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64 of 70 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Climate Change - we have little time left to act, 2 May 2006
This review is from: The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity (Hardcover)
Gaia, that self-regulating system consisting of the atmosphere, living things and the ecosystems that contain them, the oceans and the underlying rocks, is in danger. Such is the warning given us by James Lovelock.

The regulation works through what are called 'feedback' mechanisms, and in the glossary at the end of the book Lovelock gives an explanatory example of such mechanisms:

If the car we are driving deviates from the intended path, we adjust the wheels to try to cancel the deviation. The power steering amplifies our action (negative feedback). But if the steering mechanism was faulty and it increased the car's deviation from the chosen path, the initial error would be amplified (positive feedback).

The earth remains a suitable place for man and other living organisms through negative feedback. Unfortunately, the balance of Gaia is now being disturbed by positive feedback mechanisms: One example given by Lovelock concerns the melting of snow on land. This snow reflects almost all the sunlight that reaches it and thus helps to keep the world cool. But as the snow melts at the edges, the dark ground that is then at the surface absorbs much of the sunlight and gets warmer. The increase in ground warmth accelerates further snow melting.

Lovelock says that nearly all the processes that affect the climate of the earth are now in positive feedback, and he gives six examples of these processes. Together, these processes are likely to push Gaia quite suddenly from its present equilibrium to an equilibrium at a much hotter state, and this change beyond what Lovelock calls a 'tipping point' may occur soon.

If this happens - perhaps by the end of the present century - the climate of the world could then "be described as Hell: so hot, so deadly that only a handful of the teeming billions now alive will survive" (page 147).

Strong stuff. But this is not the language of some columnist in a popular newspaper. It is written by a scientist who for many years has explored the properties of Gaia. A member of the Royal Society, Lovelock has, according to his own web site, produced about 200 scientific papers spread almost equally among topics in medicine, biology, instrument science and geophysiology.

Lovelock is the author of the Gaia Theory which states (glossary page 162):

"A view of the earth that sees it as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sees this system as having a goal - the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life. It is based on observations and theoretical models; it is fruitful and has made ten successful predictions".

In this book Lovelock gives the evidence for the theory, explains what is known of the regulatory mechanism, and looks at forecasts of how Gaia will behave in the present century; I have already written what Lovelock thinks may in fact happen.

How have we come to get into such a mess? Well Lovelock sees human population growth as the underlying cause of Gaia's problems:

"the root of our problems with the environment comes from a lack of constraint on the growth of population".

Lovelock discusses what we need to do now to avoid complete catastrophe. I will leave readers to find out for themselves what he proposes, apart from mentioning one thing he says, which I think may be paramount: "We need the people of the world to sense the real and present danger so that they will spontaneously mobilize and unstintingly bring about an orderly and sustainable withdrawal to a world where we try to live in harmony with Gaia".

This is a provocative book. Lovelock takes a swipe at 'affluent radicals', 'environmentalism' and 'Greens'. And unlike many, perhaps most environmentalists, he staunchly advocates nuclear power as the biggest ingredient in a future energy strategy portfolio designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as much as possible. I was myself one of those environmentalists who was against the use of nuclear power. But I have been convinced by Lovelock's arguments. He certainly makes it clear that biofuels could only make at most a modest contribution in the future, for to make even a fairly large contribution would require using all the land surface of the earth not already built up or used for agriculture.

I urge people to read this book.

Dr. J.F. Barker, Gaia Watch registered Charity
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