Review: The God Species by Mark Lynas
The Mark Lynas who wrote this book has travelled a long way from the environmental activist who once threw a custard pie in the face of a climate denialist who annoyed him. The dramatic appeal of his second book, ‘Six Degrees’ – presented as a series of increasingly alarming horror movies – thrust him into the environmental limelight. Now this book – his third – sees him staking his claim as a deep thinker and solver of problems rather than just another climate alarmist.
‘The God Species’ is a tale of the Anthopocene age – the age of man, where humanity is the primary force shaping the future environment. Its subtitle – ‘How the planet can survive the age of humans’ – is an early indication that this may be a more optimistic Lynas than the author of Six Degrees. The book travels far beyond the basic climatic remit of his previous works, examining nine ‘planetary boundaries’ we need to consciously manage in order to keep the Earth a comfortable place to live.
Climate change is one obvious boundary. Another well know and widely discussed boundary is biodiversity loss – avoiding the ‘sixth extinction’ that many believe we are heading for. The other limitations – in no particular order – are water use, reactive nitrogen in the biosphere, land use, aerosols, toxins, ocean acidification and the ozone layer. Many of these are shown to be intertwined. Ocean acidification, for example, is a product of increased atmospheric CO2, and thus inextricably linked to climate change. Some of these boundaries have been allocated well-defined values while others – such as aerosols – are much harder to arrive at a value for. (Aerosols in particular play both a black hat and a white hat role in global temperature regulation).
The science and arithmetic behind these boundaries is delivered in a straightforward and entertaining way. The book is extremely easy to read in spite of the huge sweep of scientific ground it covers. Sprinkled throughout are the ‘magic bullets’ that the author is currently promoting as key tools in our planetary management armoury. These include lots of nuclear power, genetically modified crops, the privatisation of water management and the continuing movement of population from the country to the city. ‘Conventional’ environmental groups such as Greenpeace come in for some pretty harsh criticism for their opposition to some of these remedies, and are presented almost as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
We have already crossed three of the planetary boundaries, but overall the tone is upbeat and optimistic. Retaking the ozone boundary was our first dramatic success, and can be seen as a good omen. Lynas belives we can now claw our way back below the 350ppm CO2 boundary – and that we can do it without cutting consumption or radically changing our habits. Nuclear-charged electric cars, biofuelled jets and continuing economic growth mean it will be business as usual in the low carbon future he envisages. The optimism is counterpointed somewhat by the author’s brief review of the international process so far at Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun – the despair of the final sterile hours of Copenhagen comes across particularly well – but overall this is an upbeat book.
Where the author’s tone grates a little is in his apparent determination at times to be controversial for its own sake, to rub low-carbon nuclear power in the faces of ‘traditional’ environmentalists and to ostentatiously court the right wing with his rosy promises of continued growth in a zero carbon free market. I am not saying that there is no merit in his ideas – there is, in most of them – and I am sure that many of a ‘dark green’ persuasion will lighten up a little after reading this book. The worry is that perhaps he has the scent of personal success in his nostrils and could be tempted to say anything controversial for column inches or media time. A recent personal blog entry criticising the IPCC had climate deniers welcoming him to the dark side, but I think (and hope) that they will be disappointed.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Mark Lynas has come a long way from the green (in every sense) environmentalist of ten years ago. I look forward to seeing where his journey takes him next. This book is thought provoking, challenging to both camps in the climate war and well worth its purchase price – get the Kindle version for the best environmental bang for your buck.
‘The God Species’ by Mark Lynas was published by Fourth Estate on July 7th and is available from Amazon UK.