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The revenge of Gaļa

by Agnes a Paris Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 12:59:56 PM EST

Yet another diary about climate change and the sustainibility of the Western economic model.
The Independent published the first week end of February an article by James Lovelock, father of the Gaïa theory, which he conceived while examining the possibility of life on Mars for Nasa in the US.
According to this holistic vision, Earth is a self-organising system that in many ways resembles a single organism, and Lovelock named this living entity after the Greek Godess Gaïa.

I wanted to share with you what I had read in his latest book  The Revenge of Gaia:Why the Earth Is Fighting Back - and How We Can Still Save Humanity released on Feb, the 2nd, as it could bring a contribution to the on-going discussion we have been having on ET these days.


When Lovelock launched the Gaia hypothesis in 1979, it came up as an audacious vision of planet earth being tantamount to a living organism, whose geology and life-forms had together evolved in order to maintain a climate and an atmosphere making life possible.
He seemed confident that Gaia's intricate connections, linking forests and oceanic algae to cloud formation, would be able to counter the earth's warming from man-made carbon dioxide.
Now, as global temperatures creep relentlessly higher and climatic disasters proliferate, he believes we may have already gone beyond the point of recovery.

He writes: "Before this century is over, billions of us will die, and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."
Over the coming decades soaring temperatures will mean agriculture may become unviable over huge areas of the world where people are already poor and hungry; water supplies for millions or even billions may fail. Rising sea levels will destroy substantial coastal areas in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, at the very moment when their populations are expanding.

As the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.
Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation ; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.

Two years ago he sparked a major controversy with an article in The Independent calling on environmentalists to drop their long-standing opposition to nuclear power, which does not produce the greenhouses gases of conventional power stations. Indeed, Lovelock is a passionate advocate of the rapid expansion of nuclear power to cut fossil-fuel emissions, which has won him few friends among his natural constituents. He's dismissive of wind-power and biofuels as woefully inefficient and wasteful of wild land better reserved for Gaia's ancient arts of regulation.
Global warming is proceeding so fast that only a major expansion of nuclear power could bring it under control, he said. Most of the Green movement roundly rejected his call, and does so still.

One of the most striking ideas in his book is that of "a guidebook for global warming survivors" aimed at the humans who would still be struggling to exist after a total societal collapse.
Written, not in electronic form, but "on durable paper with long-lasting print", it would contain the basic accumulated scientific knowledge of humanity, much of it utterly taken for granted by us now, but originally won only after a hard struggle - such as our place in the solar system, or the fact that bacteria and viruses cause infectious diseases.

Link to the whole article by Lovelock published in the Independent
The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years

Display:
Agnes...I wasn't sure...what are your views of Lovelock's ideas? (Thanks for posting this...the Gaia theory tends to get lots of responses, positive and negative...let's watch and see!)

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 01:02:35 PM EST
You are right, I have to clearly state my own opinion, which is a recurrent problem I have. It is easier to depict facts ; I tend to shy away from making blunt statements for fear of being debunked straight away.

My personal opinion is that his pessimism regarding our eco-future is pretty well documented and substantiated by scientific observations he shares with another prominent scientists. Rosy predictions are falling short of credibility on that matter.

When through hell, just keep going. W. Churchill
by Agnes a Paris on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 01:15:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...like here?

BTW, RealClimate also takes an approach towards Lovelock's Doomdsday prediction, here. Interestingly, they play down Lovelock by reducing his bad news into a foreboding. The Independent article doesn't sound like a mere "gut feeling" to me, but promotes Lovelock's survival guide which comes in handy after the apocalypse. So, what's it gonna be? Foreboding or is the Earth locked in the rut of disaster?

by Nomad on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 07:15:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm beginning to think Lovelock is starting to believe his own propaganda.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 03:18:03 PM EST
Extra free cookie-point!
by Nomad on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 07:33:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]

That was pretty much my reaction. This statement doesn't read like science, it reads like the beliefs of a man who thinks he's a scientist. For starters, his stated figures depend on the total and instant disappearance of several factors retarding the global warming trend. While some (aerosol emissions) are indeed likely to decrease, the decrease will take time, giving us time to put other measures in place to take up the slack, as it were.

Second, climate scientists are far from consensus about how much temperatures will rise and how quickly. This doesn't mean that we can ignore global warming. It does mean that his end-of-the-world "5 degrees in the tropics, 8 degrees in temperate areas inside of a century" prediction is probably so much bullshit.

Finally, nuclear power is not the be-all, end-all solution he describes it as. In fact, simply dropping oil and coal power and switching to nuclear without making any other changes could be one of the worst things we could do. Not only is all that carbon we dumped in the atmosphere still there, but the energy generated by the nuclear reactors is going to wind up (heh) in the atmosphere eventually, so switching to nuclear and continuing our current growth and usage patterns will probably make the problem significantly worse.

What's a good solution? Focus on carbon-fixing through agriculture. Carbon's an essential component of good soil, and organic agriculture can be a net carbon consumer. Use wind power. It makes use of energy already present in the atmosphere, rather than releasing more energy into the atmosphere. Find ways to perpetuate the aerosol effect without unwanted side effects. Change our usage patterns radically - stop with the damn cows, for example. (Cows produce significant amounts of methane over their life-cycle, if memory serves. Which makes factory farming really, really bad in terms of carbon emissions.)

by Egarwaen on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 10:59:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am troubled by Lovelock's emergence as a salesman for the nuke industry (whether paid or not).  The more alarmist his predictions and the more he pushes nukes as "the only way out", the greater the pressure on pols to make a panicky, no-time-to-think rush into nuke plant profileration regardless of its long term viability, practicality of time scale, etc.

He may be right about the impact of global warming;  I would not underestimate the potential knock-on effects of climate destabilisation.  But I'm always wary when someone's alarmist views coincidentally help them (or others) to sell something.  If he were only advocating for agricultural reform, carbon and Tobin taxes, re-engineering for efficiency, sustainable economic models and other survival-oriented strategies that did not involve highly lucrative and secretive reactor megaprojects, I'd be more comfortable with his pessimism (he'd be then on a par with Kunstler, who I think sincerely believes his own pessimism and is not selling anything)...

more later...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 05:20:53 PM EST
The last semester one of my professors in politics
intruduced a very interesting article on the impact of the depletion of resources to the decline in the development of an island tribe. Here is a small quote from it,I will also provide the link below if someone is interested:
Those were the immediate consequences of deforestation and other human environmental impacts. The further consequences were starvation, a population crash, and a descent into cannibalism. Surviving islanders' accounts of hunger are graphically confirmed by the proliferation of little statues called moai kavakava, depicting starving people with hollow cheeks and protruding ribs. Captain Cook in 1774 described the islanders as "small, lean, timid, and miserable." Numbers of house sites in the coastal lowlands, where almost everybody lived, declined drastically in the 1700s from peak values between approximately 1400 and 1600, suggesting a corresponding decline in numbers of people. In place of their former sources of wild meat, islanders turned to the largest hitherto unused source available to them: humans, whose bones became common not only in proper burials but also (cracked to extract the marrow) in late Easter Island garbage heaps. Oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth."

Twilight at Easter
 The text is in the archive  of the Forest Organization and the story about the islanders is not fiction like Robinson Crusoe, but based on real histotical facts. The future and fate of our planet ,as Diamond(the author) infers, could be similar in a century or two due to cataclisms and resource depletion. It is, of course, one of the worst-case-scenarios, but is worth considering it...
I have never heard of James Lovelock before, but I really interested about his theory and concerned by it.
May to some of us it is more a fiction and a distant problem, but some facts are already present.Look i.e. that it is the coldest winter since 80 years in Russia and some parts of Europe; the floods in some US states a couple of years ago;my father is a hunter and told me that the game in Bulgaria is decreasing...
Many more examples could be added, but the major problem is that people do not care. They think: well, I will be dead in 70 years, why is this my concern?
And it is your concern because your children and grandchildren (the most beloved ones) will be doomed to terrible life because of our unlimited greed and despite our praised human progress.

I'm not ugly,but my beauty is a total creation.Hegel
by Chris on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 05:30:49 PM EST
I would like to know what his opinion is of raising the world's background radiation--currently some 100 millirem per year--by a factor of ten or a hundred.  

That this would be bad for humans, raising not only cancer levels--but more importantly--genetic birth defects, goes without saying, although perhaps this is minor!? considering the alternatives.  

Does the deep water disposal of nuclear wastes have a connection to observed disruptions of oceanic life (desertification of the mid-oceans)?  If not, why not?  If so, what would be the effect of multiply these disruption?  

What does he think of the "dead zone" in the Ukraine and Belyrus?  We would be seeing more of those, too.  

Right now we are creating a sharp geological boundary, with a very different geological and biological era to follow.  If we go nuclear, we will create (nuclear) effects that persist beyond the boundary and into and throughout the following geological age.  

I really respect Lovelock, so I will accord him the possibilities that these questions have answers, but if he knows something about the nuclear scenerio that I do not, I would really like to hear about it.

The outlook for cockroaches is good.

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 06:44:06 PM EST
Remember the Doomsday Clock of the BAS?

Maybe we should have somewhere online a Cockroach Clock, counting down to the moment when the hardy and patient cockroaches come into their kingdom...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 07:28:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]


The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 01:05:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you want to know what the "dead zone" straddling Ukraine and Belarus looks like, go here.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 17th, 2006 at 01:15:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Every age has its prophets. It's a shame Lovelock has abandoned his science and has turned into a white-robed prophet on a pedestal. Although the concept of Gaia has a lot to go for, one I think worthy of, the rhetoric that Lovelock posts in The Independent gets me into complete "hackles up" mode.

The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth's physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years.

Deceptive statement, at best. First of, which climate scientists is he talking about? And yes, some see that the condition of the Earth is worsening, and I share that sentiment. But the 100.000 years fever is Lovelock's notion, and not shared with all those scientists. Some of them, I reckon, would agree. However, I have a big problem with Lovelock attaching his notion onto the entire community of climatology, as if there is a consensus. There is not.

Anyone who is willing to dive into the literature finds many contradicting reports on the climate: the eco-future of the earth, its temperature, the development of CO2. And I do not mean those projects sponsored by the oil industry - which supply very annoying noise to a serious scientific topic. Yet the eco-future predictions are largely (if not wholly?) based on the estimations of the historic records which are, as I've started to diary, far away from being decided.

And why Lovelock is pushing solely for nuclear energy as the saviour of humankind, just beats me, especially when this forum sees time and again evidence that renewables are not inefficient and not a burden to the economy. For a man as Lovelock I'd have expected that he'd consider the finiteness of nuclear fission on Earth as inferior to the (practically) infinite sources of the more natural wind, sun and wave energy.

Lovelock does here what so many have done: writing "What if" stories. What's worse: he is blithely accepting the death of humankind. Which is contradictive in itself: we screwed up Gaia because of human activity, but if we want to come round, we'll fail since Gaia's future can't be influenced. Let me phrase that in the most equivocal way: Well, huh? But worse, this fatalistic approach encourages people to sit down and let things run as they are. Since we're all doomed anyway, let's just buy a bigger SUV.

It's defeatist to the core and I won't stand for it one bit.

</off rant>

by Nomad on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 07:32:55 PM EST
I guess one could defend the "doomed!" position by analogy, i.e. while it may be true or false it is not inherently irrational to think that "humans have screwed it up, but humans can't fix it."  several examples:

a moron with a hammer can smash a pocketwatch but not put it back together again.  (it takes far less intelligence to break something than to fix it).

systematic abuse of one's health, say by drug/alcohol abuse, determined lethargy and autopathic diet, or careless handling of toxic substances, can produce incurable conditions which no subsequent regret, repentance or reform can remedy.  (not all damage is repairable even with will and intelligence)

a lone human can easily push a car off a cliff but the same human cannot carry that car back up again (nonlinear or entropic effects may require far more energy to reverse than they took to create).

feedback loops may accelerate and broaden negative consequences faster than the instigator can respond to them (avalanche effect, similar to "car off cliff" but has to do with speed and breadth of knockon effects and synergy between them).

it is therefore possible, even reasonable, to entertain the suspicion that humans have had a brute-force impact on biotic and climate systems whose negative consequences exceed the potential of our knowledge, energy resources, available time, etc. to remedy.


The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 08:10:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
at this point there's no good predictive model that can support or refute Lovelock. He doesn't really have any more of a clue than anyone else, and seems to be just guessing.

Even so the rational thing to do would be to assume the worst, because given the warning signs the risks involved in not doing so are too big to ignore.

Personally I suspect Lovelock may be right about the likely outcome, more or less. It will be either ice or fire, because climate seems to be only metastable, and ice ages and prolonged warm periods seem to be more reliable equilibrium points than the inter-gacial we're used to.

He's completely bonkers about the nuke solution though, for all kinds of reasons.

What's frustrating is that some humans have the intelligence and predictive skills to be able to understand that there's a serious problem. But many don't seem to be able to join the dots.

Not dealing with reality is usually taken as evidence of insanity. So the problem isn't really Gaia or nuclear power, it's the fact that societies always, predictably seem to be poisoned by a hard core of sociopaths and warlords who cause all of the problems for everyone else.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 08:54:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's entertaining, but that's all it is. Lovelock, however, is humourless in his assessment.

Always boils down to saying whether the glass is half full or half empty. I'm saying it is half full. Lovelock is draining the glass and walks away.

As for your astute analogies, the one contention I have is that many are all "Arrow of Time" on lifeless things. Gaia, as concept, is a living entity and hence shows resilience. If a lion is bitten by a poisonous snake, rendering her severely weakened, it can get killed of by hyenas, but given enough time, she'll recover. One of your examples got that, too:

systematic abuse of one's health, say by drug/alcohol abuse, determined lethargy and autopathic diet, or careless handling of toxic substances, can produce incurable conditions which no subsequent regret, repentance or reform can remedy.

Yes, but the drug/alcohol abuse did stop, did it not? Perhaps the upshot is that humans will live in an impoverished earth, with a diminished bio-diversity (something we're hard on the way to do, not just by global warming), but we live on. Life is learned by hard lessons.

by Nomad on Tue Feb 14th, 2006 at 03:38:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Yet the eco-future predictions are largely (if not wholly?) based on the estimations of the historic records which are, as I've started to diary, far away from being decided."

I'm a bit confused here. There is broad agreement among climate scientists that the temperature is rising, that the rise is due to CO2 from burning fossil fuel, and that people did the burning. Some debate about rates and the shapes of future curves exists, but there is essentially no sensible disagreement with the primary point.

The argument is not that all the people will die. (At least not as a direct result of climate change. There could easily be a global plage worse than the Black Death.) The argument is that first, lots of poor people will die because big cities tend to be on coasts, and they will be flooded. And then second, that efforts to fix the problem will be extremely disruptive to the global economy.

by asdf on Mon Feb 13th, 2006 at 10:50:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And then second, that efforts to fix the problem will be extremely disruptive to the global economy.

Seems to me that not doing something about the problem is going to be at least as disruptive to the "global economy" [not sure I don't consider that phrase to be as much a euphemism as "collateral damage", but anyway...] -- I would consider the loss of a premiere deep water port (New Orleans) to be a rather significant event for global trade, not to mention the rapidly-mounting toll in coastal property damage which has the biggest insurance cartels worried.  The increase in the territory and rapidity of transmission of tropical pests and diseases promises all kinds of expensive disruptive effects.  Crop failures?  failure of water sources?  famine?  water wars?  All pretty disruptive, unless we define "global economy" as strictly the trade in slaves, guns, drugs, etc (which ought to see a boom under dystopian, miserable, and chaotic conditions).

In other words, complaining about the costs to "the global economy" of taking preventive or (too late for prevention) ameliorative or remedial measures to curb carbon emissions, seems to me kind of like having potentially terminal cancer and complaining about the cost of treatment.  The cure would have to be pretty damned awfully bad to be worse than the disease, no?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Tue Feb 14th, 2006 at 01:21:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There is broad agreement among climate scientists that the temperature is rising, that the rise is due to CO2 from burning fossil fuel, and that people did the burning. Some debate about rates and the shapes of future curves exists, but there is essentially no sensible disagreement with the primary point.

  1. Global warming is a fact
  2. The rising CO2 levels are related to the burning fossil fuel of humans
  3. CO2 can contribute to rising temperatures - but how much does not seem clear.

I used to be a fervent believer in the disruptive effect of CO2, but the more I'm reading, the more it seems to me that the causal link is not as strong as I was initially taught. The most authoritative research on climate research, dubbed the Hockeystick, is under full scale attack - not all climatologists, but by specialists nonetheless, who make solid points. Look at the recent diary of Ferdinand for example . Broad agreement among climatologists doesn't make them; and the broad agreement isn't so broad as you may think. There's a lot of dissent out there.

The argument is that first, lots of poor people will die because big cities tend to be on coasts, and they will be flooded. And then second, that efforts to fix the problem will be extremely disruptive to the global economy.

First argument of Lovelock: at best, a good reason to start researching protective measures (which he does not suggest). At worst, alarmist talk to push his nuclear agenda.

Second argument: Rubbish. It will be disruptive if we make it disruptive. If we want to make it disruptive, we shut out alternative energy policies while we solely rely on oil until the last drop is pumped to the surface. Smooth transition is the key. And if you've concerns by the CO2 levels already in the atmosphere, creating underground CO2 reservoirs and CO2 sequestering are no longer just fantasy. They will cost, yes, but disruptive? Hardly. Not more disruptive than the International Space Station is disruptive to the economy.

by Nomad on Tue Feb 14th, 2006 at 03:22:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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