by James Lovelock
(Basic Books, 2006; 177pp)
James Lovelock, renegade father of climate studies and creator of the influential Gaia theory, which views the entire earth as a living meta-organism, has written a gloomy new book in which he predicts a planetary wipeout by the end of this century. This short book is an unrelenting Jeremiad about the damage done by human excesses — especially the burning of fossil fuels — and about the hellfire retribution that Gaia will soon visit upon us.
The basic problem is that the Earth has a fever that could boost temperatures by 8 degrees Celsius, making large parts of the surface uninhabitable and unsuitable for farming and threatening billions of peoples’ lives. He argues that this traumatized earth might only be able to support less than a tenth of its 6.5 billion people. That translates to a 90 percent or so “die-off.” The human species is not doomed to extinction, but can you imagine what a “die-off” of this magnitude would be like? Lovelock argues that we should be stashing survival manuals in the arctic where the last few breeding pairs of humans will likely be found after the coming climate catastrophe. Is this a good time to buy real estate in the Arctic Circle?
The Revenge of Gaia persuasively explains the stress the planetary system is under and how humans are contributing to it, what the consequences will be, and what humanity must do to rescue itself. The book is in the tradition of Silent Spring or The Diversity of Life in its call to action to address a major threat to our collective future.
KEY LOVELOCK ARGUMENTS AND POINTS:
What has increased Earth’s temperatures already is built in to our ways of doing business, and efforts to curb it are useless (although morally commendable). The hard reality is that even if all the good intentions expressed at the Kyoto and Montreal meetings are implemented immediately, they will NOT alter the oncoming climate crisis.
There is no specific, mechanistic scenario or computer model for the downfall of civilization, but rather a gut feeling of approaching catastrophe. No one has proposed a quantitative scenario for a climate-driven, all out, blow-the-doors-off-civilization-ending demise
The argument for approaching doom is that “almost all of the systems that have been looked at are in positive feedback … and soon those effects will be larger than any of the effects of carbon dioxide emissions from industry and so on around the world.” Mankind is taking over the reins of global geochemical balance, and the biosphere will soon be beset by all manner of unanticipated complications.
Nuclear energy is the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels that has the capacity to both fulfill the large scale energy needs while also reducing greenhouse emissions. He trashes solar and wind power, tidal energy, hydro-electricity, hydrogen, and fusion, along with coal, oil, and natural gas as viable in the SHORT TERM, the next 10 years before the tipping point is reached. (The reviewer finds his argument against wind power to be remarkably unpersuasive and believes that a carbon tax would be a very good starting point.) “We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realize how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilization for as long as they can.”
With global warming, reliable supplies of water will be disrupted, life in the oceans will be compromised, food production will decline, and there will be mass migrations to areas of the planet which remain habitable.
Humans have been miserable ecological sinners and seem to be rushing pell-mell to disaster. We are a “plague of people,” he says, an infestation that has wrecked Earth. Very soon, we will be paying the full price. And if Gaia means the interdependence of all organisms on earth, then its breakdown implicates all organisms, though it is our fault, exclusively.
In his concluding chapter, he pictures us at being with war with Gaia and needing to negotiate a peace treaty with her while there is still time.
ARE WE AS A SPECIES IN DANGER OF EXTINCTION?
Lovelock believes that humans are tough and will survive in vastly reduced numbers. We have survived for at least a million years through at least seven dramatic climate changes. Civilizations, however, are fragile. Thirty-four or so have come and gone in the past 5,000 years, and no reason exists to assume that ours is permanent. There seems to be no specific tendency of biospheres to preserve their current inhabitants or to make them comfortable.
Are we destined to journey to the newly balmy Arctic with the remnants (maybe 400 million) of humanity? Will these new centers of civilization be a place where the rich could sail about in solar-powered yachts and the poor amuse themselves with spiritual travel?
LOVELOCK’S CRITICS SAY:
His forecast is gloomier than those of scientists more engaged in peer-reviewed climatology work. His analyses show results beyond the very upper end of the ranges predicted by current climate models. He fails to identify any clear causal mechanism for his sudden global heating hypothesis.
His feedback mechanisms are faulty, incomplete, and unscientific. He has not created a specific quantitative scenario or computer model for a climate-driven civilization-ending catastrophe.
A clear majority of the world’s experts feel that there is now overwhelming evidence that our global society is headed for a catastrophe. Leading scientists, like Dr. James Lovelock, are telling us that the impact of our global economy (based on short-term gain) is upsetting the balance of our highly complex and fragile web of life.
We evolved as hunter-gatherers, with minds adapted to focus optimally on our immediate surroundings, the present moment, and the peoples to whom we are most closely genetically related. Now we are confronted by a problem that is global in scope, was centuries in the making, and is threatening every species on the planet. Can our hunter-gatherer minds rise to meet the social, political, economic and technical challenges posed by modern global industrial society?
I suspect that the Earth will become an ecological disaster because self-interest, greed, fear, religion, and politics will crush any chance of a reasoned scientific solution. It is clear that our political and commercial institutions are unable to effectively address the crisis because they are largely looking through a fragmented lens or an outmoded worldview that gives acceptance to overfishing our oceans, polluting our atmosphere, etc. Lovelock is correct to berate our hubris in believing we have the knowledge to “manage” the planet. Time is not on our side, and we must remember that “nature bats last.”
The Revenge of Gaia is a critical call to action and it is at our peril if we ignore it. An all-out global effort is needed today to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
I conclude with some observations from E.O. Wilson, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author. He calls for a spiritualization of the environmental movement, saying we need to invest some of the passion now reserved for traditional religion into caring for our environment. He also characterizes human beings as “unfortunate tribal carnivores that have acquired intelligence.”
Frank L. Kahl