Speech by Mark Lynas at the Breakthrough Dialogue 2015, Cavallo Point, San Francisco
8.30am, 22 June 2015
Ladies and gentlemen,
“It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
The words of Charles Dickens of course; the opening passage from a Tale of Two Cities.
At this session, the opening debate of the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, you will hear not a Tale of Two Cities but a Tale of Two Planets. You get to decide which one you inhabit, and which one you want to inhabit.
The first and most familiar is the planet of doom. This is the ‘worst of times’ planet. This is the Earth whose fate, as environmentalists, we grew up grieving over. On this planet a race of great apes, arrogant and myopic but otherwise of no special character or value, is enjoying a short-lived boom of consumptive despoilation.
These apes, having proliferated like a virus over an otherwise pristine biosphere, have poisoned land and sea, cut down the forests, even levelled whole mountains, in their insatiable lust for ever more material wealth.
These sinful humans could of course change their ways, seek to limit their aspirations, their fecundity and their consumption, and retreat back into the loving and provident arms of mother Nature – but they won’t.
Blinded by power and greed, enslaved and fooled by even wealthier humans running governments and multinational mega-corporations, they keep running forwards, lemming-like on an unstoppable path towards collective mass suicide.
It is only a matter of time, of when not if. The End Times are surely near at hand.
The second, ‘best of times’ planet closely resembles the first when viewed from far away, with its stunning blue oceans, green and brown continents crossed by rippled mountain ranges – and topped in the thin atmosphere by swirls of brilliant white cloud, and at the poles by equally brilliant ice-caps.
This physical beauty, unique in the known universe, is breathtaking at every scale – whether viewed down the eyepiece of an electron microscope or captured by an astronaut through the windows of the international space station.
Moreover this beauty can be appreciated without the need to feel overwhelmed by any sense of dread about the Earth’s immediate future. This is not a dying planet, it is a living one, and can persist as such for a long time yet.
Yes we have loaded the atmosphere with warming gases, but the result need not be catastrophic – humans are intelligent and knowledgeable enough to avoid the worst and adapt to the rest.
Indeed it is the very ingenuity of this unique species of primate that is the ultimate safeguard against disaster. Other animals are limited by resource constraints – but Homo sapiens has so far transcended every supposedly immutable ecological boundary.
Agriculture, which during the time of Malthus was fundamentally limited by nitrogen scarcity, now has access to such vast amounts of reactive nitrogen that it has fertilised the whole biosphere by accident.
Humans can survive, apparently indefinitely, in the most hostile local environments, from cities built like shimmering oases in waterless hot deserts to the South Pole station in the blizzards of Antarctica.
We do have global-scale problems, but as a single interconnected species now occupying every corner of the planet, we also have global scale solutions with which to address them. Our greatest threat is our tendency to fear change and resist opportunity.
So there’s the two planets: the worst of times planet, and the best of times planet. Is one planet real and the other imaginary? Or are these just two ways of seeing the same place – not so much two different worlds as two different worldviews?
Like many of us in this room I suspect, I have personally moved between these planets over the last few years – and accompanying this shift I have felt my earlier sense of leaden despair give way slowly to one of cautious but determined optimism.
But how to be sure that this is clear-sighted, informed optimism and not the blind variety? Because at the empirical level we can now identify some very clear trends that support the second, eco-modernist worldview, not the first catastrophist one.
For example, there is the very robust phenomenon of the demographic transition. Every society, when it reaches a certain level of development, sees birth rates plummet.
Latter-day Malthusians seem entirely ignorant of this empirical fact – that the average global fertility rate per woman is not 4.5 or 3.5 but 2.5. Half the world’s population now lives in countries below the replacement level of 2.1.
As Hans Rosling puts it, we are now seeing ‘peak child’ – there will never be more children than 130 million now born annually.
There are other transitions that also come with development. Take the forest transition. Intensive and productive agriculture means we increasingly no longer need marginal land for farming.
This land can instead revert to wilderness. It is a phenomenon that has caused millions of hectares of natural reforestation from New England to Poland to Vietnam.
There’s peak consumption too – a recent emergence that gives the lie to the traditional limits to growth mantra of endlessly rising consumption being impossible on a finite planet.
In the US and many other Western economies we’re seeing peak car, peak travel, peak steel, peak concrete, peak paper, peak wood, peak meat, peak calories, peak water, peak petrol – and even, believe it or not, peak plastic.
This is dematerialization in action.
It is hardly surprising that early environmentalists thought growth would be exponential and we would crash the planet – Limits to Growth was written at exactly the point in the 1970s when all the consumption trends were pointing steeply upwards. No one thought that a peak even existed, let alone that it was so close.
One should not blame the Club of Rome for incorrectly anticipating the future. But we can be critical of those whose mental frames are still stuck in the 1970s world that failed – literally – to materialize.
Moreover, it turns out that human technology, so long held as an object of suspicion by environmentalists, is nature’s greatest liberating force.
Take intensive agriculture. Since the 1960s we have doubled global food production while cultivating approximately the same area of cropland.
In land use terms, agriculture is now so efficient that we may be looking at a peak in the use of farmland in the forseeable future, despite the growing human population and the need to double food production by 2050.
Peak farmland would do more than perhaps any other transition to safeguard nature, and reverse the still very worrying trends in biodiversity loss and defaunation.
That’s why high-yield agriculture, despite its immediate impacts in terms of fertiliser, pesticides and other inputs, is on aggregate much better than the organic alternative.
If the entire world were to convert to low-input, low-yield farming, we would have to plough up an area twice the size of South America simply to keep us from mass starvation. Good luck protecting the rainforests in such a scenario.
Another example of an environmentally liberating technology is nuclear power, the most energy-dense, resource efficient and environmentally friendly power source humanity has yet discovered.
Billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere from coal-fired power stations that would never have been built if it weren’t for our fear of nuclear power.
If we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past, we must learn from them.
Eco-modernists love nature, but we don’t want to love it to death. We do not hold romantic illusions about lost rural idylls of the past. We don’t fool ourselves that there was ever a time when people really lived in harmony with nature.
Hunter-gatherer lifestyles could only support 1 human per 10 square kilometres of land. Today each square kilometre in England supports about 400 people, with a total population of over 50 million. So if each of these 400 tried to go back to hunter-gathering… you would need an area 20x North America just to absorb the population of England.
Thus it is hardly surprising that early humans, despite numbering barely one million worldwide, drove megafaunal mass extinctions in every continent they occupied.
In fact we urgently need to get out of the hunter gathering business where it still exists – in the oceans. The oceans face ecological calamity precisely because we still depend on wild fish stocks, though now harvested with industrial killing machines.
The solution is obvious – sustainable aquaculture, with fish fed from land-based feedstocks. The sooner we eat more farmed fish than wild, the sooner we can turn the majority of the oceans into marine protected areas so they can recover from the devastation of decades of overfishing.
Eco-modernists are not micro-managers. We are enthusiastic about leaving nature alone – about rewilding, in other words. I recently stood on a hilltop in the French Pyrenees mountains, surrounded by thick oak forests full of wild boar, patrolled by sea eagles and soon likely to be occupied by the expanding territories of nearby bear and wolves.
Hidden in the depths of these woodlands, even on the steepest slopes, I found the remains of agricultural terraces, built and used in earlier times of scarcity when this marginal land was needed for food production. It looked wild, but appearances deceive – this landscape was not wild but rewilded.
This struck me as a wonderful eco-modernist paradox – that higher technology and development allows us the thrill of experiencing wilderness close at hand once again. The less we are directly dependent on nature, the more we can enjoy and protect it as more than just a source of sustenance.
Environmentalists are often accused of hating humanity. I don’t really think this is true, but certainly many of my green colleagues were always pretty ambivalent about poverty reduction and other humanitarian progress in developing countries.
I think as eco-modernists on the other hand can be much clearer about the need for justice and greater global equality. In this, we claim the mantle of true progressives.
We demand the urgent eradication of poverty and support well distributed economic growth in developing countries.
We campaign not for degrowth and energy austerity but for a high-energy planet where everyone has access to modern lifestyles if they so choose. We see this not as a contradiction but as a political and moral precondition for successfully tackling climate change.
We celebrate the successes in achieving further reductions in infant mortality and improvements in maternal health not just as moral imperatives but ecological ones too – for none of the transitions I mentioned earlier can take place in subsistence societies where people remain trapped in poverty.
Even in today’s world it sounds radical to insist that everyone has equal rights – the right to be rich in Liberia, the right to be gay in Syria and the right to be female and educated in Pakistan.
The foundation for these rights lies in a universal commitment to democratic values, where everyone – being equal – has a right to participate in the governance of nation states and other political entities.
We are not neoliberals or worshippers of the unbridled free market. Nations have an essential role in establishing social safety nets, funding health and education, and supporting innovation.
We are pragmatic about many things, but not about democratic values. Freedom must always be actively and vigilantly defended in every society.
Our near universal human connectedness and consciousness – manifested most obviously in the internet, but also in international aviation, globalised economies and suchlike – is perhaps the most exciting manifestation of the Anthropocene.
Our new geological epoch does not have to be a bad one, if we consciously seek to manage our collective impacts intelligently. This does not mean abandoning the notion of progress and seeking to wind back the clock, but using science and technology as our most potent tools for first identifying and then solving problems.
I do not see humans as arrogant children wrecking Mother Nature. I see us instead as young adults, looking around us wide-eyed with awe; nervous and conflicted but increasingly aware both of our agency and our responsibility as conscious managers of our own destiny.
It is true that we are just apes, gods only in metaphor not reality. We are no more special or chosen than any other species of life-form; there is no divine guiding hand. But no other species since the dawn of life on Earth has achieved this epoch-making combination of global impact and global consciousness.
For the essential truth of the Anthropocene is this: neither God nor Gaia is in charge. We are. We now get to decide everything from the pH of the oceans to the temperature of the biosphere to the very composition and future evolutionary path of life on Earth.
Ducking or denying this responsibility will not make it go away. By virtue of our global influence, we have landed ourselves with this awesome task of planetary management. The Anthropocene is best understood not as a passive state, but an active one.
Viewing it as such is not a gloomy prospect but a liberating one. There is nothing so liberating as letting go of your pessimism.
Those of us who are parents can enjoy our children growing up, without imagining that their future will be worse than our past.
Those of us who are activists and campaigners can continue to dream of a better world and try to build it, without fearing that all our efforts will necessarily be in vain.
And those of us who are innovators and entrepreneurs can try out new ideas with as much hope of success as fear of failure.
Eco-modernism has a vision, and I believe it is both a realistic and an enticing one.
We see a world free from poverty where peoples’ universal rights are recognised and respected.
We see a world where climate change, biodiversity loss and other ecological threats are mitigated, managed and reversed pragmatically, using the best social, political and technological tools available.
We see a world where nature is resurgent, where global planetary management co-evolves with local rewilding.
We see no contradiction in a world described by science but enjoyed through poetry and emotion.
Above all we see a world of beauty, and of resilience, that can, should and will be protected by future generations of humans, both for the benefit of them, and for the Earth’s biosphere as a whole.
So I end as I began, in the belief that the Anthropocene can be – if not quite the best of times – certainly not the worst of times either.
This can be, indeed must be, a coming age of wisdom, light and hope, not one of darkness and despair.