Monday, January 16, 2006

Gaia, revenge and trust

In an article in today's Independent, James Lovelock says that it is too late to stop catastrophic changes to the global climate. The average temperature will rise by 8 degrees C in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics. Billions of humans of beings will die as a result, he says.

Nevertheless, he says , it is not too late to take meaningful action (however unlikely that action may be): "I cannot see the US or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time [emphasis added], and they are the main source of emissions".

Is Lovelock suggesting that action to limit emissions could still limit temperature rises to significantly less than 5 to 8 degrees, or that without action to limit emissions now the rise will be even greater? What is the basis for his conclusion?

When I interviewed Lovelock at length in late 1999 for an article that appeared the following year in edition 21 of Green Futures, his predictions were no less dire than in today's article and in his new book (to be published in Feb 2006).

His thinking has not changed much, then. What has changed is that the science has progressed and has largely confirmed the most pessimistic scenarios of the late 90s. Also, the political situation looks to have deteriorated substantially.

My 1999 article concluded:

Much of what Lovelock has to say is decidedly grim. But there is a positive side to Gaia that he is particularly keen to emphasise. Of at least equal importance to [Gaia theory's] usefulness to science, he thinks, is the [moral] guidance it can offer.

"This has been occupying my attention probably more than anything else. People do need something to revere or worship, and religion is beginning to fade all over the world because it's failing to deliver in two fields. One: it used to be the source of information about life, the cosmos and everything - in other words it did science's job for it. And science now does that job so superbly well that religion has become almost redundant in that sphere. Two: it used to give moral guidance. And it's beginning to fail in that too...And so what do we do instead? Science offers nothing, or hasn't done so far, where moral guidance is concerned".

"But now it just happens, quite by accident and not by any conscious thought on my part or anybody else's, that Gaia does offer moral guidance. It does so because its rules are simple: any species that improves its environment favours the welfare of its progeny, whereas any species that adversely affects the environment dooms it for its progeny. And this is very moral. It gives us something to which we are accountable - the Earth itself".

Gaia, Lovelock stresses, is not and should never be the basis of a religion, because religions have faith. "The word I prefer to faith is trust. If we put trust in Gaia then it gives us something that will fulfil the same kinds of needs as religions have." And the problem is that industrial civilisation in its present form is profoundly betraying that trust.

"I'm a grandfather with eight grandchildren" [says Lovelock]. "I need to be optimistic. I see the world as a living organism of which we are part; not the owner, nor the tenant, nor even a passenger. To exploit such a world on the scale we do is as foolish as it would be to consider our brains supreme and...our other organs expendable. Would we mine our livers for nutrient for some short term benefit?"

Lovelock remains a superb thinker and communicator, whether or not he's right about nuclear power. His reflection in today's article on how Darwin would have responded to Gaia theory is convincing. And the analogy with a boat above Niagra falls (quoted in the accompanying piece by Michael McCarthy) is well chosen.

But it's not clear to me that he's right to talk about total catastrophe as inevitable. There appears to be an inconsistency between on the one hand
saying it's too late, and on the other hand refering to changes in future emissions trajectories that could be undertaken in time (however unlikely that change may seem at present).


Matt Prescott said...

very interesting! great stuff. Matt

Dave said...

This makes fairly bleak reading Caspar. There's no way James Lovelock can say for sure that we are already committed to such large increases in global temperatures, 2 degrees C is closer to the 'committed-to' mark at the moment. However, under a high emissions scenario 5-8 degrees C during this century is certainly possible. The choice between 2 and 5 is still to be made, but the time for choosing is running out fast.

Dave Reay
Editor of and Author of Climate Change Begins at Home

James Aach said...

You might find "Rad Decision" interesting. It is a novel about nuclear power written by a longtime US nuclear engineer, and it provides a entertaining inside look at the industry (both good and bad). It's been endorsed by another environmental icon who's breaking away from the pack with regards to energy - Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog. Rad Decision is available at no cost to readers at

Belette said...

My take is:

Caspar Henderson said...

Fiona Harvey gets to the nub with her review:

To argue on one page that our planet is in imminent danger of destruction and, on the next, to object to wind turbines on the grounds that they spoil the view, stretches credibility beyond breaking point. To spend considerable energy highlighting the (real) threat of a terrorist attack on cross-continental gas pipelines while dismissing in one line the terrorist threat to nuclear power plants is irresponsible.

Whole review:

Fission for the future
By Fiona Harvey
Published: January 28 2006 02:00
Financial Times


by James Lovelock

Allen Lane £16.99, 177 pages

The Gaia hypothesis sees Earth - its rocks, seas and atmosphere - and the microbes, plants and animals that inhabit it, as one whole system that regulates itself in such a way as to optimise the chances of it continuing. It made James Lovelock, the theory's originator in the late 1960s, the darling of much of the environmental movement, even though it exposed him to ridicule from fellow scientists who disliked the idea's whiff of mysticism.

Now Lovelock has updated his ideas with The Revenge of Gaia. For years, Gaia was an idea in search of an application. With global warming, that application has been found. The burning of fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, which heats the planet, eventually inundating half the world as glaciers melt, sea levels rise, and desert spreads. The Revenge of Gaia starkly sets out the prospects for the end of life within a few generations: "We are tough, and it would take more than the predicted climate catastrophe to eliminate all breeding pairs of humans; what is at risk is civilisation." Gaia does not need us, and if humanity acts in a way that harms the rest of the system, Gaia will destroy us.

This book will enrage environmentalists and attract some unlikely supporters; it will be dismissed as romanticised ravings by both the greens and the "hard" scientists, and feted by industrialists and politicians of the most anti-mystical, and anti-green, hue. Lovelock sets out a cogent, detailed, plea for the immediate and immense expansion of nuclear power. He says fission offers the best hope of averting cataclysmic climate change without undoing the industrial revolution, because it produces power without the carbon dioxide that comes from burning fossil fuels.

These are not new thoughts from Lovelock: he has published numerous articles in recent years saying much the same thing. But Lovelock, or his publisher, has timed this book for maximum impact. Within the next few months, the UK government is expected to take the controversial decision to call for a new generation of nuclear power plants. Many Labour MPs oppose such a move, arguing that the disadvantages of nuclear power - toxic waste, the possibility of terrorist attack - outweigh its pluses. The Liberal Democrats are also vehemently anti-nuclear, and though most Conservative politicians fall into the pro-nuclear lobby, the new leader David Cameron has green leanings.

Building a nuclear power plant on an existing site does not need new legislation, but the government would face outrage if it tried to encourage construction without some form of debate. Most voters are believed to be neutral on the issue, ready to be swayed either way. So the provocative timing and title of this work are clear attempts to influence the debate.

Lovelock himself is a fascinating figure, and a scientist of long and impeccable pedigree. A medical researcher by training, he went on to work with Nasa in the 1960s and invented the electron capture detector, a key instrument in chemical analysis. He is a fellow of the Royal Society, recipient of numerous prizes and doctorates, and author of more than 200 scientific papers. As this book demonstrates, at the age of 86, he is a powerful thinker and an elegant writer.

But for all his weighty credentials, The Revenge of Gaia falls short of Lovelock's clear intentions. Though persuasive in many passages, it is unlikely to change many minds, and will instead be taken up by people with firmly entrenched views on the environment.

To argue on one page that our planet is in imminent danger of destruction and, on the next, to object to wind turbines on the grounds that they spoil the view, stretches credibility beyond breaking point. To spend considerable energy highlighting the (real) threat of a terrorist attack on cross-continental gas pipelines while dismissing in one line the terrorist threat to nuclear power plants is irresponsible. "It is true that plutonium is a poisonous element and there is always a risk that it may be stolen to make nuclear weapons," says Lovelock cheerfully, failing to acknowledge the extent of that threat.

Lovelock refers several times to humanity as "tribal", and therefore given to war. But he spares no thought to the possible consequences of that tribalism if unstable nations get hold of nuclear technology.

He also airily waves away the problem that global stocks of easily mined uranium would soon be exhausted by the fleets of new nuclear plants that he envisages, and he suggests that granite be used instead. He provides no costing for this conjuring. In contrast, expense looms large in solutions that he does not favour - wind farms and solar panels. These will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but they are "expensive" and "not sensible".

In advocating nuclear fission, Lovelock emphasises that he does not see it as a long-term answer. Once we have solved the immediate problem of greenhouse gas emissions, Lovelock suggests fission power stations should be retired in favour of nuclear fusion, a truly clean form of power. The breathing space given to us by fission would also allow the development of other renewable energy sources. But this seems as naive and romantic as the notions of the environmentalists that he attacks. If we rely on nuclear power, we risk choking off all significant investment into research on renewables.

This book is intended to be an explosive contribution to the nuclear debate. And Lovelock does a lot of good in debunking some fears: for instance, he finds that the real consequences of the Chernobyl accident were much less dire than predicted. He is also excellent on our contradictory and irrational approach to the risks from certain chemicals.

Significantly, Lovelock is right that environmentalists urgently need to re-examine their opposition to nuclear power. If the problem of climate change is so potentially catastrophic, can't nuclear power provide at least part of the answer? What if new technology means the amount of nuclear waste is a fraction of current levels - does that make it more palatable? If we eschew nuclear, is it really possible to make the energy efficiency gains environmentalists claim, and can renewable energy sources generate sufficient power for our needs? What we need in the forthcoming nuclear debate is a contribution from the green side that honestly and impartially tackles these questions, by someone brave and - like Lovelock - with the stature to ensure they are listened to.

But the inconsistencies and omissions of Lovelock's polemic mean that, unfortunately, this book is not going to do it.

Fiona Harvey is the FT's environment correspondent.

Richard said...

I don't think that we are totally doomed.

I have written a poem called

Gaia Gone Wild
which expresses how I feel. Take a look at it on

I think that we can make a change for the better, we just have to do it and not only talk about it. Also we do need to start thinking about colonizing other planets, pretty soon!