It’s an arresting title, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. For author Mark Lynas the Holocene, the 10,000 year post-ice age era during which human civilisation evolved and flourished, has given way in industrial times to the Anthropocene, an age in which the human population has undergone extraordinary growth, and become totally dominant on the planet. In the process we have interfered in the planet’s great bio-geochemical processes to the extent that we are threatening to endanger the Earth system itself and our own survival. Things are badly askew and we must help Earth to regain stability. It cannot do so alone. “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”
Not that Lynas proposes to shoulder nature aside. Far from it. It’s a question of restoring nature’s balance and working within its limits. His book is about the planetary boundaries which must be respected if we are to avoid very serious environmental damage. He aims to communicate to a wide audience the findings of a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists who a couple of years ago identified nine such boundaries and wrote about them in a notable feature in Nature. Along the way he has his own suggestions for tackling the challenges involved and takes issue with other environmentalists over what he considers wrong-headed stances on many issues, including nuclear power and genetic engineering. This aspect of the book is often argumentative, but the central exposition of the planetary boundaries is straight science, set out with the lucidity apparent in his earlier book Six Degrees.
He begins with the biodiversity boundary. We’re well beyond the expert group’s proposed boundary of a maximum of ten species lost to life per million species per year. An estimated 100 to 1000 species per million are currently wiped out annually. The Anthropocene Mass Extinction is well advanced, and the death toll will soon rival that at the end of the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs and half of the rest of life on Earth disappeared. It is now understood how important a diversity of species is to the resilience and stability of an ecosystem. This applies to the biosphere as a whole: if the current mass extinction is allowed to continue or, worse, to accelerate, the chance of a global-scale ecosystem collapse can only become more ominous. Lynas sees biodiversity loss as fundamentally an enormous market failure. We need to design systems that value nature in a direct and marketable sense and get hard cash to those in a position to protect ecosystems. “What is needed is not more moralising, but more money.”
The climate change boundary is next on the list. Where once, along with others, Lynas would have endorsed a maximum 450 parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and not more than a 2 degree rise in temperature as a safe boundary to avoid dangerous tipping points, he now regards that as wrong and accepts that a fair reading of the science today points to 350 ppm maximum. It’s a boundary we’ve already transgressed, but one we can pull back to if we start on reductions very soon. We need to be carbon-neutral by mid-century and carbon-negative thereafter. The technologies required are available and can be employed within the prevailing economic system. Notions that we can restrain economic growth won’t work. He is insistent that nuclear power must be a significant part of the solution, considering that there is not time to develop renewable energy to an adequate level. The book provides a spirited defence of nuclear energy as a centralised form of baseload generation, taking both Fukushima and Chernobyl into account. To oppose nuclear is to leave the door open for coal, a far more dangerous source.
The third boundary in which we’re well over the limit is nitrogen. The production of artificial fertiliser, while it has clearly been good for the feeding of the greatly increased human population, is causing serious environmental problems. The expert opinion is that we need to reduce the flow of human-fixed nitrogen to slightly more than a third of its current value. Lynas looks at various ways in which our use of nitrogen can be reduced. Organic farming isn’t one of them since he considers widespread organic farming couldn’t produce enough food for the world’s present population. One possibility he canvasses is genetic engineering to produce a more nitrogen-efficient and higher-yielding crop. Here and elsewhere he refers to Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline, in which Brand advances the causes of nuclear power, genetic engineering, and urbanisation as ways of facing up to the challenge of climate change.
The land use boundary is the next Lynas considers, urging the need for cash to make the protection of forests and other important ecosystems more attractive than their destruction. The movement of populations to cities he sees as overall a positive for sustainability because it leads to a reduction in population growth and concentrates the human impact on the land in a smaller area. As is becoming usual in the book Greens are chided for failing to see the positives in such developments.
Other boundaries discussed are freshwater, toxics, and aerosols before he arrives at ocean acidification, the evil twin of climate change. We’re in a danger zone already, with the world’s oceans more acidic than has probably been the case in at least 20 million years. Future predictions are uncertain, but educated guesses provided by models and evidence from the Earth’s deep geological past lead him to the conclusion that ocean acidification is so serious a threat that even if there were no climate change we would still have to urgently reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. The integrity of the marine biosphere is at stake.
The final boundary Lynas tackles, that of the ozone layer, is a success story in that humanity pulled back from a hellish future by reaching international agreement on regulations to cease the production of CFCs. It was not an easy achievement in the face of industry opposition, but politicians stepped up to leadership and private industry delivered alternative products in consequence. The strong political leadership delivered by the US was crucial, in sad contrast to the way it has politically thwarted progress on climate change negotiations.
As adviser to the president of the Maldives, Lynas witnessed at first hand the debacle of Copenhagen, being among the fifty or so present in the room where the final-hours heads of state negotiations were conducted. He tells the disappointing story of that meeting as an example of what failing to meet a planetary boundary looks and feels like. But he doesn’t regard the failure as necessarily terminal, pointing out that China, a real obstruction to progress at Copenhagen, is now leading the world in investment in low-carbon technologies and showing itself deadly serious about dealing with climate change, reaping great economic benefit along the way. The US is being left well behind.
Lynas is often impatient with Greens and environmentalists. But the arguments he engages in have to do with appropriate technological and economic remedies, not with the shared perception that we are exceeding the boundaries of nature and must pull back. On that common ground he interprets and explains the science with admirable clarity. And he remains confident we can solve the problems, given sufficient pragmatism on the means employed.