Playing God…Posted by ed in blog July 7, 2011
Yesterday I went to the launch of Mark Lynas’ new book ‘The God Species’. I was also lucky enough to lay my hands on a preview copy (which I ironically dived into whilst dressed as an irreverend Reverend at Glastonbury with our Earthly Sins Confessional Booth) so had a bit of pre-prep under my belt beforehand too. The launch was a two-handed affair with Mark’s speech preceeded by the impressive Professor Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Johan made a pretty compelling and convincing case of ‘what is going wrong’ with the planet, demonstrating that it’s not just atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that have been increasing since the mid 1950’s, but also atmospheric nitrogen dioxide, methane, frequency of climate-related disasters, overfishing, eutrophication, deforestation, biodiversity loss…etc etc. If anyone was ever in any doubt about climate change being an issue, the rapid succession of other problems lining up behind unequivocally demonstrates that it’s clearly not the only one. We have a genuine systemic problem on our hands.
More worryingly Johan outlined the nightmare of non-linear change and critical transitions that could create dramatic climatic and ecological regime shifts that then become ‘locked-in’ to a different steady-state. This ‘ball and cup’ heuristic shows that when we pass ecological tipping points we can end up locking systems into undesirable states; e.g. coral reefs becoming slimy algae, clear water turning turbid, grassland to scrub, rainforest to savannah, or deep philosophy to shallow pop-psychology…
To enhance understanding of ecological resilience Johan convened an expert group of scientists to come up with nine key ‘Planetary Boundaries’ that help to define the ‘safe operating space’ for the planet and hopefully avoid aforementioned tipping points. These are:
1. Climate change
2. Ozone depletion
3. Atmospheric aerosol loading
4. Ocean acidification
5. Global freshwater use
6. Chemical pollution
7. Land use change
8. Biodiversity loss
9. Biogeochemical loading (Phosphates, Nitrates etc)
Challengingly, we’ve already transgressed the boundaries on climate change, biodiversity loss and biogeochemical loading…plus Johan pointed out the ‘Musketeer Effect’ whereby the boundaries are interconnected and react ‘all for one and one for all’. However, with a much needed sense of optimism Johan concluded that using the knowledge and awareness of resilience that the Boundaries give us we still have a window of opportunity for action…albeit one that’s starting to resemble a small ship’s porthole that we have to somehow drag and wriggle our adipose asses through.
Which brought us to Mark’s bit…
Never one to shy away from vocal controversy Mark launched straight in with the challenge that environmentalists have been hugely responsible for global warming through their historical opposition to nuclear power and that we are already geo-engineering the atmosphere through agriculture and by driving millions of cars a day. So he provoked us to consider whether indirect, blinkered geo-engineering was any better than a more direct, intelligent version.
The blows then came thick and fast after that. Greens are still perceived as ‘fanciful Luddites’ whose cutesy lifestyle choices (Farmer’s markets, overland travel) where only relevant to the global elite. No sacred environmental cow was safe. Because organic farming required more land per unit of food produced it could be worse for biodiversity than intensive farming. Genetically Modified crops were the way forward. Renewable technologies led to ‘energy sprawl’ and wind turbines also battered aerial biodiversity like bats and birds. The solution obviously being more nuclear power…
Whilst I loved Mark’s point that the environmental movement must be about making modern civilization work within the planetary boundaries and not returning to a probably non-existent pre-industrial idyll, I’m less convinced by his proposed solutions. He’s right I think to identify pessimism as a potentially bigger threat than denial and to trumpet an optimism of both the intellect and the will – we can with our extraordinary abilities and skills think and innovate our way out of many of our challenges. So far so ‘Sizzle’.
But I think he’s fundamentally wrong on his two key exemplar solutions – GM and Nuclear energy. We love a bit of heresy at Futerra, and every established idea and position needs revisiting from time to time, but I can’t help thinking that if GM and Nuclear are the answer we are asking the wrong questions…(without going massively into detail here it is I think highly questionable to suggest that mass centralized energy generation via uneconomically viable nuclear plants, underwritten by the public or deeper, irreversible consolidation of the food chain into corporate hands are ‘good things’. And both the Nuclear and GM industries have swallowed billions in subsidy and funding to dubious effect).
And this I think is the limitation of the Planetary Boundaries concept. It works brilliantly to define our ecological limits, but, and this is where Mark’s solutions also potentially falter, it depoliticizes the challenge and effectively ignores the social and economic factors we know are so critical. One of the key reasons green campaigners have had so much difficulty getting traction for alternatives in the past is because politics is at the heart of every option we have to hand. Whether it’s who gets to live next door to the nuclear waste facility or beside the wind farm…the debate is always highly politically polarized.
Mark’s overall point still stands, that as we emerge from the 10,000 year Holocene (a period of relatively benign climatic conditions in which humanity has flourished) into the Anthropocene (where humankind becomes a key world-shaping force) we have become the ‘God Species’. We can transform our civilization or trash the planet and most probably ourselves in the process. So if we’re the God Species are we to be Old Testament ‘Fire & brimstone’ Yahweh’s, or plump, contented, cerebral Buddhas…? Answers on a hymn sheet please…
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January 26, 2012
less people the only way out