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February 13, 2006

If James Lovelock is a planetary doctor, he seems way too late with the treatment he recommends, argues Richard D. North: The Revenge of Gaia: Why the earth is fighting back and how we can still save humanity - James Lovelock

Posted by Richard D. North

The Revenge of Gaia: Why the earth is fighting back and how we can still save humanity
by James Lovelock
Pp. 192. London: Allen Lane, 2006
Hardback, 16.99

The second part of the sub-title of this book is a false sell: it doesn't tell us how to save humanity. Indeed, James Lovelock has disclaimed the idea as "hubristic" on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House, whilst also suggesting he didn't write the words anyway. But that hardly matters. There are many competing messages in this small infuriating book and some of them appeal to this reviewer. So, to accentuate the positive, let's look at them first.

Lovelock admires Bruce Ames, the American researcher who first described the carcinogenicity of the most "natural" of our foods, and demonstrated that the "artificial" chemicals in the food produced by conventional farmers was benign, not least as compared with the "organic". He takes quite a good swipe at Rachel Carson, and that's always a good sign. Oh, and he dismisses the hypochondria and self-deception which lies behind much new-age medicine.

Lovelock also notes that British sulphur dioxide emissions, which obsessed our greens in the 1970s and 1980s, did much less acid rain damage to Scandinavia than was assumed. Besides, updating the story, he observes that sulphur emissions from bad old industry may be one of the few simple ways we have to combat climate change. (They tend to cool the earth.) Indeed, he suggests that planes might burn sulphur-rich fuel (that is, "dirty" fuel) as a delivery system. This might produce one mischievously surmises a generation of low-cost flights which will outbid each other in their promise to be usefully polluting.

That would be some sort of joke, and thus not appeal to James Lovelock. He writes in a style at once earnest and full of self-congratulation. He has a breathy, loved-up admiration for himself and his wife, Sandy, of the kind satirised in those send-ups of the circular letters sent out at "The Holiday Season" by the kind of family who place pictures of themselves on their Christmas cards. Let's be kind about this, and say merely that he comes across as a holy fool.

The most important positive message in the book is that we should embrace nuclear power, and accept the well-evidenced proposition that it has never done us much harm, including when it produced Chernobyl's ghastly 1986 accident (more on that in a forthcoming website sponsored by the Social Affairs Unit watch this space, if you would). Lovelock argues that the hottest of its worst waste would be no problem, and that he'd welcome a block of it in his back garden as a source of heat. That's the stuff!

Lovelock is worthwhile and interesting when he can cite decent evidence and is making clear if counter-intuitive connections. But when he philosophises, beware.

And so we creep up on the book's Big Idea. Everyone knows that in his 1979 book, Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, Lovelock invented the notion that life is a self-regulating system, or maybe an organism. This new work proposes that Gaia is now at war with mankind. He cheerfully calls his brainchild an "it", though the Greek origins of the word imply a nurturing "her", and what's more he calls it our "enemy". Lovelock used to think that man was entirely capable of thriving alongside Gaia, and even act as the system's intelligence, so this is a big mood-change by our man. True, he always suggested that Gaia was brilliantly tuned (or even designed) to look after the planet in general rather than mankind. What seems different in this work is the sense (and Lovelock's writing is confusing on the point) that civilization (industrialisation at any rate) is and perhaps always was at odds with Gaia.

I have wrestled with Gaia for decades and have an ignorant prejudice that it is more poetic than true. Still: something or other amazing is going on if, as Lovelock proclaims, we have an inherently inflammable atmosphere which is rendered stable and comfortable to, by and for life. One senses that Lovelock himself notices that Gaia's having strategies or intentions raises as many questions as it answers. But let's assume for a moment that the Gaia hypothesis is more or less coherent and interesting.

Lovelock does not bother to make clear where he stands on the core proposition of his latest thinking. He cites and seems to accept a series of propositions held by some respectable scientists. These are that it "is now almost inevitable" that our greenhouse gas emissions will soon reach the point (500 parts per million) where they will cause a planetary temperature rise (somewhere over two degrees centigrade) which will cause drastic and irreversible over-heating and sea-level rises. Many crucial what, when, how and who questions surrounding all that are full of uncertainty, but the absence of anything like a useful consensus is not our subject for now.

For now, one must ask of Lovelock: why bother to avoid further emissions of greenhouse gases, say by building his beloved nukes? After all, he suggests not only that this new hot world is unavoidable, but that it might in the long run be benign. There will be a few hundred million perhaps a billion or so human survivors. Presumably, we might suggest, their post-catastrophe society will not be producing many emissions? And it happens anyway that elsewhere in the book he supposes that mankind would be at his best with a population measured in the hundreds of million. So the "disaster" of an over-heated Gaia may turn out to be rather nice for both her and her awkward idea-laden creature, man.

Lovelock does discuss in a rather feeble way how we can transmit our civilisation across the disaster it has precipitated. This is a very interesting problem, to be sure. I suppose the trick will be to have waterproof wind-up laptop computers of the kind MIT is developing in the States. Isn't knowledge the essence of our civilisation? The rest is just getting along with people, and workshops.

In short, though he unblushingly claims he is a "planetary physician", he seems to see nothing odd in prescribing medicine when the patient is perfectly well. All we know from the Gaia idea is that he, she or it will be OK, whatever mankind does.

Lovelock argues that because "the middle management of science" were "reactionary" about Gaia, twenty years have been wasted in dealing with climate change. But actually, twenty years ago he was hardly talking about this stuff, and others were. They didn't need his idea, even if it wasn't loopy. In the early 1990s, indeed, he was arguing against some alarmist propositions. If Lovelock is a planetary doctor whose subsidiary concern is mankind, he seems way too late with the treatment he recommends. Indeed, one wonders why he has taken so long to spot the seriousness of so awful a problem. This was supposed to be his area of specialist knowledge, after all.

In newspaper interviews, Lovelock describes this book as an "alarm call", as though it were a timely call to useful action. Actually, at first reading it is a de-motivating cry of despair. On further inspection, its real message take it or leave it is that we are in for a roller-coaster ride from which some lucky people (many of them British perhaps?) might come out rather well. I don't suppose he intended to be so cheerful.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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