The Vanishing Face of Gaia by James Lovelock
He Knew He Was Right by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin
James Lovelock is a creative scientist and inventor, a visionary thinker, and a fascinating individual. Not the least remarkable thing about him is that at the age of 89 he still writes clearly and beautifully. The Vanishing Face of Gaia is his second book on global warming and covers much the same ground as The Revenge of Gaia, published in 2006. However, both books, indeed all his books, contain interesting and often charming excursions into a number of topics scientific, personal, and speculative.
Lovelock believes that it is not possible to understand the looming global warming crisis and to know what to do about it without taking Gaia into account. The name Gaia, which was suggested to him 40 years ago by his country neighbour, the novelist William Golding, is the ancient Greeks’ goddess of Earth and is the etymological root of words such as geology. By Gaia, Lovelock means that the biosphere – the totality of life on Earth – regulates itself and the air, water and rocks upon which it depends so as to maintain favourable conditions for itself. Lovelock promotes Gaia as both a public religion (we humans need to realise that we are merely parts of a larger organism) and as a scientific theory (the biosphere should be studied as a self-regulating system analogous to an organism).
The current scientific consensus on global warming, as represented by the assessment reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is far off the mark, according to Lovelock. Consensus has no legitimate role in science. It’s rather a way of resolving political differences than pursuing truth. Moreover, this specific consensus is based on agreeing that computer models can predict what global temperatures will be in 50 or 100 years, which Lovelock argues is preposterous. Instead of models, science must be based on observations and measurements.
What do observations and measurements tell us about the global climate? Lovelock says that the evidence is unambiguous: the rate of warming is much faster than predicted by the computer model forecasts of steady, gradual warming. The almost certain result is that the self-regulating feedbacks that maintain the climate in its current rather cool state will collapse and the climate will change suddenly to a much hotter state.
That is fine for Gaia, which looks after itself, but spells calamity for humankind. Lovelock believes that jumping to a hot climate is probably inevitable and that most of the Earth will become desert. Human beings, if they are clever enough to save themselves, will be able to survive only in the most northern and southern land masses and on a few islands, including the British Isles. This hot new world will support at most a billion people.
Thus for Lovelock the programme undertaken with the Kyoto Protocol to try to limit warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is catastrophically foolish. We should be concentrating on how to adapt to the hotter world. Even if it is not too late to stop global warming, Lovelock cannot contain his scorn for the promoters of wind farms and biofuels and for the silly people who adopt a green lifestyle to lower their carbon footprints. Instead of windmills and fuel from crops, which will enrich special interest groups without reducing emissions, Lovelock argues that the only effective measures are geo-engineering (that is, climate modification by means such as adding aerosols to the upper atmosphere or increasing algae growth in the oceans) and a crash programme to build nuclear reactors.
It is with Lovelock’s enthusiasm for nuclear power that his fundamental disagreement with and antipathy for the Green movement becomes most apparent. The Greens have turned people against nuclear power with “a concatenation of lies”. Ironically, Lovelock acknowledges that he played a small but essential role in creating modern environmentalism. His invention of the electron capture detector in 1957 provided Rachel Carson with evidence that industrial toxins were present in everything, including human tissue. Lovelock points out that everyone knows that the dose makes the poison. Minute traces of chemicals pose no threat to human beings, nor do the low levels of radiation found in nuclear waste. The most potent carcinogen, Lovelock observes, is oxygen.
Blatantly dishonest opposition to nuclear power is not, however, the heart of Lovelock’s hatred of what he calls the “urban green ideology” and which he describes as perhaps the most deadly and most environmentally damaging of all ideologies. Lovelock has spent most of his life working as an independent scientist, that quaintest of callings, partly because it suits his quirky character, but largely because it has allowed him to live in that quaintest of locales, the English countryside. He deeply loves the landscape that has been intensively managed by people since time out of mind and that he has watched over the course of his life being destroyed by mechanised agriculture. Now, what’s left is being obliterated by hundreds of thousands of acres of crops to produce biofuels, and the views are being ruined by gigantic windmills.
Lovelock blames this destruction on “urban imperialist infiltrators” who know nothing of the beauties of plants and animals or the pleasures of country life and who have been duped by the Greens into thinking that the worst things imaginable are trace pesticides in their food, or electricity provided by politically incorrect sources. As a countryman who is passionate about the country and who sees citification as the greatest threat to what is best in being human, Lovelock draws on a much deeper stream of Western culture than is present in his Gaia theory. He partakes of the tradition represented by Henry Williamson and J. R. R. Tolkien in England in the 20th century and by Coleridge and Wordsworth in the 19th.
I recommend The Vanishing Face of Gaia as a book worth reading, despite the fact that I disagree with both Lovelock and the conventional alarmists that global warming is a crisis. I agree with Lovelock on consensus, the computer models and on the primacy of observation. But he seems unaware of the wide array of observational evidence that does not support his position. For example, he quotes one study that sea levels are now rising at a rate much faster than the models predict. That study is not supported by the scientific literature or by the satellite measurements of sea levels that have recently become available. Lovelock is not alone in this: my experience is that global warming alarmism depends on cherry-picking the evidence.
Even on the small chance that he is right that we face a much hotter world, there have been similar climate eras in Earth’s history that were times of lush vegetation and a flourishing of the biosphere rather than widespread droughts and deserts. That’s not necessarily due to temperature: plants need carbon dioxide to photosynthesise and higher carbon dioxide levels cause nearly all classes of plants to grow more vigorously and to withstand adversity better, as hundreds of agricultural experiments have demonstrated. Maybe Lovelock is right, but he pushes it much too far. He claims that humanity would have done better causing the next ice age to start “even though we would have had to abandon much of the northern temperate land to the glaciers” (including much of Britain).
I would like the chance to discuss the entire issue with Lovelock and would undoubtedly profit handsomely from listening to him. That is because he is a most unusually open and honest scientist in today’s global warming debate. Unlike most of the scientists pushing alarmism, Jim Lovelock does not mould the scientific evidence to fit a political agenda. Instead of dismissing global warming sceptics as “deniers”, he praises Nigel Lawson’s sceptical book, An Appeal To Reason: “…I applaud his astringency and his disapproval of the trendy populism that now attaches to anything and everything seen as Green.”
And if I have serious philosophical doubts about Gaia, it goes without saying that I agree with Lovelock on windmills and biofuels, nuclear reactors, Rachel Carson and pesticides, urban green imperialist ideology and the ridiculous and futile commitments to reduce emissions.
John and Mary Gribbin’s He Knew He Was Right is advertised by the publisher Allen Lane as the “definitive, authorised biography” of Lovelock. It’s not remotely definitive, but it’s not as bad as the Trollopian title portends. The Gribbins recount many episodes large and small in Lovelock’s life based on conversations with him and on his autobiography. They also provide much historical background on climate science and on the precursors of Gaia theory.
Their aim is to show Gaia as one of the great breakthroughs in the history of science and Lovelock as Gaia’s prophet. This is bad enough, but they then shorten their book’s shelf life by tying it all up to the global warming fad.
As an uncritical look at some episodes in Lovelock’s scientific career and life, the book cannot compete with Lovelock’s own autobiography, Homage to Gaia, because it lacks Lovelock’s charm. But it does have one or two moments that reveal his remarkable character. In a chapter titled “What doesn’t kill you makes you strong”, the Gribbins recount Lovelock’s coronary problems that almost killed him because he didn’t want to have surgery in the United States in 1972 on the grounds that it would cost too much. After a decade of misdiagnoses and delay, during which he might have had a fatal heart attack at any time, the National Health Service finally operated in 1982. The bypass was “a complete success”.
Unfortunately, a catheter had not been sterilised properly due to a labour dispute that was taken out on patients by working to rule. The result has been continual urinary tract infections, at least 40 operations, and “pain and misery that persists to the present day”. The Gribbins cheerily report that Lovelock “holds no ill will towards the hospital or the National Health Service. If anything, his experiences over the next 25 years reinforced his belief in a free medical service available to all.”