By David L. Brown
One of the most controversial figures in environmental affairs has long been James Lovelock, the British author and scientist who introduced the Gaia theory. More a metaphor than an actual scientific theory, Gaia posits the idea that the Earth itself, along with all of its biological, physical, and chemical complexity, can actually be viewed as a living organism. As metaphor it provides a powerful way to view our planet and its interactions with and reactions to human beings, which might be seen as a kind of metaphorical cancer that is actively disrupting and destroying the delicate balance of the Earth just as a real cancer consumes and kills its host.
Lovelock is not optimistic about the future of our planet, as revealed in his writings over the years. His most recent book describes our planet as sick and possibly terminally ill. (For a sampling, read my post “‘Revenge of Gaia,’ a Modern Horror Story,” posted July 23, a review of his book.)
Like many environmentalists, Lovelock has long been marginalized by nay-sayers who do not want to admit that climate change is a real and growing threat to the very foundations of civilization. Alas, with each passing year his warnings seem less unlikely, as evidence mounts that global warming is real, that it is gathering strength, and that humankind is in dire danger.
Now Lovelock has issued his warning anew, more stridently and with greater assurance than ever. Last night he gave the Fifth John Collier Lecture to the Institution of Chemical Engineers in London, in which he said: “There is very good evidence of what happened 55 million years ago when as much carbon dioxide was put into the atmosphere by geology as is being done by us now. Temperatures zoomed up by 8 degrees [Centigrade] and stayed there for 200,000 years then came back to normal.”
James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Theory.
Never one to pull punches, Lovelock’s address was no exception to his outspoken advocacy of the Earth and ever more serious warnings of dire dangers ahead as human activity continues to pump carbon into the atmosphere and contribute in other ways to the spreading illness with which we are afflicting our Mother Earth. A story in today’s edition of the British newspaper The Daily Mail (here) reports of Lovelock’s address:
Billions of people could be wiped out over the next century because of climate change, [he] said.
[Lovelock], who pioneered the idea of the Earth as a living organism, said as the planet heats up humans will find it increasingly hard to survive.
He warned that as conditions worsen, the global population which is currently around 6.5 billion, may sink as low as 500 million.
Prof Lovelock also claims that any attempts to tackle climate change will not be able to solve the problem, merely buy us time.
Given the dire situation we face, he urged people to drop the phrase “global warming,” which has cozy connotations, and instead start to think of it as “global heating.”
[He] fears that as carbon dioxide emissions from man and the planet itself soar, the Earth will heat up causing water shortages, destroying life in much of the planet’s oceans and making it impossible for plants to grow.
Dr. Lovelock is considered a maverick by many, and has positioned himself as an “independent scientist,” refusing to be enwrapped in the strangling tentacles of the academic world. According to his web site (here):
…environmentalist, author and researcher, Doctor Honoris Causa of several universities throughout the world, he is considered since several decades as a one of the main ideological leaders, if not the main one, in the history of the development of environmental awareness. James Lovelock is still today one of the main authors in the environmental field. He is the author of “The Gaia Theory” and “The Ages of Gaia” which consider the planet Earth as a self-regulated living being, as well as his “Homage to GAIA”, an autobiography published in September, 2000. More recently, professor Lovelock published his new book, “The Revenge of Gaia”.
In his speech yesterday Lovelock held out some hope for the future survival of the human race, but warned, “if [global heating continues as predicted] it is going to make this an exceedingly difficult century.” However he said mankind has managed to survive previous climatic disasters of the past. The Daily Mail report quotes him:
“There have been at least seven of these major climate changes before and we have to adapt,” he said.
“It is going to be tough and there will be some evolution of humans during it.
“The survivors will be those humans that can make their way to refuges or Arctic places and survive there.
“I think an awful lot of people will die but I don’t see the human species dying out.
“I would think a hot earth could not support much over 500 million.”
It is believed by many knowledgeable scientists that the carrying capacity of the Earth vis a vis human population, and in its original state, was around two billion, or about 30 percent of the present population. Factoring in the environmental damage that would result from even moderately severe global heating Dr. Lovelock’s estimate of about one quarter of that number seems reasonable, representing a 75 percent reduction in Earth’s fecundity.
There is some possibility that global heating could become a runaway event even more severe than the one 55 million years ago, in which case not only human civilization but perhaps even all advanced life on Earth could become extinct. No less a personage than the eminent astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking has suggested that runaway heating could turn Earth into another Venus, with temperatures far above the boiling point of water.
It can be hoped that such an extreme can be avoided, for the sake of the precious Gaia which is planetary home of the only known life in the universe. It is my personal belief that the worst case scenarios will be avoided, but my reasoning is not based on some Pollyanna idea that everything will turn out OK if we just trust in good fortune. No, my suspicion is that the human “cancer” that afflicts our planet will be stopped by an early catastrophe that will drastically reduce human numbers and bring a halt to industrial pollution before it can spiral into the runaway stages. This is the scenario I draw in my novel The Star Phoenix, which portrays a world in which only one in 1000 humans has survived the total breakdown that I call Calamity. If we assume a peak human population of ten billion, that would leave survivor numbers at just ten million or so, or about one-fiftieth of Dr. Lovelock’s estimate. There is no way of knowing how the final story will play out, but it seems certain that population is due to drop, whether dramatically or disastrously will remain to be seen.
According to the Daily Mail report on Dr. Lovelock’s address, he warned that there are no simple solutions to global heating and, ominously, that there is nothing we can do now to “save the Earth.” He stated: “Trying to take the job on of regulating the Earth is about as crazy as you can get. It is something quite beyond humans at this stage in their evolution.” To which I respond that we humans have been smart enough to get ourselves into a dangerous and untenable position, but it seems quite beyond our ability to see a way out of the trap.
The Daily Mail article concludes by pointing out that the British government is less pessimistic than Dr. Lovelock about the global future, and refers to the recent report on climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern which concludes that there is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change “if countries co-operate internationally.”
We must, regretfully, close this essay by pointing out that the odds of countries co-operating peacefully and aggressively to mitigate global warming, and especially in view of the fact that such action will require personal as well as national sacrifice, might be classed in the same category as aerial swine and snowballs in Hades.
According to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the world has a “window of opportunity” of ten to fifteen years to take action against climate change.
Unfortunately, ten to fifteen years is an extremely brief moment in time. Meanwhile, China continues to put a coal burning power plant on line every week … the planet’s “lungs,” its tropical rain forests, are mowed down like fields of grain by millions of chainsaws … and factories in almost every nation pour out internal combustion cars and trucks. And here in America, the world’s worst polluter, George Bush promises that if we can only turn our diminishing ability to produce food for the world into fake gasoline, why then we can all continue to drive those inefficient cars and trucks and live happily for, well who knows how long?
Maybe not very. Maybe not even ten or fifteen years. If we continue to live as if there were no tomorrow — chances are there will not be. Time, something of which we have all too little remaining, will tell — and time is a physical constant that is invariable and has not the least measure of mercy.