Review of “The God Species” by Mark Lynas

Review written by Patrick Keys


Mark Lynas’ The God Species is a combination of two things:

(a) a clear and useful explanation of the planetary boundaries framework, and

(b) a platform for Lynas to share his personal journey and evolving attitude on solutions to climate change.

I am a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (one of, if not the intellectual home of the planetary boundaries research group), thus I’ve been particularly interested to see an entire book framed around these issues. With a professional background in climate change impacts to water resources, and a personal interest in pragmatic solutions to environmental challenges, Lynas’ “The God Species” is a welcome addition to the existing field of ‘pragmatic sustainability thinkers’, including Stewart Brand, Johan Rockstrom, Jon Foley, and James Lovelock.

The key ‘take home’ messages that I received from the book are:

1. Nuclear power must be expanded immediately – Decarbonize the energy sector is a central solution that Lynas suggests for addressing many of the planetary boundaries, including climate change, ocean acidification, and atmospheric aerosol loading.

2. Carbon offsets are a valuable strategy to achieve climate-development win-wins – Having at first thought offsets were great (circa 2004), and then told by Greens they were bad (circa 2007) it seems there may be a revival.

3. “Pragmatism beats purism” – This encapsulates Lynas’ mantra throughout the book, particularly with regard to embracing formerly taboo technologies (e.g. GM, Nuclear power, etc.) and embracing formerly taboo partners (e.g. Monsanto, etc.). Similar to this is the “perfect is the enemy of the good” – ultimately if we want to start addressing our severely indebted ‘biophysical bank ledger’, we have to use the tools at hand, and not wait for a mythological rich prince to save us.

4. Humanity can stay within the boundaries without sacrificing economic growth – Lynas superbly untangles the Green myths (that sustainability will require massive reductions in our standard of living) and the associated Libertarian fears (that sustainability will require massive economic contraction). Ultimately, Lynas’ is a message of hope.

“The God Species” is highly readable, and useful for anyone who wants a clear explanation of the science that influenced the expert panel to the planetary boundaries framework, as well as a set of rational, well-argued solutions to keep humanity within these boundaries.

Read the rest below…


About the Author

I’ve been a fan of Lynas’ work ever since I read his book “Six Degrees.” Using a mixture of expert interviews, scientific research, and extrapolation, “Six Degrees” explores what the world would look like with an incremental increase in mean global temperature from 1 to 6 degrees Celsius. The creativity, playful writing style, and though provoking questions struck me, which is why I wanted to read his latest book about the planetary boundaries. For more about Mark Lynas, go here (his personal website), and to read some of his writings and opinions about other topics go here (articles on his website).

Recently, he has taken to changing hats – between journalist, climate mitigation advocate, nuclear power proponent, and climate science advisor to the (former) president of the Maldives. All of these recent experiences have influenced this book, and to great effect (the section at the end of “The God Species” where he details the closing hours of the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen – sitting with presidents, prime ministers and an obstructive Chinese underling – makes for particularly sober reading).

Overview of Planetary Boundaries

The planetary boundaries are a set of biophysical boundaries in the Earth system that, if crossed, may cause significant, unpredictable, and destabilizing changes to the biophysical systems that human society depends on.

The concept was suggested in a 2009 Nature article, and then subsequently expanded upon in an Ecology and Society paper (with additional information in the Ecology and Society supplementary materials). The effort was led by Johan Rockstrom (Stockholm Resilience Centre) and Will Steffen (Australian Natl. University), along with 27 other scientists. If you’re saying to yourself, “Enough already, what are these boundaries?” Here they are:

Figure adapted from Rockstrom et al., 2009 (Nature)

As for this book, Lynas manages to take this unwieldy set of 9 planetary boundaries, propose solutions to all/most of them, and convey clearly how and why each is worthy of our (i.e. humanity’s) consderation. This is not an easy task, so I applaud Lynas for that.

These boundaries are ambitious (and perhaps impossible to meet), but as a “scientist/engineer”, I’m interested in both what the key biophysical process are, where the boundaries for these processes may exist, and whether we can do anything about them. The planetary boundaries group performed a valuable service applying their collective expertise to start the discussion about whether and where the earth has boundaries to ecological function. Lynas has performed a valuable service by digesting the boundaries into their easily understood details, as well as providing novel solutions for each. I’m providing a (less) valuable service by rambling on about my own interpretations 🙂

It is a significant advantage that Lynas is not a scientist or engineer, since he is not blinded by pre-conceived notions of what is or isn’t technically feasible, and is not limited by disciplinary dogma (whether it be atmospheric science, conservation biology, or petroleum engineering).

Criticism of the Concept

Lynas does not spend a great deal of time diving into the criticism of the planetary boundaries concept, but there exist many who aren’t convinced. The journal Nature, shortly after the original 2009 article, published a set of seven commentaries from other experts in boundary-specific disciplines. The commentaries range from hesitation with the concept to outright disagreement and claims that it is nothing short of dangerous.

I think that it should be clear that the planetary boundaries were not defined with a detailed modeling experiment, but with ~30 expert individuals. Likewise, these ~30 represent perspectives largely from the developed, Western, world. There are no authors from: Africa, Asia, or South America. This is not necessarily problematic from a scientific perspective, but it is completely unacceptable from a governance perspective. If the planetary boundaries research group is to go anywhere beyond an academic exercise, any future revisions and expansions of the concept must incorporate scientists from the entire planet.

Four Take Home Points

Lynas uses the planetary boundaries as a lens through which to convey his own ideas about how to address climate change and the other overwhelming impacts humanity is having on the planet. I’ve summarized my four take home points below.

1. Nuclear power must be expanded immediately.

Lynas joins many other prominent ‘former members’ of the ideologically strict environmentalist community (including Stewart Brand and James Lovelock) in his advocacy of nuclear power as a means to provide stable power to electricity grids and to decarbonize the energy supply chain.

After reading Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, I was convinced that I had been wrong (or intentionally misled) about nuclear power’s catastrophic impacts (i.e. Chernobyl wasn’t as bad as literally everyone thinks). And the long-term issues of radiation exposure from storage of nuclear waste is not as big of a deal as we have been lead (although, the NIMBY factor is still strong).

To meet the decarbonization targets required to respond to both the climate change and ocean acidification boundary, humanity must become carbon neutral within a matter of decades. Impossible? No. Really freaking hard? Yes. Getting rid of coal and to a large extent petroleum based sources of energy requires a massive source of base load power – and many are now looking to nuclear as the solution. I don’t pretend to understand the political hangups and roadblocks for expanding nuclear power, but I do understand that without a significant change in the rate of our carbon emissions, via decarbonizing our economy, we have no hope of staying below 3-4 degrees C of warming, which is flat out catastrophic.

My biggest hang-up has been nuclear weapons proliferation, that is – reprocessing spent nuclear power fuel into weapons-grade material. If we massively expand nuclear power, the probability of a rouge state or organization acquiring the material, reprocessing it, and putting it into a bomb increase.

Lynas’ response is that with new 4th generation fast reactor technology, which will consume the nuclear waste from conventional nuclear plants, there is no longer a proliferation problem since there is no waste material to be re-processed. This, I admit, is something I don’t understand, so I’m going to read up on this. However, even if this is the case, this technology does not yet exist, and as such nuclear power as a means to decarbonize the economy is still a question mark.

2. Carbon offsets are a valuable strategy to achieve climate-development win-wins

Carbon offsets are something that I first heard about in college, when a buddy bought me a Christmas present of a carbon offset for my flight home – yea, my friends were awesome. Shortly after their emergence on the scene, cynical Greens accused them all of greenwashing, since profit was involved, and because there were a few bad apples in the bunch.

However, Lynas argues convincingly for embracing carbon offsets, and I suggest the word ‘offsets’ is inappropriate. ‘Investment’ is likely a better term, especially if the money is used to subsidize or fully-fund low-carbon cook-stoves to reduce the impacts of black carbon (i.e. soot). Expanding the use of efficient cook stoves has multiple benefits, chiefly reducing the global warming potential of black carbon in the atmosphere, and reducing the negative health impacts of inhaling soot – which primarily affects women and children in the global south. I’m pretty sure I’ll be embracing this approach as a means to help address my own carbon footprint.

3. “Pragmatism beats purism”

This encapsulates Lynas’ mantra throughout the book, particularly with regard to embracing formerly taboo technologies (e.g. GM, Nuclear power, etc.) and embracing formerly taboo partners (e.g. Monsanto, etc.). Similar to this is the “perfect is the enemy of the good” – ultimately if we want to start addressing our severely indebted ‘biophysical bank ledger’, we have to use the tools at hand, and not wait for a mythological rich prince to save us.

Lynas, again like Lovelock and Brand before him, suggests that to meet many of the future resource demands, new technology will be required including nuclear power, genetically modified food crops, and (potentially) geoengineering of the climate. These relationships may be uncomfortable, but having started my own personal research into these topics I am struck by how baseless conventional wisdom tends to be.

Take GM crops, as an example – there is an enormous amount of hysteria about genetic modification of crops, and yet very few of these individuals are aware either of the breeding methods used in the past (including mutagenesis aka mutation breeding), or that these obviously sloppy and dangerous historical methods count as organic. After reading about GM crop technology (in a book by a scientist!), I am convinced that the technology is far from evil, and that Greens groups with their own special interests are spreading at least equally damaging levels of misinformation.

Therefore, I am heartened by the fact that Lynas looks to solutions that are fundamentally based on whether or not they work, and tries to suspend his bias as much as possible. I think his quote pragmatism beats purism could be repackaged as ‘precaution is different than delusion‘ – pretending like we are not knowingly geoengineering the climate is delusion, but we can still be responsible, rational, and precautionary geoengineers.

I would be interested, with geoengineering for example, to have a set of precautionary criteria by which different methods may be evaluated. Among these I would include the following:

  • Reversibility – how quickly and easily can the geoengineering be reversed? e.g. Stratospheric sulphate aerosol distribution would act quickly and dissipate quickly, and thus might be “highly reversible”.
  • Temporal consequence distribution – e.g. do we gain in the short-term and lost in the long-term?
  • Spatial consequence distribution – e.g. do developing countries have a greater burden than developed countries?

Its possible someone has already done this, but if not… anyone want to co-author a paper with me?

4. Humanity can stay within the boundaries without sacrificing economic growth – Lynas superbly untangles the Green myths (that sustainability will require massive reductions in luxury goods) and the associated Libertarian fears (that sustainability will require massive economic contraction).

This final message is something that is very controversial – and interestingly, its not believed by the ideological right or left. Lynas suggests that the Green community has stated that if we want to meet sustainability goals, we must dramatically reduce consumption and lifestyle in a manner that would reduce happiness throughout the developed world. Since the sustainability agenda is “owned” by the Green community, the Liberatian right responds by saying that if that is how you suggest we respond to ‘your’ agenda then we reject both.

The problem is, the mythology that responding to climate change – that is decarbonization – requires massive cuts in growth, well-being etc. is exactly that – a myth. Lynas suggests throughout the book that responding to the planetary boundaries is something that can be done effectively without sacrificing growth – in some cases, growth that is very necessary for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

What should Lynas do next?

I think that Lynas has more work to do, particularly in developing how these solutions could play out in a practical way – maybe his next book should be a bit more wonkish looking at how realistic policy instruments could be created that incentivize sectors that keep us within planetary boundaries, while de-subsidizing sector that are reinforcing our boundary crossing behaviors.

Either way, I look forward to Lynas’ next project, and hope that he can continue working in the climate change community for pragmatic change.