The one book you must read over the summer

by | Aug 3, 2011


I just read Mark Lynas’s new book, The God Species, in one sitting. I hardly ever read books in one sitting. So yes, it’s very good. And you should pack it along with the sun cream, shades and flip-flops, even if you’re not a nerd like me (which is, let’s face it, unlikely if you’re reading foreign policy blogs on a day as sunny as this).

I didn’t think it was going to be this good. Not because I don’t rate Mark as a writer – his previous books, High Tide and Six Degrees, are both great – but because the blurb on the back made it sounds less than it was, with its its proclamation that the book is “a radical manifesto that calls for the increased use of controversial but environmentally friendly technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power”.

That sounded a bit underwhelming, given that views like these are rapidly becoming mainstream rather than radical, following the trail blazed by people like Jim Lovelock on nuclear and Gordon Conway on GM. (Even former head of Greenpeace UK Stephen Tindale is pro-nuclear these days  – I remember him being so outraged that a 2002 IPPR report of mine should have argued in favour of nuclear that he phoned up my boss to tell him that the Institute’s green credentials were being damaged.)

And besides, if Mark’s book was really just an argument that things like cities, geoengineering, nuclear power and biotech are part of the environmental solution rather than part of the environmental problem, then it wouldn’t be saying anything that hadn’t been said two years previously in futurist Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, Radical Science, and Geoengineering are Necessary.

But actually, Mark’s book has a lot more to say than this – and two new ideas stand out in particular.

One is that The God Species is the first mainstream exposition of the concept of nine planetary boundaries that Johan Rockstrom and others at the Stockholm Resilience Centre first set out in a seminal Nature article back in 2009.

The idea here is that humanity must remain within nine safe and sustainable operating spaces, which in turn are defined by nine key boundaries. These boundaries are biodiversity; climate change; the nitrogen cycle; land use; freshwater; toxics; aerosols (like soot); ocean acidification; and the ozone layer. Rockstrom and co reckon we’re already beyond safe limits on the first three, and not far off most of the others.

Mark knows Rockstrom and his colleagues, and as a participant at some of the earliest conversations on planetary boundaries was ‘present at the creation’ of a defining agenda for the century ahead. More than that, he wrote this book with Rockstrom’s explicit blessing – as he puts it, “to do what the scientists could not: get this scientific knowledge out into the mainstream and demand that people – campaigners, governments, everyone – act on it”.

The book achieves that goal with aplomb, and that’s the first reason why you should read it. If, as seems increasingly likely, next year’s Rio summit focuses in part on the idea of Sustainable Development Goals as a potential replacement for the Millennium Development Goals beyond 2015, then expect the nine planetary boundaries to assume centre stage in discussions.

The other thing I like about The God Species is its framing  of humans as, well, gods. This is a rich narrative seam, breathtaking in its apparent arrogance. Humans, like gods? Isn’t that sacrilege, heresy, the pride before the Fall?

Mark’s answer to that, in a nutshell, is that it doesn’t do us or the planet any favours to affect a faux-humility about our degree of power, choice and agency over the planet. The question isn’t whether we or not we have a Zeus-like capacity to hurl thunderbolts from our Mount Olympus; clearly, we do. Rather, the question is whether we’re going to start exercising that decision-making power consciously, rather than pretending we don’t have it, all the while sleepwalking closer to the edge. As he argues,

“The Book of Genesis is full of instances of Man being punished for his attempts to become like God. After the woman and the serpent combine forces to taste the forbidden fruit from one tree, in Genesis 3:22 the Lord complains: ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ …”

He continues a moment later,

“With the primacy of science, there seems to be less and less room for the divine. God’s power is now increasingly being exercised by us. We are the creators of life, but we are also its destroyers. On a planetary scale, humans now assert unchallenged dominion over all living things.”

My one regret about this aspect of the book is that Mark only half develops this theme. He’s clear about how badly things will turn out if humans continue to bury their heads in the sand about their god-like powers – as he says in a quote from Stewart Brand in the introduction, “we are as gods and have to get good at it”. Amen to that, as he says.

But you’re left wondering: what would it look like if we did get good at it?

What the book sort of sets out, but never quite states explicitly, is the notion that not only are humans not guilty of Original Sin; they’re on the verge of growing up as a species, assuming their responsibilities and starting to Create consciously.

Which is quite an interesting prospect, if you think about it. Presumably if we’re operating at that sort of level, then averting planetary catastrophe is just the overture, no, the tuning up of the orchestra before the main symphony gets underway. That’s one way of reading Genesis 1:27, anyway.

One last thought: what is it with Oxford and books about creation myths? Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Mark Lynas – is there something in the water?

Author

  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.


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