Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans

    I have followed carefully the work of Mark Lynas on environmental issues for some time. I remember from his 2004 book, High Tide: The Truth About Our Climate Crisis, a telling juxtaposition of photographs, with one Lynas' father ( a geologist) took in the early 1930's of a glacier in Peru shown next to one of the same glacier in 2000. 40% of the glacier mass had melted. His 2008 book, Sic Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet systematically assessed the environmental impacts of a 1, 2,3,4,5,6 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures. What made that work compelling was that it was not only about future speculation. In the past, the earth has undergone such periods of global warming. No matter what  we do, we are now likely to see, minimally, a 2 degree Celsius global temperature increase. After 3 degrees we reach a tipping point. With a 6 degree increase in an earlier period, 95% of all species went extinct.

      In his recent book, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans  ( National Geographic, 2011), Lynas follows carefully the work of a group of scientists who call themselves the Planetary Boundaries Group. These scientists are trying to calculate the boundary areas of ecological danger and, where and to the extent possible, to do some precise estimates of what must be done to address them. They list nine such boundary areas. The first, biodiversity, looks to the wholesale extinction of species. We are facing the most extreme extinction of species in 65 million years. Presently, there are one-third fewer wild animals than just 40 years ago! One-fourth of the mammals, one third of amphibians, one fourth of fresh water fish and thirteen percent of the world's birds are now threatened. As Lynas notes, " a healthy diversity of living organisms is essential for eco-systems to function properly." A small tree in Bornea had yielded a potent anti-HIV drug. Alas, it was later cut down and no longer exists. The Planetary Boundary Group notes that in pre-industrial eras, extinction rates ran 1 per million species per year. Now it runs from 100 ( or, in some estimates, 1,000) a year. Their suggested boundary marker is 10 per million per year.

       A second boundary involves climate change which now records 390 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ( the Boundary Group suggests a target of merely 350ppm). At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the rate was 280ppm. The dangers stem from rapid thaws of Arctic ice caps which will lead to rising sea levels. As Lynas notes, in western North America we are seeing the following signs from global warming: " Soaring temperatures; declining late season snowpack; Northward shifted winter storm tracks; increasing precipitation intensity; worse droughts since measurements began; steep declines in river water; widespread vegetation mortality; sharp increase in the frequency of large wildfires." All of these danger signs are increasing faster than any earlier models predicted. Tipping points will effect the Arctic melt and the Greenland ice shelves and impact the Amazon rain forest. Most dangerous would be the melting of Arctic permafrost where 1.5 trillion tons of carbon dioxide now lie buried in a carbon cachment pool. Their exposure to the atmosphere would be truly catastrophic. As Lynas argues:" The longer we wait to deal with the issue of carbon, the more expensive the solution will be." Lynas breaks with much of the so-called green community in supporting the use of nuclear energy to reduce carbon dioxide output.

      A third boundary involves the nitrogen found in fertilizers which, as they run off into rivers, lakes and the oceans, cause dead zones. Nitrous oxide needs to be reduced to about a third of its present use. Again, Lynas is not an absolutist on the use of genetically altered seeds. He supports seeds which need less nitrogen and fertilizer and which can, as shown by some genetically altered seeds, increase crop yield. The Planetary Boundary Group proposes a boundary for the millions of tons of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere each year in millions of tons at 35. The current amount is 121.

     A fourth boundary involves land use. We need to conserve a number of ecological  'hot spots' known for their biodiversity. Recognize the climate implications ( for precipitation) of loss of savannahs and tropical forests and, thus, conserve them. Part of the loss of biodiversity is related to land use, because species get starved by loss of habitat and adequate food supply. Boundary five involves fresh water. Rivers, lakes, wetlands are the home for over one fourth of all known vertebrates. We have not yet crossed the boundary of water use per cubic kilometers per year proposed by the Planetary Boundary group ( 4,000--at present, we use 2, 600).

      Boundary six has to do with toxics such as DDT, PCBs, plastics etc. We have numerous examples of fish and bird deaths from ingesting plastics. In India, the white-backed vulture declined 99.9 percent between 1992-2007 because of wide-spread use of an anti-inflamatory drug, dictofenac, in livestock on whose decomposing bodies the vultures fed. Boundary seven involves aerosols. Black carbon, also, which comes from dirty cooking stoves in third-world countries has led to darker snow packs ( which, then, do not reflect back sun light away from the earth). Boundary eight, ocean acidification, is quite important. 85 percent of all the carbon expended since the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by the oceans which serve as carbon sinks. But, as a result, the oceans now have less capacity to absorb more carbon and have suffered extreme acidification. The 30 percent rise in the acidity in our seas threatens coral reefs, sea food with shells ( and, thus, the birds who depend on such fish for food). As Lynas argues, even if the increased levels of carbon dioxide had not caused global warming, their impact on acidity of the oceans is, in itself, a major enough threat to address the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. The final boundary has to do with ozone layers and the impact of chlorofluorocarbons on causing holes in the ozone layer. Luckily, since the Montreal Protocol of 1987, the international community has been addressing this issue and the amount of CFCs in the atmosphere has been drastically reduced.

         Lynas does not think that any argument which is all gloom and doom will have much impact. Nor will a message primarily of austerity and sacrifice or no growth sell. He is not an absolutist on the issue of nuclear energy, genetic engineering( even, in an extreme case, geo-engineering projects to dim the sun's impact on our atmosphere, if that is necessary to buy time to address global warming). He also knows that if the argument becomes one of the economy versus the environment, the economy will almost always win. But, he feels that there are enormous economic benefits ( in job creation, in reduced energy costs) in going green. As it turns out, Lynas served as climate change advisor to President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives. As such, he attended the climate summit in Copenhagen. A documentary about Nasheed and the threat of rising sea levels to inundate the Maldives, The Island President, is currently going the rounds of theaters.

       Following Pope Benedict XVI, I am convinced that addressing the ecological issues raised up by Lynas is the global challenge of our generation. No other issue has such ramifications for justice, peace and a stable future which allows economic growth.


Crystal Watson
5 years 2 months ago
Thanks for this post.  I do think other species have intrinsic worth irrespective of humanity ...

"St. Ignatius's Approach to Nature Was Not Utilitarian"  by John English SJ  ....

"The Resurrection of Jesus and Physical Creation" by Fr. Ron Rolheiser ....

"Why Humans Need Animals" by Anglican priest Steven Shakespeare ...
Stanley Kopacz
5 years 2 months ago
Amish make decisions about how and if a technology is accepted by their community.  What they consider important is how it will affect their community.  Such decisions should be made by every local community, every national community and the global community.  However, this presupposes there IS a community.  A collection of hyperindividualized monads is not a community and will be incapable of generating a consensus based on good evidence and good principles.  At present, unfortunately, I don't think the United States has what it takes to do the right thing.

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