Book Review : The God Species by Mark Lynas

[Book Review by Jonathan Essex]

The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans By Mark Lynas, July 2011, Fourth Estate, ISBN 978-0007375226

Mark Lynas’s last book, Six Degrees, helped foster a widespread acceptance that climate change is real and we have to act together to do something about it. In The God Species he sets out how we often underestimate the scale of global environmental issues as we fail to truly appreciate the scale of 6 billion individual impacts on the planet. This book updates the scorecard of human impacts and relocates climate change within a wider set of planetary boundaries, as first set out in the Limits to Growth report produced nearly 40 years ago. Yet 40 years later the sum total of all our visible signs of action don’t even come close to addressing the scale of the problem. Perhaps Lynas, who represented the Maldives at the failed climate talks in Copenhagen [UNFCCC, December 2009], has come to believe that we won’t change our behaviour, we can’t change our economic system (as eloquently set out in Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth) and that there is no political support for a much wider programme of action such as that set out in the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain 2030. So Lynas has only allowed himself to consider what remains: for us to put our faith solely in technology. As I read I had two main questions: will this really save the day and, if so, at what price?

As a chartered engineer I found myself strongly disagreeing with Lynas’s exclusive focus on some technologies (especially as some major impacts, like the 15% or so of global climate emissions due to the use of concrete, bricks and steel, are conveniently ignored). I do empathise with the reality check – that the combined efforts of all our lifestyle and community efforts, our campaigns and lobbying efforts, and current politicians and business leaders are failing even to get close to addressing these issues. But Lynas’s support of single technologies like GM foods and nuclear power completely fails to address major issues like scale and resource use, or to acknowledge, for example, the impact of growth on either consumerism or continued planning approval for more buildings and infrastructure worldwide.

This book challenged me to fight on and re-admit the scale of the challenge that faces us, which includes not just humanity colliding with resource limits, but that we are compounding the problem by ever expanding our resource use, driven by the desire for economic growth. Perhaps we need not so much to narrow our focus to technology – as Lynas implores us to do – but to embrace also the cause of those affected by the economic dominance of bankers and neoliberal capitalism, increasing inequality and issues of global justice.

What we build, buy and throw away accounts for over half of the carbon footprint of western lifestyles, and has global impacts including deforestation and unfair trade, but this is not discussed by Lynas. We should challenge the plans in the UK to build new waste-burning incinerators which have twice the greenhouse gas emissions of coal-fired power stations but are subsidised as the ‘best available technology’ for dealing with waste and will block moves to reduce, reuse and recycle our waste back into new products. But this requires changes to economics to incentivise behaviour and cultural change. In ignoring these possibilities The God Species missed out on the opportunity to inspire hope that change is indeed still possible. But that would be to miss the point of this book, which is to create a shudder that while we might have woken up to climate change there is little evidence that we as a species are doing anything like enough about it. For a balanced view on the solutions proposed by Lynas you might also wish to read Heather Rogers’ Green Gone Wrong alongside Danny Dorling’s analysis, titled Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists.

Ultimately, I cannot agree with Lynas, who lines up with mainstream economists to argue that the only way to ‘solve’ climate change is to embrace different technologies. Instead, I urge you to reconsider the words of E. F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful, in the year of his centenary. Small is Beautiful’s ending contrasts with Lynas’s challenge (presumably to those in power) to get on and ‘solve the problem’. Schumacher wrote, ‘Everywhere people ask: “What can I actually do?” The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve, but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.’

Small is Beautiful was written just [one] year after the landmark Limits to Growth report challenged us to think in terms of environmental limits 40 years ago. I suggest that [this] is [a] better starting point to appreciate how we can take collective action, as well as change our politics and economics.

Jonathan Essex works for BioRegional, who argue that mainstreaming solutions to climate change requires technology to be combined with practical actions, from individual behaviour change to sustainable communities and new policies and economics – to allow us to reduce our levels of resource consumption from an average of 3-5 ‘planets’ per person in western consumer living to ‘one-planet living’, everywhere.

[Book Review reprinted by permission of the author in advance of its forthcoming publication in Green Christian magazine]

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