Challenge to Earth and its cohorts
POPULAR environmental literature takes many forms. There are the pseudospiritual teachings of writers such as David Suzuki, the ripping yarns of Tim Flannery or the horror stories of Paul Ehrlich. Icon status is achieved through the right mix of moral indignation, flair and a sharply defined agenda.
Which makes James Lovelock all the more interesting. His career as a scientist and environmentalist has been defined by his Gaia theory, first conceived in the 1970s while analysing the Martian atmosphere for NASA. Lovelock’s theory is that the Earth is more than just a planet that sustains carbon- based life forms by accident. Rather, it is a deliberately and finely balanced system of animate and inanimate parts that operate together as a single organism to sustain optimal conditions for life.
His newest and most menacing explanation of this theory is presented in The Revenge of Gaia , which follows on from works including The Ages of Gaia , Healing Gaia and Homage to Gaia . In The Revenge of Gaia , Lovelock looks closely at how the planet regulates and manages temperatures and, in the context of climate change, what mankind needs to do to redress the growing imbalance in the atmosphere.
According to his theory, ‘‘ living organisms regulate the climate and the chemistry of the atmosphere in their own interest’’. This countermands Darwinian theory that organisms are the product of natural selection, not the biosphere.
Lovelock argues that the planet’s temperature is naturally stabilised by the interaction of living organisms and the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere encourage greater plant growth, which extracts the greenhouse gases in the process. Very low levels of carbon dioxide measured during ice ages reflect very high levels of life trapping much of the carbon not in trees, but in abundant algae in the cold oceans.
Gaia, he argues, can manage colder conditions much better than warmer ones. It has been working harder to manage temperature as the sun has become gradually hotter through millions of years. His pessimism about climate change is based on what he sees as a stressed system no longer able to stabilise temperatures because of human activity and the diminution of key feedback loops. These include the warmer oceans driving lower levels of microscopic organisms, helping create clouds, which in turn help cool the planet. This is on top of the loss of forests that naturally help sequester greenhouse gases and the release of trapped carbon from fossil fuels back into the atmosphere.
The irony of this is that there is no revenge of Gaia but rather its surrender. Gaia is unable to respond adequately to the pressures placed on it by human activity. The modifying effects collapse, with temperature increases of 5C to 8C by the end of the century and mass extinctions and loss of human life an inevitable result.
Lovelock then launches into his view of the solutions, which contain as many, if not more, surprises than his original thesis. He leaves his contentious but fascinating scientific theories for a more subjective and less rigorous discourse on policy options. He backs nuclear power but rejects wind energy, later revealing his strong opposition to a wind farm being built near his rural home in Devon, England.
He is critical of the urban environmental movement for focusing on the human rather than planetary scale, defending the use of DDT and other chemicals while attacking the real culprit: the common agricultural policy in Europe driving overfarming. He wants legislation reducing the emissions of sulphate pollutants stopped because he thinks it may be critical in helping to cool the planet until the basic systems are under control.
If nothing else, the unexpected is a sign of original thinking, a passionate and openly personal perspective of a mind that has been thinking hard about such things for the best part of three decades.
Lovelock is often self- contradictory. He decries the social changes that resulted in the middle classes, such as him, taking over the quaint village in which he once lived. Like so many environmental commentators, he speaks lovingly of natural systems but is dismissive of human activity and its motivations, wishing to return to the ‘‘ achingly beautiful world of 1800’’. For nature maybe, but not for most peasants.
At times he dismisses the motivation of mankind and the enormous benefits of developing technologies and using energy to deliver these. Instead he hopes that we ‘‘ renew that love and empathy for nature that we lost when we began our love affair with city life’’.
Lovelock doesn’t seek to conform to any existing school of thinking or set of readers, except those willing to open their thinking with provocative and challenging ideas.
It’s a fascinating set of theories and opinions that will infuriate and challenge in equal measure. This makes it a valuable and thoughtprovoking contribution to the debate and sets it ahead of other more indulgent contributions on the same subject. James Lovelock will speak at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas this weekend. Matthew Warren is The Australian’s environment writer.