Another God Delusion?

Mike Hannis on the pessimism of Mark Lynas's "The God Species".


The God Species by Mark Lynas (Fourth Estate, £14.99)

We humans are as gods, says Mark Lynas (quoting Stewart Brand), and we'd better get good at it. In fact, we've been on the way to being gods ever since we started using fire, and there's no going back now. It's no good tiptoe-ing around trying to minimise our impact on the planet. We're in charge now, and we just need to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. "Global environmental problems are soluble", he says, so "let us go forward and solve them". No-one else is going to do it.

Lynas believes that human inventiveness and acquisitiveness are not the problem, but the solution: we can and should bring "prosperity and clean growth" to all. If only we can get beyond outdated green idealism, and boldly apply technology and financial engineering to our environmental crises, then we can solve them. For it is, after all, the "wider ideological programme" of the green movement, with its insistence on "seeking to change people's lifestyles" that has been holding us back. On climate change, for instance, environmentalists' "gargantuan error" of opposing nuclear power has, by making us burn more coal, apparently led to an extra 18 billion tons of carbon emissions.

Each chapter eloquently lays out a pressing ecological issue or "planetary boundary" and then, with considerable relish, proceeds to slaughter another  sacred green cow. In every case, techno-fixes designed to allow consumerism and economic growth to continue are promoted as the way forward. It is "our job as modern knowledgeable humans to use all the tools at our disposal" to keep within planetary boundaries while "allowing growth in human prosperity". This means nuclear power, geoengineering, intensive GM agriculture, accelerated urbanisation, carbon trading, biodiversity offsetting, and the privatisation of water. No measures that require individual human behaviour or ethics to change are endorsed, or even seriously considered. Firstly such measures will never work, because behaviour change is impossible. For instance, "as with cars and electricity, people are not going to give up flying long distances". Secondly, there's no need. We're fine as we are. Cossetted urban living, frenetic consumption and the pursuit of endless economic growth are taken as just what these gods do, never as things we should question or hope to grow out of. Our miraculous evolution from ape to god has, presumably, stopped.

While Lynas is very readable and superficially persuasive, in almost every case his actual arguments for his chosen solutions are thin, and his sources very selective. This is hardly surprising, given both the range of issues he tries to address in a small book, and his determination to apply essentially the same solution to all of them. Exposing this in detail would be well worth doing, because this book will be widely read and perhaps influential. Such a critique might start with Einstein's famous observation that you can't solve a problem with the mindset that created it. But the focus of this short review is not on what the book says about science, but on what it says about us.

This book seeks to criticise "greens" for being politically naïve. Yet it offers no political analysis, just blind acceptance of the current status quo. The word  "capitalism" does not even appear in the index. Any idea of changing social norms or ethical priorities belongs to the woolly old green thinking, which for Lynas is at best childish, and at worst downright misanthropic. Indeed the norms of the author's own comfortable middle-class British existence are taken to be not only universally applicable, but something of an ethical imperative. Why, he asks, should we "holiday close to home", or "turn down our thermostats" and "be cold and uncomfortable for ever", when technology means there is no "need to try and limit human aspirations"?

Lynas is sincere, but has fallen into the trap of trying to replace one grand narrative with another. He portrays himself as an optimist - but his views on human nature are, in the end, deeply pessimistic. The oldschool green politics he criticises is rightly pessimistic about the chances of making global capitalism ecologically sustainable. It is however marked by a profound optimism about our ability to co-operate rather than compete, and about the possibility of living in ways that actually integrate and celebrate awareness of our ecological embeddedness. This is not just hippy wishful thinking – there is plenty of historical and anthropological evidence that such mindsets are possible.

Lynas's preferred future is one in which "growth continues indefinitely". To make this possible, recycling rates approach 100 percent and "consumption rates still rise as materials circulate faster". Resources are privatised and businesses make billions from biodiversity offsetting, while ever more complex technology shields us from the ecological consequences of our lifestyles. All this rests on the assumption that human material aspirations cannot adapt, but must continue to be driven ever upwards. This is surely the real pessimism.

Sustainability is a political and ethical issue, not just a technical one. It may well be that local solutions are not enough, and that any transition to more sustainable societies will need managing if it is to be peaceful. But thinking big need not mean embracing the current destructive version of big thinking. Lynas has bought into the idea that only the dynamism of business can deliver ecological sustainability. Yet creating and managing markets designed to achieve sustainability would require strong creative governance in the public interest, not in the interest of capital. Lynas seems happy to accept this. To accept that this is possible, though, is arguably to accept that the market stage is unnecessary. The old debates about privatisation and the alleged inefficiency of the public sector have not gone away. For instance, the history of rail privatisation in the UK hardly inspires confidence in the idea of global water privatisation.

At a deeper level, the idea that markets are the only answer implies that people can only act effectively and creatively when motivated by self-interest. This is clearly not true. People can and do co-operate, build community, and change direction. Moreover, acting in one's own best interest is not only about financial gain. The long standing core question of both ethics and politics, "what is it that makes for a good human life?", is as relevant now as it ever has been. Flourishing human lives require societies which are properly integrated into the non-human world, not just protected from it by clever  technological life-support systems.

Another God Delusion?
This article originally appeared as 'Another God Delusion?' in The Land Issue 11 Winter 2011-12