Review of Mark Lynas' 'The God Species'

by | Jul 22, 2011

Over at Spiked-Online, I’ve reviewed The God Species: how the planet can survive the age of humans, by Mark Lynas.

Since becoming an advocate of genetic modification (GM) and nuclear power, Mark Lynas has drawn increasingly hostile criticism from his erstwhile comrades in the green movement. In turn, he has sharpened his criticism of environmentalists for their hostility to technological and economic development. In his new book, The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, he attempts to reformulate environmentalism to overcome the excesses that have so far prevented it from saving the planet. This book will no doubt provoke debate, but what is this transformation really about, and is it really based on new ideas or merely the revision of old ones?

There was quite a lot I wanted to say, but the article was getting too long. In particular, I was surprised by a chapter on ocean ‘acidification’, which struck me as premature for a book that aimed to restate the most confident science underpinning environmentalism. Matt Ridley and Lynas have been debating this online recently. There appear to be plenty of reasons to be somewhat sceptical of claims about acidification. As noted on Climate Resistance not so long ago, there is very little research on acidification, and what there is is very new.

There is also a chapter in The God Species about ‘biodiversity’ and species extinction. Biodiversity is also one of those can’t-see-it-touch-it-smell-it-taste-it issues that concern me about environmentalism. I don’t think there is a robust understanding of what ‘biodiversity’ is, because of the nebulous nature of the concepts involved, and it strikes me that there’s a presupposition of ‘biodiversity’ and its significance before research even begins. Here’s a section I took out of the review.

There is a debate to be had about the value of species and conservation, if only because many people do seem to value them. Nobody is in favour of the destruction of animals or wild areas for no good reason. The value of species and their habitats is not a given a priori, though deep ecologists may claim otherwise. And although Lynas seems to have abandoned his deep ecological perspective, a discussion about the subjective value of species or particular ecosystems is circumvented by the idea of ‘interconnectedness’. Whereas the everyday discussion about conservation is about the subjective value of an ecosystem in particular, Lynas imagines ecosystems and species to be a global problem. A damaged ecosystem in particular, becomes a problem of ecosystems in general. The loss of a species becomes a problem of biodiversity, just as a problem of a changed local climate becomes a problem of global climate change.

But should we take statistics about extinction at face value? There are many theoretical and practical problems with the ideas involved. There are approximately 2 million species known to us, and estimates about the size of a complete taxonomy of life on earth vary between 5 and 100 million species. This hazy estimate is confounded by the failure of biologists to determine an adequate and robust definition of ‘species’. Some morphologically and genetically similar species are regarded as distinct merely by virtue of their occupying different ecological niches. Then there is the problem that, without the ability to monitor every point on the surface of the planet simultaneously – let alone being unaware of how many species actually exist to monitor each one – it is not possible to know whether or not a species still exists. Then, just as it is difficult to monitor the decline of species, it is furthermore difficult to attribute that decline to a cause. All sorts of human activities are held responsible for fluctuations in populations, yet spontaneous extinction is just as natural. How is it possible to determine a ‘natural’ rate of extinction, with which to compare to a supposedly anthropogenic rate of extinction?

To overcome these considerable problems, conservationists model many assumptions about species’ sensitivity to change to estimate the rate of extinctions. This is compared to the fossil record of about 1 species per million species per year. A search of the web reveals the problem with this approach. While Lynas’ quotes a figure of between 100 and 1000 species lost per year, other conservationists and environmentalists claim that between 27,000 and 130,000 species are lost each year. Humanity is, on this view, the super-volcano, the ice age, the meteor, bringing chaos into paradise. Yet there is no real observable measure of the ‘rate’ at which species are going extinct.

But conservation science’s lack of methodological rigour and theoretical coherence has not stopped the concept of ‘biodiversity’ gaining influence over the political agenda. Vast tracts of the surface of the planet are given over to the ‘protection’ of wilderness – far more, in fact, than is occupied by humans in cities. In the less industrialised parts of the word, the international conservation effort results in the often brutal treatment of people, their eviction from land, and even their murder. This process is overseen by a number of supranational institutions under the auspices of the United Nations, and NGOs, who have between them developed a powerful reach over the years through various treaties and programmes designed to ‘save the planet’. Barely plausible empirical science reifies political ecology’s precepts: highly subjective and nebulous concepts such as ‘biodiversity’ and ‘sustainability’ which are used to legitimise toxic and undemocratic political institutions. That is the reality of Lynas’ ‘biodiversity planetary boundary’.


  1. Jack Hughes

    Lynas has no self-awareness at all. No insight.

    Instead he believes the only reason he was wrong in the past is because “that was in the past” and of course in his own world he is totally correct now because this just so, you know, today. It’s totally today.

  2. Donna Laframboise


    Rockström and his associates – referred to by Lynas as the ‘planetary boundaries experts group’ – believe that they have identified nine fundamental measures of the planet’s ecological health that human development must not interfere with, if ecological catastrophe is to be avoided.

    I haven’t read the book yet, so perhaps this is jumping the gun – but what sprang to mind when I read the above was Moses and the Ten Commandments.

    We humans appear to be strongly attracted to rules and systems – and to gain great comfort from them. It’s obviously very alluring, the idea that if we just decide on some rules and follow them our dreams will come true, capricious fate will be appeased, our children will be safe.

  3. Bella

    Strong review Ben but I do object to your lack of attention to the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s work. The self-regulating system theory is backed up by loads of empirical evidence- from a science called ecology. The socio-ecological system stuff is relevant right now in environmental studies and is certainly not just a popular science writer’s new buzz topic. You can argue that science is based on interpretation but that’s already been done in social science anyway and if you belong to that camp that’s fine, but from this neo-realist’s point of view the “bonfire of the certainties” doesn’t really help humanity solves it’s problems. And I don’t think you mean to slide in that direction. A popular science writer is supposed to translate real science into a lay person’s sunday afternoon read, so shoot the messenger not the science, unless you have done your research.

    Although you had some gems- the polluting river was very quotable.

  4. Ben Pile

    Bella – The self-regulating system theory is backed up by loads of empirical evidence – from a science called ecology.

    As I argue, Bella, there isn’t a lot of evidence of a ‘self-regulating system’, hence Lynas has to make a leap — the deduction, that only a ‘self-regulating system’ can explain the endurance of life on Earth and the apparent stasis of its conditions.

    The idea that there is a self-regulating system preceded the search for it. Nothing wrong with that. It is of course, perfectly good science to speculate, and then to go looking for evidence relating to the hypothesis. Indeed, it would be impossible to do science otherwise. The question about the hypothesis is what is it trying to observe — a material phenomenon, or something less concrete? Of course people beleive that ‘self-regulating systems’ exist, and that the biosphere may be one, but ‘self-regulation’ is far less tangible than, for instance, the effect of gravity. From the speculation about self-regulating system, there seems to be yet more speculation. And yet more, well beyond the ‘scientific’.

    Science may well be able to identify instances of populations of organisms existing in a co-dependent relationship as some kind of system. I would be surprised if science couldn’t find them. But these relationships are contingent, and lose their identity, just as a storm system will, whereas the ‘self-regulating system’ theory posits a universal tendency of complex systems to produce self-regulating mechanisms. No doubt things emerge from complex systems. And no doubt, ‘self-regulation’ (with or without agency) may be a possible characteristic that could emerge. Yet it seems premature — with or without ‘evidence’ — to say that there is such a tendency, and that the biosphere is an instance of its expression.

    The ‘socio-ecological stuff’ is even more vulnerable, because its determinism seems to argue that something equivalent to agency exists further up (or across) the food chain, so to speak, thank humanity. Lynas and the socio-ecologists presuppose the ‘self regulation’ (what ‘self’?) in order to make normative — rather than scientific — claims. Thus, whether or not the hypothesis of ‘self-regulation’ is supported by evidence, and even if it is true, and even if the world is such a system, and even if that system is vulnerable, the idea takes an ideological form. Even more so, given the prematurity of socio-ecologism’s claims, and its dismal failures to predict the future. If nothing else, Malthus’, Foster and Ehrlich’s failures should serve as a warning about taking the self-regulation hypothesis at face value.

    The most dangerous aspect of their ideas, I claim, is that they seem to deny human agency by the implication that human sensitivity to ecosystems is equivalent to the sensitivity of ecosystems to interference. We imagine ourselves as helpless outside of nature’s providence, and yet completely trapped within it. Granted, Lynas thesis seems to give us more room for manoeuvre than Ehrlic’s. But further to the desire to make the climate change boundary — i.e. 350ppm atmospheric CO2 — the organising principle of powerful undemocratic, unaccountable supranational political institutions which dictate the terms of the global economy; industrial and development policy in each country (and so on), Lynas seems to want to add eight more boundaries. Put plainly, the Stockholm Resilience Centre is about reproducing ideological ecology in political institutions by circumventing democracy: do as we say, or the planet gets it. Whether or not its participants recognise it, it is moral blackmail.

    You can argue that science is based on interpretation but that’s already been done in social science anyway and if you belong to that camp that’s fine, but from this neo-realist’s point of view the “bonfire of the certainties” doesn’t really help humanity solves it’s problems.

    I tried to be clear about it: my point is not that ‘science is based on interpretation’, or any other denial of material, objective reality. Let me repeat it for you:

    To take issue with the ethics or politics of environmentalism or its interpretation of science is seen as equivalent to denying scientific evidence. To point out that science requires interpretation is seemingly to suggest that there is no such thing as material reality. Environmentalists seem to imagine that science is a direct conduit from pure objectivity to humanity – it issues instructions about how we ought to live.

    I said that science requires interpretation. The implications of there being a ‘self regulating system’ may be grave, or it may be completely inconsequential. The fact — which it isn’t — does not speak for itself. It only has consequences if i) we beleive that we are dependent on Nature’s providence; ii) that change to the ‘self regulating system’ is equivalent to ‘damage’; iii) by virtue of i & ii, damage to the biosphere is equivalent to harm to ourselves.

    As for neorealism and humanity’s problems… I’ve argued at length here that there are far more immediate and real problems faced by humans than climate change, or spurious ideas about interference in natural ‘self-regulating’ processes. Indeed, it is only by presupposing ‘self regulating systems’ that we can ignore those problems, and see them as matters of ‘climate justice’, for instance. I claim in fact, that contemporary environmentalism is a cheap form of moral realism by treating human problems as problems of natural science, though that this tendency to naturalise social problems is not at all particular to environmentalism. Have a look around the blog.

    Some more questions about ecology as a ‘science’.

    Do you deny that ecology has a normative dimension to it? At least insofar as it seems to be ecologists who are at the same time interested in conservation. What is it that drives them — a cautious commitment to a hypothesis that stands as yet untestable, and unproven? (In which case, why all the zeal, alarm, and anti-democratic impulses?) Or a more deeply held personal commitment to a belief about ‘nature’? Do you not also recognise that ecologists are more vulnerable to developing sentimental attachments to the objects of their study in way that physicists and chemists simply are not?

    I sometimes wonder, is political ecology defended in the same way that the medieval Church defended itself. The heliocentric model of creation challenged not just the authority of the church, but also the social order premised on order in creation.

  5. Mooloo

    A self-regulating system is able to absorb large amounts of stress. Otherwise it is not self-regulating.

    If the biosphere is self-regulating then it it will absorb carbon dioxide (a natural product of many natural sources) fairly easily.

    The Greens usually argue the reverse: that the system is in fact delicately balanced and poised on the edge of disaster.

  6. Jamspid

    Ask Mark Lynas about Stephen Timms MP and why he only used a custard pie on Pier Lymburg

    The green movement should really be proud of itself when they are wearing their poppies on rememberence day celebrating fighting for free speech and all that,

    shame on the climate change deniers

  7. Mooloo

    “The green movement should really be proud of itself when they are wearing their poppies on rememberence day celebrating fighting for free speech and all that,”

    We wear poppies too in New Zealand (although on Anzac Day). Our men went off to war to fight for “God, King and Country” and not notions of democracy or free speech. And while the men were New Zealanders, the county being defended was Britain. Our enemy, Germany, had freer speech than our ally, Russia, and was considerably more democratic too.

    However, you are not meant to question the political message of the poppies, but to support our nation’s previous wars, no matter how witless. Suggesting that you won’t wear a poppy because you a) don’t like the message of “God, King and Country” and b) wouldn’t give a cent to the reactionaries who run the Returned Services Association is met with blank stares. They don’t even get that they are asking for support for political position.

    So it is with the climate alarmists. We are meant to be shamed because we adopt a different political position, which they don’t even recognise as political. Spare me your righteous indignation Jamspid.

  8. Jamspid

    Herero and Namaqua Genocide

    Copy and paste that into wilkipedia
    Now find out why British American and Commom Wealth soldiers went to war twice to stop German expansion
    That was the blue print for the final soloution
    Britain invented the concentration camp but Germany just did it bigger and better like the rest of our inventions

    Now type in Sugar Walls
    This was a song by Prince and Sheena Easton which is all about the delights of female masturbastion.
    It was not well known until Tipper Gore heard it
    That is Tipper Gore the wife of Al Gore (AL Gobbels) the one he chreated on.
    So she went on a bit of a crusade against explicit lyrics in rock music and music videos like Motley Crew because there were too many scantily dressed ladies wriggling their ample bottoms and clevages at the camera
    So she wasnt keen on white music OR black rap and R&B either
    So one mans freedom of musical expression is other persons titilation sexism and explotation
    So nice one for Tippa until she heard of a song called Rocky Mountain High
    AND if she had known anything about music
    That the most inofensive Christian middle of the road folk singer John Denver would never ever sing about using recreational drugs in an outdoor setting
    So he had to explain this before a congressional committe that he describing the joys of experiancing a Natural High of walking in the Rocky Mountain without the aid of stimulants
    So the pure enbodyment of clean living family values middle American Repulican John Denver made the busybody interfering arrogant wife of the Democrate vice president look just like you a total biggoted idiot

    So just like her idiot husband who couldnt win a presidental election she just jumps on the nearest band wagon
    And arrogant self centre biggottet idiots like you follow along behind them
    I wouldnt shut down any website that you want to write on and disagree with me

    One of the reasons for being a climate denier is because firstly its true
    And when climate change does eventually kick in it will be hundred of years in the future Buck Rogers and Blakes 7 will be dealing with it if theres anything too small to deal with

    Another reason is because there is a real vain of arrogances and self interest running through the enviromental movement and the politicians who have gone along with it
    The differance betwen you and me is I wouldnt ban you from coming on the internet and expressing your believes no matter how wrong i think they are
    Thats why we all wear poopies and why thousand of British and Austrialian and New Zealand service men fought in 2 world wars and in Iraq and still fighting in Afganistain and Libya
    Today Russian made Syrian tanks fired on their own people
    Ordinary people in Iran Syria China N korea just like our fathers and grand fathers losing their lives so we can talk in public on television and internet freely and agree and disaggree then vote on it
    That is why i think pesonnaly your an insult to the bravest men and women of your country



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