by Paul Doolan
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. Basic Books, New York, 2007.
Lovelock, James. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Basic Books, New York,2009
Arguably the world’s most famous scientist, renown began nearly four decades ago for James Lovelock with the publication of his The Ages of Gaia, in which he claimed that the Earth itself and all its living and non-living things behaves like one self-regulating organism. He used the word "Gaia", at the suggestion of his friend William Golding, as a metaphor to describe this Earth system. Having launched his hypothesis Lovelock, for the most part, stayed out of the following polemic and left it to his followers, who are legion, and his detractors, who were multitudes, to battle it out. His hypothesis, nowadays generally referred to as a theory, has become increasingly respectable, supported by evidence. Lovelock, who turned 90 this year, has published two books within the last two years. They are of a piece – desperate calls for us to change our ways of living. With the climate storm “whose severity the Earth has not endured for fifty-five million years” on the verge of destroying human civilization itself, we are like, according to Lovelock, “passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail”.
Lovelock calls for immediate, and radical action. It is not good enough to simply cut emissions, but we need to change the way we view ourselves and other species in order to change the way we live. In Lovelock’s words: “we have (…) to stop using the land surface as if it was ours alone. It is not: it belongs to the community of ecosystems that serve all life by regulating the climate and chemical composition of the Earth.” Furthermore, we need to counter “the persistent belief that the Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind. This false belief that we own the Earth, or are its stewards, allows us to pay lip service to environmental policies and programmes but to continue with business as usual.” He emphasizes throughout both books that we are the source of the problem, therefore we cannot be the solution. The idea that the Earth needs to be saved is absurd and the idea that we can be its saviors is pure hubris (the Earth will continue nicely without us – indeed it will probably thrive without us) and the suggestion that we can be stewards of the Earth is laughable, like allowing goats to be gardeners.
The source of the problem, as stated above, is our self-delusion that we stand outside of nature, that we own nature. And the deadly instruments that we use on our assault on nature are what he calls “the three deadly Cs” namely, ‘Combustion, Cattle and Chainsaws.’ We are addicted to the burning of fossil fuels and we continue to chop down the rainforests. Regarding livestock Lovelock is unequivocal – “If our leaders were all great and powerful, they could ban the keeping of pets and livestock, make a vegetarian diet compulsory, and fund a huge program of food synthesis by the chemical and biochemical industries”.
Lovelock is skeptical of the new enthusiasm for renewable energies. Solar power and wind energy can never create the amounts of electricity that we need to power our massive urban complexes. Instead of taking the radical steps towards real change, there is simply an “ever-growing urge to appear green”. He is skeptical of the idea of a technical fix – “Whatever we do as geoengineers is unlikely to stop dangerous climate change or prevent death on a scale that makes all previous wars, famines and disasters small”.
With such a bleak outlook, what are we to do? Lovelock claims that the first step is to stop fooling ourselves and to face up to the desperate situation that we have created: “We have to stop pretending that there is any possible way back to that lush, comfortable, and beautiful Earth we left behind sometime in the twentieth century.” The second step is to persuade our governments to start preparing for the coming onslaught – “Our greatest dangers are not from climate change itself, but indirectly from starvation, competition for space and resources, and war (……) The climate war could kill nearly all of us and leave a few survivors living a Stone Age existence.” The best we can aim for, is to take measures to avoid that Stone Age future, with a few breeding pairs eking out a miserable existence, becoming reality. The goal of the British government must be to draw up plans that will ensure the survival of civilization. Lovelock’s recipe includes deciding now how many climate refugees will be allowed in, deciding which areas will be evacuated and lost to the rising sea and which areas will be protected, and most importantly, to cut CO2 emissions radically by undertaking a massive programme of building nuclear power stations. The third and final step will be the building of new settlements along the coast of the ice-free Arctic Sea, and the eventual resettlement of the few remaining British carriers of the candle of civilization. Lovelock is emphatic, tens of millions, indeed hundreds, probably thousands of millions are about to die in the near future, and they cannot be saved. Our purpose therefore, must be to save civilization – our literatures, our medicines and technologies, the memories of our achievements.
In an age, in which pessimism is considered some sort of anti-social heresy, Lovelock’s dystopian vision is difficult to swallow. In a culture founded on the pursuit of happiness, to hold up the mirror and expose our ugliness is simply insulting. In an economy based on unbrideled consumption, to point out the limits, any limits, is down right contrary. Lovelock is intent on spoiling our fun. But perhaps we need to listen.
I can’t help feeling that somehow Lovelock is enjoying the telling of his tale. Repeatedly he reminds the reader that the best of what it means to be British was brought out during World War Two. The enemy today poses a far greater danger than Nazi Germany ever did. Somehow, Lovelock hopes, that British fighting spirit will once again awaken and stir and perhaps save human civilization. Both books end with a similar scene, set in the near future: with the ice melted and the lands inundated a few survivors are packing their baggage on their camels and setting off northward, to the remaining vestiges of human civilization in the new settlements along the Arctic rim. I don’t know, but I presume that camels can swim.