by Tracy Jamison*
Mark Lynas is an optimist. On February 29th, Mr. Lynas lectured here at OSU at LaSells Stewart Center on his book, The God Species. According to Mr. Lynas, humans are a God species and consequently we have to “run the planet as if we were gods”. Not the kind of Gods found in Greek mythology, when humans were still learning the nature of the world, but kind, benevolent gods who recognize that we have to be good stewards of our planet. Mr. Lynas related that the earth is estimated to be approximately 3.7 billion years old and Homo sapiens are estimated to have been on the earth 100,000 years. Mr. Lynas stated, “We, as humans, have gone from poking sticks in an anthill to creating global communication systems”. At the risk of sounding anthropocentric, we have come a long way.
The proclivities of our species have become so pervasive that a human dominated geological era has been designated, the ‘Anthropocene’. Mr. Lynas reported that it has been calculated that during our sovereignty, one third to one-half of the photosynthetic organisms on earth have disappeared. The importance of these organisms cannot be underestimated because primary production by photosynthetic organisms supports virtually all ecosystems. What is more, the earth’s oceans are experiencing ever-decreasing salinity at the poles and plastic has been found in otherwise pristine arctic waters: Eighty per cent of all pollution in oceans (i.e. the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) comes from anthropogenic land-based activities. We are the “God Species”. Through technology, we can create and destroy life. God help us.
Lynas outlined that we are dangerously close to breaking the nine planetary boundaries. These related boundaries were outlined as the Biodiversity boundary (most important), Climate change boundary, the Nitrogen boundary, the Land use boundary, the Freshwater boundary, the Aerosol boundary, the Toxics boundary, the Ocean acidification boundary and the Ozone layer boundary. “Hippies called this relatedness principle Gaia, but the current nomenclature is Systems Science”. Concerning climate change, Mr. Lynas’ presentation demonstrated that over time the heating and cooling cycle of the earth looked more like a roller coaster ride than a steady march into oblivion. In response to the probable violation of these nine boundaries, Lynas declared that we must resolve to reduce the amount of CO2 currently released into atmosphere and dissolved in the ocean (produced by coal burning for electricity), while embracing nuclear power as a primary energy source by building new fourth generation sodium cooled ‘fast reactors’ . Nuclear reactors that use nuclear waste as fuel, are needed to allow the global economy to prosper. In this instance, Lynas simultaneously promoted nuclear energy while conceding that it is not a panacea: The plant expense is uneconomic.
In conclusion, Mr. Lynas’ lecture had some controversial elements such as when he argued against the green movement and the relative severity of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, but deemed the expansion of genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) in food crops as a global necessity. Mr. Lynas jokingly remarked that he thought he would get more ‘push-back’ from the audience and judging by the silence perhaps he had convinced everyone. His last slide was of the Sistine Chapel fresco of The creation of Adam, the iconic portrait of man not quite touching the fingertip of God. Mr. Lynas stated that he is a historian, and an optimist. He believes that problems that cannot be solved today may be solved tomorrow and “the lessons of history are on the side of the optimist.” An audience member responded that perhaps, instead of pretending to be gods, we should heed the Greek god’s warnings against hubris. I agreed with the audience member. Like Adam in the Sistine Chapel fresco, our grasp of the solemnity of our circumstances is lacking… and we cannot afford to miss the mark.
*Tracy Jamison is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Health and a Master’s degree in History of Science
I read with interest Tracy’s synopsis of Mark Lynas’ lecture. She did a good job of succintly laying out the controversies and the murkiness of the environmental challenges we face as a planet. It leaves one with the overwhelming feeling that problems will only be solved by compromise and dogma and blinding sticking to long held biases will get us nowhere.