The God Species: How the planet can survive the age of humans

We are living in the Anthropocene - the Age of Humans. Nobel-prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term when he realised human impacts on the functioning of the Earth’s systems are so dramatic, we have shifted it into a new geological era.

That is, our impacts are now so great as to compare with the shift in the Earth’s functioning that occurred when an asteroid ploughed into the planet about 65 million years ago and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. (The non-bird-like species anyway.) As Lynas pronounces, “Pristine nature – Creation – has disappeared for ever”.

This is not easy to accept! Anyone traveling across Zimbabwe would conclude that there is plenty of Nature left. But the point is that the nature of that Nature is changing because of humans – even in the conservation estate. Clifford Tafangenyasha – an ecologist with the, then, Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management – reported the massive decline of woodland across the Chihunja Plateau in Gonarezhou National Park in the last decades of the last century.

A bushed grassland has replaced it and another Zimbabwean ecologist, Fay Robertson, has noted that the vegetation of this large area has changed so much that a map produced in the 1960s is unrecognisable today. Fire, elephants and drought have all be implicated – all of which are influenced by humans. Fires set regularly by humans destroy trees, favouring grasses which grow quicker and can outcompete woody seedlings that colonize the bare ground.

Elephant populations are herded into smaller and smaller areas as the human population burgeons, increasing the intensity of their impacts on trees even across very large areas. Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as humans burn plants and their geological products (coal and natural gas) collects in the atmosphere and traps the heat from the sun, changing climate patterns. As a result, south-central Africa, including Zimbabwe, is projected to experience shorter wet seasons and higher variability in annual totals. Drought kills trees, which are larger and require more water than shrubs or grasses.

Brian Walker – the world-renowned ecologist from Zimbabwe (who was instrumental in setting up the MSc Tropical Resource Ecology Programme at UZ) – has made an important contribution to a global collective understanding of thresholds or tipping-points in ecosystem functioning. Ecosystems are dynamic, highly so in tropical areas receiving seasonal rainfall. But they respond to changes in the strengths of different ecological factors (like rainfall) so that, overall, they exist in “stable states”. A savanna – a mix of trees and grasses – might experience a few years of above-average rainfall which favours the growth of grasses and changes the behaviour of fires, which burn hotter and over larger areas, doing more damage to the woody plants. But herbivory influences the dynamic: grazing favours woody growth, as fire-loads are reduced and competition (for water and nutrients) from the grasses lowered. Thus, the proportions vary between years, but there is a stable state of a mix of both trees and grasses.

The stable states can be pushed only so far before they shift dramatically. If the savanna is grazed too heavily for too long (“overgrazing”) – usually for the animals we keep – the woody plants can take over completely, leaving no space for grassy growth, even when the grazing pressure is lifted. Because there are few grasses, fire is limited, favouring even more woody growth. The system has shifted to another stable state: savanna has become bushland or thicket, and only another human intervention – a huge effort of bush-cutting – will shift it back.

So how far can we push ecosystems which operate at continental or global scales before abrupt environmental changes affect vast regions or even the whole planet? This is the question which tested twenty-eight of the world’s leading scientists in 2009 at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. (Here, “resilience” means an ecosystem’s ability to recover from a disturbance.) The group defined nine “planetary boundaries, for estimating a safe operating space for humanity with respect to the functioning of the Earth System”, and, ambitiously, quantified many of the thresholds. And Lynas’ aim is to “get this scientific knowledge out into the mainstream”.

Lynas examines each of the boundaries – (1) biodiversity, (2) climate change, (3) nitrogen and phosphorus inputs, (4) the ozone layer, (5) chemical dispersion, (6) ocean acidification, (7) fresh water consumption and the global hydrological cycle, (8) land system change, and (9) atmospheric aerosols loading. We have crossed three already (the first three). For example, a limit of 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 is required if “humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that in which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted” (NASA’s James Hansen, of the Planetary Boundaries group). CO2 and other “greenhouse gases” are imperative for life on earth – without them, the Earth would be too cold – but human burning has boosted the level to 387 ppm, which traps enough heat from the sun that “the loss of summer polar ice is almost certainly irreversible”. A major shift in ecosystem functioning across a vast region, which is catastrophic for Inuits and polar bears adapted to life on the ice. And because the Earth functions as a single ecosystem, the melting of the polar ice caps is devastating even in tropical areas, as rising sea levels swamp coastal cities. Furthermore, feedbacks that reinforce shifts in stable states operate at global scales too: bright white ice reflects heat, so as it melts, the whole Earth System absorbs even more heat.

The Planetary Boundaries group suggests that the rate of extinction of species should not exceed 10 species per million species per annum; currently, the rate is 100 – 1,000 species per million. “This crisis of biodiversity loss…arguably forms humanity’s most urgent and critical environmental challenge”, but Lynas believes it is an issue “whose time has come”. Ideas in tackling the crisis are discussed – at the heart of which is the failure of markets to correctly value this natural capital. So, “trading conglomerate Mitsubishi was recently accused of stockpiling frozen bluefin tuna in expectation of a post-extinction price bonanza”. Here, the market has failed abysmally because the huge value of the lost consumption by future generations – which could be indefinite if the tuna stocks were managed sustainably – has not been taken into account. “Those who profit from destroying biodiversity are not generally the same people who lose out when the rainforests, mangroves and coral reefs are finally gone”, applies equally to contemporary geopolitics as to the relationships between current and future generations.

Lynas’ belief that “our chief task is to design systems that value nature in a direct and marketable sense and deliver hard cash to those who are in a position to protect ecosystems in a reasonably intact way” tackles one of the ‘sacred cows’ of environmentalism. “Greens generally view biodiversity conservation as a moral cause, and any discussion of financial mechanisms and marketing schemes arouses strong and principled opposition.” The cutting edge ideas and systems built into Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE programme in the 1980s were key to starting the paradigm shift Lynas is trying to cultivate. Because CAMPFIRE projects are funded largely by selling elephant hunts which ignite Western moral outrage, they galvanize opinion. The softening in restrictions in the trade in ivory at the 1997 CITES conference in Harare was an important victory for those around the world wishing to improve the economic value of not just elephants, but of all biodiversity. They might be expected to feel betrayed by the lawlessness and mismanagement of Zimbabwe’s natural resources in the 2000s. A nation might expect to struggle to convince a global consensus to allow trade in products from its valuable species if there is little faith in that nation’s commitment to manage its populations sustainably.

Lynas hopes to sacrifice more Green ‘sacred cows’. Chief among these is “a central plank of Green ideology” – its anti-nuclear power position. Solar power and other renewables have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions, but Lynas insists the primary choice for the industrialised countries of the North “is between nuclear and coal”. And, “this may be difficult for many Greens to swallow, but…nuclear power is nothing like the environmental threat it has long been made out to be”. He details the consensus reported by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) that “there is no evidence of a major public health impact related to ionising radiation 14 years after the Chernobyl accident”. “There is no evidence for claimed increases in deformities or illnesses in children exposed as compared to unexposed populations in eastern Europe.”

Thus, Lynas questions the relentless use of anecdotal evidence by environmental groups like Greenpeace as adding to the “anti-nuclear hysteria (which) worsened the victim status trauma of people who lived in the area”. The WHO considers psychological stress to be the largest public health problem resulting from the meltdown, and similar psychological effects are reported from Japan in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident – where memories of the horrors of Hiroshima fester. Fukushima released one tenth of the radiation of Chernobyl, and – as the Guardian’s (UK) Jonathan Watts reported in September – “whereas Russian doctors have said survivors were ’poisoned by information’, in Japan, many are contaminated by uncertainty”, because those affected receive a very small dose daily, and at these very low levels no-one can say for sure how much is totally safe.

The risks are low: the WHO estimated that cancer fatalities would rise by 0.6% for those exposed to lower levels of radiation after the Chernobyl explosion. But it’s inevitable for one to ask, “Is this a risk I would be prepared to accept for myself and my family?” This is where decisions on managing the planet will be made – at the family level. But what properties emerge at the level of societies, by individuals engaged in thinking over the longer term (considering their legacy to their children) and/ or socially, over bigger and bigger spatial scales, taking into account more and more complex social groups?

There are benefits to nuclear beyond its CO2-cleanliness. “It was a French government decision – after the 1974 oil price shock – to move comprehensively towards nuclear (c.80% of its energy production) that makes the country an accidental climate-change champion today, whilst Britain’s liberalised approach has led to the danger of blackouts”. Nuclear gives France’s people and their economy the independence from reliance on, for example, Russian natural gas.

Lynas notes that unlike other parts of the economy, the vital component of energy requires central planning: societies have to come together to install and run electricity grids. Subsistence farmers in Zimbabwe use resources at more local scales – although their access to those resources is governed by centralised planning (like the land resettlement programme). Research has shown that recent settlers on the commercial farms view the trees in woodland that survived consumption in the early twentieth century – before national coal and electricity grids were developed – as an abundant woodfuel resource. But they might not be so quick to conclude this if a broader view were taken: the FAO has concluded that Zimbabwe’s deforestation rate is amongst the highest in the world. Many subsistence farmers acting locally add up to a national crisis. This should be acknowledged by the politicians chosen to represent this constituency and others who use woodfuel.

The key, then, is how societies view the scale of their impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems. Lynas recognizes that a worldview that acknowledges the full scale of our collective impact on the Earth’s ecosystems is “politically toxic to the libertarian right”, which is built on free markets – which cannot accept limits. If there are limits, there has to be centralised control over access – which sits more comfortably in the politics of the left. Lynas argues that, on the whole, climate-change-deniers are not “anti-science” but rather belong to the political right who believe that acceptance of limits will lead to “a profound intrusion into our daily lives” and drops in living standards. So, although their circumstances are world’s apart, those Zimbabwean subsistence farmers (and those chosen to represent them) who believe in the limitlessness of the country’s woodfuel resources have more in common ideologically with climate change deniers in Western conservative parties (like the US Republicans) than might first appear.

There is the potential fly in the ointment of Planetary Boundaries: “there is no conceivable alternative economic model to growth at present”. The alternatives are economic contraction, unemployment and political instability. Zimbabweans do not need anyone to tell them how painful this is. So the markets of the libertarian right need to be freed to grow – but within the Planetary Boundaries, determined by society and advised by science. And Lynas believes technology can facilitate this.

“A square mile of outback 50km x 50km could theoretically supply all of Australia’s electricity demand using concentrating solar-power mirrors….yet, shockingly…Australia has no operating commercial-scale solar thermal plants, and remains 85% dependent on coal.” And August saw demonstrations by Australian conservatives against the Labour-Green coalition government’s proposed Carbon Tax. Zimbabwe also has an abundant solar energy resource which could fuel the country’s development. The political challenges are different in the two countries, but for change to occur in the management of any nation’s ecosystems, political will is required both from society and from the government representing that society.

Lynas’ synopsis of how the planet was saved from catastrophe in the 1980s as the hole in the ozone layer opened shows that markets battle change (because of the costs involved), but if forced to by political will – and then freed to operate within the new limits – they can develop alternative technologies. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used to fuel refrigeration – which caused the hole in the ozone layer – were replaced with other chemicals. This model of free markets with some centralised regulation might chime with societies infuriated by the causes of the current economic crises, but Lynas also seeks to recapture the debate from the Green Left’s “entrenched narrative of communitarian austerity”. As he shows, it might have required “tortuous”, “extremely difficult” domestic and international negotiations, but the hole is now closing (and will return to its pre-1980 size by 2065-2070) and the (developed) world still has the comforts of refrigeration.

Lynas, then, is a hopeful interventionist. “I do not know any convincing ecological reason why everyone in the world should not be able to enjoy rich-country levels of prosperity over the half-century to come. None of the planetary boundaries rule out this leap forward in human development”. We just have to get smarter – politically, in taking collective decisions to keep humanity within the Planetary Boundaries. For example, “going back to the land will generally not be good for the environment…Instead, we need to intensify agriculture and other human land uses in existing areas…and encourage the growth of cities.” And technology like GM (genetically modified) foods has to be used to do this. (There goes another sacred cow…)

There is good news. “China may have played a wrecking game in Copenhagen (at the UN’s 2009 climate change conference), but since then the country has proved that it is deadly serious about dealing with climate change – and winning massive economic gains in the process.”

Lynas’ message, then, is that now that we are the God Species – both Creators 9using ‘synthetic biology’) and Destroyers of Life – we need to get better at it. Politically and technologically. His book is packed with facts and anecdotes which bring this broad-sweeping subject to life. “There is perhaps no better illustration of the domestication of the world than how rapidly we are turning it into plastic…One sand sample gathered from a beach near Plymouth, England, contained 10% plastic by weight.”

“In India, the numbers of oriental white-backed vultures fell by 99.9% between 1992 and 2007, due to…the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac…a rate of decline faster than that of any other wild bird including the dodo.”

“As the veteran oceanographer Wally Broecker says, ‘The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking a stick at it’”.

He uses peer-reviewed science – “the gold standard of current knowledge” – to crush the myth that there is much of Creation left. The Fall from the Garden of Eden is almost complete. And we can feign Innocence, try to dodge Free Will and sleep-walk to disaster, or we can use the Knowledge gained from the Tree to better manage this Garden. It’s the only one we have.

Post published in: Arts

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