Sharp on technology, soft on capitalism

Submitted by Matthew on 18 January, 2012 - 1:06

Mark Lynas has written a provocative book that deserves to be read and discussed. Lynas is a long time green activist who has ditched many of his old taboos, including those against nuclear power, GM crops and organic farming. His change of heart on those issues is persuasive, although his accommodation with capitalism make his political judgments unsatisfactory.

The “god species” is a metaphor for how powerful humans are in terms of their impact on the Earth’s whole system. Lynas says we’ve entered a new geological era — the Anthropocene, which began late in the 18th century. 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 — biodiversity, climate change, nitrogen, land use, freshwater, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification and the ozone layer. Expert scientist groups believes that the first three boundaries 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.

Lynas retains a core idea of environmentalism — that the Earth system has ecological limits; we live on a limited planet, which places constraints on human activity. However he diverges from 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.

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”. 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. The world oceans are already more acidic than has probably been the case in at least 20 million years.

Failure to get an agreement at the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 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.”

Lynas argues that the solution to climate change and the other planetary boundaries is technology — an answer that many environmentalists are wary of. He favours some existing technologies and rejects others.

Lynas quotes Stewart Brand in support of the genetic engineering of crops, but 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. The only partial exceptions Lynas makes are for aircraft fuel and for second generation biofuels like algae that do not directly compete with food crops.

Lynas is supportive of solar power, especially in North Africa (as part of a European supergrid) and Australia, but not in the Mojave desert in California. He is in favour of desalinisation, but opposed to hydroelectric dams, given their impact on the freshwater boundary. 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. He thinks it is “premature” to reject geoengineering as a short term and limited climate mitigation option.

Lynas concedes that current technology will not suffice on its own. 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. He argues realistically and convincingly that this is preferable lifestyle and behavioural changes.

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. The main driver for Lynas’ conversion is the danger of climate change.

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”.

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”.

Lynas recasts 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”. Specifically on Chernobyl (whose reactor design 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”.

On nuclear waste Lynas states, “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”.

I think Lynas is rather too blasé about some of the 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 the case for nuclear, at least as a stop gap technology for the next few decades, does seem convincing.

Lynas’ book is 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.

Lynas provocatively tells environmentalists to “forget the ‘back to the land’ self-indulgence” 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. 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”.

The world’s population is about seven billion. On this Lynas says, “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... 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”.

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 his 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”.

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”.

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

All this is simply dreadful. It is hardly coincidental 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 naïve or confused.

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 says “Britain’s liberalised approach has led to a real danger of blackouts – and the missing of renewables targets — as investment has failed to materialise”, yet fails to see the same problems with the privatised water industry.

Lynas suggests 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. But he ignores the regressive effects of such a tax, which would hit the lowest paid and most vulnerable.

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 this analysis.

As the bearer of impoverished politics Lynas’s statement that “there are plenty of substitutes for carbon, but there is no substitute for political leadership is incredible.

If the ecological movement were to accept and fight for any of these technological “solutions” we will need a coherent socialist one that challenges the capitalist system and its business and state actors that have caused the problems, with an understanding that the working class is the only force that can successfully struggle for an alternative human economy compatible with the biosphere on which we depend.

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