Far more sensible than many people think

05 Jun

I have been reading James Lovelock: that web site has been reviewed and approved by James Lovelock himself. A controversial figure. In particular, I have been reading The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin edition 2007, with an introduction by Sir Crispin Tickell.) Whoever designed or approved the cover of the Penguin edition, by the way, should be shot; it is everything the book is not — crude and sensationalist.

Lovelock is renowned for his development, with biologist Lynn Margulis, in the early 1970s of the idea of Gaia, ‘the dynamical physiological system that has kept our planet fit for life for more than three billion years’. According to the theory, all breathing things, from algae to elephants, are locked in self-regulating cycles of reproduction and behaviour which optimise conditions for life’s sustenance. Or as Lovelock puts it: ‘Life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favourable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms.’

The concept of Gaia was initially greeted with scepticism by researchers who thought it suggested Earth was a living entity. Indeed, many greenies still think (wrongly) of Gaia this way. In fact, a better analogy is that of a giant self-regulator valve, like those used by engineers to control machine outputs. Used this way, the idea went on to help scientists sharpen their predictive powers, particularly over climate change. Today Gaia is mainstream.

Unfortunately, just as we have come to accept the notion, it has become plain that we are battering Gaia so badly she simply cannot take any more. Soon, she will switch to red-hot mode, as has happened before, and, by the time she has recovered, the works of man will have been turned to dust.

Such a future is not inevitable. Lovelock is at pains to suggest escape routes, most controversially by calling for the rapid expansion of nuclear energy programmes, the one large-scale, carbon-free type of power generation we possess. In general, however, he is gloomy to the point of near suicide. But given the rate at which we are rushing pell-mell to disaster, I cannot blame Lovelock. Kyoto, as he says, was a mere act of appeasement to polluters. We are a ‘plague of people’, he says, an infestation that has wrecked Earth. Very soon, we will pay the reckoning.

He is a very clear writer, a joy to read, and all the more remarkable as this is the work of an 86-year-old. I do commend reading him rather than reading about him. Just as when I was a child the theory of tectonic plates was seen by most as sheer romantic dreaming based on fanciful similarities between the shapes of Africa and South America and a jigsaw puzzle, so Gaia Theory seemed when first proposed, but now it seems a very elegant theory indeed, capable of explaining far more about the way the world works than many of its rivals.

In The Times even a critical review by Richard Mabey concedes that much.

His luminous insights into life’s interconnectedness are the most effective part of his argument. Pondering how something like Gaia could have “evolved” according Darwinian laws (he’s fond of metaphors), he asks “What has peeing to do with the selfish gene?” Getting rid of toxic urea is an extravagant use of water and energy, when it might much more easily be metabolised into gaseous nitrogen. But that would make nitrogen less available to many species of plant. Perhaps they co-evolved with urinating mammals, which benefited from their increased growth. Orthodox Darwinism didn’t often consider that evolving organisms are part of each other’s environments. Those that diminish the habitability of their shared environment reduce their chances of survival. Gaia can be seen as the sum of all these mutually dependent networks.

Lovelock is dubious about much that has become Green folklore, including the pursuit of biofuels. He has also been a firm advocate of nuclear energy as the best option for the future.

I think we need to take him very seriously indeed.

On biofuels eminent Australian scientist Gus Nossal is at one with Lovelock:

The federal Government cut $15.8million in last month’s budget from programs supporting ethanol production and distribution. The use of biofuels, madefrom organic matter including feedstock, has taken off in places such as North America, substituting for fossil fuels but contributing to a worldwide surge in food prices.

Sir Gus labelled biofuels “one of the craziest” concepts because it used up scarce resources: farming land and fuel.

“Whoever thought of this stupid idea of biofuels?” the former Australian of the Year asked.

Biofuels made from waste products were defensible, he said.


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Posted by on June 5, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, British, challenge, climate change, environment, Top read


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