Boundaries, Biodiversity, and Beer!

An account of the inaugural Green-Thinkers Bookclub

I thoroughly enjoyed our first Green-Thinkers debate and the little grey cells were certainly stimulated. Having selected a contemporary book ‘The God Species’ by Mark Lynas that challenges some ‘scared green cows’  there was plenty to discuss taking us past the official going home time, and then afterwards downstairs in the bar for a more informal chat. Perhaps it was the beer and chips that stimulated the thinking!

Attending was a range of environmental and sustainability practitioners, academics, students, and those outside of the profession who have more than a passing interest. This diversity was part of what made the evening interesting and led us along a wide variety of lines of discussion, some of which I touch on below. My personal thoughts are in italics.

We debated the usefulness of the ‘Planetary Boundaries’ concept, originating from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in measuring and responding to environmental challenges, and most agreed it is helpful especially as a communication tool for engaging with non-specialists. Concerns were expressed however regarding the usefulness of the freshwater boundary at a local level, and that the importance of certain interactions between boundaries may have been overlooked. The discussion moved on to resource constraints and whether these may have greater interactions with the boundary model than Lynas allows for in Chapter 9. For example a lack of suitable farmland may lead to further exploitation of bushmeat, fossil fuels scarcity could lead to further deforestation.

I personally I am cautious of the biodiversity boundary as a concept because the role, and hence value, of species within an ecosystem is not necessarily equal. A single key species may be lost such as a top predator or pollinator that has a disproportionate impact.

A central part of the evening was invested in discussing the techno-fixes mentioned by Lynas such as GM, nuclear, and geo-engineering as solutions to environmental problems, as opposed to the traditional ‘green left side’ approach of austerity and sacrifice that is rejected by the author as intrusion into our everyday lives. Many of us were encouraged by the optimism running through the pages, and the call to embrace science, but this was tempered by a healthy dose of pessimism that such developments can keep us from breaching more planetary boundaries in the face of continued population growth and increasing consumption. Peak uranium was raised as a threat to nuclear expansion for example. On the GM debate more concern was expressed regarding the global dominance of large corporations, rather than in the technology itself, and a medic said that his views on GM had softened after reading about the potential for Golden Rise to improve nutrition around the world. Hope was expressed that forward thinking organisations are increasingly creating shared value, rather than plundering the commons. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to discuss geo-engineering!

My view here is that we should throw all we have at technological progress, including the closed-loop economy and dematerialisation, but more fundamental changes to life-styles and economic structures will also be required especially in more affluent economies – it’s not an either / or game. If fact ‘The God Species’ is not entirely devoid of personal responsibility if you search carefully; there is a call to give up bottled water on page 154, and sort your rubbish on page 241.

Lynas writes that the current crisis in biodiversity tells us loud and clear that conventional approaches to conservation have failed and proposes designing systems that value nature in a direct and marketable sense. With a number of ecologists and geographers in our ranks the question “Can and should eco-system services, and explicitly biodiversity be exposed to market mechanisms?” created a stir. Lynas is clearly passionate about the loss of biodiversity and the account in Chapter 2 about the extinction of large animal species around the world would kindle most green fires, but the debate beings when considering how to protect what is left.  The opinion was expressed that putting a dollar per head price on near-extinct species such as giant pandas is lunacy, and developers are likely to be happy to pay so much per acre to build on valuable habitats. The counter-point was also made that when George Monbiot likened carbon offsetting to selling papal indulgences, well meaning organisations fled from paying into schemes such solar-powered stoves in Africa or rain forest restoration in Borneo.

We finished the discussion by asking a more personal question “is there a specific message in the book that you can see taking forward with you into your everyday life or work?”, and the majority said that the optimistic outlook was a great encouragement and even inspiration, some felt that the process of discussion and articulating ones thoughts was of benefit in itself, one person said that they would offset their personal emissions as encouraged by Lynas, and I said that the book had been part of the inspiration for setting up Green-Thinkers, so my thanks goes to Mark Lynas for writing it.

Also thanks to co-founders Richard Clarke who drafted the questions and Mary Argyraki who is always an inspiration, and everyone who contributed to our first debate. Please email marek@green-thinkers.org if you would like to receive information about future meetings, or set up a Green-Thinkers bookclub in your area.

 This is a personal account and while I have tried to be accurate it doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of particular attendees, or the author.

By Marek Bidwell

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