This week I’ve been reading The God Species, Mark Lynas‘ new book. It explores the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’, and how we manage the earth we find ourselves in charge of as a species. It’s also a broadside at the environmental movement.
Every other page seems to take a pot-shot at the greens, accusing them of hypocrisy, a selective approach to science, moralising, and of failing to pick their battles, especially on nuclear power and offsetting. I agree with Lynas on many of his points, but it makes for uncomfortable reading all the same. This is an author who comes across as disillusioned, frustrated.
He’s not the first. James Lovelock’s later books are full of bitter “I told you so” statements. Books like Alistair McIntosh’s Hell and High Water or Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species turn from climate science into reflections on what it is to be human, on hubris and denial and self destruction. Paul Kingsnorth has written extensively about his growing disillusionment with environmentalism, directing his energy into the Dark Mountain project. George Monbiot remains a hugely influential environmental writer despite regularly rebuking his fellows.
Lynas’ own experience is helpful. In the book, he explains how he used to take direct action in his younger days, tearing up GM crops and railing against nuclear power. As recently as 2008, he was writing against GM in the national papers. The God Species reads like a confession at times, as Lynas explains why he was wrong. He says more in an article in the Guardian this week, which explores the whole idea of an environmental movement losing its way. He describes himself as “a recovering activist”, and says “the green movement in itself is dying – I’m an environmentalist but not a green”.
It’s a fair distinction, and one I can sympathise with. I can’t stand the tie-dye wackiness that dooms so much of the green movement to be forever on the fringes. I object to the selective attention to science, or the way that environmentalists who attempt to engage with big business are seen as sell-outs. I’m aware of my idealist tendencies, but I recognise the need for more realistic solutions and less utopianism. The association of environmental questions with the political left is deeply unhelpful, especially since the categories of left and right are arcane and irrelevant as far as I’m concerned.
Is something happening in the environmental movement? I hope so. There are plenty of reasons for it to be in crisis. Many green issues have gone mainstream, in theory at least, and that leaves the radical elements with nowhere to go. Climate change peaked as a public concern in 2009, the failure of Copenhagen burying media interest entirely, especially in the US. The financial crisis refocused everyone on the economy.
The environment is changing, so it’s hardly surprising that advocates for the environment need to change too. The movement was born as a warning. While there have been plenty of victories along the way, overall the warning has fallen on deaf ears. As I wrote recently, our way of life is crossing from unsustainable to unsustained, limits to growth are being breached. It may be too late to stop irreversible and disastrous climate change.
How will earth advocacy change? I’m not sure. I can only speak for myself, and for me it’s a matter of what kind of a world I want to help build. What works? Does it work for the poorest and most marginalised? What will lead to greater freedom and human flourishing? Is the diversity and beauty of the earth respected? Who or what is being served by any given system or project? What is the right thing to do?