The Vanishing Face of Gaia, A Final Warning – James Lovelock
pub. Allen Lane, London, 2009
James Lovelock, a man who was in his late 80s when he wrote this book, is universally recognized as the man who gave the world the “Gaia Theory”. Lovelock, however, is not going quietly into that good night, but is burning and raving at the close of day, and is now one of the most effective voices warning us about the dangers our world now faces from the climate change transition that we are now experiencing. He is one of those, “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight,” as Dylan Thomas put it.
This is an excellent book, short, well-argued and the work of a man who has thought long and hard about our problems. He is dismissive of “Greens” and those who believe that driving hybrids, recycling rubbish and reducing our C02 emissions will now make a difference. As Lawrence Bloom expressed it, we are not going to see a “reboot” of our system, and according to Lovelock we now have to look beyond the misery and pain, that we inevitably face over the coming decades, to a world where a much smaller human population survives on those parts of the planet that are not too hot for human life. This book covers much of the same ground as his “The Revenge of Gaia” which was published in 2006, but “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” has more bite and Lovelock is far more explicit in his view that we now face the loss (or “cull”) of a significant percentage of the human population of Earth. It could be said that he covers similar ground to Fred Pearce’s “The Last Generation” (2006), but because of his reputation Lovelock’s analysis undoubtedly carries greater weight.
In his opinion the role of humanity is, “to survive and to live in way that gives evolution beyond us the best chance.” Lovelock’s hope is that, “we might evolve into a species that can regulate itself and be a beneficial part of Gaia”, and says that he wonders, “if in the great gene pool of all humanity there are the genes that could be selected to meet this goal.”
Although his conclusions may be shocking, or just unbelievable for most of his readers, I actually believe that he is essentially correct. Lovelock says that the disease which afflicts the Earth is not just climate change, but the loss of biodiversity and the other consequences of human over-population. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) published its Living Planet Report in 2004 and estimated that humanity currently needs 1.2 planets to support its use of the Earth’s resources. Lovelock says that Gaia’s illness could be called “polyanthroponemia”, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good. He notes that, “There may be nothing we can do to stop the adverse changes now in progress.”
Lovelock says that the long held human perception is that the Earth is “an infinite resource”, and that only now are we beginning to glimpse the possibility that the Earth is a finite resource which may soon be empty; our error has been to take more than the Earth renews. Lovelock envisages that the Earth will stabilize its climate at a significantly higher temperature, which will support a reduced human population in the current temperate and arctic regions. Some people, such as David Wasdell, believe that we are actually very close to a tipping point where rising temperatures release enormous quantities of oceanic methane, creating very high temperatures, which would destroy all human life on Earth. Lovelock does not address this possibility, but in fact this is really an academic point; if humanity is facing extinction soon, there is little that we can do, we can only plan for a world where a number of humans survive. We need to focus on the resilience of the areas that could possibly survive. At present that is actually planning for the best, rather than the worst. We live in a moment in time when all our assumptions are crashing around our ears, but humans are very good at hoping for the best and ignoring the real dangers they face in the world. Lovelock says it like it is, and few other people have the courage to do so. You would do well to re-read this book and to absorb the information it contains.
In this book Lovelock continually focuses on Gaia and her role in regulating life on Earth. He says that humanity failed to realize that ultimately harm to the Earth system, Gaia, was more serious than harm to humanity. Lovelock believes that for long Gaia protected herself from human interventions by using negative feedback systems, but that now she seems to be giving up the struggle and is preparing to flee to a safer place, a hot state with a stable climate.
In my opinion there has been too much attention, in the past, given to Lovelock’s dislike of wind turbines and his support for nuclear power. Like it, or not, nuclear power is far less likely to kill us than greenhouse gases and in some parts of the world, such as the northwest of Scotland, wind turbines are a variable energy source, though in many other parts of the world they are, as he claims, a political symbol of “green energy”. The accounts of his life in rural Devon are interesting, not an essential part of the book, but they add colour. Lovelock also cites recent research by scientists such as Jim Hansen and Peter Scott and he provides excellent arguments as to why we cannot rely on the IPCC’s modelling and that the observed increases in the melting of Arctic ice, glacial losses and sea-level rise exceed those generally predicted by models. “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” is worth reading just for this logical and clear explanation of the problem. He emphasizes that we cannot expect climate to “follow the smooth path of slowly but sedately rising temperatures predicted by the IPCC; he notes that the recent events in the financial markets have shown us how quickly systems can change from one state to another.
Lovelock is not offering a solution, this book is precisely what it says it is, a final warning. He acknowledges that our world will soon face famine and that humanity will be culled by climate increasing temperatures, sea-level rise and the increasing lack of food and water to support our billions. He says that mass migrations are inevitable and that the more favoured countries, like the United Kingdom will need to significantly increase their defence expenditure, his implication is that the main purpose of the armed forces will be to keep climate change migrates from landing in the UK, because it will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to provide food for the current population of such a small island from its own resources. In North America the logic of Lovelock’s arguments is that Canada will be seen as a refugee for those fleeing the United States. If an American government remains in being it will probably decide to invade Canada to secure access to key resources such as food and water. David Zhang, and others, published an article in 2007 which demonstrated that the frequency of wars, population decline and famine since 1400 have followed the cycles of temperature change.
In conclusion I strongly recommend that you read this short and very readable book. It’s message is a hard one, but it is better to be informed than ignorant, and by some miracle humanity may even wake up to the severity of the problem and take real measures (including dramatic restrictions on human reproduction and the conversion of the population to a vegetarian diet) which will take pressure off Gaia.
© Andrew Palmer, 2009