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The point of no return

The Revenge of Gaia

By James Lovelock

Allen Lane, 2006, £16.99

Reviewed by Pete Mason

THE PUBLICATION of James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia made front-page news. The Independent’s banner headline, above a darkened earth, read: "Green guru says: ‘We are past the point of no return’." (16 January) Few scientists can speak with more authority than Lovelock, founder of ‘Gaia theory’, on the environmental calamity facing the earth’s population. His latest book is controversial, passionate, brisk and alarming.

Lovelock’s approach is holistic: only a whole earth approach to global warming, or "heating" as he prefers to call it, should guide attempts to solve this problem, otherwise the cure may be worse than the disease. Lovelock’s approach led him to the Gaia theory in the late 1960s, which treats the earth as a single living organism. (Gaia was the ancient Greeks’ goddess of the earth.) Scientists now agree: "The earth system behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components". (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], 2001)

Over the last three billion years or so, whilst our neighbouring planet Venus fried (at up to 480°C) and Mars froze (-63°C), the earth remained temperate. Yet, Lovelock explains: "Only for a brief period in the earth’s history was the sun’s warmth ideal for life, and that was about two billion years ago… In about one billion years, and long before the sun’s life ends, the heat received by the earth will be more than two kilowatts per square metre, which is more than the Gaia we know can stand". Currently, we receive 1.35 kilowatts per square metre of energy from the sun.

The sun was roughly 25% less luminous when life began on earth. Various natural cycles developed which ensured that the earth remained sufficiently temperate for life to survive and flourish. Lovelock argues that, "what evolves is the whole earth system with its living and non-living parts existing as a tight coupled entity".

But Lovelock appears to go too far: he complains that scientists will not accept "the goal of the self-regulating earth, which is, according to my theory, to sustain habitability". He attributes to Gaia a mystical, goal-seeking ability, and scientists are surely right to resist this teleological concept of the pursuit of an ultimate purpose. This is how Lovelock gained his ‘New Age’ following in the 1970s.

His first opponent was Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. Lovelock says the argument is now settled: "classical reductionist terms" simply cannot explain the emergence of the complex web of self-regulation of Gaia, he says. Lovelock refuses to reduce things to simple known quantities.

The sun is 25% hotter now – equivalent, Lovelock says, to raising the temperature of the earth’s surface by 20°C – yet Gaia has maintained a habitable climate. This effort is already stressing the earth’s systems. Now human activity has forced the earth’s temperature up by nearly one degree in an instant of geological time. If one degree doesn’t seem much, Lovelock gives a difference of only 3°C in average temperature between the long glacial periods and the current temperate but unstable ‘interglacial’ period.

The IPCC projects a possible 5°C rise this century. A 5°C rise reduces most of the earth’s surface to desert and scrub. The seas rise 80 metres, and since most cities lie on the coast or waterways they will be lost, most likely in sudden catastrophic events such as the hurricane which struck New Orleans in 2005. In Lovelock’s tentative yet compelling Armageddon, humans survive in the polar regions without any semblance of civilisation.

"I think that we reject the evidence that our world is changing because we are still… tribal carnivores", Lovelock argues. Here is the basic flaw of the book. In effect, Lovelock attributes global warming to our ‘original sin’. Compare this to the article, It’s Capitalism or a Habitable Planet, in the Guardian (2 February). The article explains that "private ownership of trade and industry" comprises the decisive political force in the world. It concludes: "Only by breaking up corporate power and bringing it under social control will we be able to overcome the global environmental crisis". Beyond this the article betrays the anarchistic leanings of the author, anti-capitalist writer and broadcaster Robert Newman but, in publishing it, the Guardian reflects an anti-capitalist consciousness essentially lacking in The Revenge of Gaia.

Lovelock presents a desolate plea to governments and big business to build nuclear power stations as a temporary measure because they are "clean" and he sees no immediate alternative. They can bury the radioactive waste from one power station in his back garden: "I would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat my home".

The Revenge of Gaia is a sustained argument for nuclear power – just as the UK government is moving in the same direction. But many people correctly distrust the ability of ‘corporate power’ and pro-capitalist governments to operate safe nuclear power. This is not even addressed by Lovelock.

Yet twice Lovelock asks: "Why on earth, you may ask, can’t we use solar energy directly? It must amount to far more than even our present needs". He replies, "mostly because… [solar cells] are quite expensive to make". This is a common plea yet, as Mike Hamer in the New Scientist explains, production runs for solar panels are still small "so individual units are expensive". (21 January)

Compare the cost of solar panels to computers. Computers are produced in vast quantities and can sell at a tenth of the price, yet are hugely more complex, arise from enormous research budgets and, in addition, bear the costs of duplication of R&D by competing firms, and the continual redundancy and retooling typical of rapacious capitalist wastefulness. With a socialist plan of production, solar panels could be produced for every roof, utilising vast economies of scale, reducing the cost to a vanishing fraction of their current cost.

Lovelock wonders whether roofing materials could be developed to convert sunlight to electricity, yet they already can. A socialist society could tile every roof with robust solar tiles (which even today are designed to connect to the national grid) and could absorb the entire cost, offset against long-term savings and the prize of saving the planet. Occupants could benefit with vastly reduced fuel bills. This approach alone – and it could be one of many – could solve our energy needs and more. (See note)

But energy corporations are directly threatened by decentralised, localised solar energy production. A socialist, democratically planned society could use some of the billions of profit from the oil companies for solar energy programmes.

Lovelock mentions that coal and oil burning power stations are rarely more than 40% efficient – "the other 60% escapes as waste heat". Another 10% of electricity is lost down power lines. Greenpeace points out that producing energy where it is needed would halt this enormous waste. Lovelock raises common concerns such as storage, which arise only if power generation is centralised in vast energy plants.

He complains that anti-nuclear campaigners link nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council because of its nuclear power programme shows they are linked. Lovelock’s approach is naïve at the very least. The UK government has in the past favoured nuclear power plant designs which require highly enriched, or even weapons-grade, fuel.

We face an "imminent shift in our climate to one that could easily be described as hell", Lovelock says. Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas which is the main cause of global warming, can easily be extracted from the air, Lovelock demonstrates, mixed with an igneous rock called serpentine and made into bricks. ‘Clean’ energy, such as solar power, is plentiful only if collected and used in a socially distributed fashion – a literal ‘power to the people’ shared through the national grid – as part of a national and international, democratically agreed energy plan. The problem lies not with technology but with the unplanned and extraordinarily wasteful system we live in.

Note: Research shows that two or three well designed solar panel installations per house in the UK (covering roughly one third of the average sized roof) would provide enough energy for almost all domestic requirements in the UK through most of the year (three times the requirement in the summer months). Domestic energy consumption is roughly one third of the total of domestic, industry and transport energy consumption in the UK. (Department of Trade and Industry, 2004)


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