Mark Lynas has a not-so-new book out, the God Species, and I've been taking post-Xmas read. Lynas is now identified as one of the leaders of the new wave of techno-greens who have turned their backs on traditional environmental thinking and embraced science and technology as the way forward. Bring on more nukes, lots of them please, and don't get hung up about GM foods or, for that matter, over-population. It's both refreshing and thought provoking and I look forward to reading more.
The basic premise of the book is that there are a number of planetary boundaries which we cross at our peril. Lynas identifies nine of them and devotes a chapter to each. Now this concept is a variation (a significant one) on the One Planet theme developed by WWF and others, and the original Limits to Growth style thinking dating back to the 1970s.
Each chapter follows a pattern. Lynas starts by describing the science surrounding the boundary and then moves on to reflect on how we should best deal with the problem. Thus the work is part pop-science, part polemic, and the book as a whole develops a roller coaster feel to it: we chug slowly uphill as we work through the facts and then let go for a breath-taking ride as we consider what the hell we should do about it. Generally, the polemic side is much the easier read, especially when it comes to refuting his previously held (green) convictions. This mea culpa aspect lends the book something of a confessional feel which makes it highly personal and consequently very accessible, something of a triumph for this subject, which despite its importance has been seen as just a little nerdy and very male - just why are there so few women writing about climate change and planetary boundaries?
So is Mark Lynas right? Is his position midway between traditional greenery (anti nukes, anti capitalism, anti progress) and gung-ho economic conservatism ("it's all an excuse to raise taxes so bugger off and leave us alone") the answer? He has my vote and there are an increasing number of influential commentators who line up in this camp, notably George Monbiot and Stuart Brand, not to mention a large number of scientists who traditionally steer clear of policy and are therefore reluctant to put their heads above the parapet.
But whether we like it or not, the debate has become highly politicised and just because Lynas is talking sense doesn't make the way forward any easier. For me, the most interesting chapter is the one dealing with the ozone layer - planetary boundary No 9 - and the way we appear to have solved the problem. It turns out the 1986 Montral Protocol, which addressed CFC production worldwide, was not the shoe-in I'd imagined it to be and that it took an enormous amount of cajoling and political manoeuvring to get it in place. The businesses which stood to take a pasting - principally American - dragged their heels and applied spoiling tactics and the Europeans were particularly obstructive. The key to its success was American political involvement and yet this all took place during the Reagan years. America simply threatened everyone with a big stick if they didn't comply and the rest of the world meekly fell into place. And within a few years, the world has learned to cope without CFCs and the ozone layer was on the road to recovery.
It all makes for a painful contrast with the Kyoto Protocol which was negotiated ten years later. Here the Americans, despite being led by Clinton and Gore, played a wrecking game and refused to sign up to anything meaningful. Climate change negotiations have never recovered from this setback. As a trusted advisor to the president of the Maldives, Lynas had a ringside seat at the Copenhagen summit and describes graphically what happened in the final hours of negotiation - all rather depressing.
But Lynas points out that our planetary problems are all solvable and that technically it is not even that difficult. We don't have to return to the dark ages and we don't have to restrict ourselves to a one child policy. We can house, feed and heat 9 million on this planet if only we can agree a few basic house rules. We don't even have to abandon economic growth, as long as we don't transgress a number of scientifically defined boundaries. We are, as the title implies, in a position to manage the planet, but right now we seem to lack the resolve to do so.
Thus it's both an uplifting read, in that it points a direct route out of the morass we've created, but a sobering one as well in that it draws a blank on how exactly we might get there politically.