Friday, July 07, 2006
Review: The Revenge of Gaia
The revenge of Gaia, James Lovelock, Allen Lane, London, 2006
I have to admit that I was very excited about the prospect of reading this book and then quite disappointed after I had done so. Lovelock has been something of a maverick for many years with this model of the Earth, and he continues to be so. The book contains an explanation of the hypothesis, but is mainly his personal plea for nuclear power, some triumphal shots at past critics and the odd ad hominem attack against environmentalists. There is also some useful food for thought for Christian theology. Let me explain.
Lovelock is a self-styled planetary physician (p1), diagnosing the health of the planet. He is unrepentant as seeing the Earth as an organism, although he is aware that this is a metaphor, yet a useful one. The Earth appears to have the unconscious goal of thermoregulation (p15). However, to express this is one thing, to explain it is like describing how to ride a bike – hard to do in words (p17). The analogy is meant to communicate the constant adjustments that are made in both situations to keep things in ideal conditions. Lovelock doesn’t insist that the Earth exhibits intentionality, but that the interconnectivity of the Earth system works to keep the temperature cool.
There are some interesting reflections – has Gaia evolved peeing for its own advantage? Why don’t we emit nitrogen gas instead of urea (p18)? Producing pee is costly, nitrogen gas less so. Could we breathe it out? Are there good biological reasons why peeing rather than breathing happens?
Another Gaian reflection is the production of dimethyl sulphide (DMS) by oceanic algae (p23). Algae prefer the oceans cold, allowing the upwelling of nutrient rich waters (it is something of a paradox that such diversity exists in tropical reefs where nutrients are hard to come by – and hence corals co-opt algae for photosynthesis, and rainforests where rain washes much of the nutrients away). Warmer seas inhibit this mixing (p28). The key is that DMS acts as cloud condensation nuclei (small particles on which cloud droplets form) and cloud reflects solar radiation, cooling the globe!
Hence, Lovelock thinks that the Earth likes it cold, to keep life flourishing. At carbon dioxide concentrations of 500ppm, with a corresponding warming of ~3C, the whole system goes belly up, with oceanic algae numbers plummeting. The Earth system has acted to keep CO2 down, but as we force it up the thermostat will break. If we are not careful, Lovelock suggests Gaia will evict us (p47 and chapter 4 passim).
Lovelock has some interesting implications of his thoughts. Following on from the regulation theme, biodiversity he sees as a symptom of warm conditions (p42, cf. reefs and rainforests) and not necessarily something worth preserving at all costs. I find this bizarre and wonder how it translates into conservation. True we should focus on systems and take a planet point of view rather than a merely self-interested perspective. However, the sub-text about rainforests and cancer cures (p43) forms part of his general attack against humanity. We seek to prolong our lives too long, and are expected to accept cancer as a natural consequence of the oxygen we breathe and food we eat (which it is in part). This is done to deny the role of nuclear power in cancer rates (see below).
It is in the context of Lovelock’s physician status that he sees nuclear fission as a short-term solution to Gaia’s human induced fever (p11). We rely on energy, electricity in particular (how else am I writing this review?) Using fossil fuels is not wrong since it is part of the carbon cycle – it is the rate at which we are doing so (p72). Likewise, if sequestration had begun 50 years ago, we would not be so desperate now (p73). Natural gas is cleaner, but a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and leakages from stoves and pipelines is a problem. Hydrogen is still a pipedream until technology improves (and serious funding – see The Hype About Hydrogen, Joseph J. Romm. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005).
Lovelock is a serious NIMBY when it comes to wind farms, and is almost rabid in his denouncement of renewable energy. Sure there are technical issues, and yes the remaining natural landscape may be fair game for wind farms. However, the technology itself and its implementation are not the same thing. If wind power was not always concentrated into farms but widespread, the impact will be reduced. I find his arguments based on aesthetics poor. Which is less aesthetically pleasing, the smoke stack or the wind turbine?
Likewise, when it comes to solar, he is ignorant of developments such as solar towers. Further, will the nuclear industry advance without the same government subsidies that would advance solar power for home usage?
His section on fusion is encouraging (p88) but it is still a way off. This leaves him with his favourite energy source, nuclear fission. To be sure, Lovelock is no fan of the bomb. However, he adapts to being the nuclear propagandist too well. Chernobyl is played down as an incident all too readily. He claims that few lives were lost immediately after the event (citing WHO figures), which may well be true. Likewise (p102), the figures for deaths in various energy industries flatter nuclear power. However, the long-term consequences in terms of cancer and impacts on the wildlife tell another story.
For example, a recent paper in the July 5 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute shows that that exposure to radioactive iodine ingested through the food chain increases the risk of thyroid cancer in children and adolescents. The researchers found 45 cases of thyroid cancer in the screened group in comparison with the 11.2 cases expected without the accident. To quote Geoffrey Howe, PhD,
“If radioactive iodine gets into the food chain, as was the case in Chornobyl, children and adolescents accumulate large amounts of radioactive iodines in their glands. This exposes the thyroid tissues to the radiation which in turn, increases the chance of getting thyroid cancer and other diseases of the thyroid gland later in life.”
To simply say as he does that life is a matter of when you die, not if, to write off the impacts on cancer is heartless, callous and blind to his own propaganda. Furthermore, given the number of smaller incidents that occur (think recent leaks at Lucas Heights that were not properly reported) let us not kid ourselves into thinking that it is perfectly safe. The risks are real – Lovelock simply denies them.
Lovelock engages in his own utopian theology of a future where food is synthesised – Star Trek dining if you like (p132). I can’t wait, a future of bland slop. However, he would have done well to read a recent New Scientist, where future cities are envisioned where nature, farm and city come together in something that is largely self-supporting. This makes sense given the huge trend towards urbanisation, and often on arable land. This would in part satisfy his desire that people would become more in touch with Gaia in order to see our need to care for it (since it cares for us – or at least provides us with a place to live).
Lovelock has some pointed things to say to Christian theology. Mother Teresa, he quotes as saying (p2) “Why should we care about the Earth when our duty is to the poor and sick among us. God will take care of the Earth.” This is a shocking anthropocentrism, poor eschatology (read Romans 8) and terribly myopic. Caring for the Earth has long-term consequences for everyone (and not just the poor and sick). Lovelock was “marinated” in Christian belief (p137), but sees the fact that it was “developed” in an underpopulated time in ignorance of Gaia that some more theologising is needed to cope with the present crisis. He also sees humanism as falling short. Both stewardship (Christian) and sustainable development (humanism) are examples of hubris. How are Christians to respond to this? Is there a new Sermon on the Mount to be preached as he suggests, for living decently on a finite Earth? Something is certainly needed to counter both the purely anthropocentric view and the poor eschatology that sees it all ending in a bang – a result of a non-Christian theology of creation.
Lovelock sees concepts such as God and Gaia as transcending our conscious minds (p138), neither can be falsified by rational argument. He is privileging his scientific model or his conceptual model? He is deifying Gaia? It is easy to see how the New Age movement have jumped on the bandwagon.
So where is our place in Gaia? Is it merely to recycle carbon (p143)? As an agnostic because he doesn’t think in terms of certainties (the consequence of being a scientist, yet science is a product of modernity and so is the fundamentalism that demands certainty – he doesn’t seem to understand faith) he cannot but answer this way.