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A journey that's not as rough as it seems - I hope
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)