Theories of Change: Mark Lynas, GMOs, and The Island President


I watched The Island President last night and was surprised to see Mark Lynas play a role in the documentary. To be honest, he wasn’t a fully fleshed person to me before the movie. He was just someone making weak arguments about the value and need for genetically modified food and getting a lot of traction for those arguments because they came after an about-face from an equally weak position. He came across as a far more sympathetic character in the documentary, as someone genuinely concerned about global warming and who understood that how we approach global warming policy is far cry from “adequate.”

The issue, as he said in the documentary, is not just that we need to slow the growth of carbon – we actually need to “put carbon back in” to the Earth somehow to have a much lower carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm) count than we do today. One of the tensest scenes came when President Mohamad Nasheed met with his advisers, of which Lynas had become one, to announce his decision to back down from his 350 ppm demand once he saw the way negotiations in Copenhagen were going. Lynas resisted: 380 ppm was simply insufficient to help the Maldives in any meaningful way. Earlier, he was even seen resisting Nasheed’s interest in switching Maldivian energy production to natural gas – as it would harm his pledge to go carbon neutral.

I am convinced, then, of Lynas’s commitment to this issue. And I also don’t mean to specifically pick on Lynas, but as his reviewer says, he’s “wonderfully cogent” and he does spell out exactly where he stands. He’s intentionally putting himself out there as an intellectual punching bag by making statements like, “global warming is not about overconsumption, morality, ideology or capitalism.” So the problem seems to be his theory of change in so much as we see statements like that being about the future rather than past (i.e., we don’t need to change our capitalist or our consumption). Specifically, his theory of change is that hope for the future lies in modernizing our institutions and practices. In Peter Forbes’s review of The God Species, he says Lynas explains:


…why organic farming is not an option globally and why we need genetically engineered crops. The natural limit to food production is set by nitrogen which, in a form usable by plants, is rare in nature. We owe our present 6.9bn population to the 100-year-old Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation to produce fertilisers. Take that away and the current population is already twice the Earth’s carrying capacity. Our best hope for the future is to genetically engineer a nitrogen-fixing plant (the green kind) to replace nitrogen-fixing plant (the heavy industrial kind).


Lynas and others use language conflating the “carrying capacity” of our current and projected consumption for some caloric minimum necessary to sustain the population, something I’ve elsewhere called trickle-down food security. The difference lies in assumptions about whether we can expect a greater degree of equality of distribution or whether we’ll continue prioritizing cheap cheeseburgers and biofuels over malnutrition. We only need twice as much food if we plan on making (and wasting) twice as many cheeseburgers as we do now.

So what we really have is a political fence painted with the veneer of science: we need to look outside of the food system to reduce emissions for now because it’s too important and help is on the way. In so much as we look at agriculture, any techniques that reduce market production are off the table. We can mull forward in this with the expectation that genetic engineering is going to fix the nitrogen-fixing systems we broke with industrial mono-cropping. That farmers have known how to fix nitrogen in fields for basically the past ten thousand years is irrelevant.

Perhaps it’s best to let The Island President himself offer a heuristic for testing theories of change. A reporter asked Nasheed to comment on Gayoom, who was then dictator, telling the world that he needed one more term to prepare the Maldives for democracy. Nasheed laughed, and asked why we should expect the next five years to look different than the previous thirty. There’s a simple truth to this: just as Gayoom’s politics were what they were, the modern agricultural system is what it’s been. If you want to see what the future holds, look to the past.

To which I ask, what about Green Revolution and modern agricultural practices aren’t correlated with giant carbon footprints and collapsing ecosystems? The group most responsible for the Green Revolution estimates that the practices it promotes are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Outside of global warming, one can directly point a finger towards modern agriculture for a host of water issues. Not only does it consume most of our freshwater, it turns out using hydrocarbons to turn air into bags of plant food means that it runs off farms and destroys river, lake, and marine ecosystems wherever it goes.

Lynas would have you believe that there is no alternative. But what about the traditional farming practices it aims to displace aren’t associated with bio-mimicry and living within ecosystem boundaries – however “unproductive” that might be in market terms? These systems are antithetical to each other because they serve very different masters: one the market, the other the local natural environment.

Photo by Djof











We can say this without romanticizing traditional farming systems by simply acknowledging the fact that this is just what these different systems do. As a general rule of thumb, the more we transform an environment to produce for profit the more ecologically unsound that environment becomes: whether it’s mines, oceans, or farms. “Believing” in free markets and future technological wizardry, or feeling that our food distribution systems are beyond reform, doesn’t change ecosystem dynamics or carbon footprints. Systems move to the beat their own drummer regardless of what we think they should or need to be doing.

It’s worth exploring what makes the techno-fix theory of change so compelling. I think it’s that it works well in some places, even if barely at all in others. It comes down to what can and can’t be managed: one can make a factory greener by installing solar panels, identifying and fixing energy inefficiencies, and finding better ways of disposing of its waste. This is because a factory is a highly controlled environment.

But there’s very little ‘greening’ to be had at either end of the supply and demand chain. Extracting resources from Earth will always be dirty and destructive. It is similarly difficult to ‘green’ the inequitable, wasteful market-driven distribution system that puts consumer demands above environmental limits. Our current approach, that of trying to “green” consumer demand, is a complete and total failure. Focusing on the in-betweens that connect supply and demand, that do respond well to better management, gives us a feeling that we’re doing something rather than nothing. And we can see results, however much they refuse to add up to much.

In my theory of change, getting to 350 ppm would require politics far more contentious and messy than anything Nasheed and Lynas saw in Copenhagen. This is because there is no smart plan for a “green transition” while keeping everything we love cheap. I don’t share the same hope in a self-sustaining “green economy,” and think any message telling us that this will be easy is off by a mile. What needs to be negotiated isn’t some script forward, but curtailing inexorably interconnected profitable activities.

Our food and agricultural system, at the scale they exist at now, cannot co-exist with a 350 ppm planet. 350 ppm certainly won’t co-exist with that planet that doubles cash crop production. There is no cutting the fat around the edges; these systems are almost pure fat. Perhaps the best we can do is to stop promoting high-production practices and moving the rural poor into urban market-based food entitlement systems. But that’s exactly where Mark Lynas has decided to place his energies.

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