Review: The God Species by Mark Lynas

In 1959, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was interviewed for the BBC programme “Face-to-Face“. At the end of the discussion, the interviewer posed one last question: “What would you think it’s worth telling [future generations] about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?” Russell’s answer came in two parts, one moral – about the need to love one another in an increasingly interconnected world – and one intellectual:

“When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think could have beneficient social effects if it were believed. But look only and solely at what are the facts.”

At first glance Mark Lynas’s new book, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, has nothing to do with Professor Russell. It is ostensibly about planetary boundaries, the nine physical limits which humanity must respect if we are to maintain our current quality of life on Earth. These boundaries – in biodiversity, climate, nitrogen, land use, freshwater, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification, and the ozone layer – are well-described with clear explanations of the relevant science, the implications of violating the boundary, and the technologies and policies that could help us avoid crossing these limits. Lynas also draws out the links between the boundaries, for example between climate change and ocean acidification, to illustrate both the win-win benefits of certain mitigation options and conversely the negative feedbacks that might occur as boundaries are crossed. There are a few minor presentational niggles – a comparative sentence that uses two units for area, a throwaway reference to declining wood consumption without accounting for fuel substitution effects, the subtitle (do we care about the planet itself or our life on it?) – and like many other popular science books, editors seem to be adverse to including graphs even when something like the Mauna Lua CO2 timeseries with the 350 ppm threshold marked would be a concise illustration of the climate boundary. But overall it’s an excellent introduction to an emerging and important way of viewing global environmental issues.

But in many ways, the real story of The God Species is Lynas’s re-discovery Russell’s maxim (knowingly or not). Lynas has been a devoted environmental campaigner for years and throughout the text, he is at pains to point out that the planetary boundaries view of environmental problems means adopting solutions that mainstream environmental groups may find hard to swallow. For example, discussions on the potential of nuclear power, genetic engineering, or geo-engineering include lines such as “I know many environmentalists will read all this with a sense of growing horror. A technofix! How outrageous! What a cop-out!”. While Lynas’s pragmatic view is to be commended, I found the “you’re not going to like what I have to tell you…” tone somewhat distracting. It felt as though the reader had missed out on a long and tormented backstory, like catching a bitter passing aside between two ex-lovers at a party.

The God Species, then, has the feeling of two strong themes shoe-horned into one volume. The first subject, the science of planetary boundaries, is fascinating and the author brings these issues to the attention of a wider audience with a deft touch. But a longer treatment would permit a more detailed discussion of the science and the suggested solutions. For example, the discussion on the sustainability of economic growth would benefit from reference to Bill Nordhaus, William Ayres and others in the resource economics literature. Similarly, when assessing the role of privatisation in the delivery of freshwater, the choice is presented as a fairly strict dichotomy between “efficient” private and “inefficient” public provision without really getting into the role of institutions and regulations to ensure that either system works effectively. More detail on the science of how planetary boundaries are identified and monitored could also be valuable.

The second theme, on the environmental movement’s selective use of scientific data, also deserves more attention. Lynas hints at this in the last chapter, providing a fascinating eyewitness account of the Copenhagen climate negotiations (see also this Guardian piece), but a more detailed analysis of how environmental groups have painted themselves into corners on climate change and other issues by arguing against politically feasible outcomes for the sake of environmental purism would be literary and political dynamite.

But perhaps that’s something for Lynas’s next project. On its own terms, The God Species is an excellent introduction to a new pragmatic way of looking at the environment, one that as Russell noted is supported only by the facts and “the truth that the facts bear out”.

The God Species by Mark Lynas is published by Fourth Estate on July 7th and is available for pre-order from Amazon.co.uk

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