigm Award
Photo by Gabriel Harber
Mark Lynas was presented the Breakthrough Paradigm Award at the 2012 Breakthrough Dialogue. The following is Michael Shellenberger's speech honoring Mark Lynas.
It is an honor for me to give the 2012 Breakthrough Paradigm Award to British environment writer, Mark Lynas. The Prize honors those whose work is accelerating the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet, and who manifest Breakthrough's core values of integrity, audacity, and imagination.
In 2004 Mark wrote High Tide: News from a Warming Planet and in 2007, Six Degrees: Our Future on Hotter Planet, which won the 2008 Royal Society Prize for Science Book of the year, and was turned into a National Geographic documentary.
Like most environmentalists, Mark's work focused on the threats posed by climate change, and promoted renewable energy, personal behavior change, and less consumption. But unlike most greens, Mark had a change of heart. It was reading some of the online comments to an article he wrote for the Guardian that, in his words, pointed out that "I didn't know what the hell I was talking about, which really brought me up short. And I decided at that point, basically, to shut up for awhile and do some reading, which I then did for two years."
In his 2011 book based on that research, The God Species, Mark called for expanded use of nuclear energy and genetically modified foods as keys to mitigating and adopting to global warming. As importantly, The God Species argued human development is inexorable, if malleable, and that humans have no choice but to play gods, albeit imperfect ones.
Mark hasn't stopped asking hard questions. Last fall, Mark looked into Jared Diamond's signature case study of Easter Island's collapse due to the use of felled trees as rollers for the massive statues of heads, and found the evidence lacking. The deforestation preceded statue building by several hundred years. Turns out that felled trees were not used to roll the statues, which instead were slid into place on roads. Rather than being monuments to decadence and excess, the statues coincided with peaceful rule. Perhaps most troubling for traditional environmental claims, the rise of agriculture from the ashes of the former forest was essential to the survival and prosperity of the Islanders.
Even that wasn't the end, as Mark posted Diamond's response on his web site, and the conversation about just what happened continued, with Mark playing the respectful and open-minded, if also critical and probing, host of an important debate. Mark played a similar role recently following the publication of Breakthrough's review of the evidence for and against the planetary boundaries hypothesis, reaching out to the authors of the hypothesis to encourage engagement and debate, rather than dismissal and attacks.
In these ways, Mark embodies our collective commitment to dialogue and understanding. Wicked problems are not simply complex problems that are hard to solve. They are also problems about whose nature we disagree.
When taking the measure of a thinker we tend to overvalue consistency and undervalue openness. Facing the long-term challenges of environmental change and human development, it is time we rebalanced the scales. In this way and many others, Mark Lynas is a public intellectual for the Anthropocene.