Welcome back KOW readers. It feels good to be back to blogging. For my part, I find it a bit like exercise–it feels great and it’s good for you but sometimes for various reasons you just seem to get out of the habit. Anyway, as my inaugural post on the newly-fashioned blog I thought that I would share with you a little article that has caused me to lose some sleep (a thing I very rarely do) over the last while. You may be familiar with Professor James Lovelock. He is the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis which, as I understand it, is basically the idea that the Earth itself is one giant living organism:
We now see that the air, the ocean and the soil are much more than a mere environment for life; they are a part of life itself. Thus the air is to life just as is the fur to a cat or the nest for a bird. Not living but something made by living things to protect against an otherwise hostile world. For life on Earth the air is our protection against the cold depths and fierce radiations of space.
There is nothing unusual in the idea of life on Earth interacting with the air, sea and rocks, but it took a view from outside to glimpse the possibility that this combination might consist of a single giant living system and one with the capacity to keep the Earth always at a state most favorable for the life upon it.
There are many possibilities for comfort as there are for dismay in contemplating the consequences of our membership in this great commonwealth of living things. It may be that one role we play is as the senses and nervous system for Gaia. Through our eyes she has for the first time seen her very fair face and in our minds become aware of herself. We do indeed belong here. The earth is more than just a home, it’s a living system and we are part of it.
I find it a potently poetic and compelling metaphor. I can’t speak of its validity as a scientific theory of ecology–not my area of specialisation; it has, however, proved an extremely influential idea amongst proper scientists and also popularly. Lovelock is famously cantankerous as well as brilliant, a free and independent thinker with not the least hesitation of goring the sacred cows of, most noteworthily, the very environmental activists who might otherwise revere him. I like him.
Some years ago now he was interviewed by the Guardian. You’ll get the gist of the piece from the title ‘James Lovelock: ‘Enjoy life while you can: in 20 years global warming will hit the fan‘ but it’s worth reading the whole thing (if you really want to you can read the book Revenge of Gaia). In a nutshell, we’re headed into a shitschturm (the technical term) and there’s really very little that can be done to forestall it. This is the part that really got my attention:
Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.
Nuclear power, he argues, can solve our energy problem – the bigger challenge will be food. “Maybe they’ll synthesise food. I don’t know. Synthesising food is not some mad visionary idea; you can buy it in Tesco’s, in the form of Quorn. It’s not that good, but people buy it. You can live on it.” But he fears we won’t invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects “about 80%” of the world’s population to be wiped out by 2100. Prophets have been foretelling Armageddon since time began, he says. “But this is the real thing.”
“There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that’s just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That’s the source of my optimism.”
In other words, it seems to me, that we’re talking about a new form of catastrophism. It’s hardly the first time that the potential of global megadeath has crossed over into strategic studies–that being of course the preoccupation of nuclear strategists for more or less every waking minute of the Cold War. But this time feels different. For one thing, the threat is vastly more insidious. Gaia, says Lovelock, won’t burn up the world’s cities in one spasmodically insensate burst of fury; rather she seems likely to set famine and pestilence to work first, no doubt war and the pale horse will follow. To repeat: 80% of the world’s population wiped out by 2100.
Is this to be taken seriously? You might disagree with Lovelock or think him massively exaggerating. I must admit, personally, I’m not sure. What if he’s only, say, half right? That would be just 40% of the population wiped out. Yay!
That said, policymakers in the UK appear, rhetorically at least, to think the theory has some credence. Both the Future Character of Conflict paper out of the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the Ministry of Defence and the latest National Security Strategy A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty mention ‘climate change’ and the environment generally as a factor in the exacerbation of conflict. It does not seem, however, that they’re really seized with conviction.
It seems to me that if the government really was taking seriously the eco-tastrophe warnings of scientists like Lovelock they would be pouring resources into ships, guns, energy and food security, and civil defence in general. I mean, what is the plan for keeping the 60-70 million people on this island fed if food becomes radically scarcer? What is the plan if this sodden North Atlantic green spot remains relatively so while most other places get drier and unliveable? What, in general, is the big idea for seeing through the expected turmoil of century 21? The consequences are awful to contemplate; nonetheless, it seems a good time to contemplate them.