God, or a guinea pig?

Mark Lynas suggests we should, in our God-like way, try a little geo-engineering. It is, after all, an emergency. If there is a God, he could be some distance from Mr Lynas, because that’s not what ‘dominion’ means

Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, had an opinion piece in the Dominion Post last Thursday July 14, 2011 which I’ve copied at some length here, because it isn’t online.

On a planetary scale [he wrote], humans now assert unchallenged dominion over all living things. Our collective power already threatens or overwhelms most of the major forces of nature, from the water cycle to the circulation of major elements like nitrogen and carbon.

For the biosphere as a whole the Age of Humans has been a catastrophe. Our domestication of the planet’s surface to provide food and fuel has displaced all competing species to the margins. The Earth is now in the throes of its sixth mass extinction, the worst since the ecological calamity that wiped out the dinosaurs.

We need to recognise that we are now in charge — whether for good or ill — and to take conscious and collective decisions about how far we interfere with the planet’s natural cycles and how we manage our global-scale impacts. For the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence suggests that we are fast approaching the point where our interference in the planet’s great bio-geochemical cycles is threatening to endanger the system itself, and hence our own survival as a species.

Central to the standard Green creed is the idea that playing God is dangerous: hence the reflexive opposition to new technologies from splitting the atom to cloning cattle. My thesis is the reverse: playing God is essential, if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humanity unwittingly deploying its new-found powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris [my emphasis].

He goes on to talk of “jettisoning some sacred cows”: anti-nuclear and GE-free.

Most Greens also emphatically object to geo-engineering — the idea that we could consciously alter the atmosphere to counteract climate change, for example by spraying sulphates high in the stratosphere to act as a sunscreen. But the objectors seem to forget that we are already carrying out massive geo-engineering every day, as a hundred million people step into their cars, a billion farmers dig their ploughs into the soil and 10 million fishermen cast their nets.

Geo-engineering could mean something as harmless as painting roads and roofs white. Or, filling the ocean with phytoplankton, cloud seeding to make rain, engineering plants so their leaves are lighter, putting mirrors into space to act as a sun shade — and my personal favourite, the one mentioned by Lynas, “fleets of aircraft [carbon-emitting fleets of aircraft?] continually spraying tons of reflective sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere”. Apparently, this is scientists’ first choice too.

There is scepticism and yet, momentum. This says scientists are "divided on the deployment of planetary-scale geo-engineering but united on the need for research – if only to show that many of the proposed schemes may be rubbish". In March, Kiwi scientists convened to talk about it, including how to manage it internationally.

Certainly [writes Lynas], deciding on something as epochal as intentional climatic geo-engineering would involve us in some awesome collective decisions, which we have only just begun to evolve the international governance structures to manage. But if we want the world of tomorrow to resemble the world of today, we will need to act fast.


On the matter of geo-engineering in particular, I think the author might be a bit more interested in selling his new book than the idea. He tells us four facts, in an opinion-free zone.

In my opinion, that is not what ‘dominion’ means. I think it means using the gifts of knowledge and conscience and foresight, and choosing to act with restraint. Either way, global change is required, on a scale, with an urgency never before tried. We can choose to do more of the same: climate geo-engineering, deliberate not inadvertent this time. Or, we could just stop.

We could use the smarts we were given in a different way. Mark Lynas equates humility with not using them at all.

Never mind what it would mean, to play God. Let us be secular, and scientific. Geo-engineering is a big science experiment. Slowly, scientists proved that human-induced climate change was real. If I have a prayer, it’s that the same caution would be applied to its solutions. Especially the really stupid solutions.

How do you even research this stuff, without buggering up the control?

When was the answer to hubris more hubris?

You will call me a Luddite, perhaps. Well, I am not; but I would rather be that than a guinea pig.