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’.