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The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity Paperback – 22 Feb 2007
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"Lovelock will go down in history as the scientist who changed our view of the Earth.... YThe Revenge of Gaia is the most important book ever to be published on the environmental crisis." -- John Gray
About the Author
James Lovelock is the author of more than 200 scientific papers and the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis (now Gaia Theory). He has written three books on the subject: Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, The Ages of Gaia and Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine, as well as an autobiography, Homage to Gaia. In 2003 he was made a Companion of Honour by Her Majesty the Queen, and in September 2005 Prospect magazine named him as one of the world's top 100 global public intellectuals. In April 2006 he was awarded the Edinburgh Medal at the Edinburgh International Science Festival.
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Having studied chemistry at Manchester U and received his PhD in medicine at London U, Lovelock was engaged in the 1960s by NASA to find ways to detect life on Mars. He realized that life would influence the atmosphere and designed an instrument to detect trace gases. Thinking about the reason why Mars is so barren and Earth so fruitful, he arrived at his Hypothesis.
In brief the Hypothesis stated that the Earth is not just a rock that happens to have things living on it: it is a complex interacting system of soil, sea, atmosphere and living things that shows a tendency to keep itself stable in a way that supports life. In particular this complex web has acted to hold temperature within a narrow range over hundreds of millions of years even as the sun warms and the planet wobbles in its orbit.
Lovelock calls this system Gaia after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth and persists in referring to Gaia as a person who acts with intent. Some find this annoying and unscientific. This reader accepts it as poetry and metaphor.
In summary, in his latest book, Lovelock revisits his Hypothesis and argues that:
1. Not only is climate change an impending disaster but an irreversible tipping point may already have been reached
2. The single most important step to take now is a major switch to nuclear power
3. Too many people simply do not understand the issues correctly: the well-meaning Greens are also at fault
4. Gaia's revenge will be to restore the equilibrium of the planet by removing most of the human population
On page 1 he states bluntly: `we are now so abusing the Earth that it may..move back to the hot state it was in 55 m years ago and most of us and our descendants will die.'
He starts with a by-now familiar history of the issue of climate change and goes on to say: ` we are now approaching one of those tipping points and (are) like passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.'
He reminds us how huge are the effects of what seem like minor temperature shifts: only 3 degrees separates us from the last ice age; the same scale of increase now seems likely this century: very rapid change indeed in geological time.
The tipping point factors of climate change are by now well-known:
1. The poles melt and less sun is reflected: this seems to be happening now
2. The bogs thaw and methane is released (a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2)
3. The seas warm and the algae stop fixing carbon and making clouds
4. The forests bake and catch fire
5. Methane clathrates are released from the deep sea bed
What makes Lovelock distinctive is his Gaian perspective. He argues that:
1. A `cold' planet' is healthier than a `hot' one. If the Earth was 5 C cooler than now (as it has often been) , there would be glaciers down to the English Channel. But the Atlantic would be teeming and Africa would be a green garden.
2. We are mistaken to think that the Earth is in a Goldilocks orbit. It started out too cold for life. The sun is slowly warming and now the Earth is becoming too hot. So Gaia keeps tilting to coldness. There have been 11 recent ice-ages in the British Isles. We are in the `fever' of a warm interglacial and would normally be heading to the `cure' of the ice-age.
3. But man has disrupted the balance, not just by burning fossil fuel but also by replacing forest with farm. Gaia will do what it must to restore the balance.
4. The underlying problem is that the sustainable human population is probably under 1 billion. Today it is 6 billion, forecast to be 11 billion by 2050.
His argument for nuclear power is simple: all the other solutions produce lots of CO2 or don't work well and/or take too long (new approaches such as carbon sequestration take 20-40 years to mature):
1. Nuclear power is tried, tested and economical and produces very little CO2
2. Wind power is unreliable and costly. It would take 56000 large wind-mills plus fossil fuel back-up just to replace current nuclear capacity (20% of our total needs)
3. Solar is poor for the UK: unreliable and 3x more expensive than conventional methods
4. Wave power apart from a Severn barrage is expensive .....
And so on.
He believes that popular misconceptions of cancer risk militate against nuclear. (It's arguably worse than that: the UK government has ducked the issue for over a decade. Only in the last few months, stampeded by the risk that (a) the lights will go off around 2012 and/or (b) we will depend on a hostile Russia for gas, has the UK government moved). Lovelock bemoans the fact that our political classes do not have any feel for nature or the planet. (They also know little of science or business and there is often a grim determination among temporary ministers to avoid difficult decisions.)
He feels that the Green movement has lost its way: for example by wanting `sustainable development' when much more radical action is needed and for promoting low-productivity organic farming when this means eating up yet more of the countryside. This is putting a lifestyle choice ahead of the planet. He detests the Green wish to cover the land with tens of thousands of windmills.
He offers several examples of similarly faulty decisions: including the massive error of banning DDT. Because the vocal western middle-classes did not want pesticide in its food, Africans died. Yet the use of DDT to kill human disease vectors posed little food risk: it was abuse of DDT by farmers.
Lovelock explores some blue-sky technical fixes to global warming: planetary sun-shades, for example, but without real enthusiasm. Perhaps because it would distract from his here and now message: go nuclear.
So are his arguments complete and wholly compelling? No. The central question of power sources deserves a large book in its own right. Do you have to accept Gaia to believe that climate change is likely to destroy us? No. Do you have to accept Lovelocks' wistful argument for a countryside free of windmills? No.
But although bits of the book can be faulted, the whole seems to me to succeed. It is a well-written, lively, provocative book on a critical subject and a key idea of our times written by one our most gifted and original thinkers.
It's nice to know that when climate Armageddon arrives: the poles and the permafrost melt, the bogs and tropics catch fire and much of Southern Europe, Asia, Africa and the USA and Australia starve and fry, the Atlantic Conveyor will also switch off resulting in a local temperature drop. The result could well be that the UK climate remains equable. On the other hand the UK will be a shrunken archipelago, with our major cities submerged, tens of millions of people looking for a home and many millions of refugees landing on our beaches.
This is a very good book and well worth reading. Lovelock exposes the full scale of the climate change situation we are facing and tries to bring the many disparate voices of the green movement into one clear direction that at least has a chance of preventing irreversible climate change.
Lovelock doesn't tries to bring in all the different ways in which we damage the planet and unlike many in the green movement doesn't take it as read that traditionally "green" ways of living are necessarility good for the planet. Specifically the misleading scientific results that present traditional "non-green" activities is a poor light.
One of the most interesting points for me was that the human obsession with reducing certain risks (from radiation, chemicals in food etc) to the bare minimum could well be the things that avoid us from saving the climate in which we live.
As Lovelock pointed out on the radio, if not in this book, the opportunities to avert irreversible climate change are rapidly running out and the risks from a nuclear power station are as nothing to the risks from permanent climate change.
Other reviwers have suggested that Lovelock might be looking at this from a UK perspective. I disagree. He's clearly looking from a world view and references he makes to the Devon countryside where he lives are not central to his argument. The people to suffer most from global warming will be some of the poorest in the world. His suggestion about nuclear power is only fair. We use the energy so we should bear the negative consequences of it's generation. He makes an eloquant case for why nuclear power is not the demon it made out to be. Incidently the BBC recently interviewed many locals around a Nuclear Power station and the locals were very supportive of it.
His case against renewables is equally compelling. Most of them just will not produce anything like the power that is required for modern living - even less so after the energy costs of building them is taken into account. Even bio fuels, he argues, would take around 5 times as much land area as the land currently used for crops. Ands he argues that the land used for crops is even too much - hence the need to be more efficient in our farming methods.
His case against organic farming is well argued in the light of the number of people that the planet can support. It's difficult to hear that organic farming methods might not be sustainable in the long term as they feel right. But if everyone lives off organic food and slowly killing the planet is it still a good thing?
Lovelock's critique of windmills is not based on them being German (as one reviwer suggested) but on the Danish experience of windmill technology, on the lack of reliability of wind now and on the quite possible scenario that our weather patterns change significantly with global warming thus making the windmills even less use than they are now.
For me the definition of a good book is to fundmentally change the way we look at the world and to open our eyes to a different approach which might hold more merit.
It opened my eyes to the way that climate change will effect every aspect of our way of life; the economy, the landscape, quality of life and even our democratic systems of government. I'm left wondering why the subjects raised in this book are not the main issue being discussed in the media.
This book lays out how we have pushed the Earth so far and that it may well be too late to save our civilisation, not just in the West but world wide. It summarises the present understanding of Global Warming, previous climate change and where the world is heading now. The Author also delves into the potential solutions and gives some bad news to the proponents of renewable energy. It looks like they just won't be up to the job.
Anyway I highly recomend this book but be aware that it is light in detail.
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