Tuesday, 15 September 2009

'The revenge of Gaia' by James Lovelock

Gaia is the Greek Goddess of the earth, and is the name used to describe the complex, inter-related system by which our planet has sustained life for over 3,000 million years. The description of this self-regulating system was first published by the eminent British scientist, James Lovelock, in 1979. He has thereby strongly influenced scientific thinking, though he has not convinced all. His contribution has been valuable in getting scientists to think outside the silo of their specialisations, and has helped the world understand climate change better, since it requires linkages

This book is relatively short, but full of punchy facts and opinions. It is a judicious mix of science and clear, passionate explanation. It is a little quirky, but I think the personal element he includes improves the appeal of the book (as with Al Gore’s ‘An inconvenient truth’). However this book is dark and full of dire warnings. He argues, convincingly, that climate change is real, happening now and bound to accelerate. This is not a benign process (as some commentators jokingly refer to better weather in Britain etc). It threatens the existence of the present forms of life of earth. Gaia has no attachment to any particular form of life. Humans numbers will be drastically reduced by climate change. Some of us may survive in a primitive, brutal world, but our civilization will be lost.

Lovelock clearly explains the mechanisms and causes of climate change, mainly caused by human-created greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide and methane). Most frightening are the number of positive feedback loops which will speed the process, once a tipping point is reached. That tipping point may have been passed. Those positive feedback effects include the following: the reduction of ice cover at the poles reduces albedo, reflecting less heat back into space; the thawing of the tundra causes the frozen vegetation to rot, releasing huge amounts of methane; even small increases in heat will probably reduce tropical jungle cover, removing a major contributor to global cooling; small increases in sea temperature will expand the blue, desert ocean waters where no algae grow to absorb carbon dioxide and generate white cloud cover…

The dire consequences for mankind centre on the loss of food and water resources to sustain our massive population. Widespread starvation and warfare are the probably outcome, and a rapid fall in population. In Lovelock’s thesis forms of life that do not contribute to the wellbeing of Gaia will be eliminated, or drastically curtailed – hence the ‘revenge’ of Gaia, directed against Homo Sapiens.

In reviewing what to do, he summarises the choices for energy sources. He points out the weakness of most proposed solution, as is especially scathing about wind power. He argues for Nuclear power as the obvious and urgent solution to keep civilization running. I reached the same conclusion myself when I did some research on this topic 2/3 years ago. Since this view remains a minority view, it will not happen in the next couple of decades. When the need for it is realised, it may be too late, and our countryside covered with eternally noisy, thrumming windmills.

In this chapter I learned the particularly malign effects of natural gas. Although burnt gas leaves no noxious carbon dioxide residue, un-burnt gas (i.e. methane) is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Inevitably gas escapes from pipes and even from our kitchen gas rings. If only 2% escapes (as many engineers estimate) it is producing a huge greenhouse effect.

Apart from the prescription of switching to nuclear power, his other major recommendation is an immediate cessation of destroying natural landscapes, particularly tropical jungle, for farming. Tropical forests are the most effective land-based cooling systems for the world climate. Cutting and burning the jungles, as happens on a massive scale in Brazil, Indonesia and other countries, contributes up to 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year. Since this process is patently not stopping, I suspect we are on the road to disaster.

I read this book from the shelves of my father, whilst on holiday in Cape Town. My father is passionately interested in this topic and other issues connected with climate change, energy and economics. Ironically, I encountered many examples of the effects of climate change during my short holiday. Scientists are highly confident that the Fynbos vegetation of the Cape will drastically shrink in the next 50 years, losing biodiversity and ground cover. Long term trends for rainfall show a decline in that region, and long term water supplies are becoming scarce (whilst the population in the city continues to expand rapidly, requiring more food, water, energy and destruction of natural vegetation). Many fish stocks have declined precipitously and the only fish available in the local ‘sushi’ shop is imported farmed salmon!

Flying home, I looked out the window of my jet. I saw the hot streams of air racing out of the four jet engines, burning more fossil fuels and depositing carbon dioxide in the sensitive stratosphere. I looked down at the Namibian and Saharan deserts, which stretched beneath as far as the eye could see. The desert is fascinating and beautiful, but I had a vision of it encroaching on the whole world in the next two hundred years. For the first time, the desert seemed sinister and threatening and loathsome. When we finally came over the greenery of Europe I realised that the desert is only fascinating and beautiful when we can return home to a cold beer and a bath. The greenery below, scattered with roads, buildings and whole cities seemed fragile and ephemeral. We approached Heathrow and I envisaged it under fifty feet of water, as will happen if the polar ice melts.

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