The God Species review: managing the planet via economic growth, genetic engineering and nuclear energy (Part 1)

Summary: Mark Lynas is a noted science author, environmental activist and has even acted as a policy advisor for the Maldives. His latest work, “The God species: how the planet can survive the age of humans” is an important contribution to the discussion on adapting to climate change (and other environmental challenges). It is bound to court controversy, as Lynas challenges environmentalists to reconsider their views on genetically modification and nuclear energy. Lynas has raised some important questions, and at the very least his work represents an attempt to formulate a science-based response.

Note: this was originally intended for Gen Adaptation blog but I’ve had some PC issues. Also cross-posted on Watching the Deniers

In “The God Species” Mark Lynas has produced a work bound to inspire some, challenge the preconception of others and spark debate. Given the enormity of the challenges our civilisation faces this is vitally necessary.

Indeed, this very reason for Gen Adaption is help spark debate and encourage discussion. Thus I was very eager to read “The God Species”.

Lynas is the author of the well received “Six degrees: our future on a hotter planet” (2007), which examined the Earth’s geologic and climate past in an attempt to see what our future may look like should global temperatures rise anywhere between 2-6 degrees (see a good summary by the author here). I read the work several years ago, and was impressed with the work. It was a very good meta-analysis of the science, and helped inform my understanding of the risk climate change poses.

Lynas earned the ire of some environmentalists in an 2010 article in “The New Statesmen” titled “Why greens keep getting it wrong”. In it Lynas criticised environmentalists for “getting it wrong’ on the issues of genetically modified foods and nuclear energy. In particular, Lynas was scathing on green opposition to nuclear energy.:

“In all these areas environmentalists were successful because they followed science – both in understanding the dangers and designing solutions. It is where greens part company from science, as with nuclear power, that problems arise. I have now concluded that all the main objections raised against nuclear power are bogus, or overhyped, or solvable, yet the established environmentalist position – because of a herd mentality as well as deeply held ideology – remains opposed.

…As a result of three decades of successful anti-nuclear campaigning, tens of billions of tonnes of carbon have accumulated in the atmosphere, thanks to proposed nuclear plants being replaced by coal.”

It was accompanied by a documentary on the Uk’s Channel 4. Guardian journalist George Monbiot was scathing of Lynas and his co-presenter Steward Brand. You may also wish to see a video reply from Friends of the Earth to the claims made in the documentary. Interestingly, Monbiot has since become a supporter of nuclear energy, seeing it as a necessary evil in the fight against climate change.

I’d also note that Bill McKibben, James Lovelock and James Hansen, amongst the most prominent luminaries in the climate change “movement”, are also advocates for nuclear power.

With these considerations in mind, I wanted to approach “The God species” with an open mind. I wasn’t sure what to expect: a shrill denouncement of the “green movement” and pean for the wonders of technology or a nuanced discussion on how to respond to the challenge of climate change?

Fortunately Lynas has delivered a well researched and thoughtful text. If there are errors in the book, they weren’t glaringly obvious – thus if any readers come across them I’d been interested.

Planetary boundaries during the age of the anthropocene: taking science based approach

“The story of the modern era… is the story of our transcendence… For modern humans were to discover a new source of fuel that would allow us to expand both our numbers and our dominance dramatically. This new fuel, in the form of underground deposits of fossilised biological carbon, was to be the energy springboard that catapulted our species – and the planet – into an entirely new geological are, the anthropocene. Using the tool of the gos, we were to become as gods. But unlike Zeus, we still live in ignorance about our true power. And time is running out, for the flames of our human inferno have begun to consume the world…” (The God Species, pg.29)

Underpinning the ideas presented in “The God Species” are three key concepts that have emerged within science during the past decades:

  • earth systems science
  • a proposed new geological age – the anthropocene – that recognises are impact on the planet
  • planetary boundaries

We’ll briefly cover each concept in the next post, as a rudimentary understanding of these are important. It also demonstrates that Lynas is attempting a science and evidence based approach to any of the solutions he proposes (this will become important in discussion about GN, nuclear and geo-engineering).

Whether you agree, or disagree, with Lynas on specific points, “The God Species” is an important contribution to discussion on how we as a species now face the challenge of managing the planet.

One cannot underestimate the enormous intellectual leap one has to make in order to fully grasp just what we as a species have to do.

In essence we need to manage the Earth’s  hydrological cycle, climate, chemistry and biodiversity in order to ensure the continuation of our technological civilization and the well being of a global population currently at 6.8 billion.

We are indeed a global civilisation, with a responsibility to manage the globe.

Thus, in the next series of posts we begin to explore the science underpinning The God Species, and discussing some of the solutions proposed by the author.

Comments and debate is more than welcome – indeed it is encouraged.


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