The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, By Mark Lynas

Reviewed,Diane Coyle
Friday 15 July 2011 00:00 BST

The spiel on the back of this book promises that it is "no depressing lamentation of eco-doom" and that the author is "ripping up years of 'green' orthodoxy". So he is. So much so that when I looked on Amazon to check a detail, and found that the book had been withdrawn because of a customer complaint, I assumed that an outraged orthodox environmentalist had successfully gamed its complaints system.

A rapid Twitter campaign, putting pressure on Amazon, saw the book back on sale within a day. Although the explanation seems to be automated cock-up rather than conspiracy, The God Species will outrage many of the readers at whom it is aimed. For its argument is that technological solutions, including nuclear power and genetically modified crops, are essentialto prevent catastrophic environmental change.

In fact, Mark Lynas is even more radical (from the usual green perspective) than this. He argues that the reality of aspiration to all comfortable mod cons must be accepted. "I reject the implication that carbon reduction should be held hostage to a wider ideological programme seeking to change people's lifestyle's and patterns of behaviour. Similarly, if it is to succeed in helping us to meet the climate change planetary boundary, the environmental movement needs to become comfortable with centralised technologies and big corporations." Wow.

Lynas also firmly rejects the green movement's desire to overturn the market economy and bring about an end to growth. He writes: "The alternative to growth in a modern market system is painful contraction, unemployment and political instability, as numerous recessions since the 1930s have demonstrated... Zero growth is not a viable option."

This is not at all what I expected. For one thing, Lynas is well-known for flinging a cream pie in the face of Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, and cavorting in a bio-hazard suit in experimental fields. Yet it turns out he is one of the growing number of green campaigners who are advocating investment in previously taboo technologies. These include George Monbiot and James Lovelock, both now pro-nuclear.

This is a significant intellectual trend. For as long as I've been an economist, the environmental movement has seemed foolishly romantic in rejecting the scope for using economic tools – including switching to new technologies – to address environmental problems effectively. As for hoping people en masse will turn away from economic growth, this is surely a fail-safe recipe for political inaction. On the other hand economics, although pragmatic, was slow to accept the scale of the environmental challenges to be addressed. This has also started to change.

So The God Species should find a receptive audience in both disciplines, while perhaps angering many other readers. The book is structured around the description of nine planetary "boundaries", of which climate change is one. Others were entirely new to me, such as the nitrogen boundary: the destabilisation of the nitrogen cycle by increasingly intensive agriculture to feed the human population.

A boundary is the point beyond which human activity tips one of the Earth's complex but self-correcting natural cycles into instability. The miracle of our planet – originally described in James Lovelock's "Gaia" hypothesis – is that, so far, in every aspect of nature there have been feedback mechanisms that keep the whole system in a reasonably stable condition. Stable enough for life, especially ours, to flourish. Now, in three of the nine categories identified by Lynas, we have crossed the boundary and can expect increasing instability. The feedbacks have become counter-productive. It's like a high-stakes game of Jenga, where we have perhaps removed some of the key wooden blocks that will bring the whole tower tumbling down.

The three breached boundaries are: the massive loss of biodiversity; the carbon cycle and climate change; and the removal of nitrogen from the atmosphere due to farming. Before reading this book, worrying about biodiversity had seemed a chattering class luxury to me, even though it would have been entertaining if Australia were still home to a gigantic horned turtle as big as a car, to two metre-high, half tonne flightless birds, six-metre long snakes and seven-metre predatory lizards. This chapter convinced me that there could be serious consequences for the planetary system as a whole, given the present rate of loss of species.

Lynas writes: "Living systems keep the air breathable and the water drinkable for themselves and us, but to continue to perform these vital services they need to retain their complexity, diversity and resilience. Once humans start to pick off component parts, an ecosystem may appear to function as normal for a while – until some unpredictable tipping point is reached and collapse occurs." To preserve against further loss of species, he advocates introducing markets for biodiversity: financial mechanisms to reward farmers or landowners who safeguard endangered species.

Equally contentious to many green campaigners will be Lynas's advocacy of GM crops to help fix nitrogen in the soil without the use of nitrate fertilisers. Without a new agricultural technology, he argues, the human population cannot be fed without destabilising the Earth's nitrogen cycle.As he points out, farmers in developing countries – supposedly the people campaigners were going to save from the depredations of big business, forcing them to sow crops with "terminator" genes – have been keen adopters of GM seeds. They like the improved yields and the costs reduced by lower fertiliser requirements.

Just as bad, from the romantic green perspective, is the book's support of nuclear power generation to bring CO2 levels in the atmosphere to anything like safe levels. The case for nuclear as the only plausible low-carbon energy-generating technology that can satisfy enough of our demand for electricity to bring emissions targets within reach seems compelling to me. (I am a member of an advisory panel for EDF Energy, which plans to build new nuclear plants in the UK, where we currently get approaching a fifth of our electricity from nuclear.)

But it seems unlikely that the arguments set out here will convince many of those who instinctively oppose technologies that they have for so long demonised. Emotion is a stronger force than reason in this debate. It will be quite a while, in these anti-market times, before the green movement as a whole embraces economic growth and big business. Let's hope this does not postpone for too long effective responses to the breaching of natural boundaries described in The God Species. Otherwise, eco-doom is still on the agenda.

Diane Coyle is the author of 'The Economics of Enough: How to run the economy as if the future matters' (Princeton)

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