Review of Mark Lynas, The God Species (2011)

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Tue, 22/11/2011 - 19:11,

Mark Lynas has written a provocative book that deserves to be read and discussed by socialists, trade unionists and ecologists. Lynas is a long time green activist who has ditched many of the sacred cows he has spent his life campaigning against – nuclear power, GM crops and organic farming are the most notable. On this score his change of heart is rather persuasive. However his accommodation with capitalism and its states makes his wider political judgments unsatisfactory.

Planetary boundaries

The God Species is a metaphor for how powerful humans are in terms of our impact on the Earth's whole system. Lynas promotes the idea that we’ve entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene, which began late in the 18th century (21). It means humanity now has to consciously manage the planet. This is similar the “production of nature” thesis put forward by Marxist geographer Neil Smith three decades ago.

The book is organised around the concept of planetary boundaries. These are: biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen, land use, freshwater, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification and the ozone layer. The planetary boundaries expert scientist group believes that the first three have already passed the planet's limit, aerosols and toxic boundaries have yet to be quantified, while the remaining four have not yet been breached.

The emphasis on planetary boundaries allows Lynas to retain a core idea of environmentalism – namely that the Earth system has ecological limits. In other words he maintains that we live on a limited planet, which places constraints on human activity. However he is quite explicit that this is not the same as earlier expositions of ecological limits, which focused on population, resources constraints and economic growth. This reframing of the nature-humanity nexus seems to me prescient and fertile.

Climate change

Lynas makes a persuasive case for ramping up action on climate change. While the Stern review urged a stabilisation target of 550 ppm CO2e and the EU 450 ppm CO2e, Lynas argues that “a fair reading of the science today points strongly towards a planetary boundary of 350 ppm CO2e – a level that was passed back in 1988” (53). Reviewing evidence of recent average temperatures, simulation models and findings about past climates suggests that the threat of dangerous climate change is greater than scientists thought even a few years ago.

Humans currently release 10 billion tonnes of carbon per year – a million tonnes every hour. Since James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784, humans have released more than half a trillion tonnes of carbon from geological safe storage underground into the atmosphere. Up to 85 per cent of this liberated carbon, somewhere between 340 and 420 billion tonnes, has soaked into the oceans. Ocean acidification ‘could represent an equal (or perhaps even greater) threat to the biology of our planet’ than climate change alone (198-199). The world oceans are already more acidic than has probably been the case in at least 20 million years (207).

Lynas was one of fifty people to witness that breakdown of climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009. His account in the Guardian at the time is recounted in the last chapter of the book. The failure to get an agreement in Copenhagen has put the world on course for four degrees warming, perhaps more. Without conscious intervention this means “planetary-scale destruction and perhaps a mortal threat to civilisation” (230).


Lynas argues that the solution to climate change and the other planetary boundaries is technology - an answer that many environmentalists are wary of. However he does favour some existing technologies while rejecting others. For example he quotes Stanford University research, which calculated that the widespread use of mechanisation and artificial fertilisers between 1961 and 2005 avoided the emissions of 161 billion tonnes of carbon that would otherwise have been released through land-use change (100). He quotes Stewart Brand in support of the genetic engineering of crops (103-104). Lynas opposes biofuels, arguing that burning crops for power is the worst use of scarce land imaginable, and has already led to a situation where there is a direct conflict between food and energy. Biofuels derived from cleared rainforest land should not just be discouraged – “they should be outright banned” (121-122). The only partial exceptions he makes are for aircraft fuel and for second generation biofuels like algae that do not directly compete with food crops.

Lynas is also supportive of solar power, especially in North Africa (as part of a European supergrid), Australia but not in the Mojave desert in California (128-129). He is in favour of desalinisation, but opposed to hydroelectric dams, given their impact on the freshwater boundary (150). He is also not convinced about the Severn Barrage (124-127). Although some greenhouse gases are involved in the shipping of bulk commodities like wheat and beef, in water-use terms it makes sense for most food to be produced in well-watered areas with high rainfall rather than in arid regions where irrigation can devastate the local ecology (152). He thinks it is “premature” to reject geoengineering as a short term and limited climate mitigation option (196).

Lynas concedes that current technology will not suffice on its own to do the job. His new technological priorities are: a cost-effective way to store electricity at grid level; electric vehicles; carbon capture and storage (CCS); and next generation nuclear technology, including integral fast reactors and using thorium as fuel (78-81). He argues that this is preferable lifestyle and behavioural changes. Again, there is an important sense of realism in his approach.

Nuclear power

Perhaps the most striking departure in the book concerns nuclear power. Lynas is one of a number of environmentalists, including George Monbiot and Stephen Tindale, together with scientists Stewart Brand and James Hansen, who have come out strongly for nuclear (181). The main driver for his conversion is climate change: “Properly deployed, nuclear fission is one of the strongest weapons in our armoury against global warming, and by rejecting it in the past campaigners have unwittingly helped release tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as planned nuclear plants were replaced by coal from the mid 1970s onwards” (10).

Understood globally, it comes down to finding substitutes for fossil fuels commensurate with the energy demands of modern society. Lynas argues that the obvious substitute for coal as a centralised form of baseload generation is nuclear; “the anti-nuclear stance of many Greens does not stand up to rational, never mind scientific, examination, and the refusal by NGOs and political parties to reconsider their stance on nuclear harms both their credibility and the wider interests of the planet” (167).

Other planetary boundaries also lend weight to the nuclear case. Compared weight-by-weight, uranium 235 delivers a million times more energy than coal: even on the basis of a full life-cycle analysis, nuclear uses much less land than solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind. Biomass comes out worst of all, using more than a thousand times the land area of nuclear power. “In terms of the land use planetary boundary alone, my conclusion is that nuclear power is likely to be the most environmentally friendly technology of all, although appropriately sited wind, solar and other renewables are similarly benign and should be equally encouraged” (130).

The chapter on the toxics boundary allows Lynas to recast two of the main objections to nuclear: radiation and waste. On the radiation objection, he states that “the vast majority of studies have found no link between nuclear power stations and cancer incidence in the local populations of nearly a dozen countries from France to Sweden” (169). Specifically on Chernobyl (whose reactor design of course nobody is planning to copy), “exhaustive studies of affected populations, firemen who attended the blaze (many of whom received colossal radiation doses), and thousands of ‘liquidators’ who later cleaned up the site, yield an estimated death toll that currently stands at less than 50. Several thousand children did suffer from thyroid cancer as a result of radioactive iodine doses received after Chernobyl – but as thyroid cancer is relatively treatable, by 2002 thankful only 15 of the estimated 4,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer had proved fatal” (171).

Lynas answers the argument about waste by arguing that “once spent fuel rods are removed from the reactor core, they are stored in cooling ponds until their radiation levels decline sufficiently for them to be stored in dry steel casks. The level of radioactivity emitted decline by a thousand times in 40-50 years. In the longer term, geological disposal of waste that cannot be recycled or otherwise put to good use (which the vast majority can) is a straightforward engineering challenge that poses negligible risks in the longer term... the vast majority of waste will be no more radioactive than the natural uranium ore that it was originally derived from in just a few hundred years” (179-180).

I think Lynas is rather too blasé about some of the current problems with nuclear, including the building the new reactors (he doesn’t discuss concerns with Olkiluoto III) and with geological storage (despite the Yucca mountains scheme being cancelled in 2009). These objections to nuclear are important, but they are not decisive in the face of the increased threat of dangerous climate change and other planetary boundaries. In the absence of viable alternatives to nuclear in the present and near future and given the limits of energy efficiency (as suggested by the Jevons paradox), the case for nuclear, at least as a stop gap technology for the next few decades, does seem convincing.

Green movement

Lynas’ book is self-consciously a critique of the environment movement and unsurprisingly he has been criticised by Greens. However he acknowledges the debt to the Green movement making the philosophical case for the idea of a limited planet placing constraints on humanity strongly and persuasively (234).

Lynas provocatively tells environmentalists to “forget the ‘back to the land’ self-indulgence” (138) and ridicules the Green Party of England and Wales and New Economics Foundation launch in January 2011 of ‘the New Home Front’, advocating wartime policies such as rationing (214). He believes the environment movement “is partly responsible for this ongoing failure by promoting an alignment of climate-change mitigation with austerity, sacrifice and high cost” (228). In contrast to many environmentalists, he believes that there isn’t “any convincing ecological reason why everyone in the world should not be able to enjoy rich-country levels of prosperity over the half-century to come. None of the planetary boundaries rule out this leap forward in human development” (241).

He takes head on the Green argument about population. By the end of 2011 the world’s population will stand at 7 billion. “Seven billion people is an incredible number, but standing shoulder to shoulder we would all comfortably fit within the city of Los Angeles. City living is seldom lauded by environmentalists, but it may be our most environmentally friendly trait as a species, because urban dwelling is vastly more efficient than living in the countryside” (135). “In the real world, the best way to reduce the growth in human populations is to encourage faster economic development, accelerated urbanisation, and therefore an earlier demographic transition to the lower birth rates already experienced in the most affluent societies” (236).

Capitalist climate politics

On questions of planetary boundaries, technologies and the limits of environmentalism, I think Lynas has made some very significant arguments. However there is a deeper subtext to the book, essaying a capitulation to capitalism and its states, which is profoundly unsatisfactory. Lynas states that the planetary boundaries conception “need constrain neither humanity’s potential nor its ambition. Nor does it necessarily mean ditching capitalism, the profit principle, or the market, as many of today’s campaigners demand” (9).

He argues that global warming is “not about overconsumption, morality, ideology or capitalism. It is largely the result of human beings generating energy by burning hydrocarbons and coal. It is in other words, a technical problem, and it therefore amenable to a largely technical solution, albeit one driven by politics... we can completely deal with climate change within the prevailing economic system. In fact any other approach is likely to be doomed to failure” (66-67).

Stunningly, he favours water privatisation: “the provision of water must be deregulated and privatised; taken out of the inefficient and often corrupt hands of the state, and handed instead to the private sector” (153). He suggests that “it might be possible for the concept of carbon markets to be extended into the realm of water” (155). He even admits to sharing “some sympathies” with the political right and regrets the “capture of the Green movement by the political left” (214).

All this is simply dreadful. It is hardly coincident that the development of capitalism has threatened and in some cases breached planetary boundaries. Yet Lynas simply avoids the conclusion that anything systemic has caused these problems, preferring more accidental explanations. As a writer popularising science, Lynas is insightful and lucid. However his political theory is hopelessly underdeveloped and his political judgement woefully naive. He may be able to express modern science intelligibly, but he has singularly failed to make sense of modern politics.

Thus while Lynas supports water privatisation, he believes that “a large portion of future energy infrastructure may need to be supported and directed by the public sector” He states that “Britain’s liberalised approach has led to a real danger of blackouts – and the missing of renewables targets – as investment has failed to materialise” (75), yet fails to see the same problems with the privatised water industry.

Lynas recognises the limits of carbon trading, while advocating its extension to water and to forest management. He states: “So far the evidence from Europe is that its flagship carbon-trading scheme has done little or nothing to reduce emissions, whilst allowing the big energy corporations to pocket billions in windfall profits because pliable politicians handed them carbon credits for free rather than auctioning them. Never mind the ‘polluter pays’ principle: in this case the polluter got paid” (79). Yet he does not discuss what carbon capitalists would do in other sectors.

Lynas suggests other apparent reforms without assessing their social consequences. He calls for a half a per cent added to VAT with the proceeds ring-fenced for safeguarding ecosystem and habitat restoration (133). However he simply ignores the regressive effects of such a tax, which would hit the lowest paid and most vulnerable. The complete absence of class analysis is truly appalling, particularly since elements of the environment movement recognise the class dimension as significant (as of course do the ruling class, from their own perspective).

The issue is not that he’s for reforms, while we’re for revolution. Socialists are also for the working class fighting for reforms, which under bourgeois rule are generally reforms implemented by capitalist states. The Montreal protocol to protect the ozone layer from CFCs shows that it is possible to win some important environmental reforms under capitalism, even on an international scale. But the point is what sort of social force can be built, that can take on the planetary boundaries along with a host of other issues, from world poverty to racism to women’s liberation, as part of an overall programme of human emancipation. Lynas does not engage at all with the argument that the organised working class movement is the critical social agent and one with an overwhelming interest and power not only in ecology but in all aspects of human freedom.

Lynas is the bearer of impoverished politics. He states that “there are plenty of substitutes for carbon, but there is no substitute for political leadership” (228). But what sort of politics? What is missing is coherent socialist leadership of the ecological movement, one that challenges the capitalist system and its business and state actors that have caused these problems, and is bound up with the working class, the only force that can successfully struggle for an alternative human economy compatible with the biosphere on which we depend.

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Submitted by cathy n on Wed, 23/11/2011 - 15:18

Hi Theo,

I haven't formed an opinion on Lynas or the book yet - but I'd be interested to hear you expand on your (brutal) criticism of it. Tell me, what makes you think the book is so reactionary?

Ed Maltby

Submitted by PaulHampton on Wed, 23/11/2011 - 21:39

I don't think the last part of the review is soft on Lynas' pro-capitalist politics. However his discussion of planetary boundaries, low carbon technologies and on the limits of the environmental movement seemed valuable, particularly in relation to discussions AWL members and friends are engaged with.
It would be interesting to know your assessment, both of his former politics and where he is now with this book.

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