Sunday, January 3, 2010

Gaia's gonna get you

James Lovelock is the scientist who first conceptualized the Earth as a living organism. And he named that organism Gaia.  His idea was that life on Earth keeps Earth hospitable to life, generally.  But sadly, as he points out in his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, the Earth goddess Gaia does not necessarily care if one species in particular--ours--survives or disappears. She may have to regulate herself by getting rid of us.

Lovelock sees the Earth as an old lady, as old as himself in fact.   He is in his late eighties, and if life on Earth is 3.5 billion years old, and Gaia will die when the sun burns out in 500 million years, then she's about 88% of the way there.  If a man like Lovelock can live to be 100, and Gaia's "100" is 4 billion, then she's an old lady indeed.

But she is not a loving mother; she is more like the old Hindu goddess Kali who destroys as well as creates.  Lovelock thinks that the chances are good that humans may not survive the coming catastrophe of climate change.  But if it's any consolation, he thinks that life on Earth will survive, and new organisms will evolve to live in its new hot state.  He hopes that humankind will be able to evolve its consciousness to a different one, less predatory and selfish, and more concerned with life on the planet as a whole than simply with individual or species survival.  And if not evolve, then adapt to life on a hotter planet.

Lovelock makes a good case for the fact that the conventional predictions of the pace of warming may be grossly understated.  He shows how global sea level changes are a more accurate way of measuring the amount of heat that the Earth has already absorbed, and by that measure, we are further down the path of climate change than many realize or predicted.  Also, the Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than scientists have predicted. Lovelock emphasizes that when it comes to climate change, change is not linear, but can be quite abrupt and chaotic before the Earth levels out into a new steady, hotter state.

Although Lovelock addresses "solutions" like solar and wind power, he does not see them as real solutions.  In his view, it's all too little, too late. There are too many of us, and solar and wind can't possibly supply enough power for seven billion humans, even if they are willing to make do with less (although he certainly advises us to get ready to make do with less).  He has famously touted nuclear power as a solution, but it's hard to see how this squares with his reverence for Gaia herself.  Putting toxins into her system that will persist for millennia hardly seems like a nice thing to do to an old lady who's already having hot flashes.

Indeed Lovelock is a cranky old guy who for some reason seems to dislike environmentalists.  The chapter "To be or Not Be Green" is a confusing diatribe against the "new breed" of environmentalists who have the gall to be more than just  innocent nature lovers who enjoy a walk in the country from time to time; on the contrary, these new bad environmentalists are political lefties, "partisan and contentious."  You would think that, faced with the extinction of humankind, environmentalists would be praised for going to the ramparts.  But Lovelock longs for the old days when nobody knew that big corporations were injecting poisons not just into birds, but into humans also.  This chapter is odd because in it, Lovelock talks about the near disaster involving CFCs destroying the Earth's ozone layer.  Lovelock apparently had invented a tool that made the measurement of tiny amounts of pollutants possible, and this  tool made the detection of the ozone hole possible.  He seems to be glad this disaster was averted, so why does he resent the politicization of environmental issues so much?  It's not clear.

Another odd thing is the way he seems to see humankind's fouling of its own nest as somehow inevitable, given the way our species evolved. He quotes E. O. Wilson as placing the blame on the fact that we are "tribal carnivores."  Well, maybe some of us are.  But everything was going pretty well until some white male Europeans invented the Industrial Revolution.  At the time, the Romantics knew this was a bad idea, people like William Blake, Ruskin, and William Morris.  But people made fun of the Romantics much as Lovelock mocks environmentalists.  And look what happened.  The fact is that this disaster is the making of a few people, mostly male and mostly European. 

I guess you could go back further and say that everything was going pretty well until these same male Europeans invented patriarchy, war, city states, and slavery. That's the real beginning. But however bad life under patriarchy was, life was still possible. It wasn't until patriarchy and capitalism came up with the internal combustion engine and started burning coal in large quantities that the fate of the human race was sealed.

I hope that Lovelock and Wilson are right, though, in their implication that if we become less carnivorous and less tribal, we might survive. I dream a world of matrilineal vegetarians.  And Gaia, or Kali Ma, or whoever she is, might like us enough to let us survive.

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