Sunday, November 29, 2009

James Lovelock’s Gaia

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.


  1. In recent times there has definately been a huge rise in general awareness of global warming, and it seems pretty clear that yes, the climate is changing. The next thing is to decide whether there is anything we can do to stop it happening, if not, then, yes we shuld follow Lovelocks radical view on what we should do now. Until we can certainly, with no doubt, prove that this is happeneing at a life-threatening rate, and that there is no way to stop it, only then should we take such drastic measures as the ones depicted here.

  2. While I somewhat agree with Mr. Lovelocks opinion that humanity needs to stop fooling itself and actually face what we have done to the planet, I find him a pessimist and cant agree with the rest of his opinion. Rather than giving up on renewable energys, and simply give up on change, saving only the most "important" of humans and leaving the rest to die, we should see the danger and try to counter it. Theres no doubt that its good to have a back up plan, but Mr. Lovelock seems to have just given up on humanity and the good in it, suggesting we behave as animals and prioritize the survival of our species above all else. He also is not considering the fact that his solution does not benefit humanity in any way other than survival. After we run away from this problem that WE caused, who is to say we wont just keep with this stragety untill theres no where left to run to? While I respect and agree with his realism towards the fact we need to actually look these issues in the eye, I think he is taking it a bit overboard and just being pessimistic. He is definetly very good at pointing out the flaws we have, but he doesnt seem to able to give any real solutions.
    Michael T

  3. I think that this is most definitely the most honest and logical approach to the current climate issue. Somehow this is not what people want to here, they want the comfort and safety of their gas guzzling SUV, people also want the comfort the safety that they can maintain in their current life. The issue about James Lovelocks plan is that it will most likely cause outrage and probably a boom on the populations consumption. In other words before the end the world will want to go out with a bang enjoy the last they will have in their normal life. This will their fore cause a large boom in CO2 emissions which will only make it worse for the remaining population who are their to keep our race from disappearing into the past. This is the only problem, as I said before I agree that this is a good plan but needs a bit less of an over the top radical approach.

  4. I think that Lovelock's ideas are a bit far fetched. I agree that the human race is living on earth as though it owns it and is not correctly regarding the enviroment. But I believe that saying our race will end up living in a stone age is going a bit too far. I think his pessimism is a bit extreme because I do not think that huge disasters will occur suddenly that will ruin civilisation. I do believe that our population needs to decrease and adapt its way of life, but it is a bit premeture to start packing paintings and books into safes to preserve our legasy. I am a strong believer that the world will right itself and goes through a gradual cyclic process. It will come round in its new form (possibly after a mass extinction)to begin a new era and good old natural selection will come into play and if humans can adapt then they will survive. We are a very adaptive species so I think our chance of survival is high even if our lifestyles have to change. Who knows maybe the world will do us a favour and we will end up with a better society that we have now.

  5. Most of the ideas here I have seen over and over; eventually there will be mass starvation, migration to the north, cities vanishing, and then a mass war for the last bits of land not already consumed by the changing climate. I myself believe that these things will probably happen in the near future but I dont think I will be around to see them happen so I dont worry about it too much. The Idea that if we live the earth dies and if we die the earth lives is often passed through movies and written by radical scientists bent on the idea that the world will experience a series of apocalyptic disasters that will shrink mankind by about 90%. I dont think something like that will happen but certainly a loss of food storages as the ever growing population calls for more food and which the farms will not be able to produce because of the heavy supply of oil they need to harvest their crops and the little amount of it that they have left, the production in the farm industry has already hit its peak and we already need to find different types of farming such as using self replenishing forest type "farms" these produce nuts, salad, and other vegetarian foods which make being a vegetarian almost essential in the near future. Im sure starvation will happen and governments will start blaming eachother and eventially conflict will arise, but until they we need to find ways to make the way we use the world more efficient and not rely too much on oil and fossil fuels which make up a large amount of our energy production. In time the human race will probably perish taking much of the world with it, its just a matter of stalling the inevitable.

    I think thats something to do with the review of the book I might have gotten lost along the way, as this subject interests me a great deal.

    Oliver T

  6. Firstly, the way Lovelock presents the world with all its ecosystems, and various organisms as an organism itself is extremely clever, as humans may stop and think of what they are doing to another living being. As most humans consider themselves above everything else (living and non-living) in this world, I think they do have more respect for living beings, animals for example. If all humans believed that they were harming another animal, for instance, or, in fact, any living being, especially one as complex as the earth with its environments and inhabitants, a radical change in behavior would be much easier to bring about in a large number of people.

    Secondly, I also agree with Lovelock that the world will go on without us. I think that most humans consider their position in this universe as much too important, and that many of us believe we are "invincible". As a result, I believe, there will be a much larger panic when everyone finds out that humans are, in fact, not immortal (figuratively speaking), and I therefore also agree with Lovelock on the point that governments should enforce radical changes in their citizens' behavior.

    Finally, I also believe that people will not find the solution to "the climate problem", and that we will have to learn the hard way, as, as mentioned before, I think humans are overtly confident of finding a solution to every problem. Nowadays, the technical solution, which might not be found, is sought after without anyone ever stopping and thinking back to what caused the problem - our behavior precisely, creating a spiral of problems picking up in pace as we rotate downwards.

  7. I personally believe that Lovelock's idea of the world acting as an organism is incredible! It's such a great analogy and it can really be compared to a living being. I also think that his view on the current situation is very clear and he is giving a warning to the human population to stop destroying the natural world. Lovelock's expression of humans acting as if they "own nature" is very moving, and I can see that many people today do consider nature as a material object, something you can buy at a store or destroy with one snap of their fingers. Many humans don't comprehend that though we are a very successful species, we are a part of nature and we will not survive without the support of other species.

    Back to Lovelock's main point on climate change, I do not agree with his statement that it is too late to "repair the damage". I think with the combinastion of a proper education of the subject to the human race and new technologies that arise to assist in the decrease of emissions, the human race and other species can be saved. Yes, much damage has already been done, but Lovelock's view of not being able to stop the issue is in my mind an incorrect statement.

    In conclusion, I think that by educating the world on global climate change and how we can stop (or at least delay) the issue will lead to new technologies that will furthur help the situation. Lovelock's was correct in his views of the human race in my opinion, but I do not believe that it is too late.

  8. He speaks about "radical action", I personally believe that this is the only way forward, untill government enforce strict regulations over how firms produce their products and distrubte them, and aim to produce power thought more effiecient means, then i don't believe we will ever save the planet. At the rate we are going we continue to expand and polute more, using more technology which requires even more energy to do things which we have never needed technology for in the past.

    I do how ever believe that cutting down on live stock and becoming vegatarians how ever is extremly drastic and I personally would extremly miss meat.

    I have no doubt in the back of my mind that the world will come to an end as it happens in one of those sci-fi movies where the earth falls apart/ or an ice age comes, It wouldn't even suprise me if it happened anytime soon.

  9. James Lovelock's ideas are pretty fair to me, although it may seem like it will ruin the fun for the way we are living, these ideas to stop "the three deadly C's" and other procedures, seem like a good plan to go through with. Another weird idea that Lovelock mentioned was that humans cannot solve what problems we have made; nature can heal itself with the problems and difficulties we have caused to it. And yes there are going to be millions of deaths in the next years but what humans need to do is preserve and save the medicines, technologies, and memories of our achievements. This idea of humans not being able to save the world, does catch my attention, for there has got to be some things that we can do to keep the world a little longer, such as cut down our use of fossil fuels. The ideas of James Lovelock are very interesting, and do seem to make sense, even if he were a scientist or not, the ideas and concerns Lovelock gives us are straight forward and non-sympathetic. :)

  10. James Lovelock, states interesting ideas, which I strongly can consider to be the truth. Such as how he mentions "we are the source of the problem, therefore we cannot be the solution." This is a valid statement in which one does not have trouble understand, as well as it makes perfect sense. Also when he mentions that we have to take actions to prevent our future from becoming a stone aged society, this statement lead me to believe Lovelock, has the idea of human's not using our knowledge to progress further, but to progress into our own defeat. Which he has considered to be the stone age. I also believe how we are only believed to be being green, how being green is only a a certain mindset. After reading this post I am interested in reading Lovelocks novel.

  11. I like his ideas of saving our literature, medicines and so one.
    However, I don't think it would help very much to save technology,( I mean, technology is one of the things that makes the environment bad, right?). In stead of saving what we have got, maybe also try to help the environment, as in recycling, and things we already are doing, well at least things we are trying. Of course not everyone is as climate friendly as others, but it could be possible to have more people to help than there is today.

  12. Lovelocks book about climate change has rather pessimistic outlook into the whole situation.
    Lovelock claims that we are fooling ourselves if we think we can still save that planet with our self-obsorved ways(e.g taking up all the land space as if it were ours). He belives that we cant solve a problem if we as a society are the problem itself. After reading this i should say that i kind of have to agree with Lovelock's theorie and that we are the ones responisble for the whole climate disruption. Fact is that we wont be able to save the planet but we can atleast save ourselves, including the knowlege and technology we have. But asking the people these days to change their lifestyle in order to reduce CO2 emmisions is a really radical step. our Eco-friendly lifestyle could have on the economy for example. so i guess that another thing we have to figure out is to have a sustanable economy while living a green lifestye.


  13. I'm totally agree that the humans are the source of the problema therefore cannot be the solution. and I thought about the environmental crisis are going to happen before and I reached an idea that the crisis will come from climate change but not from starvation, competition for space and resources, and war. This review changed my thoughts differently.

  14. It was really highly interesting to read your article about Lovelock's books. I've read "The revenge of Gaia" some three or four years ago and it went under my skin.Now we are in 2013 and I don't have the feeling that we human beings have much changed in the meantime our selfish and money making behaviour. I don't have much hope that politicians will solve the problems as they seem of to be involved themselves in the business. I'm afraid that the big disaster has to touch us all before radical change occurs.My very best regards. Martina

    1. Thanks for your comment Martina. I do agree that to get to grips with climate change and our behaviour seems to be beyond humans, at least for the moment. The English philosopher John Gray makes an interesting point - we are the problem, consequently, we cannot be the solution.