Chal­lenge to Earth and its co­horts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Matthew War­ren

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.

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