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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars

on 3 March 2017
It's exactly 50 years since Jim Lovelock first put forward the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that planet Earth looks after itself, or as one commentator put it ~ “life and the environment are mutually dependent: life regulates the atmosphere, and the atmosphere provides the conditions necessary for life.” The hypothesis has long become accepted as a formal theory for scientific debate, but Lovelock's recent books have taken a bleaker view of the way we are interfering with the earth's natural process of self-regeneration: titles like “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” and “The Revenge of Gaia” give you the idea.

This book, though, has a more mellow approach ~ “Let's keep our cool as the Earth gently warms, and even enjoy it when we can.” It seems to me that Lovelock is saying that there is a triangle of forces at work here ~ (1) Gaia's ability to adapt and survive ~ (2) the exponential growth of electronics and cybernetics ~ and (3) the irreversible increase of human population. Like the forces affecting any navigator, any one of the three determines the influence of the other two. That's why it will be a rough ride to the future.
Let's start with Gaia, the superficially reassuring theory that “if humans became extinct the Earth would probably recover quickly its prior state. Gaia is resilient and the system would continue self-regulating its climate and chemistry much as before.” I say “superficially” because there's a fly in the ointment: Gaia self-regulates in its own interests, and maintaining a habitable planet doesn't offer any concessions to humankind. We're not the only ones relying on Earth's atmosphere.

I find the arguments here attractive and compelling. Others differ, and one problem for the layman is knowing who to believe among the conflicting opinions on climate change. To quote just one example from the book, take Lovelock's assertion that if the Earth is 20c hotter than Venus, despite being 26 million miles further from the Sun, it's because “Gaia has pumped down the CO2 ...” That's a typical example of the mind-catching phrases that bring home the central message; another is the comment that we suffer “planetary diabetes” from our “inability to stop guzzling from the industrial cornucopia.” (President Obama found that out the hard way.)
The second side of the triangle (actually, the first in the book, which takes the Gaia angle as read) is what Lovelock calls “accelerated evolution”. From the examples he gives, “accelerated” is far too mild a word ~ for a start, it's only 300 years since Newcomen's steam engine launched the Industrial Revolution and, if computer speed and capacity doubles every two years, that's enough “to increase the speed and memory of computers 40 billion times since the cryptographic computers of Bletchley Park in the 1940s.” We're already at the point, Lovelock says, where his own pacemaker “has a transmitter and receiver so that a cardiology technician can assess its performance and make adjustments … without further surgery.” How long before merging human life and electronics becomes as commonplace as hip and knee replacements ? And what might that mean for the third angle of the triangle ~ population growth ?
Very early in the book, Lovelock makes two fundamental points ~ there's no feasible way to restore Earth's climate or its population to what it once was; and there is a general failure to take global warming as seriously as a major war. Here, though, is the opportunity for accelerated evolution to help us adapt, both to climate change and to population growth; provided that we have the imagination to seize the opportunity. But do we have the imagination ? "Huge sums that should have gone on sensible adaptation have been squandered on the renewable energy sources, regardless of their inefficiency or environmental objections …" In a side-swipe that's relevant to the Lyme Bay wind farm, Lovelock claims that “to generate 1 gigawatt of energy a year from wind turbines requires 1000 square miles of countryside, an area equal to that of Greater London or Dartmoor. We use in England about 60 gigawatts a year.”

What then ? Do we go for renewables, rely on nuclear, or leave self-regulation to Gaia, retreat to the best cities we can design to save as many of us as we can ? And should we look for the survival of the greatest number of people, or the survival of as many as we can support in acceptable conditions ? These are the questions which this challenging book demands that we must at least try to answer: . We're not clever enough to stop the Earth from over-heating, so we have to evolve to adapt to a changing situation. The book ends with one teasing scenario. Singapore survives, Lovelock says, in “an external climate twice as hot as the worst model prediction of global warming this century” ~ could we all adapt to living in high-rise, air-conditioned communities ? If we can't, what's the alternative ? And where does it leave a place like the little Dorset village where I live ?

I described this as a “mellow” book, and Lovelock describes himself as an optimist; yet even he qualifies his optimism. The book ends with a double-edged remark ~"The future world may be a better place, but getting from here to there will not be easy, and we will not all make the journey." My job is to review this book, not to market it, but I urge my readers to buy, borrow or beg a copy. (Review originally published in the Chesil Magazine, Dorset)
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on 14 August 2017
answers many questions and raises others
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 April 2014
James Lovelock is unique, both as a scientist and as a writer. He may be most famous for his Gaia hypothesis that the Earth acts as if it were a self-regulating living entity, but has done so much more in a 94 year life to date.

Rough Ride (not to be confused with Jon Turney’s Rough Guide to the Future) is an important book, but it is also flawed, and I wanted to get those flaws out of the way, as I’ve awarded it four stars for the significance of its content, rather than its well-written nature. It is, frankly, distinctly irritating to read – meandering, highly repetitive and rather too full of admiration for Lovelock’s achievements. But I am not giving the book a top rating as a ‘well done for being so old’ award – far from it. Instead it’s because Lovelock has some very powerful things to say about climate change. I’ve been labelled a green heretic in the past, and there is no doubt that Lovelock deserves this accolade far more, as he tears into the naivety of much green thinking and green politics.

He begins, though, by taking on the scientific establishment, pointing out the limitations of modern, peer reviewed, team-oriented science in the way that it blocks the individual and creative scientific thinker – the kind of person who has come up with most of our good scientific ideas and inventions over the centuries. He does this primarily to establish that he is worth listening to, rather than being some lone voice spouting nonsense. I’m not sure he needs to do this – I think there are few who wouldn’t respect Lovelock and give him an ear, but it’s a good point and significant that he feels it necessary.

The main thrust of the book is to suggest that our politicians (almost universally ignorant of science) are taking the wrong approach to climate change. He derides the effort to develop renewable energy, despises the way the Blair government chickened out of nuclear power (and is very heavy on the Germans and Italians for their panic reaction after the Japanese tsunami) and makes it clear that from his viewpoint, our whole approach to climate change is idiotic.

With the starting point that the whole system is far too complex to allow any decent modelling, or to be sure what any attempts at geoengineering could achieve, Lovelock suggests that the answer is to let Gaia get on with sorting itself out, and instead of worrying about trying to manage carbon emissions in our current situation, we should instead put our efforts into adapting the way we live to cope with changes in the climate. He points out, the kind of climate we had before the industrial revolution (or accelerated evolution, as he believes it to be) was not the typical climate of the Earth either, which would be more like its state in the grips of an Ice Age.

Rather that trying to somehow get it back to an imaginary utopian state, he argues we should be looking at new ways to live that will enable us to manage despite what the climate throws at us. He points out, for instance, that in our fears of the impact of 2 to 6 degrees of warming we miss that Singapore manages perfectly well in an environment that is 12.5 degrees above the global average. Of course, you might argue that we couldn’t sustain that way of life for 7 billion people – and Lovelock is sanguine about this. He doesn’t expect humans to carry on at that kind of population level, as part of the adaptation.

What’s fascinating is that while reading the book I also read an article by that most demonised of environmental figures, Bjorn Lomborg, and it was remarkable how much similarity there was in their views of the approach we should take, though coming at the problem from very different directions and with very different predicted outcomes.

A final thrust of the book is perhaps less convincing. Lovelock, looking 100 million years or more into the future, suggests that the best way our descendants can survive to keep Gaia going is in electronic form, as it would be possible to live on for many more millions of years despite the Earth warming, due to the Sun’s gradual increase of output, to a stage where it is uninhabitable by biological life. At the same time he dismisses terraforming Mars (and doesn’t even consider starships) as a mechanism for keeping a future humanity alive. This seems a bit of an stance and dilutes, rather than helps the central message of what we should do about climate change and human existence on Earth.

As I mentioned earlier on, you may well find the book a frustrating read because of all the repetition, but this is a book that will really get you thinking about our approach to climate change, and whether we’ve got it all terribly wrong. Read it.
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on 15 June 2014
I can remember being captivated by Gaia when Lovelock published his original ideas. I found it fitted closely with my own academic experiences as a Geography undergrad. In later years I tried to introduce a lot of the ideas into my teaching...difficult in crappy UK geography teaching curricula at GCSE and A level. Lovelock explains why...we don't get enough good training in basic scientific method and that inevitably leaves us with difficulties when communicating the basics. This latest or (last) pop at the whole thing is excellent. Lovelock never forgets his scientific roots so all claims he makes are backed up by his training, background or experience, which makes this a very rich reading experience. These days I teach ecology based subjects and I found Lovelock's ideas and observations are absolutely perfect for bringing into wider discussions about the problems the world faces. As I said, a rich read and much of it merits re-reading, reflection and note taking so it's a beautiful compendium of earth science. As always, he has his opinions which are strong, well-argued and backed up with experience and further reading lists so this book is a good start for anyone wishing to learn. I was very entertained by his opinions of politicians and government officials. ..which is basically poorly educated and muddled...which is exactly how I have found them (and I get to see more than most). The detail here suggests optimism for the planet although a less clear outcome for human occupation. He is probably right... as I write this I see my neighbour out on his massive billiard table lawn with a machine for cutting grass, a machine for burning weeds, a machine for poisoning weeds, a load of traps to collect magpies to kill for his gun dogs, and a shed festooned with the skulls of animals he has been proud to kill. Once you have read this go and read Stephen Emmott's 'Ten Billion' and maybe you will conclude that we don't really deserve to live here in the first place!!
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on 20 October 2014
Understanding our place in the universe, in space and time, can be an invaluable guide to how to manage our lives. James Lovelock has contributed significantly to this understanding through his exceptionally long life as a scientist and author of important books accessible for a broad readership. The present book conveys some of this insight, although the recent book by his former collaborators Tim Lenton and and Andrew Watson, "The Revolutions that Made the Earth, " is infinitely better in this respect. The main problem with Lovelock's book is that it is stuck with the Gaia metaphor as a "theory of everything" and applies the same principles to fundamentally different issues operating on vastly different time scales and raising incomparable moral dilemmas.

Lovelock (deliberately) confuses the survival of the the complex system that many of us like to think of as the Living Earth in the face of an increasingly brighter Sun, with the global warming resulting from unrestricted combustion of fossil fuels. The confusion is that the former is a problem that will gradually arise over the coming few hundred million years, while the latter is an issue that will affect us and our children and grandchildren. Lovelock's concern and compassion is not with present-day humans and our offspring, but with the prolonged future of Gaia beyond the "normal" astronomically determined future lifespan of nearly a billion years of life on Earth.

Despite Lovelock's assertion that the book is about the distant future and fate of Gaia, a considerable part of it is spent on mocking those of us who are concerned about anthropogenic warming. He puts us all in the freak bag, writing: "Climate scientists, philosophers, environmentalists, governments and the media all seem to assume that we have no option but try to ameliorate planetary climate change, or join with the rest of life and be roasted over the fire that we have built for ourselves."

Personally, I know a considerable number of individuals among those groups, but none of them believe that anthropogenic global warming can end life on Earth, the human species, or civilization. But many acknowledge the scientific evidence that global warming may put future generations into deep trouble.

New in this book is that Lovelock has adopted some traditional climate-denial rhetoric and for instance claims that global warming has come to a halt after the turn of the century. If this were a fact, it could be heralded as a great victory of Gaia theory. Perhaps Gaia already has fixed the problem? Unfortunately, the present hiatus in surface warming does not signal a halt in the rise of heat content in the climate system, and does not prove that the IPCC projections are wrong. The ocean heat content grows steadily, and individual runs of the climate models show variability of global surface temperature that allow temporary episodes of surface cooling. Lovelock's critique of the IPCC models is based on the purely atmospheric models of the 1990s, not those of the two latest IPCC reports which all incorporate ocean dynamics, and many also sea ice, ice sheets, atmospheric chemistry, carbon cycle, and vegetation cover.

In later chapters Lovelock decides to disregard that he does not believe in anthropogenic warming, and jumps from the denialist camp to his old position as an alarmist. There is no middle ground for Lovelock. From this position he attacks the mainstream IPCC mitigation strategy, which he believes is doomed to fail. Without giving us any documentation he claims that a strategy of adaptation to climate change is much more rational and efficient. This conclusion seems logically inconsistent with his own views of the uncertainty of climate projections, and even more so if we examine the nature of our knowledge about climate change. What we know is that the heat content of the climate system increases as a response to the increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, but our knowledge about the precise consequences in given regions and locations at given times is very limited. Effective adaptive measures may involve relocation of entire cities and may take many decades to accomplish. Adaptive measures will therefore require accurate projections which in many cases are impossible to produce. Despite the Lovelockian claims, there exists no scientific evidence that adaptation is a more cost-effective strategy than mitigation through development of non-fossil energy technologies and smarter energy use.

Lovelock is eager to ridicule concepts like renewable energy and sustainability, and to accuse the proponents of these concepts of deliberate deception and lies. Such accusations would have greater weight if he tried to avoid to fall in the same trap himself. A few examples: "...the breath of 7 billion people, our pets and livestock puts into the already overburdened atmosphere 7 billion tons of CO2 per year." Here he gives the reader the impression that these emissions play a similar role in the climate system as those from fossil fuel combustion. This is a deliberate lie made to cover up the fundamental difference between carbon emissions from fossils and those that are part of the CO2 cycle within the biosphere. As long as primary production of food and biofuels are in balance with consumption they represent no additional burden of the atmosphere, and it plays no role for the climate whether the biomass is consumed as food or fuel, or rottens on the ground. If we stop carbon emission from fossil fuel combustion by a combination of limiting fossil fuel use and carbon capture and storage the planet can probably house our projected population at a comfortable standard of living.

Other examples of deception are the incorrect picture painted of the prospects of renewables like wind and solar energy, and the complete avoidance of discussion of general problems of fossil and nuclear energy. It is claimed that all of England would have to be made into a wind farm if the country should produce all its electricity from wind alone on a windy day. This is in stark contrast to the fact that Denmark now can cover its total electricity needs in the winter months from wind, and has further plans for expansion. Renewables are accused of being heavily and unfairly subsidised, but so will also fossils have to be in the future, facing diminishing resources. In fact, Lovelock's book completely avoids mentioning that easily accessible fossil fuel resources are running out. My country, Norway, which has been made very rich from oil and gas, now pays more in subsidies for search for new resources than it earns from taxation on oil companies.

Nuclear has more problems than the irrational scare stories of radiation. The danger of proliferation of fissile material to terrorist groups and irresponsible nations is real, and so is the vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorist and military attacks. A very objective gauge on the problems is the unwillingness of the insurance industry to get involved. Governments have to take the entire blow when something goes wrong, and this explains much of the reluctance among politicians. One could perhaps have wanted them to be more courageous, but I don't think their scepticism is irrational. I also find it strange that Lovelock, who likes to think big and on long time scales, systematically avoids discussion of fusion energy in his books. I never understood why. Is it because fusion is "big science" and involves thousands of scientists working in concert towards a common goal, and thereby does not fit into his perception of "evolutionary inflation driven by lone inventors?"

A forerunner of Lovelock's grand idea of adaptation by retreat to city fortresses appeared already in his previous book "The Revenge of Gaia" (2006). There he proposed to make the British Isles a sanctuary for climate survivors, well protected against hordes of climate refugees by a strong mililtiary defence. In the present book he suggests a strategy of "retreat to the best cities that we can design and build with the objective of saving as many of us as we can, and entirely abandon the absurdly hubristic idea of saving the planet." The rest of the planet and human population should be left to Gaia. He finishes the book with the the phrase: "But there is one snag. The system cannot sustain the present level of human population for very much longer. The future world may be a better place, but getting to there from here will not be easy, and we will not all make the journey."

Lovelock does not make any attempt to describe the sociopolitical process of selection of those fortunate enough to be allowed into the fortresses of retreat, and those doomed to be fried by Gaia. But maybe it will be no problem at all? I am not so sure that all human Gaia dwellers will find the insect-like city communities so attractive. Lovelock mentions Singapore and Hong Kong as present-day examples what such a city could look like. The recent student uprising for democracy in Hong Kong may suggest that Lovelock underestimates the moral forces and new-won egalitarian ideas that have infested the human mind in the anthropocene.

Some reviewers of the present book find Lovelock's vision "refreshing." My gut feeling is the opposite. I find it sickening. And if someone asks me about my concern about Gaia's future a hundred million years from now, I must be honest and admit: "I don't care!"
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on 26 May 2014
My first impression - the obscure, philosophical anecdotes of a 91 year old geriatric? I put the book down. In a fit of book deprivation I picked it up again. It turned out to be a fascinating, compelling, incredibly informative book by a lucid, scientist/inventor.

His authority as a world class scientist / inventor was established by his identification and measurement of CFC’s in the atmosphere and the linkage he made to the hole in the ozone layer. He subsequently mobilised international cooperation to ban CFC’s despite the resistance of a huge industry with heavy investment in repellent spray cans. The result was the successful prevention of the destruction of the ozone layer.

Lovelock has a proven record as an inventor / scientist. His Gaia theory of the universe established him as a philosopher.

In this book, Lovelock takes a very broad look at the sweep of history of life on earth, looking at the environment billions of years ago and the future of our planet. The book argues that there was a huge discontinuity that began at the start of the eighteenth century that made the evolution of our artefacts accelerate to a pace far beyond the capabilities of natural selection. In the last 300 years there has been an exponential growth in artefacts through invention inspired by necessity. He forecasts exponential growth will decelerate due to the rising cost of energy.

As an environmentalist with his background and a supporter of the Kyoto Agreement, you would expect him to be predicting dire consequences of the climate change brought about by industry through rising concentrations of CO2. He argues the case for adaptation to climate change rather than visionary attempts to save the planet. The system is far too complex to model and sensibly predict the consequences. “Foolishly, politicians across Europe have excited to ejaculate prematurely a set of laws that hamper our ability to cope with the consequences of climate change. Huge sums that should have gone of sensible adaptation have been squandered on renewable energy sources, regardless of their inefficiency or environmental objections, and on pointless attempts to achieve that ultimate oxymoron, sustainable development”. We should be strengthening our defences and making a sustainable retreat rather than trying to “save the planet”.
The book is enlivened by the description of his own inventions, first had encounters and is littered with aphorisms. For example his description of a pedagogue - when Professor Trust was told his wife had been eaten by an alligator he is reputed to have replied “a crocodile you mean”.

A thought provoking, at times meandering, book.
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on 9 October 2014
As usual, James Lovelock has written a stunningly compelling and deeply thought-provoking book. It should be required reading for all world leaders, politicians and 'greens' (although I do wonder whether any of them could manage to extricate their head from their own backside long enough to absorb its content).

There will come a day when people will look back on this book and wonder why its message didn't stand out like a beacon at the time of its writing ... one day, that is, when it is far, far too late.

Read this book and have your mind blown. The ideas contained in it are, as far as I know, unique.
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on 19 February 2016
Photographs sometimes capture Jim Lovelock with a naughty boy grin. He is sometimes like the almost-too-smart student who knows that he is cleverer than everyone in the class (including the teacher) and likes to be the centre of the attention. He is cleverer. A genius. But, as has been noted, geniuses can be wrong. There are plenty of unsupported generalisations and claims made in this book, partly designed to provoke, sometimes to offend, people like environmentalists and academics. There is much truth in what Lovelock writes, and he is humble enough to admit past errors. A rough rule of thumb might be the bigger the generalisation, the bigger the beware. However, very stimulating and concise.
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on 18 March 2016
Great book from one of the UK's most eminent yet iconoclastic senior scientists. In it, he punctures numerous myths and widespread misunderstandings as only someone with his multidisciplinary experience and insight can do. Only one criticism - the book is a bit repetitive in places (might it have been edited together from separate essays?)
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on 2 November 2015
The most intelligent and thoughtful author on the subject!
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