Admit it: environmentalism was an ugly experiment
Mark Lynas has converted from eco-alarmist to pro-growth rationalist. But he still doesn’t get the problem with green thinking.
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?
Last November, Channel 4 aired What the Green Movement Got Wrong, which featured prominent environmentalists, including Lynas, reflecting on the failures of environmentalism. The film claimed that environmentalists’ opposition to technologies that offered environmentally benign methods of energy and crop production had impeded their aim of creating an ecologically sustainable society. Since then, the debate between pro- and anti-nuclear environmentalists has deepened, exposing the many divisions that exist within the green camp.
That said, the green movement has never really been united by a coherent perspective that could withstand criticism with confidence. Instead, it has been more easily characterised as intransigent, its critics simply dismissed as ‘deniers’ funded by big business. Environmentalism, ignorant to criticism, has thus developed inside an insular, self-regarding bubble. Perhaps only someone from within it could prick that bubble, revealing to its members what those outside it have been telling them for decades.
However, the object of Lynas’s criticism is not the substance or ends of environmentalism but merely its means. The environment has not been saved by green hostility to development, he says. Environmentalism’s
uncompromising demands that we accept lower living standards make green politics unpalatable. Accordingly, he attempts to locate the basis for an environmentalism characterised by realism and pragmatism: what the science really tells us and how it can be most effectively acted upon.
As a result, there is much to agree with in The God Species. Most importantly, Lynas makes a clean break from deep ecology – the idea that ‘nature’ has intrinsic moral value and a ‘right’ to be protected from our ambitions. He rebukes the environmentalism that imagines a return to a pristine nature, and that shows contempt for development as an attempt to ‘play god’ over nature. We should ‘play god’, he says, for the planet’s sake as well as our own comfort. There is a convincing criticism of green demands for austerity and environmentalists’ unrealistic expectations that people should make do with ‘happiness’ rather than material progress. These are the conceits of well-off, middle-class and self-indulgent whingers, Lynas explains. Some of us have been making similar arguments for a very long time.
In spite of some of his accurate criticisms, Lynas fails to get to the substance of environmentalism. We do not find out what takes environmentalists to their bleak view of the world and their low view of humanity. This is a shame, because Lynas is in a unique position to reflect on it, having once thrust a custard pie into Bjorn Lomborg’s face, with the words: ‘That’s for everything you say about the environment which is complete bullshit. That’s for lying about climate change. That’s what you deserve for being smug about everything to do with the environment.’
A decade on, Lynas now emphasises science and pragmatism rather than… erm… pies. It’s worth remembering that Lomborg started out on mission similar to Lynas’s: as an environmentalist, keen to establish the sensible limits of our interaction with the natural world. Before writing The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg aimed to debunk the works of the economist, Julian Simon, but ended up sympathetic to many of his arguments. Lynas, too, now finds himself sympathetic to many of the ideas from the economic right (he calls for the privatisation of all publicly owned water companies, for instance). And like Lynas, Lomborg never ended up ‘denying’ climate change, but instead sought to bring a sense of proportion to the problem, and to put it into context with other problems in the world. That is all it takes to find oneself called a ‘denier’: merely seeking a sense of proportion about environmental problems will put you in the lowest moral category, as Lynas, the ‘Chernobyl death denier’, has now discovered.
Lynas’s transformation shows few signs of self-reflection. Yet this would surely be the most interesting thing he could discuss. Why did ‘denial’ provoke such incomprehensible rage to the younger Lynas? And now that he finds himself accused of it, why is he not more cautious about the word ‘denier’, which he still uses with abandon? Instead, he puts his past eco-zeal down to mere ‘ideology’. Ideology it may have been, but there is no discussion about its character, its origins and context, or how he came to be vulnerable to it. His metamorphosis from long-time anti-GM campaigner to advocate came about, he explains, after he read some scientific literature in 2008. Lynas’s conceit is that he has freed himself from ideology simply by reading ‘the science’.
But doesn’t every green campaigner believe himself to be armed with the science against the dark forces of ideology? Lynas would only have to watch the studio debate that followed What the Green Movement Got Wrong to recall that it was a pantomime, in which each green side claimed to represent pragmatism and science against the other’s ideology. Clearly, the coordinates of the environmental debate are not easily determined as ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, and a deeper reflection on both concepts is necessary to understand it. Lynas, in spite of his claim that ‘science’ has helped him overcome ‘ideology’, fails to provide that insight.
So what is this science which has allowed Lynas to eschew ideology?
Lynas takes his inspiration from the work of Professor Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which aims to offer ‘research for governance of social-ecological systems’. According to Lynas, 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.
There is a chapter on each of these nine ‘boundaries’. For example, Lynas argues that we must observe the ‘biodiversity’ boundary by ensuring that fewer than 10 species per year are lost to extinction (against a current rate of over 100). The climate-change boundary means we must maintain atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide below 350 parts per million (ppm). (It’s already higher than that, meaning that society must become carbon negative.) The nitrogen boundary means we must remove no more than 35million tonnes of nitrogen from the atmosphere per year. And so on.
Anyone familiar with environmentalism’s history will recognise that this idea of ecological boundaries owes something to the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits to Growth. Noting the similarity himself, Lynas insists that boundaries are not limits to growth. Growth can exist and continue within these boundaries, he says, adding a fairly convincing argument that he does indeed at least believe that economic growth, technological development and social progress can and should continue within them. But if a boundary isn’t a limit, what is it?
Although Lynas claims that this idea is both new, and founded on new science, the premise of this idea is the same as many other eco- centric perspectives: we live on ‘Spaceship Earth’, ‘Gaia’, in a ‘web of life’. The biosphere, says Lynas, comprises an ecosystem ‘characterised by near infinite complexity: all their nodes of interconnectedness cannot possibly be identified, quantified or centrally planned, yet the product as a whole tends towards balance and self-correction’. In the chapter on biodiversity, Lynas says: ‘By removing species, we damage ecosystems, collapse food webs and ultimately undermine the planetary life-support system on which our species depends as much as any other.’
In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich famously made dire predictions of doom, based on his attempts to model the biosphere and our relation to it, which failed to materialise. Nonetheless, his predictions helped to kickstart the contemporary environmental movement. In answer to Ehrlich’s failure to turn ecology into a predictive material and social science, environmentalists have claimed that what Ehrlich – and Malthus before him – got wrong was simply the ‘when’, not the ‘if’, in the familiar ‘not if, but when’ mantra. The failure, in other words, was merely in underestimating the resilience of ‘the system’, which in spite of Ehrlich’s failures is still presumed to exist. Lynas and his experts have merely sought to better estimate that resilience.
The possibility that that there is no ‘self-regulating system’ of the kind they have imagined does not seem to have occurred to Lynas. He claims that there exists an abundance of evidence for it, but his reasoning that it exists is deductive, rather than based on empirical science actually locating it. Contemplating the endurance of life – or ‘self-regulating systems’, on his view – on Earth for four billion years, through several catastrophic events, Lynas deduces unsoundly that ‘the only plausible explanation is that self-regulation is somehow an emergent property of the system; negative feedbacks overwhelm positive ones and tend to push the Earth towards stability and balance’. There must be a ‘self-regulating system’ producing ‘balance’ merely because Lynas can’t consider an alternative.
But rather than demonstrating that there is a self-regulating system, isn’t there an equally plausible argument that the endurance of life on Earth demonstrates that no such ‘self-regulating system’ exists at all? Life is enduring with or without stasis. Perhaps, rather than occupying sensitive niches, organisms simply survive when they are not pelted by rocks from the cosmos, frozen under ice sheets, buried under molten lava or suffocated by ash – that is, when and where conditions are not hostile to life. Perhaps the ‘balance’ and ‘self-regulation’ witnessed by Lynas and ecologists are merely artefacts of the scale at which they perceive nature: a human life in contrast to geological epochs. Why should it surprise us that life and its seemingly similar conditions endure? Maybe Gaia seems to be at the same time so resilient and so sensitive because she does not exist.
According to Lynas, Gaia is a metaphor for a ‘universal scientific principle’: the emergent property of self-organisation in complex systems. But the metaphor looks far more like those who invoke her than ‘nature’. The preoccupation with ‘self-regulating systems’ seems to coincide with a desire for the regulation and systematisation of human life. We have to presuppose a great deal to take this account of life on Earth at face value, and even more to start organising society around the principle. Indeed, we might now be able to call this ensemble of presuppositions about ‘balance’ and ‘self-organisation’ environmental ideology. Lynas, like many environmentalists, presupposes both balance and the system which produces it. They claim evidence for it in science, but the claim precedes the science. Scientists have looked for Gaia, but they have not found her. Perhaps scientists and science are not so immune to ideology, after all.
Reading each of the chapters on planetary boundaries puts one in mind of an attempt to use the concept of irreducible complexity to make an argument for ‘intelligent design’. Rather than being an attempt to digest scientific research, it seems more an attempt to bombard the reader with endless salvoes of facts. The problem with using science in this way is that it is presented without its caveats, its context or the limitations of its design. Rather than developing a critical understanding of the issues, the reader is encouraged to sit passively through tales of tragic environmental degradation, followed by the remedy.
This has been the environmentalist’s device of choice, because complex technical ideas hide political and ethical ideas – the remedy – behind scientific authority. And this is the biggest problem of the environmental debate. 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.
Lynas does not escape these problems. The God Species is littered with complaints about ‘deniers’ and their ideological motivations. In one section, Lynas complains about ‘the [political] right’s tendency to downplay or deny the environmental consequences of this human great leap forward’, and asks, why they do not ‘just admit candidly that whilst the human advance has been amazing and hugely beneficial, it has also had serious environmental impacts’. And it is perhaps this question that most reveals Lynas’ naivety about ideology, and his failure to reflect on his own position.
Nobody is ‘denying the environmental consequences’ of human progress. Nobody could look at a river oozing with toxic sludge and say that it wasn’t pollution. What would be at issue is what kind of problem that pollution is. For a population that depended on the river for sustenance, its contamination would indeed be a huge problem. For a population which has no real use for the river, it is less of a problem. (Indeed, it may even be a convenient solution to the problem of what to do with all that toxic sludge, until some better means of disposal is developed.) What differs between perspectives is not necessarily assent to or denial of ‘facts’, but priorities, values and ways of interpreting them. If you believe that the planet is a highly sensitive self-regulating system that produces balance, it follows that you’d be more concerned about pollution than somebody who felt more confident about the world’s resilience.
Never mind environmental science’s failures to produce proof of Gaia’s existence and failure to predict ecological Armageddon, we only need to look at environmentalism’s political failures to understand Lynas’s reformulation of environmentalism. On the street, environmentalism has comprehensively failed to become a mass movement. At the level of regional government, ideas about saving the planet by ‘thinking globally, acting locally’ have only antagonised relations between the public and officials while degrading local services. At the level of national government, the political establishment’s environmentalism only serves to reflect the gulf that exists between the public and themselves – their various planet-saving initiatives looking more and more like desperate and self-serving attempts to legitimise their functioning in an era of mass political
disengagement. At the supranational level, environmentalism has failed to unite nations in fear of Gaia’s revenge.
The attempt to locate planetary boundaries is equally an attempt to locate boundaries for humanity – to put it in its place within a supposed natural order. And within that order is a design for political institutions that are not legitimised by the public contest of values and ideas, but by the claim that they are necessary for ‘saving the planet’ and ourselves. Environmentalism is an ugly political experiment. That experiment failed, but not simply because its material science was flawed. Just as it was environmentalism’s political failure that preceded Lynas’s revision of its scientific basis, environmentalism’s political idea – its ideology – precedes the science. Rewriting the science won’t make the experiment any more successful for Lynas than it was for Ehrlich.
Ben Pile blogs at Climate-Resistance.