An Environmentalist Joins the Reality-Based Community

A review of Mark Lynas' The God Species


Eco-activist and journalist Mark Lynas owes Bjorn Lomborg an apology. Back in 2001, Lynas famously smashed a cream pie in Lomborg's face at a public meeting in Oxford to protest his then-new book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Now, in his own new book, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, Lynas has come a long way toward embracing many of Lomborg's arguments.

Lomborg has long advocated the deployment of nuclear power as a low carbon energy technology, for example. Now so does Lynas. "The anti-nuclear position of many Greens does not stand up to rational, never mind scientific examination," asserts Lynas. (Frankly, I favor neither solar socialism nor nuclear socialism, but at least Lynas is no longer ruling out a technology based on sheer ideology.)

Lomborg has often pointed to the substantial environmental benefits of genetically-modified crops. Now so does Lynas. "Genetic engineering per se is implacably opposed by almost all Green groups worldwide for ideological rather than scientific reasons," agrees Lynas. Lynas even notes that the Greens' "favored prescription for agriculture—a worldwide switch to organic farming—cannot possibly feed the world."

Lynas now even favorably cites a scheme devised by Canadian researchers Isabel Galiana and Chris Green in which a $5 per ton carbon tax would be used to finance low carbon energy research and development. Interestingly, the Galiana and Green plan [PDF] was presented as a proposal at Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus Center in 2009.

Lynas also agrees with Lomborg on sperm counts. In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg reviewed the evidence that synthetic chemicals were supposedly harming sperm counts and concluded, "We now know for certain that the scary vision of the general, overriding reduction in sperm quality was mistaken." Now Lynas writes, "One particularly stubborn myth—almost universally believed in my experience—is that sperm counts are falling around the world, and that this threatens a worldwide crisis in male fertility." He notes that while some studies do show a decline, "many more have shown no decline at all."

The book's title harks back to futurist Stewart Brand's famous statement, "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." Humanity is now in charge of the earth, dramatically affecting all sorts of ecological systems. "Playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged," asserts Lynas.

Lynas' analysis in The God Species is essentially a popularization of the cogitations of a self-selected group of 29 ecologists who met in 2009 with the goal of defining nine "planetary boundaries within which we expect that humanity can operate safely." According to the group, humanity so far has transgressed only three of the boundaries, for climate change, rate of biodiversity loss, and changes to the global nitrogen cycle. The group could not quantify two of them, chemical pollution and aerosols. So far humanity still operates safely within four global boundaries e.g., withdrawal of freshwater, ocean acidification, land use, and stratospheric ozone.

Let's set aside the fact that Lynas fully accepts the most catastrophic interpretations of climate change, extinction rates, and nitrogen loading. What's truly refreshing is that, for the most part, Lynas now strongly rejects the Green ideology that demands the dismantling of the human economy as the "solution" to these alleged crises. "The reality is that increasing prosperity—measured in material consumption—is non-negotiable both politically and socially, especially in developing countries," asserts Lynas. He correctly calls the Green anti-growth stance a "dead-end ideology" aiming to "urge an unappealing narrative of communitarian austerity on an unwilling public." Lynas concludes, "Sacrifice and austerity are out; competition and innovation are in."

Both Lynas and the self-appointed ecologists miss the crucial point that all nine of the "boundaries" are occurring in open access commons. Nobody owns the resources and so nobody has much of an interest in protecting them from abuse and overexploitation. Lynas shows glimmers of understanding this when he urges that "the provision of water must be deregulated and privatized; taken out of the inefficient and corrupt hands of the state, and handed over to the private sector." 

In dealing with threats to biodiversity, Lynas suggests a complicated scheme of biodiversity credits and banking as a way to protect endangered species. But why not turn to privatization for help in this case too? Lynas notes that granting land rights to indigenous people in the Amazon has given them the ability to protect their forests and the biodiversity they harbor. He should pursue this insight and urge that governments recognize formal legal property rights for all indigenous peoples. Similarly, Lynas decries overfishing, but fails to apply the insight that privatization has also been proven to protect fisheries.

To his considerable credit, Lynas also rejects newly fashionable proposals for population control, arguing that economic growth and urbanization result in voluntary steep reductions in fertility as rising prosperity enables women and men to engage more fulfilling activities. In addition, he recognizes that prosperity is not an environmental problem; it is, in fact, critical to the solution of environmental problems. Prosperity correlates with declines in air and water pollution, increased wetlands protection, and forest regrowth.

With regard to the problem climate change, Lynas correctly dismisses the calls of Green ideologues for a "worldwide change in values, a program of mass education to reduce people's desires to consume, a more equitable distribution of global wealth, smashing the power of transnational corporations, or even the abolition of capitalism itself." Lynas instead argues, "We can completely deal with climate change within the prevailing economic system. In fact, any other approach is doomed to failure." As noted above Lynas favors various "technofixes" such as the dramatic expansion of nuclear power, including innovative new technologies like fast breeder and thorium reactors. He still has an itch to impose top-down solutions like mandatory energy efficiency standards, but he's moving in the right direction. 

Lynas makes his most fulsome mea culpa with regard to his former opposition to genetically engineered (GE) crops. About his anti-biotech activism, Lynas admits, "I realized that throughout the entire time I had been anti-GE activist, donning biohazard suits and mounting night-time raids against test sites, I had never read a single scientific paper on the subject." After finally reading some science on the topic, he has now concluded, "Although none of the major environmental groups will admit it, the first generation of GE crops has almost certainly been beneficial both to the environment and to farmers."

Future biotech crops could help solve the problem of excess nitrogen fertilizer running off of farmers' fields to produce dead zones in the oceans by over-fertilizing oxygen-depleting algae blooms. One technofix to this problem cited by Lynas is the development of new biotech crop varieties that use much less nitrogen to produce even more food. Less fertilizer, more food, and less damage to the environment. A triple win.

In The God Species it is evident that Lynas has not completely escaped the scientific and economic confusions entailed by his earlier commitments to ideological environmentalism, but he is clearly on his way. I want to be one of the first to welcome him to the reality-based community. And in the spirit of the "beer summit" in which President Barack Obama sought to end the acrimony engendered by an unfortunate encounter between a Harvard professor and Cambridge policeman, I invite Lynas and Lomborg to meet together with me at a local D.C. saloon to share beverages of their choice, and perhaps even a slice of pie. I'm buying.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.