Britain’s Mark Lynas Riles His Green Movement Allies

Activist Mark Lynas has alienated his green colleagues by renouncing long-held views and becoming an advocate for nuclear power and genetically modified crops. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why he rethought his positions and turned to technology for solutions.

In his new book, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, British author, journalist, and environmental activist Mark Lynas argues that the world’s gravest ecological problems can be addressed with existing technological solutions. For environmentalists, he writes, “This means jettisoning some fairly sacred cows.” Nobody knows this better than Lynas, who has recently renounced his own previous positions and now embraces nuclear power and genetic engineering. That has enraged his erstwhile colleagues in the green movement, yet Lynas is unapologetic.

“We cannot afford to foreclose powerful technological options like nuclear, synthetic biology, and genetic engineering because of Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia,” he writes in The God Species.

Mark Lynas
Mark Lynas

In a recent interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Keith Kloor, Lynas talked about his change of heart, his embrace of genetically modified crops as a key solution to possible food shortages, and his disgust at seeing some environmentalists largely ignore the devastation from the recent Japanese tsunami while over-hyping the dangers of radiation from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant. “They believe in what they’re doing, but these people are nuts,” says Lynas. “And they’re doing real harm by spreading fear.”

Yale Environment 360: The main thesis of your new book is that humans have to take an active role in managing the planet if we want to keep it from being “irreparably damaged.” But much of what you prescribe, such as wider deployment of nuclear power and genetically engineered agriculture, is anathema to many greens. This also flies in the face of your own history as an environmental activist, in which you were anti-nuclear and anti-GMO until just a few years ago. What’s caused you to do an about-face?

Mark Lynas: Well, life is nothing if not a learning process. As you get older you tend to realize just how complicated the world is and how simplistic solutions don’t really work… There was no “Road to Damascus” conversion, where there’s a sudden blinding flash and you go, “Oh, my God, I’ve got this wrong.” There are processes of gradually opening one’s mind and beginning to take seriously alternative viewpoints, and then looking more closely at the weight of the evidence. It was a few years ago now that I first started reassessing the nuclear thing. But I didn’t want to go public then. I knew that would be the end of my reputation as an environmentalist, and to some extent, it has been.

e360: Really?

Lynas: I mean, I’ve lost friends over this. And I’ve made some new ones. It’s an issue that divides almost like no other.

e360: You argue that nuclear power is necessary if we want to simultaneously meet the world’s demand for energy and still tackle climate change.

Lynas: It’s blindingly obvious, actually, and I don’t know why it took me so long. The current deployment of nuclear power worldwide of 430 reactors reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 2 billion tons per year. And that really is the beginning and the end of the argument if you’re in the slightest bit concerned about global warming. And all of the oft-stated green objections to nuclear power are either urban myths or an order of magnitude less important than global climate change.

e360: What about the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami? Has that given you pause?

Lynas: Of course it’s given me pause. It is a tragic thing that happened. Although, I suppose we can be glad of the fact that it’s still a non-fatal accident in terms of anyone dying or being seriously injured from radiation.

Fukushima illustrates how we’ve got this obsession with dangers of radiation far, far out of proportion to reality.”

Of course, one thing that really bewilders and saddens me is how the Fukushima accident has overshadowed the enormous tragedy of the tsunami and all of the lives lost and the devastation that was brought about from that. And somehow it illustrates how we’ve got this obsession with the dangers of radiation far, far out of proportion to the physical reality. I was particularly struck by seeing pictures of Chinese shoppers panic-buying salt or iodine tablets. And these are people who are living in cities which are so polluted that their life expectancy will be foreshortened by a lot more than if they happened to be living in the Fukushima exclusion zone.

So our assessments of risk are way skewed when it comes to nuclear power. We [allow] irrationality to dictate policymaking. And that’s been the reaction of the German government [and it’s anti-nuclear stance] — to elevate irrational policy-making into a sort of guiding principle.

e360: You attribute much of this fear to scare-mongering by environmentalists.

Lynas: After the accident, Greenpeace was running around giving press conferences in their white biohazard suits. There were anti-nuclear activists planning to go and sell chalk pills to supposedly save the children of Fukushima. They believe in what they’re doing, but these people are nuts. And they’re doing real harm by spreading fear. What we know from Chernobyl is that the psychological impacts of fear of radiation are worse — in terms of health outcomes — than the actual damage of the radiation itself. We need to learn the lessons of this and that nothing is without consequences, nuclear scare-mongering included.

e360: Speaking of consequences, you’ve been assailed by some as a “Chernobyl death denier.” Is that true?

They believe in what they’re doing, but these people are nuts. And they’re doing real harm by spreading fear.”

Lynas: It’s an absurd term, which has been bandied around and it just goes to show how unfortunate the whole denial language is now — to accuse someone of being a denier if they disagree with you. Frankly, nuclear is not an environmental issue, in the sense that the so-called green movement portrays. I mean Chernobyl was a win for biodiversity in a direct sense because of the flourishing wildlife in the exclusion zone and I imagine that if the Japanese have to stop fishing around Fukushima, that will improve the marine environment there, too, despite the additional radiation. I don’t mean to be facetious, but that’s just a truism.

So it’s a health and safety issue and needs to be properly managed for the sake of humans; that’s undoubtedly true and completely obvious. But by and large, the widespread use of nuclear power means we don’t have to cover so much of the land surface with wind farms and we don’t have to convert so much agricultural land to grow biofuels and so on. I really can’t see the continued sense in opposing it.

e360: In your book, you argue that GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are a win-win for the environment and also an important tool in the fight against climate change. But in 2008, in an article for the Guardian, you wrote that, “the technology moves entirely in the wrong direction, intensifying human technologies and manipulation of nature, when we should be aiming at a more holistic ecological approach.” What caused you to change your mind?

Lynas: Well, I actually refer to that article in my new book as being a real turning point. To be brutally honest, the article was something I’d dashed off in 20 minutes without doing any research. And it was reading some of the online comments from readers, just pointing out that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, which really brought me up short. And I decided at that point, basically, to shut up for awhile and do some reading, which I then did for two years. I didn’t write about this issue again for a while, right up until the book. But I think what gave me the courage to just be honest with others about this was reading Stewart Brand’s recent book [Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto] because he really just lays it down straight and I thought, “Well, if he can put it in these terms, so can I.”

e360: So briefly, what’s the case for GMOs and why, in your mind, is there such opposition to it, especially in Europe?

There hasn’t been a single GMO-related health issue I’m aware of after over a decade of research.”

Lynas: There are arguments for and against, as with any technology. But most of the concerns we had 10 years ago about health and environmental impacts were clearly overblown. There hasn’t been a single GMO-related health issue I’m aware of after over a decade of research and testing. And environmentally GMOs have been beneficial, even in their current limited sense, which merely promotes monoculture with herbicide tolerance and insect-resistance. In the future we will be looking at nitrogen-efficient, drought-tolerant GMO crops with many other traits, which will minimize land use whilst increasing yields.

e360: There is the conventionalism that we need to reduce consumption to reduce our carbon footprint and alleviate the stress on the planet. Yet you argue in the book that what the world needs more of is economic growth. But if everybody starts to adopt the lifestyle of Americans or people in the UK, that would not be a net plus for the world, for planetary boundaries.

Lynas: That is obvious, but it’s going to happen anyway. The converse of trying to convince people not to develop and not to become more wealthy is also similarly doomed to failure. I don’t see many people going to Beijing and walking around with sandwich boards saying, “Don’t buy cars, don’t buy TVs, don’t buy refrigerators.” I mean, is that a political movement that’s going to take off? I don’t think so.

We have to deal with the very rapid emergence and development of the poor parts of the world and I think that enormous increase in human progress is something to be celebrated. It’s clearly been a miraculous transformation to see hundreds of millions of people [emerge from] poverty, a new middle class emerging in India, China, Brazil, and some of the other big economies. And they are catching up with us because our rates of consumption are not increasing by most measures. So the world is getting more equal; so that’s good.

e360: You also say that urbanization is something that could help save the environment. Does that mean more people should be moving to the cities?

Lynas: Well, more people are moving to the cities whether I like it or not. These are not environmental policies; these are life choices that people make across the world, in the developing world more particularly, to increase their economic opportunities, in particular.

e360: Why is increasing urbanization good for the environment?

“No one should have a pie thrown in his face because he challenges conventional wisdom.”

Lynas: Land use is one of the crucial planetary boundaries. And having more people concentrated over smaller areas is necessarily a good thing in terms of land use efficiency. You can see in many developing countries like Vietnam and Costa Rica where you get forest area increasing as abandoned croplands and ranchlands revert to secondary forests. And so biodiversity benefits as a result. That’s because people are moving to cities and often they’re leaving subsistence agriculture. It isn’t necessarily good for the environment to have huge numbers of people living in rural areas.

e360: I understand that you’re the climate change advisor to the president of Maldives. What does that entail?

Lynas: I’ve been the president’s advisor on climate since 2009. That involves briefing the president on the latest state of the science and helping formulate the strategy for the Maldives in terms of how the country goes forward with international negotiations and how it presents its plight to the world.

e360: So how do you juggle all these hats — journalist, environmentalist, climate change advisor? There’s a section in your book where you recount the final frenzied hours of the Copenhagen talks, which were behind closed doors and off limits to journalists. You describe the last minute roadblocks thrown up by China, India and Saudi Arabia. That got you in some trouble.

Lynas: I originally wrote that up in the Guardian, just a few days after it happened. I really shouldn’t have done it. I wasn’t in the room as a journalist; I was in the room as an advisor to a head of state. And it was one of those very rare things where you just have to write about it because the world needs to know. The Chinese government was extremely upset about the article and my role in it…

But I think in some ways being honest has actually helped shift things because when it came to [the 2010 climate talks in] Cancun, the Chinese were absolutely determined not to be blamed for any deadlock and were probably a lot more constructive and respectful than in previous meetings. Now I’m not in any way claiming credit for that. But I think in many ways the process has improved immeasurably and the atmosphere has improved immeasurably since Copenhagen.

e360: You seem to have undergone quite a personal and professional transformation. Ten years ago, when you were a frontline activist, you walked into a bookstore and threw a pie in the face of [Danish author] Bjorn Lomborg, who had just published The Skeptical Environmentalist. The book was quite controversial at the time and perceived by many to be unfairly critical of environmentalists, probably similar to the way your book will now be perceived by a good many greens.

Lynas: Believe me; the irony has not gone unnoticed. And there have been a lot of rumors, and discussions about when exactly I’m going to get my pie in the face. I still tend to hear about these things in advance and take precautions.

e360: Have you talked to Lomborg since that incident?

Lynas: Yes, I have made an abject apology to him on a couple of occasions and he’s been gentlemanly enough to accept it in very good grace. And in an odd sort of way, we’ve become quite friendly. I actually have found that I have a high regard for the work he does, even though I still don’t agree with a lot of his conclusions. I think what Lomborg does is genuine, and no one should have a pie thrown in his face because he challenges conventional wisdom.