(Picture Source: Wikipedia Commons)
I have finally finished James Lovelock's latest book and, unsurprisingly you might think, I can say that it is a very good read. If you haven't already heard of him, James Lovelock is a prestigious scientist who created the Gaia theory back on the 70s and 80s, whereby he postulated the concept that the Earth, comprising of all its biomass, constituent life-forms, rock formations, ocean and climate systems, is in fact one life-form in itself and, by virtue of this, is self-regulating. On the suggestion of his friend, William Golding (the famous author of 'The Lord of the Flies'), he named this organism 'Gaia' after the ancient Greek earth goddess of the same name. His theory was seen as controversial and has often attracted great criticism from other members of the scientific community. However, eight of the predictions which he has deduced from his model have been correct and his ideas have now started to gain wider acceptance.
Consequently, his research and theorem were a major stimulus to the modern Green movement. However, the ironic thing is that he is quite critical of the political elements of this ideology throughout the book. One thing he is clear on, however, is the existence of climate change and the likely effects it will have on the Gaia system in the near future. Professor Lovelock is in his ninetieth year now and has no real agenda to push now, apart from issuing a clear final warning to mankind on the fate which awaits it. We ignore this at our peril.
Basically, the crux of his hypothesis is that climate change is not just as a result of greenhouse emissions through the consumption of fossil fuels. As well as being a natural process, it is also compounded by the fact that there are too many of us and the animals which we cultivate for food for the planet to be able to cope with, as we ourselves produce carbon dioxide and other gases through the process of living. As Gaia is a self-regulating system, it is therefore susceptible to positive feedback. The process of positive, as well as negative feedback is explained simply in the glossary using an example of a car out of control. If the car loses control on a bend, negative feedback is applied when the steering is working correctly and the driver is able to regain control. If it isn't working, then the driver's steering action may contribute to his fate – positive feedback. Positive feedback in the natural world, put simply, implies that any stimulus likely to increase global temperatures, such as increased greenhouse gases, will lead to even more of the same – a further upward trend in temperatures until an equilibrium is reached. Just in the same way that a human body reacts to a virus by increasing its temperature to combat it, so will the Earth, being a self-regulating system, shift its temperature upwards until it stabilises.
This is how I understand it, and the implications for life on Earth as it currently stands is profound. As a result, large areas of the Earth's surface will be subjected to adverse climate conditions, flooding, drought and desertification, thus rendering these places unihabitable. There will also be adverse consequences for the oceans, as their mean temperatures increase, causing the collapse of ecosystems and feedback into the climate. Eventually, Gaia will find a new state of equilibrium but the world will be a different place to what we are used to now.
The implications for humanity may be catastrophic. It will cause a significant impact on our population levels and there will be mass migrations. Certain areas, especially oceanic islands such as Britain, New Zealand and Japan, will become havensin this scenario, and which will then be subject to influxes of refugees. Though they may be spared the worse ravages of climate change, they may still suffer extreme weather events, flooding and the like.
Britain in itself, which at present relies on overseas largely for its food and energy supplies, may find itself susceptible to large shortages of both in future. To Lovelock, this brings home memories of the last time we, as an island, faced a significant internal and external threat, World War II, which he experienced personally. His belief is that we will require another leader of the stature and vision of Churchill to see us through the emergency. If not, then he hints that we could be vulnerable to the worst ravages of tribalism and nationalism.
Lovelock himself (ironically for someone who is seen as a major influencing figure on the Green Movement) is well known to be a strong advocate of nuclear power as a means for this country to ensure energy self-sufficiency. This hasn't made him very popular. However, he does argue the case in his book convincingly and powerfully, and I must say he's won me. Though I would disagree with him that some of the other sources of alternative energy would be of little use (I do agree with him about wind power), I do think that the need to ensure a long term sustainable source of energy can only be satisfied by nuclear in this point in time. Yet, it is a political hot potato. From the wider point of view of whether it could assist in alleviating the threat from climate change, he suggests that it could but thatthe damage is largely done and there is no going back. The same goes for geo-engineering as well, which may only delay the inevitable.
He does state that there may still be some future path altering event which could prevent the onset of global heating, such as a volcanic eruption which could cause the reverse. However, this is by no means certain – and my own view is that who's to say that global heating will be any less catastrophic than warming should it occur? (Think about that super volcano under Yellowstone which is supposed to go off at any time!)
In summation, I found this a very good read and useful as a primer for the background to the fictional scenario for my novel Dragon Line. You may not agree with everything James Lovelock says, but I think that, in the current debate, his writings are extremely important and should be seriously considered by anyone who has concerns about this important issue. Bear in mind, he is not being negative – he merely wishes to warn us of the reality so that we are well prepared. This is fair enougth in my view.
To find out more or read reviews of the book, check out the links to Amazon and Professor Lovelock's website below: