The need for a rational environmentalism – speech at God Species launch

Speech delivered at University College London, 6 July 2011

Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all let me say how grateful I am to the Pugwash Group for organising this event and to UCL for hosting us today. I never intended to get Pugwash involved in raising the debate around planetary boundaries – the initiative was all theirs, and I hope it will make a strong contribution to improving the quality of how science is used in how we approach environmental issues. We are certainly aiming for open debate today: our panel discussion later on is intended to air a wide variety of viewpoints on where the green movement might go from here, as well as to take the debate about planetary boundaries further forward.

My biggest thanks go of course to Professor Johan Rockstrom, who has played an amazing leadership role in organising the scientific expert work around planetary boundaries. He brought together a glittering cast of Nobel Prize-winners and big climate names like Jim Hansen to give the original Nature paper real gravitas and give it prominence in a scientific world which, like any other, is reluctant to take radical new ideas seriously when they challenge the mainstream. Although he made clear in his keynote that there are great uncertainties surrounding the exact numerical quantification of some of the boundaries, I think it is easy to miss the powerful advance that putting even first pass numbers on the boundaries represents. Once you have a number, you have a tractable sense of the scale of  a problem, and a variety of options for how to deal with it.

A word on uncertainty. As a popular science writer, I have a love-hate relationship with the scientific version of uncertainty. Whereas the IPCC attached a numerical quantification to its precise words such as ‘likely’ meaning under 60% certain and ‘very likely’ meaning 60-90% certain, as a writer I use all these qualifying words like ‘may’, ‘probably’, ‘could’ etc interchangeably with scarcely a second thought. I realise this loses the scientific precision, but I don’t think there’s any option if you are to communicate successfully with a wider audience. Scientists should never claim total confidence in a result, as everything is provisional in principle in science.

But as a communicator, I can perhaps afford to be a bit more pushy – unless you put an argument in strong terms, it is likely to be ignored or dismissed. In some areas like nuclear power and GMOs this has meant wading into controversy without looking back, but I don’t want people to think that I have something like a religious conviction in these views. The point is that one’s attitude to these things should be testable using the best scientific tools available, and the conclusions should emerge from that. I worry that in too many of the most heated debates in the environmental scene the reverse happens: first there is a conclusion, and then the evidence is carefully marshalled to support it. That is called confirmation bias – we all do it, all the time, and to me perhaps the greatest advance the scientific method offers to the human species is to allow us to tackle confirmation bias in terms of how we approach rational decision-making.

So there will be very legitimate arguments about whether the nine proposed boundaries are the right ones, whether the numbers attached to them are legitimate and real, and whether even the concept of ‘boundaries’ is useful or appropriate. Personally I think it is, and here’s why. As Johan said, we are now living in a new geological age, the Anthropocene, with new rules. In this new era we humans are overwhelmingly dominant in terms of the biological and even chemical future of this planet. We are geoengineering the Earth already in a whole host of ways, from reducing the pH of the oceans to depleting the genetic diversity of life and thereby foreclosing possible future evolutionary pathways. Most obviously we have shifted half a trillion tonnes of carbon from the planet’s rocks into the atmosphere and oceans. And since the invention of the Haber-Bosch process in 1912 humans have been the only species along with Rhizobium bacteria that are able to fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere.

We are changing the geographic location of the major biomes via climate change and impounding massive amounts of new freshwater on land behind dams, as well as raising the levels of the seas by melting down the ice caps. So in summary, not geoengineering is not an option in actual fact because we are already doing it. The only two choices we have are whether to be intelligent geoengineers or to continue being unintelligent ones. And I worry that the unintended outcome of much of the conventional environmental narrative will be to push us towards the latter rather than the former position. People are understandably nervous of the hubris implied in us being the ‘God Species’. But I do not see any realistic alternative. Either we recognise the enormity of our impacts and seek to address them sensibly or we lapse into a kind of comforting denial.

One example of this is the role played by aerosols in the atmosphere. There was a paper in PNAS just this week suggesting that Chinese sulphur emissions from coal-burning have restrained global warming over the last decade. All-told, aerosols may be shaving a degree even off temperatures, like a constant ongoing volcanic eruption. Because of smog and the health effects these have I would expect them to gradually be removed as economies develop and people demand cleaner air. But that will add straight away to global warming. So why not move the sulphate sunshade from the troposphere to the stratosphere, where no-one has to breathe it and it can continue to mitigate global temperature rise? This of course raises real governance issues which may be next to impossible to solve, but it is a real decision nonetheless. I don’t see why an accidental geoengineering decision is necessarily going to deliver a better global outcome than an intentional considered one.

So the planetary boundaries offer a new metric by which to judge the environmental sustainability of human civilisation. In some ways this is a more optimistic assessment than others – we are only unambiguously over 3 out of the 9 proposed boundaries. There is still useful space for human growth and development, even expressed in conventional terms. As Johan and his co-authors very neatly put it in the original Nature paper on planetary boundaries, “The evidence so far suggests that, as long as the thresholds are not crossed, humanity has the freedom to pursue long-term social and economic development.”

So I took that crisp sentence as the challenge for my book: I wanted to try to map out some ideas for how we could stay within the Earth’s proposed “safe operating space” whilst protecting humanity’s freedom to expand our population to 9 billion and beyond, and triple or quadruple our overall consumption by mid-century in order to allow developing countries to approach or reach first-world living standards. I recognise that accepting economic growth and population expansion are in themselves normative not scientific judgements, but I consider these to be social boundaries which are nearly as fixed as the physical ones. In a world where nearly a billion people are still perpetually malnourished, and nearly 3 billion live on less than 2 dollars a day, addressing poverty through raising the consumption levels of the majority of the world’s population is surely non-negotiable.

Nor will tackling population by itself make much difference. Most of the people who will be alive in 2050, thereby making up the projected total of 9 billion or so, have already been born or will be born to this generation of parents in the next decade. This projected 9 billion is not a number we can therefore do much to alter. All these people need to be fed, and fed with improving diets including more meat and dairy as global inequalities between the rich and poor worlds quickly reduce. The miracle of massive poverty reduction in China, together with double-digit growth in India, Brazil and even increasing numbers of African countries puts us on the right track here. And even though this necessarily means an increasing human impact on the planet’s ecosystems, I believe environmentalists should enthusiastically welcome the gains humanity is making as what was once dismissively termed the Third World makes its great leap forward.

But the question of how to allow humanity to continue to grow and develop, within the planetary boundaries gave me some very different answers to ones the environmental movement has been proposing for the last couple of decades. In particular, I concluded that there was no place for superstitious rejections of valuable modern technologies like genetic engineering, nanotechnology or nuclear fission. If we throw some of the best tools out of the toolbox for no good reason we have commensurately less chance of solving real problems. Also in political terms I began to realise that the green movement was alienating many people by its perceived backwards-looking, pastoralist bias. Our fond bucolic visions of happy peasants living spiritually fulfilled subsistence lifestyles in African villages is a damaging romantic fantasy when transposed into the real world. Their western equivalents of middle-class ‘transition towns’ and overpriced organic farmers markets are scarcely any more helpful. There had to be a more comprehensive way to address global challenges than these fanciful lifestyle changes amongst the world’s jaded elite.

I also came to very different conclusions when I began to appreciate the interlinkages between the planetary boundaries. Once you consider land use and freshwater use as of planetary importance then the assessment of agriculture becomes very different. For example, to deal with nitrogen overuse and toxics, organic farming might seem to be the obvious solution. However because organic agriculture is in land use terms roughly only half as productive as conventional fertilised farming, more land is needed to produce the same amount of food. If you factor in biodiversity, the result can therefore be quite counter-intuitive. In the book I cite some interesting scientific papers which suggest that organic farming is worse in quantitative terms for wildlife, because although species diversity is slightly higher on organic farms, they use a lot more land for the same amount of production and therefore less habitat is available for biodiversity overall.

What really matters for land, water and biodiversity in agricultural terms is productivity – or in other words, the efficiency of resource use. To increase the overall production of food per acre of land or gallon of water is by far the most ecological thing to do. This is the idea of sustainable intensification. And I think genetically-modified crops, whilst no silver bullet, continue to offer great potential here. There are many different GM crops in development which have much greater nitrogen uptake efficiency, meaning that more food can be produced per tonne of nitrogen fertiliser spread in the fields. The holy grail of biotech in this area is to somehow engineer the nitrogen-fixing traits of legumes into major grain crops like rice and wheat. That would reduce carbon emissions from fertiliser production as well as nitrogen runoff and the ensuing ecological damage. Meanwhile, despite all the furore surrounding GM crops – which I was once personally involved in – I cannot find a single case of scientifically-determined ecological damage or damage to human health which is unambiguously attributable specifically to GMOs. That should tell us that it is time to ditch the ‘precautionary principle’ so far as GM is concerned. If organic is to remain relevant, I want to see GM crops certified as organic.

Instead, as with nuclear power, the misplaced opposition to GM from green activists is likely to have been damaging to the environment overall. Given that the productivity of GM crops is substantially greater than their conventional alternatives, there is an opportunity cost of over a hundred million of metric tonnes per year of food worldwide not being produced because of the green-inspired aversion to GM. And ironically, whilst herbicide-tolerant GM crops have been slated for promoting industrialised monoculture, the real-world alternative is that conventional crops tend to have a much nastier cocktail of chemicals sprayed on them – things like atrazine which likely plays a substantial role in killing amphibians and other freshwater wildlife. In contrast glyphosate, which is used on Roundup ready soya, is relatively benign. For me this illustrates the need to recognise that we do not live in a perfect world, and that compromises will always be necessary. Making the perfect the enemy of the good, as environmentalists so often do in their tendency to naive idealism, may make the situation worse rather than better.

However, I don’t want to overstate the contrarian case, and I hope I don’t do so in the book. There is a lot the green movement has got right. Greens have been right to focus on the pre-eminent importance of the challenge of climate change, even if I disagree with the policies many green groups advocate to deal with it. It has been consistently the right policy to oppose big dams in untouched river systems, to challenge the destruction of rainforests and to try to stop overfishing. We can all agree in addition that biodiversity loss is critically important, not just as perhaps the top-level planetary boundary on our living Earth, but also as a great ethical and moral challenge. Tackling biodiversity loss will I predict be the most difficult task of all, because most of what we humans do affects biodiversity negatively. The places that thrive most in terms of wildlife tend to be places where humans are moved out, as in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Whilst climate change can be largely tackled with different zero-carbon technologies, wildlife needs habitat – and that means we have to leave a substantial proportion of the earth’s surface for the benefit of other species. Hence the proposed land-use boundary of no more than 15% of the planet’s land surface being devoted exclusively to crops. This is also why urbanisation is such a good thing and one of our species’ most environmentally-friendly inherent preferences. Because most humans are now living in cities we see great resource-use efficiencies and in some places secondary regrowth of forests in places where farmers have given up and migrated away. In Costa Rica, for instance, abandoned cattle pasture is nurturing a flourishing young forest that in turn now supports a stable population of jaguars and other threatened fauna.

Here is another reason why the traditional village-centred model of sustainable development may actually be counter-productive in the long term. It is actually better for wildlife if people move to the cities and more intensive agriculture is practiced on a smaller land area overall. Cities are also far preferable in terms of job opportunities and social freedom – if you want to be gay, marry who you choose, or be female and pursue a career, in most of the developing world you probably need to live in a city rather than confined in the oppressive social atmosphere of the traditional village.

The need to respect other planetary boundaries whilst tackling climate change is perhaps the most important thing to remember in this age where carbon and climate are in danger of trumping all other ecological concerns. Because freshwater ecosystems are some of the most threatened in the world, I do not think large-scale expansion of hydroelectricity – such as was proposed in the recent IPCC renewables report – is a good idea. I do not mean to be purist about this, as hydro is a very useful source of stored energy to balance electricity grids. But freshwater is a limited resource, and should be mostly reserved for agriculture and cities, using zero-carbon desalination in arid areas to preserve natural flows.

Because of land use concerns, we also need to be careful to avoid what has been termed energy sprawl – renewables in principle capture diffuse energy from large areas. This is the irony in fossil fuels, which have actually reduced human pressure on the biosphere in a direct sense because in industrialised countries we no longer have to gather wood and charcoal to heat our buildings, cook our food or produce manufactured goods.

So renewables are not necessarily an environmental boon. There are no ecological arguments that I can see against building-mounted solar PV, but large-scale solar thermal is a different matter. Already there are conflicts in the Mojave desert over solar projects threatening the habitat of the desert tortoise, and also of bird and bat kills by big wind farms. Regarding the latter, by the way, people often respond that cats kill millions of birds so we shouldn’t worry about those killed by windmills. I respond that cats probably do not kill many golden eagles, whilst one wind farm in California kills more than 60 per year. Some of the staunchest opponents I know to wind power are actually ecologists, and I do not think we can just ignore them or dismiss their concerns about biodiversity. We should not mythologise the potential for renewables, but assess them coldly and rationally in terms of their ecological impact just like anything else.

And when it comes to ecological impact, try as I might I couldn’t find any convincing arguments for rejecting nuclear power. Believe me, I combed the radiological journals for studies about radionuclides in ecosystems, and there are many – from papers about molluscs off Sellafield to those about rivers downstream from nuclear plants in France. But none of them show any obvious harm, with the single exception of the first few years after Chernobyl – initial damage which has now been reversed completely. No-one can say with any credibility that manmade nuclear radiation is a significant driver of biodiversity loss. But actually anti-nuclear greens don’t really worry about the environment – the debate about nuclear is a straightforward health and safety issue regarding humans.

Even in those terms however, the anti-nuclear case doesn’t stand up. Yes the waste needs to be safeguarded, as does waste from any other industry, which is equally or more toxic if you think of electronics or aluminium production for example, which in addition lasts forever rather than having a half-life. And CO2 waste from cement production or fossil fuel burning should equally be kept out of the biosphere indefinitely. Thanks to the Japanese tsunami tragedy we now have a second good case study for the real-world dangers of nuclear power, after Chernobyl of course. Following a 15-metre tsunami, triple meltdown and very major release of radioactive isotopes, according to the IAEA there has not only not been a single death but not even a single injury attributable to Fukushima so far.

The idea that the German government is using this as a reason to phase out nuclear, to be replaced in the short and possibly even long term by additional fossil fuels is not just blinkered, but borders on environmental lunacy. That such a move results from pressure from the greens is even worse – as I say in the book, I consider any opposition to zero-carbon fuels to be suspect, and anti-nuclear activists are just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like Exxon-Mobil. One can argue that the German government is serious about going entirely renewable – I admit I’m in the sceptic camp on that. But surely it is unarguable that if they really prioritised climate change like they say they do they would have phased out coal plants first, and kept the zero-carbon nuclear plants running longer. Instead we’re going to see 10 GW of new coal and even more new gas – and all the German greens are celebrating as if this were some kind of victory for the environment.

This is what happens when old ideologies blind people to the need to change their minds in changing times. Changing your mind as I have has the danger of making you look weak or vacillating, of course, not to mention alienating your own constituency, which is why politicians are generally extremely reluctant to do it. It also reminds people that since you have been wrong before you may well be wrong again, and so diminishes your claim to authority. But surely this is more honest than claiming always to be right about everything, and perhaps it can gain more respect and trust in the long run. And in addition, being able to perform u-turns when the situation demands has the benefit that you can opt for pragmatism over an established but outdated position.

I suggest in the book that the green movement can be thought of as substantially responsible for current day global warming, through its opposition to nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed there are many examples of nuclear plants which were converted to coal under pressure from greens back then. That was a historical mistake, when people knew no better, so I don’t condemn it. But to repeat it today in the face of all the evidence of the urgency of reducing carbon emissions is surely much worse than a mistake, because it is done in the face of overwhelming evidence. I know many individuals in the established environmental groups who have strong doubts about the anti-nuclear position, which often can only be revealed after they have left their jobs. But this conformity is intellectually stifling – and green groups have a duty to the truth and to the environment, which should supercede their organisational impulse to deny ever having been wrong.

What all this calls for in my opinion is a different kind of environmental movement; one which is comfortable with modernity, innovation and science. I know the green movement is very diverse, and includes very different viewpoints, and that broad-brush summaries such as this risk creating straw men. But in terms of its values, the green movement should surely be at heart a movement aimed at making modern civilisation sustainable in scientifically-defined planetary terms, not at winding the clock back towards some imagined pre-industrial bucolic idyll.

I also believe that green calls for carbon-centred austerity are also probably counter-productive. Instead of supporting the palliative measure of carbon offsetting most greens insisted that people should forswear holidays or trips to see family members oversees, that they should refuse to offset if they did choose to fly and thereby face the full force of their moral guilt. Most people don’t like being told to feel bad about what they are doing, so a backlash was generated, which is still gathering force today. And meanwhile people who would otherwise have offset their emissions stopped doing so believing it was just a con, so the net effect for the climate was, once again, worse than it would otherwise have been. Calls for driving less, living in colder houses, eating locally and so on are equally ill-fated in my view. Having spent many years haranguing people about their carbon emissions, my experience is that it doesn’t work, especially when I kept on flying myself.

As sceptics often point out, and quite correctly so, what we do in rich countries doesn’t make a vast amount of difference in future climate terms anyway, as the vast majority of future emissions growth will take place in the emerging economies. Oil use and carbon emissions have probably already peaked throughout the OECD on the other hand. This emissions growth in the developing world is linked with economic growth, and as I said at the beginning, economic growth in this sense is non-negotiable. Yes, we can have fascinating debates as to whether more growth in the already rich countries will make us any happier or not, but in planetary environmental terms this is a sideshow. Vastly more economic growth is a given, and our great challenge is to deliver that growth within the safe space of the planetary boundaries.

Two nights ago I saw some of the first footage of the humanitarian emergency which is now unfolding in the Horn of Africa. That we still have to see images of pot-bellied children today in 2011 is utterly shocking if you stop to think about it. Whether or not the drought is linked with climate change is irrelevant – in modern industrialised democracies far worse droughts can happen without anyone starving to death. I would urge all of you to donate to the aid effort via Oxfam or another agency if you have not already done so. And in the longer term this underlines the pressing need to raise the productivity of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and to address the structural causes of poverty.

There is a label often applied to environmentalists that they are anti-human and don’t care about human welfare. I don’t think this is fair, but it is a persistent image and one that greens need to address. And perhaps we can do that by making crystal clear that the elimination of poverty is our top-level social and economic concern, just as staying within the planetary boundaries is our top-level ecological concern. Perhaps the two are indivisible after all.

I have spent years now studying environmental science for my books. And people are always surprised when I say that I am getting more optimistic all the time. The best response I used to be able to come up with was pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. Now I have optimism of the intellect as well as that of the will. My conclusion from reading hundreds of scientific papers in dozens of scholarly journals is that humans are not doomed, and the planet is not about to die. I believe pessimism today is a much greater threat than denial. Because pessimism tells us we can’t do things, or that we will fail if we try. That kind of attitude can only be born from a special kind of ignorance of what a remarkable species humans are and of the extraordinary advances we have made in the past.

I’d like to finish with a historical analogy. Back at the end of the nineteenth century the world was generally acknowledged to be running out of fertiliser. There was a real crisis looming in that the nitrate deposits in South America would run out and leave people in Europe and elsewhere starving. The Malthusians looked like they were going to be right and that millions were going to starve. Today there would be calls for fertiliser rationing and voluntary austerity, a bit like we see with the peak oil movement. But actually what happened was that the problem was solved entirely through human technical ingenuity in the laboratory, that of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. The process they invented for turning atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia still keeps half of humanity alive today.

It has created its own problems, of course, and the nitrogen cycle is for that reason now a proposed planetary boundary. But these problems too are solvable, and if we keep all the planetary boundaries in mind at the same time we are less likely to solve one environmental problem at the expense of causing another. We have staggering amounts of scientific information, extraordinary computing power, and technical skill that would have seemed to Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch like little short of magic. That is why I am optimistic about the future of humanity today. We have much to do, but more potential and vastly greater understanding than we have ever had before. To constrain ourselves now because of a lack of imagination, a reluctance to abandon old ideologies or a wilful refusal to understand what science is telling us would be disastrous. We can do much better than that. Environmental problems are solvable, so let us go forward with determination and solve them.


(H/t Barry Woods for the ‘rational environmentalist’ title.)


  1. Karl-Friedrich Lenz

    I wish you were right on Fukushima having resulted in no deaths; however, it looks like about 50 elderly people have died from evacuating them without proper care for their health.

    If there is a conflict between avoiding global meltdown and disturbing the habitat of the desert tortoise, I am not convinced that the concern for biodiversity should prevail. As you write in your book, without stopping global meltdown we can forget about keeping biodiversity as well.

  2. Paul Kingsnorth

    ‘Fanciful lifestyle changes amongst the world’s jaded elite’?

    Ah, dear. What a shame. What a real shame.

    1. Latimer Alder

      Maybe I’m just too stupid to understand whether you had a point?

  3. scas

    Excellent piece, although I wish you would have added that conservation of resources and consumption restraint is good and necessary, especially since the majority of our consumptions in the rich world cause the greatest percentage of emissions and exported emissions (and resource use).

    Second, don’t fall into a consensus trance that all will be well. We should be preparing for a world where 4.5 of 9 billion are starving, where neglected ecosystems are breaking down, where heavy heavy geoengineering of all sorts are required to solve our problems. What if we need to block the sun due to a methane excursion? Solar power might not help there, nor changing wind patters on windmills, nor the best farming methods. Nuclear power and synthetic food would, though.

    I am optimistic that we have the ability, the technology, and the intelligence to solve our problems. But do we have the will? People who are pessimistic (like me) that we do not have the will, should be working on raising public awareness. Its all in the messaging, in appealing to ones enlightened self-interest. We are slave to beliefs, whims, industry and corporate PR. It will be a hell of an effort to overcome it all.

    But it is possible.

    Posted from mobile

  4. Theo

    “Having spent many years haranguing people about their carbon emissions, my experience is that it doesn’t work, especially when I kept on flying myself.”

    LOL. You said it brother.

  5. Scott

    ” However because organic agriculture is in land use terms roughly only half as productive as conventional fertilised farming, more land is needed to produce the same amount of food.”

    Simply not true. You need to dig a little deeper.

    Organic may produce less at the beginning. Depending on the skill of the farmer. But little by little, incrementally as organic slowly repairs the damage to the land caused by ~ 50 years of conventional farming, it reaches a tipping point where it out produces even the best most modern conventional farming with all their NPK fertilizers, pesticides and GM crops.

    A skilled and experienced organic farmer can usually reach that tipping point in about 3-5 years. Something even leaving the land fallow for nature to repair might take hundreds or even thousands of years. A less skilled organic farmer might need longer. But it is inevitable. At some point the organic farm will surpass the conventional. Because conventional methods kill the soil and the entire local biosystems that derive from the soil. Again it has a lot to do with the skill of the conventional farmer. A very skilled conventional farmer can use techniques to slow and delay the destruction of the soil on his farm. However, no matter what, the fertility of his farm is steadily decreasing, while the organic methods produce a steady increase in fertility. At some point those two curves must cross.

    The good news is that the conventional farmer doesn’t have to completely “go organic” all at once. The methods and principles can be (and have been) used to gradually improve their farming. Lets face the truth. Most farmers understand the problem. They simply don’t have a choice. Their profit margin is so slim they can’t wait 3-5 years under even the best conditions to restore their farm’s fertility. It would bankrupt them.

    Here is a good vid on exactly that subject. Most of these are not “fully organic” but they are using the methods developed by organic agricultural science to gradually reduce their fertilizer and pesticide use while improving the health of their soil. A couple farms are getting almost to that tipping point where they no longer need those inputs at all.


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