Thursday, October 31, 2013


Limits to Growth in the 21st Century: Planetary Boundaries

In The God Species, Mark Lynas, a leading science journalist from the UK (Six Degrees) and former environmental activist, gives us the early twenty-first century version of Limits to Growth by reporting on the work of the Planetary Boundaries group, a team of leading scientists from their fields who have met since 2010 to lay out, quantifying where possible, the limits beyond which we must not push our planet. Lynas, who was invited to attend the sessions of the Planetary Boundaries group, clearly lays out the parameters for each of nine boundaries. This information alone is as daunting as it is necessary. But he goes on to argue for the high tech, large-scale solutions favored by the international policy community, a brash and unsettling challenge to environmentalists who would prefer a small-is-beautiful, grassroots response. For each of the nine interlocking boundaries, we are at a choicepoint, and Lynas argues that in some key respects (nuclear power, the Green Revolution, GMO's) Greens are lining up on the wrong side of techno-history.

The book's challenge for me is twofold. The first is to broaden my perspective from focusing almost exclusively on climate change as the central ecological issue of our time. Biodiversity loss, the overuse of nitrogen, land use, and water shortages are all boundaries whose interaction with climate change are crucial to the biosphere. The second is to suspend my “naturalistic fallacy” to consider the possibility that some high tech solutions might actually be worthwhile in getting us out of the mess created by the very technologies that are the hallmark of our human-dominated era, the Anthropocene (a term coined by one of the scientists in the group, Paul Crutzen, to describe our dominance of the planetary system since the beginning of the industrial era ca. 1800). This second challenge is far heavier, for it goes against some of my most cherished values.

So here is the crux. Are romantic Greens, seized by the “naturalistic fallacy,” missing the opportunity to utilize technology and market mechanisms to ease, indeed make possible, the final transition from pre-industrial poverty to sustainable energy, land use, agriculture, and housing for the nine billion humans who will be here by mid-century? Are we the ones who are unwittingly condemning billions to unnecessary starvation or death by exposure by our purist opposition to GMO's and nuclear power? What do we want to sustain, our Romantic values or the earth?

On the other hand, as Paul Kingsnorth argues in his equally challenging Orion article, “Dark Ecology,” Lynas joins a whole group of neo-environmentalists who place full faith in the very kinds of technological solutions that have often made problems worse by creating new, unforeseen ones. Moreover, they enthusiastically adopt (Kingsnorth's word is “worship”) capitalism, the very system that has ruthlessly heightened our ability to hunt, mine, burn and otherwise strip the earth of her resources, as the best economic engine for sustaining civilization while respecting those boundaries

Indeed, the book's title contains both hubris and hope. Hubris because we have usurped god (from the religious perspective), the ecosystem manager (Eugene Odum) become the God Species, able to create or destroy the post-natural (McKibben's End of Nature) world which we dominate. If we live in a web, as the ecologists eloquently show, we have the position of a master spider, spinning from a ubiquitous center in a global technocracy. And hope, because in the anthropocene, we have the tools to pull ourselves and crucially, the biosphere, out of the mess. Though he clearly understands what we're up against, Lynas is an upbeat optimist, identifying the engines of change as well as signs of coalescing international agreement after the debacle of Copenhagen, “humanity's darkest hour.” Characteristically, he points out that we have “only” crossed three of the nine boundaries, perhaps not so far along (in 2011 anyway) that we can't go back (They are: climate change, 390 ppm CO2 vs 350; biodiversity loss, 100 species extinct per million per year vs. a boundary of 10; and the nitrogen cycle, expressed in the amount of N2 removed from the atmosphere, millions of tonnes per year, 121 vs. 35.) Lynas' figures for the extinction rate are low - the range biologists give is from 1000 to 10,000 species/yr.

The current blogpost, and its sequel, which will focus on the implications of Lynas's study for agriculture (and world population), are condensed accounts excerpted from a broader review-essay addressing some of the fundamental environmental issues that a planetary boundaries approach requires us to face. But I have a working conclusion to that piece, still a work in progress...

Faced with the enlarged, much more complex set of challenges that the nine planetary boundaries confronts the dominant species with (if you except bacteria), it is tempting to revert to the comfort and cleanness of our traditional default values, whether we are on the right or the left, rather than struggling to find the grey middle which the facts may require. There is no arguing with the facts, as hard as climate deniers try (or farmers who say more is better to chemical fertilizer, as well as those who think organic is always better, no matter the consequences for water and land use, who are often the same who love country living, but not urban sprawl).

There is, however, a wider range of responses to the facts, the boundaries that we are up against. I would love to be pure and side with the Kingsnorths and their nineteenth century technology. My gut harbors a Luddite strain that my imagination feeds daily. On the other side, I find rational arguments about ways to use our technological abilities persuasive, especially if I hold fast to the boundaries in question (though sometimes their requirements conflict). It is this latter kind of thinking that has led me to reluctantly accept nuclear power as the best bridge technology to a future sustainable energy world. This requires going against my gut disposition and my agrarian values, and, crucially, using risk assessment to favor nuclear power over coal (our main options for baseload power, which is how the energy world as currently constructed). Excess CO2 will surely kill us; a few nuclear accidents, as painful and disruptive as they may be, will not. In the case of each technology, we need to carefully assess whether it actually helps avoid crossing another planetary boundary.  When the technology helps with one boundary, but hurts with another (for example, nuclear waste is a toxin), then we must use risk assessment to help prioritize the boundaries in question.  

NOTE. I have already made several posts about this issue (see April-May 2009 sequence), though I need to update what I wrote about renewables, which have come a long way in 4-5 years. I have also posted on food production, favoring supporting subsistence farming over global food trade. I now see that as a romantic view, requiring revision. See the next post, coming shortly.


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