James Lovelock is a hard-nosed scientist. No hippy dippy stuff here. Well, OK, not much. Gaia has ended up being a less than useful label for the earth system purely because its apparent hippydippyness makes many (including myself for some years) skirt around it.
Despite his reputation as a ‘radical’ Lovelock is far from it, he is part of and has mostly operated within the scientific establishment, is an FRS and is one of the few Greens to operate within it. 22 years a biochemist (where he was the first to detect atmospheric CFC levels) before going independent, helping NASA build instruments to detect life on other planets, and coming up with the Gaia hypothesis after seeing the first images of earth from space.
Gaia Theory is conceptually elegant and simple. Simple like evolution by natural selection, gravity or e=mc2 – and how may of us truly understand these concepts? In other words, its a simple concept, but with hugely complex reasoning behind it.
In Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock is very convincing about the imminent critical environmental tipping points we are fast approaching or may actually have crossed. Work on the Gaia hypothesis has led to understanding (not not always accepted) how important factors such as sea algae and trapped fossil methane are to the regulation of global temperature, and thus how planetary heating can induce devastating positive feedback that would move the ‘earth system’ of planetary homeostatis to a warmer state, one devastating to humans among other species. In the next 40-50 years, apart from devastating flooding Europe will rapidly lose its mild, fertile climate and quite simply, crops won’t grow well enough to support current populartion levels. These ideas and propositions are still somethat radical within science, and very Inconvenient to just about everyone else.
Along with other Greens he calls for radical policy and lifestyle change to cut emissions, cut energy waste and stop reliance on fossil fuels – returning to more sustainable relationships with the natural world. He’s convinced sustainable ‘development’ is no longer possible and a sustainable retreat is our only option for the survival of our current civilisation.
One advantage of his being within the establishment so to speak (though having a brain the size of a planet also helps here!) is that he sees that even big ‘environmental’ science done for the ‘right’ reasons can be knee-jerk reaction not always for the good. Examples he gives include DDT (which used properly and with discretion is very effective against malaria but has been blanket-banned), On (the banning of chemical) nitrates, he also points out (to me at least) the quiet revolution in UK agriculture that led to the massive over-farming of cattle in the 80/90s – leading to the pollution of many rural rivers and ending in the F&M and BSE epidemics.
Where he parts company with many Greens is in his proposed solutions to the impending crisis.
He does not think, as capitalists would like, that technology can pull us out of this hole alone. nevertheless he believes that overall it can be a positive force. He advocates nuclear as the only medium term provider of power in the coming decades, to avoid continuing to destroy the earth system.
Did you feel an instant almost emotional reaction to the n word? Many of us now do.
Nuclear power, he says, has been clearly stigmatised by association with its military use, and we need to move beyond that. In fact he thinks moving beyond that is crucial to the survival of our civilisation. Greens of our generation are the sons and daughters of the CND generation: we can’t help our earliest influences.
He dismisses Three Mile Island and Chernobyl as seriously damaging human health on any scale, especially compared to deaths caused by other forms of energy production and presents data to support this.
Another example: In 1962, during the height of US/USSR/UK etc nuclear weapons testing, as much radiation was put into the atmosphere as from two Chernobyl disasters a week for a year.
Let me restate that. In 1962, 104 times the radiation from the Chernobyl accident was released into the atmospshere in one year.
No one has found any correlation between that fact and global health issues, raises in cancer incidence or any other index of human health. Indeed, it improved during those years.
He’s very clear on this and to me its where his whole nuclear thesis rests – given the media/popular view of such disasters. He does not mention however, that nuclear ‘waste’ can be reprocessed for weapons. This is also Inconventient.
He does not think nuclear fission is the long term solution to powering civilisation – indeed he’s clear that renewables are very young and will mature, and that fusion is also a long term option. However, during the critical next few decades in which the pressure to develop could truly bring on a revenge* of Gaia he feels its the source of energy with the least impact on the environment (Gaia).
* Up to 40 meters higher sea level over the next 50-100 years, with the massive population displacement and global crises these will engender if not planned for, a cold Europe if the Gulf stream halts, followed later by (for us) overheating and more extremes as global temperatures rise. Most of the worlds largest cities are close to sea level and many are close to the sea. ‘Gaia’s revenge’ is the wiping out of unsupportable populations.
So. I have work to do. The Revenge of Gaia was very convincing on several fronts and I’m with him most of the way. But on the impact of nuclear, I am not going to sign up to his (and Patrick Moore and David Bellamy’s) agenda until I’ve collated some primary evidence. I’m going to find the time to gather the reports and papers done on the effects of nuclear accidents and the issues surrounding nuclear waste. Just how dangerous is it on a global scale?
Why the hell do that you may ask?
I’m on the brink of a major change in my worldview here – one that possibly all of us, from greens to blues, doves to hawks should be making and as a (n ex-) scientist I can’t do that without reading the evidence first hand if and where I can.
Of course there are plenty of things in the book to disagree with beyond this: Lovelock complains about the impractical ‘romanticism’ of Greens, and yet elsewhere expresses a romantic view of the ‘pre-agribusiness countryside’ being further spoiled – in his view – by wind farms. Of more concern is his contention that ‘organic smallholders’ are also part of this Green utopian vision and are not a sustainable concept – I presume because they don’t produce enough of a profitable surplus. Organic farming, to me, is entirely compatible with ‘intensive’ if by that we mean making agriculture and husbandry as efficient as possible within natural constraints. Improvements in husbanding and working with nature brought on by a deeper understanding of how farms can work within habitats means that such farms are far more productive than the ‘pre-industrial’ smallholder (try not to read ‘peasant’ into this, I might suggest).
He’s negative enough to envision a post apocalyptic world and suggest a monastic approach to the survival of knowledge – all a bit of a post-nuclear Canticle For Leibowitz.
Overall, I am reasonably convinced that Gaia exists. That is, for over 3 billion of its 4 billion or so years, life has changed the environment around it to the point at both now ‘act’ on global scale, to self regulate – keeping conditions dynamically unstable but just right for life. Sold. Also sold (unlike Bellamy) is the fragility of this system and the immanent danger we are in. Small question of how to escape disaster is here, now for those who would listen. Putting the cardboard in a different waste bag is no longer enough.
We are not as important as our planet and we’ve been acting like a rampant virus. Unlike a virus we can understand that our host now has an unsustainable temperature. What’s to do?