First aired on Quirks & Quarks (5/11/11)
The traditional debate about the environment has often broken down into two sides. On one side are the people who aren't worried about the human impact on the environment, and who think that the planet is just fine and can take whatever we throw at it. On the other side are those who believe that our impact on the planet is huge and unsustainable, that the Earth can't possibly handle our current rate of resource consumption and that if we're to survive beyond the next few generations, we need to massively scale back human activity and give the Earth room to breathe.
But Oxford-based science and environment writer Mark Lynas thinks both sides are wrong.
Like many people who think about humanity's long-term effect on the Earth, Lynas is concerned about the impact that we are having on the planet, but his solution might sound strange to most environmentalists. Rather than letting nature heal itself, he thinks we have to take charge, not just of ourselves, but of the Earth itself.
Despite its title, The God Species isn't a book about religion. "It's a metaphor," Lynas explained to Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. "It was the best way I could think of to illustrate the analogy of how powerful humans are in terms of our impact on the Earth's whole system." It's undeniable how great the impact of humans on the planet has been. "It's well known that we've changed the chemistry of the atmosphere by increasing the levels of certain greenhouse gases, which has made the oceans more acidic," said Lynas. "We've changed the heat of the oceans and the whole of the earth system. So we're destabilizing and unbalancing the Earth's system in [a] whole host of ways."
Lynas thinks that we have the power to save the planet, but we have to go even further with our technology "'With power comes responsibility,'" he quoted. "We've conquered the Earth like an army. It's a responsibility that we've brought upon ourselves because our impact has been so great."
Lynas argues that we have to take into consideration "planetary boundaries," which are the "safe" limits devised by a group of Nobel Prize-winning scientists for various things such as how much carbon dioxide we can put into the atmosphere or the amount of nitrogen we can let run into our waterways. "Add it all together, and you've got what they call a safe operating space in which humanity can flourish," he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, the world's population is not a boundary, but "a driver," Lynas said. "You can potentially have 15 billion people on the planet, but what matters is what technologies they're using, and what they're consuming and how much, and what the wastes are -- and all of that can theoretically be sustainably managed within the boundaries."
The solution, Lynas argues, is technology -- an answer that many environmentalists are wary of. After all, isn't it modern technology that got us into this mess in the first place? Lynas champions things that many people are deeply suspicious of, like nuclear power and genetically modified crops -- not your typical environmentalism, which tends to shy away from those things.
"You have to stay with the times," he said. "We're in a new era and we've got to start thinking differently about the problems we've got."
The God Species:
How Humanity Must Intelligently Manage the Earth in Order to Save It
by Mark Lynas
Buy this book at:
From the publisher:
"For the first time, these scientists were beginning to understand not only that there are a number of processes, or systems, that are crucial to the stability and sustainability of human life on Earth, and not only that there is a 'boundary' value for each system, a level below which the Earth can function safely, above which it will spiral into catastrophe, but also, critically, that all these systems are intimately linked to each other and can only be properly understood and managed together, not individually. Climate change is just one of these systems; the others include the nitrogen cycle, land use, ocean acidity and so on."
Read more at Harper Collins Canada.