At his talks, the award-winning journalist Mark Lynas often asks his audience to imagine what would happen if we had a magic wand that could solve climate change. Should we wave it? Most people say no. This, he believes, is a real problem for making progress. To deal with climate change, we need to get serious about prioritizing effective solutions over ones that fit the environmentalist narrative of human sin and the need for atonement.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Mark Lynas discuss tribalism in the environmentalist movement, the need for an optimistic account of how societies can deal with the climate crisis, and how to effectively argue for real solutions.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You started off life as an environmental activist, and you were very active in the movement to oppose genetically modified (GM) crops. In fact, you destroyed some fields with GM crops. Tell us what got you into that activity and why over time you changed your mind about it.
Mark Lynas: When I left university, I got very involved in the Direct Action Movement and we were opposing the government's road-building program. So, going and setting up trees and tree houses, living in tunnels, all that kind of thing. And then, when the GM crops issue was brought to us by activists from Greenpeace, we just felt this had to stop. This was some kind of awful genetic pollution that was going to devastate the countryside and make farming chemical-dependent and even more industrialized, and all the things that we were against. In the late 1990s we had a campaign of direct action, which was incredibly successful and destroyed all of the GMO (genetically modified organism) test sites that were ongoing in the U.K. at that time. We basically stopped the entire scientific effort and exported the whole issue to Europe. GMOs remain de facto banned across the whole of the European continent to this day. It was the most successful environmental campaign I’ve ever been involved in. Unfortunately, it was wrong.
Mounk: I wonder whether part of the moral mistake that many people have made with GM crops, and I’m very much on your side of this debate, is thinking about risks and benefits in very different ways. There’s a huge exaggeration of the risks and, it turns out, there really was no reason to fear those risks. But there was also a real lack of focus on the benefits. How can we take more seriously potential benefits of technology when we consider what to adopt, what to put research money into, etc.?
Lynas: I think we can learn from history about the failure of GMOs in terms of the failure of the scientific community to make its case, and to be heard on [their case]. Looking back at this as a minor participant, I think the failure was actually to deploy the technology in a way that was obviously beneficial at the outset. [...] There are so many different traits [of GM crops] that could be really, really beneficial. But it’s too late now because most of the world has got this idea that GM crops are wrong in some way. And the opposition is—you used the word “moral”—it is moral. It is not about a risk-benefit analysis. It’s as if it’s sacrilegious to do what scientists are doing with GM crops, and the level of moral opposition is therefore absolute. People don’t weigh the risks and benefits. They say, “I’m against this, and I will always be against this,” and that’s the situation we’re in. The debate is completely blocked.
Mounk: It’s become what Jonathan Haidt called a “sacred value” on this podcast a few episodes back: “It’s just wrong.” And no matter what you say about the benefits, that’s irrelevant, because you’re doing something that we have to oppose no matter what. What is the way in which you ultimately came to change your mind?
Lynas: Most people don’t change their minds about significant issues. I was very involved in the environmental movement; the GMO issue was a complete red line for everyone, and it still is. I was very aware that if I changed my mind on this, and I spoke out publicly, that it would put me at odds with many of my friends and colleagues and would lead to me being more or less ousted from the movement. I gave a lot of consideration to whether I actually wanted to go there. I mean, was it really that important? But I’d spent 15 years [working on climate change]. I’d written several books on climate change. I’d been arguing that we needed to respect the science and that we should listen to the scientific consensus—all of those thousands of papers that have been published showing that climate change is real. If you’re going out there with a “trust the scientists” message on climate change, then having a “don’t trust the scientists” and “ignore the consensus on GMOs” message struck me as being just completely inconsistent. I felt it was undermining my role as a science communicator, which was something that I took very seriously. I tell the story in my book, Seeds of Science: I had to choose between two different tribes, the “environmentalist green tribe” and the “scientific evidence-based tribe.” I chose the latter because that’s my worldview. I’m a creature of the Enlightenment: I believe that there is such a thing as objective truth and that science is the best way anyone’s ever come up with for trying to get there.
Mounk: You alluded to your work on climate change. What is the question that you like to ask audiences about a kind of “carbon fairy”?
Lynas: This isn’t my original idea. I can’t remember where I first heard it. But if you’re in front of an audience of 200 to 300 people who are desperately, deeply concerned about climate change, who would do anything to stop this problem and are devoting their whole lives to it, and you say to them, “Well, imagine there’s a carbon fairy that can wave a magic wand and the problem goes away. Would you do that?”
Mounk: So if you can wave a magic wand, and climate change goes away as a problem, would you wave a magic wand?
Lynas: Right. Well, almost nobody waves the wand, and I find that utterly fascinating. It tells us there’s a lot more going on here than just the wish to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere or stop burning fossil fuels.
Mounk: If you’re right that 90% of people won’t wave the wand, I assume that some of the people listening to this podcast won’t want to wave the wand, either, or they’d at least be uncomfortable waving the wand. What’s the reason for waving the wand?
Lynas: Well, the wand is symbolic for nuclear power, in that there’s been a technology that is completely scalable, completely ecologically benign, and has been around for 50 years. And yet we’re choosing not to use it. [...] The magic wand and the “carbon fairy” are a symbol for the fact that most environmentalists don’t want to solve the climate problem by reconciling with industrial capitalism. If you were to say that we’re going to leave the whole system unchanged—big corporations, inequality, people doing all these terrible things, living in big cities, distance from nature, and leaving all that unchanged to solve the CO2 problem—people don’t want to do it. Or at least the people who are motivated by, or think they’re motivated by, addressing climate change don’t want to do it. That’s ultimately why those of us who did want to wave the wand consider ourselves eco-pragmatists, if you like, because of the urgency of the situation. If we want to save the coral reefs, you’ve got to wave that wand, right? You can’t go trying to start a revolution that would take decades to play out. And even if it worked, you will probably be worse off than [where] we've started off most revolutions. The idea of being pragmatic and getting the job done, and getting it done in the quickest and easiest way possible, suddenly required a whole rethinking of environmentalism itself. And that’s where we came up with this term ecomodernism.
Mounk: You mentioned eco-pragmatism and ecomodernism. How is that a challenge to a traditional orientation towards environmentalism? And why might an embrace of ecomodernism help us to actually solve problems like climate change?
Lynas: Traditional environmentalism has always been about getting humans back in touch with nature and being back in harmony with nature. It’s coupled with ideas of Mother Nature being somehow benign and nature as good—as something you want to be close to. And the ways in which humans have separated themselves from nature is fundamentally bad, both in an ecological and in a moral sense. They’re bad for us even as humans, and that means that there’s lots you can't do—you can’t use nuclear power, you can’t use technology—because technology itself is part of the problem. [They say] that’s one of the ways in which humans are becoming more and more cut off from nature. I think that’s the fundamental philosophical difference, and I think it’s a deep one. It really goes back to what your perspective is of modern civilization itself.
Mounk: There is an idea of an original sin, and that part of the reason why it would be bad to wave a magic wand is that we’ve sinned against nature. In order to make the world right, and in order for us to be in moral balance again, we need to self-flagellate; we need to put an end to the excesses of modern civilization. I think one of the reasons why you’re a little hesitant about this is that you’re working with countries that are at the forefront of potentially suffering the consequences of climate change. They don’t have the moral luxury to say, “We worry about our soul more than we worry about our people surviving floods.” Tell us a little bit about the work that you’re doing now.
Lynas: The romantic reaction against industrialism is all very well if you live in an industrialized country. But if you’re in sub-Saharan Africa or in South Asia or in many of the countries that should consider themselves the least developed or developing, that’s not the problem. The problem isn’t that you've got a surfeit of goods and you’re basically drowning in consumer affluence. What we need to react against is the problem in the global south: that you’re poor, your GDP is still very low, and your lifespans are also very low. [...] The approach that [these countries have] taken is, rather than saying, “We’re just fundamentally victims because we’re climate-vulnerable countries,” they actually coined this new term of “climate prosperity.” [Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina] is doing a climate prosperity plan for the whole country now, and many of the other CVF (Climate Vulnerable Forum) countries are doing [the same]. They are aiming to achieve prosperity in a conventional economic sense within 10, 15 or 20 years. They want to be a middle-income country and don’t want to be an LDC (least developed country) anymore. So how can we do that in a way that also takes us on the track towards net zero [emissions]?
Mounk: I think what’s interesting about what you're talking about is that “climate prosperity” is a way to say, “No, we should be aiming for a future in which, 50 or 100 years from now, people in affluent countries can still drive nice cars, and they can still go on holiday and they can use planes and they can travel internationally and all of those wonderful things, but we need to find ways to do that that aren’t damaging to the environment.” I’m interested in this conceptual shift.
Lynas: You’ve got it spot on. It’s essentially a complete inversion of the traditional climate change narrative, which has always been about sacrifice austerity. And, to some extent, it’s about going backwards, because [there’s] this idea that things were better when we were poor in subsistence agriculture, and that’s therefore better than industrialized agriculture. Therefore, why would you want to industrialize poorer countries? It was never going to be possible to do that. So inverting that narrative and making it not about austerity, but about prosperity, has brought all of these countries on board in a way that was never possible before. They can achieve the aims of becoming middle-income countries, having a middle class, and becoming prosperous, at the same time as solving the climate problem.
Mounk: What gives us a reason for optimism that we might actually be able to achieve climate prosperity while increasing the standard of living, especially of people around the world who are in most urgent need of that? What technological developments in the last 10 or 20 years give us reason for optimism?
Lynas: There are technologies that are either available now at cheap costs, are becoming available, or you can visualize will enable us to solve all of the problems that climate change has thrown up—everything from methane emissions from livestock, to aviation, to the electricity sector. There’s a whole spectrum of different technologies because these are all different problems with very different sources. But we can now imagine ways in which all of them can be addressed and done in a way that doesn’t mean we have to fundamentally change our lifestyles in a way that most people would perceive as being a shift backwards. And I think that’s a different position from where we were a decade or two ago.
Mounk: Explain why you believe that nuclear power can solve climate change.
Lynas: Nuclear power suffers from an image problem, obviously similar to the GMO thing, but that goes back even further. The reality is that this is a technology that can deliver enough power to run whole countries carbon-free, with almost no environmental cost at all, simply because the energy density of uranium fuels and efficient processes is so high. You take a couple of square kilometers of land, and you can run an entire city. You can’t do that with solar. It takes 100 to 1,000 times more land area to generate the power that you'd need using renewables, because that’s a much more diffuse energy source. That’s not to say that renewables are bad: I think they are going to be the mainstay of the solution to climate change. But in a lot of places, a lot of times, we’ll still need nuclear to do all of the other things.
Mounk: What is the worst-case scenario of nuclear? When you see the failures of governance over the last year amidst the pandemic, when you see the extent to which governments actually often fail, when you see the variability in the quality of corporate governance as well—what can give us confidence that if we really scale up nuclear, you’re not going to get some places where it just goes very deeply wrong because of mismanagement or corruption and incompetence? Is there a way to avoid those worst-case scenarios that should put those fears at ease?
Lynas: I don’t think anyone could ever say there will never be another accident. Any technology can fail. Obviously, you do your most to mitigate that. But, we all see planes crash, and yet we continue to fly. We know that it’s a very small risk, but it’s a risk we’re prepared to take because the benefits vastly outweigh the risk. It’s the same for nuclear. If you look at the deaths-per-terawatt-hour metric—which is probably the right one to use, if you want to quantify it—nuclear is the safest of all of the energy technologies out there, even safer than solar, because people fall off roofs when they’re installing them. No one in the West has ever died from a nuclear power accident. And that remains true, even after Three Mile Island and Fukushima. What happened in the Soviet Union with Chernobyl was a special case because of the design of that reactor and of the system. The worst that happens is that a lot of people get very scared. It’s a psychological and political challenge, primarily. And people have to evacuate from certain areas for a certain time, which is pretty bad. I’m not saying that what happened in Fukushima wasn't serious. It really was serious.
Mounk: What do you think are realistic prospects for people to change their minds about nuclear?
Lynas: People won’t change their minds while they’re trapped within the tribal boundaries of the existing environmental movement, because it’s very difficult to do that. And the risks to you, as an individual, from speaking out are too high. People are trapped within this kind of self-policing intellectual community; they’re not going to change their minds. We have to rebuild the environmental movement from the ground up. And that’s what ecomodernism seeks to do. There are ecomodernist groups incipient now in numerous countries, across Europe and elsewhere, helping get MPs elected, to change the conversation in a direction that is progressive. It’s pro-technology, it’s comfortable with progress in factories, excited about solving problems and achieving a more prosperous future. It’s actually a full-scale philosophical shift that needs to take place, where we have a different kind of environment that actually holds some promise for the people of the world, rather than telling everyone, “They’re bad, and they should go back to doing things that they used to do 300 years ago.”
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