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James Lovelock


Why the Earth is fighting back—and how we can still save humanity

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

In the past, prophecies of the end of the world came from the lips of religious prophets fulminating against human iniquity and calling on us to repent. Today we have secular prophets with similar doom-laden pronouncements, based not on divine edict but on science. James Lovelock is such a prophet. Unfortunately, as we know from the Old Testament, prophets are never heeded until it is too late. (If they were heeded there would be no story, of course.)

Lovelock is best known for his view of the Earth as a self-sustaining system with many of the features of a living organism—the idea which he has personified by giving it the name Gaia. It is not surprising that many scientists (labelled here, pejoratively, "reductionist scientists") have rejected the Gaia hypothesis, although Lovelock can point to an increasing number who take it seriously. In his writing he is quite unapologetic about personalizing the Earth in this way, even though he tell us that it is meant to be a metaphor.

Metaphor or not, it is difficult not to feel that Gaia has run away with Lovelock. His descriptions of her are often lyrical. They can also be irritating; after a time I began to feel that some of her views, as formulated by Lovelock, verge on the nannyish. But he needs to be taken seriously, for Gaia, he believes, is poised to eliminate us as a threat to her existence if we do not mend our ways. And perhaps even if we do; it may already be too late. Whether this will be a good or a bad thing depends, I suppose, on your viewpoint.

The problem is that Gaia has been around for a long time and is getting old. She wants to maintain herself in a cool state, which is what she prefers, but she is having to cope with a progressive increase in heat from the Sun. Lovelock regards the succession of ice ages in the Pleistocene as resulting from Gaia's coping strategy; they represent an over-shoot in the compensatory process.

Unfortunately, by burning fossil fuels and bumping up the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide we are undoing Gaia's efforts. If unchecked, the result will be a rise in temperature to levels unknown for the last 55 million years, and humanity will be reduced to "a Stone Age existence on an ailing planet, one where few of us survive among the wreckage of our once biodiverse Earth."

Possibly the only bit of good news in the book is Lovelock's speculation that failure of the Gulf Stream, which may occur as a result of glacial melting in Greenland and the Arctic, may be compensated for by the rise in global temperature, so that the climate in the British Isles and western Northern Europe may not change very much. However, there would still be a large rise in sea level and flooding of coastal cities.

Although we hear much more about environmental matters now than we did a few years ago, Lovelock finds our response to the threat to be totally inadequate. He draws a comparison between the way we react today and how we did so in the period just before the Second World War, with the Kyoto agreement having an uncanny resemblance to the Munich treaty. Our politicians pretend to take the danger seriously but are really playing for time. The difference is that the threat we face now is much greater.

If we had acted differently at the beginning of the nineteenth century we might not be in the present situation. As it is, probably the best we can do is to delay the inevitable. Foremost among the measures Lovelock proposes is the increased use of nuclear fission (and, later, fusion) to generate energy. He is dismissive of suggested alternatives such as wind, tide, or solar power and insists that the risks of the nuclear option have been greatly exaggerated. He argues this thesis at some length and with a lot of detail, though he does not mention what might seem to be a major drawback to the nuclear idea: the opportunity it gives to terrorists. But perhaps he thinks even this would be a small price to pay.

Lovelock's advocacy of nuclear energy has come as a shock to many greens, and he has other unorthodox ideas as well. For example, he does not regard biodiversity as a good in itself or as something to be preserved at all costs. A tropical rain forest, with its huge number of species, may be the Earth's response to the heat of an interglacial. When the temperature starts to rise rare seeds germinate and compete with the native species; the result is a huge but temporary increase in biodiversity. Lovelock is dismissive of the "largely useless" practices of alternative medicine and of the fashion for organic food, which may be good for us (though even that is questionable) but entails too much use of the planet's surface for agriculture. And, like Jared Diamond, he thinks the idea that our early ancestors were environmentally aware is largely a myth.

There is a chapter on proposed technological methods of reducing global warming and some of these, he thinks, seem worth exploring. In fact, Lovelock comes up with one of his own: he suggests that sulphur could be added to aviation fuel instead of being removed from it as at present; this would produce sulphuric acid droplets in the upper atmosphere, mimicking the effect of volcanic eruptions in cooling the Earth. Like the use of nuclear energy, schemes of this kind may help but they may not be enough. We need to produce a survival manual for our descendants, a book which will preserve the essentials of philosophy and science as well as practical information such as how to light a fire.

This is a book about science and Lovelock is a self-proclaimed agnostic about religion. Nevertheless there is undoubtedly a mystical streak running through what he writes. "I often think our conscious minds will never encompass more than a tiny fraction [of the universe] and that our comprehension of the Earth is no better than an eel's comprehension of the ocean in which it swims." The concept of Gaia, it seems to me, is at bottom mystical, although it is framed in scientific terms and is claimed to be testable. But mystical though it may be, Lovelock is no sentimentalist. In his concluding chapter he pictures us as being at war with Gaia and needing to negotiate a peace treaty with her while there is still time; an idea which, he admits, is not welcome to all greens.

Whether Lovelock is right in his generally pessimistic view of our prospects is still uncertain, though we shall not have to wait long to find out. In the meantime his book should be compulsory reading for politicians. And at least it is thoroughly readable; Lovelock writes well and has a gift for metaphor. I conclude with a few examples.

We are no more qualified to be the stewards or developers of the Earth than are goats to be gardeners.

[On wind power] We are like passengers on a large aircraft crossing the Atlantic who suddenly realize just how much carbon dioxide their plane is adding to the already overburdened air. It would hardly help if they asked the captain to turn off the engines and let the plane travel like a glider by wind power alone.

To expect sustainable development or a trust in business as usual to be viable policies is like expecting a lung cancer victim to be cured by stopping smoking; both measures deny the existence of the Earth's disease, the fever brought on by a plague of people.

22 February 2006

%T The Revenge of Gaia
%S Why the Earth is fighting back and how we can still save humanity
%A James Lovelock
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 978-0-713-99914-3
%P 177 pp
%K science
%O illustrated
%O foreword by Sir Crispin Tickell

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