Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lovelock's Fever

This was the article that set off all my alarms. Lovelock is the co-inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis (along with Lynn Margulies). The Gaia Hypothesis states, briefly, that biological and geological processes together have through most of history maintained a stable set of conditions on Earth so that life might flourish. In ways it can be viewed as a strong metaphor that all planetary life processes act as a unified object very much like an organism. Lovelock is primarily an atmospheric chemist, and seems to have a larger overall grasp, both by intuition and in detail, of how the atmosphere behaves. Naturally his work has stirred controversy, and indignant protests that he's exceeding the limited conclusions that can be drawn by strict reductionistic science. The critics make some valid points, but don't diminish the respect he elicits as a man of great understanding and even wisdom.

The following article is copied exactly as I found it on the Common Dreams website. They have consistently had good coverage of current climate news, mixed in with their usual coverage of social and political issues.

Published on Monday, January 16, 2006 by the Independent

The Earth is About to Catch a Morbid Fever That May Last as Long as 100,000 Years
Each nation must find the best use of its resources to sustain civilization for as long as they can

by James Lovelock

Imagine a young policewoman delighted in the fulfilment of her vocation; then imagine her having to tell a family whose child had strayed that he had been found dead, murdered in a nearby wood. Or think of a young physician newly appointed who has to tell you that the biopsy revealed invasion by an aggressive metastasising tumour. Doctors and the police know that many accept the simple awful truth with dignity but others try in vain to deny it.

Whatever the response, the bringers of such bad news rarely become hardened to their task and some dread it. We have relieved judges of the awesome responsibility of passing the death sentence, but at least they had some comfort from its frequent moral justification. Physicians and the police have no escape from their duty.

This article is the most difficult I have written and for the same reasons. My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news.

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. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilization are in grave danger.

Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: 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 percent of the Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.

Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This "global dimming" is transient and could disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and 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.

By failing to see that the Earth regulates its climate and composition, we have blundered into trying to do it ourselves, acting as if we were in charge. By doing this, we condemn ourselves to the worst form of slavery. If we chose to be the stewards of the Earth, then we are responsible for keeping the atmosphere, the ocean and the land surface right for life. A task we would soon find impossible - and something before we treated Gaia so badly, she had freely done for us.

To understand how impossible it is, think about how you would regulate your own temperature or the composition of your blood. Those with failing kidneys know the never-ending daily difficulty of adjusting water, salt and protein intake. The technological fix of dialysis helps, but is no replacement for living healthy kidneys.

My new book, "The Revenge of Gaia" expands these thoughts, but you still may ask why science took so long to recognize the true nature of the Earth. I think it is because Darwin's vision was so good and clear that it has taken until now to digest it. In his time, little was known about the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, and there would have been little reason for him to wonder if organisms changed their environment as well as adapting to it.

Had it been known then that life and the environment are closely coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute the air or use the Earth's skin - its forest and ocean ecosystems - as a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left untouched because they were part of the living Earth.

So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilization is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent. On these British Isles, we are used to thinking of all humanity and not just ourselves; environmental change is global, but we have to deal with the consequences here in the UK.

Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanized as to be like a large city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas.

We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilization the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.

We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.

- - - - -

James Lovelock is an independent environmental scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society. "The Revenge of Gaia," scheduled for release February 2, 2006, is published by Penguin.

© 2006 The Independent


That sent me ino a tailspin. I had visions of social and cultural collapse. Those weren't so bad, certainly there were some good aspects, fewer people and fewer cars etc. That the people were starving to death was not an ideal way of reaching those goals. That many who starved were not the perps of the disaster was unjust beyond the workings of Karma, but somehow not surprising. That they would accept that fate without vengeance seemed unlikely. Gradually arming and increasingly desperate hordes of refugees following the possibility of food for their children and water for their dessicated parents. Met by those unable to help, but aware that they would soon share the fate stalking North. They would be impelled to resist, leading to the wars of the already refugee against the soon-to-be refugee.

Then the visions of biological breakdown started to fill in the details. I tended to think in terms of my familiar setting, small town and rural Eastern Hardwood Forest, Tallgrass Prairie, small hill-country farming landscapes. punctuated with commercial chicken houses and spreading development. I saw the woods dying from lack of rain and too much heat. The grass brown and folded. Piles of stinking dead chickens lost to heat wave induced power failures. Rivers drying, lakes shrinking inside block wide bath-tub rings. Water rationing, wells failing, cattle trucked away for lack of hay and water, not replaced.

Then the fires started. The end of 2005 had the evening news filled with footage of Oklahoma and other Midwestern locales burning, mostly grassland fires, something the prairie has been adapted to. But soon after the dying woods started burning as well, and the fires killed more weakened trees, which dropped more fuel for further rounds of fire. Repeated fires killed off the reproduction in the understory so that nothing was left to replace the lost trees. This is how the woods becomes grassland on its way to being desert, with a possible period of drier adapted pine woods. But the pines, even if they manage to sprout, won't have time to mature, and soon they burn as well. All the landscapes marching north, if they can move fast enough to pace the temperatures. Think of Sonora replacing Eastern Colorado, replacing red-dirt Georgia, replacing the Ozarks, replacing Michigan. And if the temperatures and rainfall don't stabilize, the round of replacement cycles through again.

Whether the wildflowers and turtles, the mushrooms and frogs could keep up was a crap-shoot. I assume the squirrels and mice will do okay, the rabbits will march north with the hawks and coyotes following. Some fast and adaptable critters might thrive. If they can beat the humans to each bite. But most critters will get left behind to wither.

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