Don’t be misled by the title: this book is inspired by engineering rather than divinity. Framing environmental debate with a set of “planetary boundaries”, beyond which ecosystems cannot be pushed without risking catastrophe, it could have been more candidly subtitled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Power”. Its message is that engineering and investment can keep the planet safe.
The sub-plot is that of how Mark Lynas, once a true Green who risked arrest taking “direct action” against genetically modified crops, has renounced the Green movement and its sacred values – especially the guilt. Lynas is now forthright in his support for people’s material aspirations and protests against “the oft-repeated insistence that we should all turn down our thermostats”.
His eureka moment came at a conference in Sweden two years ago, at which scientists led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre discussed the concept of planetary boundaries. They identified 10 of these, relating to climate change, biodiversity, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, the ozone layer, ocean acidification, freshwater use, land use, atmospheric particles and toxic chemicals. These can define, in the scientists’ words, “the safe operating space for humanity” within the Earth’s system. If humanity keeps within this space, Earth should remain in the state that has prevailed for the past 10,000 years. If it does not, it risks destroying the conditions under which it has become the dominant species.
Lynas saw “in a flash” that the boundary framework could be the basis of “a new kind of environmental movement”. That year he was appointed as a climate adviser to the president of the Maldives, an island state facing the prospect of submersion by rising seas. Faced with practical decisions about energy choices, he “began to think less like an ideologue and more like an engineer”.
He also embraced orthodox economics, enterprise and progress. While demanding carbon neutrality by mid-century, to draw greenhouse gases out of the air until concentrations have fallen well below their present level, he insists that this can be achieved without cramping anyone’s lifestyle. “Sacrifice and austerity are out; competition and innovation are in,” he declares. Among the competitive and innovative developments he favours are water privatisation, new nuclear power technologies and, possibly, “geo-engineering” measures such as spraying sulphur particles from airliners to act as an aerosol sunshade.
Planetary boundaries richly merit a popular treatment, and The God Species taps their potential to offer a sharply focused vision of planetary dynamics that goes beyond warming and extinctions.
Lynas sees climate change as “more than anything else, a financing issue”. But the financing is an issue because climate change action is enmeshed in a global network of conflicting interests and claims over the fair allocation of costs. Richard Gephardt, a former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, had the measure of it when he described moving on from carbon as “the single most difficult political transaction in the history of mankind”. And planetary boundaries are not yet robust enough – some are undefined, some are only best guesses – to resist political challenges.
In his anxiety to avoid troubling consumers’ consciences, Lynas devalues the potential of the public as a source of moral support for political action. He has to put his faith in elites – but they continue to disagree from one conference to the next. This is a recipe for bathos and Lynas is left hailing the Chinese government’s recent commitments to renewable energy. Having started with the God species, he ends up with the Politburo of the Chinese Communist party.
Marek Kohn is author of ‘Turned Out Nice: How the British Isles will Change as the World Heats Up’ (Faber)
The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, by Mark Lynas, Fourth Estate, RRP£14.99, 280 pages