Go nuclear or end up poles apart

The Revenge of Gaia
February 3, 2006

The scientific measurement of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, the chief cause of global warming, began in the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58, with sampling at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii by the US chemist Charles David Keeling. It shows, beyond dispute even by the present US Government, that since then carbon dioxide concentration has increased from about 315 to more than 375 parts per million. The estimated pre-industrial concentration was 5ppm. The predicted figure for the mid-century, according to most commentators - including James Lovelock in his new book - is 500ppm, almost twice the pre-industrial level.

In the 1980s, before this became headline news, Keeling remarked presciently: "If you're going to be sceptical about climatic change, you can stonewall for a heck of a long time before you have to be convinced. If there are economic reasons not to believe in solid evidence, you won't.

That's why two thirds of Congress, I would predict, won't agree to do something about the greenhouse effect until we are practically into the doubling, in the middle of the next century."

Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia is intended to give a sharp jolt to political complacency and to shock us into taking responsibility for dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its subtitle is "Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity". None of Lovelock's four previous books on Gaia has been doom-laden like this one.

In the final paragraph, he foresees, within the lifetimes of today's younger people, a planet where only the polar regions remain habitable and the inhabitants of the arid deserts of the lower latitudes must trek wearily to the poles if they are to have any chance of survival. "I see them in the desert as the dawn breaks and the sun throws its piercing gaze across the horizon at the camp. The cool fresh night air lingers for a while and then, like smoke, dissipates as the heat takes charge. Their camel wakes, blinks and slowly rises on her haunches. The few remaining members of the tribe mount. She belches, and sets off on the long unbearably hot journey to the next oasis."

This is the stuff of science-fiction novels and Hollywood disaster movies.

But because it comes from Lovelock it should be taken seriously. Not only is he a major scientist and inventor, courted by academics in several disciplines as well as by green activists and commercial corporations, but he is also a fascinating human being in the long, honourable but threatened tradition of British eccentrics independent of institutions and the establishment. Flawed though it is, The Revenge of Gaia is a short, important book that we should all try to find time to read.

Two chapters are taken up with Lovelock's theory of Gaia, the idea that the Earth is alive, a self-regulating super-organism that has been given a "fever" by human abuse and that will reject us if we persist in our profligate ways. Here, Lovelock marshals the latest scientific support from others for the truth of his theory. He notes proudly: "It is based on observations and theoretical models; it is fruitful and has made ten successful predictions." Many, but by no means all, Earth scientists would agree.

The remainder is devoted to rousing the reader and to proposing solutions to the environmental mess we have created. Much of it is fresh and thought-provoking, as expected of Lovelock. "What a stunningly good invention was the mobile telephone: it exploits the universal tendency of humans to chatter and obliges us to consume hours of the day at minimal energy cost" - instead of travelling to meet people by carbon-dioxide-spewing aircraft and automobile. But there is also a tendency to fall into empty rhetoric: "Like an old lady who has to share her house with a destructive group of teenagers, Gaia grows angry, and if they do not mend their ways she will evict them." Go easy on the metaphors, Jim.

The religious overtones of Gaia have always irritated many scientists, and here - unlike in the earlier books - one can easily see why. Lovelock is trying to have his cake and eat it: Gaia theory is science, but it is also religion. It is embarrassing to read his comparison of Gaia with "other mythic goddesses, Khali and Nemesis", on the grounds that a mother goddess nurtures but is ruthless with transgressors. Not only is Kali misspelt (the publishers seem not to have copy-edited the book), this goddess is one of the most objectionable and irrational manifestations of Hinduism. Surely Lovelock would not have drawn such a facile analogy if he knew more about Kali. His comparison is almost as misjudged as his assertion that Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, was a "peaceful" man - but perhaps more excusable.

Which brings me to the most controversial aspect of the book: its fervent espousal of the need to replace coal, gas and oil burning with nuclear fission. Lovelock has long favoured nuclear power and has even offered to accept on his land in rural Devon a year's output of high-level waste from a nuclear power station. His book argues that no other source of energy will be sufficient and available in time to save us from the environmental apocalypse. With scientific facts and independent statistics, he dismisses the risks from nuclear waste and nuclear accidents such as the one at Chernobyl. Many will strongly dissent from his conclusions, but to me, a non-expert, his pro-nuclear arguments make a lot of sense. Whether he is right in thinking that unlimited, controllable fusion (as opposed to fission) energy - the energy of the Sun and the hydrogen bomb - is now just around the corner, as has been promised for some decades, is less persuasive. I hope so - and that I live to see that wonderful fossil-fuel-free dawn.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher , is the author of Earthshock .

The Revenge of Gaia

Author - James Lovelock
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 177
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9914 4

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