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On Strategic Neo-Catastrophism

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.

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8 thoughts on “On Strategic Neo-Catastrophism

  1. Patrick says:

    Great article to get the ball rolling. Personally I think there’s a lot of logic and strategic pattern in what Lovelock says, but like you, I’m not sure I’d go as far as him. Thing is, no-one is really asking these tough questions, while the ‘do nothing- it’s all ok’-ers aren’t offering a possible solution either. One gets the feeling that the current model we are following resembles one of those machines at a funfair: you keep putting coins in and eventually they all fall off the counter. Time for a shotgun then…?

    • David Betz says:

      I’ve been a bit of a prepper for years now ever since the First Sea Lord gave a scary talk at King’s about the UK’s reliance on fuel and food from abroad. There’s very little stockpile, basically. Our happy comfort rests upon the seamless working of a vast network of supply. It makes perfect sends to be prepared to fend for yourself for a fortnight or two given the plausibility of disruption in that web. That’s a different issue, though, than the scenario above where the maintenance of the population becomes untenable over the long term.

  2. Thomas Rid says:

    Great article, David.

    This reminded me of the conservative paradox of climate change: it is quintessentially conservative to be highly sensitive to threats against family and country (think terrorism); to plan ahead far into the future (think retirement); to let data drive the analysis, not hope (think fiscal policy, well, sort of); and to face unpleasant truths (think demography). Good old principles.

    Yet, for a long time, when it comes to climate change, all those values, out the window: why should I care about threats, the future, data, unpleasant truths?

    Bizarre, really. I’d like to think that’s changing slowly.

    • David Betz says:

      It’s complicated, for sure. There’s lots of blame to go round though for the politicisation of the issue. It seems to me (and many others) that quite a few of those pursuing ‘green’ policies are simply statists seizing the opportunity to justify their preferred social and economic model. That was bound to raise hackles. Then there’s the bohemian and bourgeois enviro-posturing, which is off-putting. Think, among a zillion examples, David Cameron on his dog sled. And climate scientists haven’t done themselves much favours by getting caught out appearing to be playing politics with their data. For my part, I’m increasingly apprehensive that we are considerably at risk of some catastrophe, however caused, and I don’t sense that politicians are really grappling with the full potential awfulness of the plausible eventualities. We do this sort of thinking in defence all the time. For e.g., we might be threatened by another nuclear power so we ought to spend umpteen billion pounds updating our submarine ballistic missile fleet–logic with which I agree, incidentally. I don’t have the impression, though, that the same cautious forethought prevails in the scenario described above, which is weird considering all the talk of it.

  3. Good article David.

    You should know that James Lovelock has mellowed slightly since “Revenge of Gaia” and he has a new book coming out soon called “Rough Ride to the Future” (http://blogs.channel4.com/tom-clarke-on-science/james-lovelock-gaia-hypothesis/725#sthash.VcLQqyUF.dpuf):

    “The contribution of human beings to our planet is, Lovelock contends, similar to that of the early photosynthesisers around 3.4 billion years ago, which made the Earth’s atmosphere what it was until very recently. By our domination and our invention, we are now changing the atmosphere again. There is little that can be done about this, but instead of feeling guilty about it we should recognise what is happening, prepare for change, and ensure that we survive as a species so we can contribute to – perhaps even guide – the next evolution of Gaia. The road will be rough, but if we are smart enough life will continue on Earth in some form far into the future.”

    The part I wonder about is “if we are smart enough”….

    Patrick above states, “Thing is, no-one is really asking these tough questions, while the ‘do nothing- it’s all ok’-ers aren’t offering a possible solution either.”

    Here are two solutions for your consideration:

    The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet – http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/07/man-planted-trees-lost-groves-champion-trees-urgent-plan-save-planet/

    “It’s amazing for one layman to come up with the idea of saving champion trees as a meaningful way to address the issues of biodiversity and climate change. This could be a grass roots solution to a global problem. A few million people selecting and planting the right trees for the right places could really make a difference.” – Dr. Rama Nemani, NASA Earth Scientist

    Sustainable Land Development Goes Carbon Negative – http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/sldi-project-carbon-negative/

    “When pushed, Lovelock says, the only way we could do something meaningful to avoid catastrophe is to extract and permanently store CO2 from the atmosphere, in addition to dramatically reducing our emissions. And the approach with the most potential, says Lovelock, is to turn biomass material into charcoal, now re-branded as “biochar,” in a process known as “pyrolysis” and then bury it. The biochar, unlike the original biomass, can’t rot and release CO2 into the atmosphere. It doesn’t oxidize. It is chemically stable for hundreds of years, meaning the carbon is permanently sequestered. “This makes it safe to bury in the soil or in the ocean.”

    • David Betz says:

      Thank you, Terry, for the update. As you can see from me posting an article from 2008 I’m not exactly up to date with the debate. In my case, it’s something of a slow burn issue–not exactly a thing I think about everyday but one which never really goes away completely. I’ll have a look at these citations.

      Incidentally, I ought not to give the impression that (as an offline commenter put it on the above) that I’m counselling a strategy of solely ‘ducking and gunning’. I am keen to hear more of, and to see enacted, plans to build food and energy security, or, indeed, if it makes financial sense (which I gather Lovelock thinks it does not) to put off the nightmare scenario. It’s just that as a war studies guy my area of expertise concerns more the gunning and ducking, things which are far from unimportant and needful of thinking through.

  4. Nicholas Walton says:

    An excellent, teasing article, that also begs a bit of thought about the anti-fragility concept of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, going beyond mere resilience to building a system that thrives on what destroys or damages others. It’s not just about having a nicer cave and less horrible memories than the ravaged hordes; it’s about understanding how a new life can be built around something Lovelockesque, and how that life can be worth living. I’d be interested to know what kind of economy could be established, with opportunities beyond trading ammunition, food and sexual partners.

    Other random things to throw into the mix: the failure of antibiotics; the intersection of rogue WMDs and religious extremism (this sounds familiar… but it’s likely to be a bit of a headache in these scenarios); food and energy security; the lack of decent wine.

    Your readers are obviously keen on you following up this blogpost with more on the same subject…

  5. Michael says:

    Whenever the discussion turn to this sort of thing I can’t help but see the religious overtones. Perhaps it is because in polite society it is now taboo to be overtly religious, but yet we haven’t really come to terms with a world governed only by scientific principles (so many of which are beyond the understanding of a lay person in any case) that we have to invent secular religions like Gaia (or environmentalism more broadly, or communism for that matter). This has it all, doesn’t it? End Times… Chosen People (conveniently the British, who, like all people who have or had empires, suspect they are the chosen people anyway)… a savior (or teacher, or guide….) in the form of Lovelock, and of course an angry deity.

    Global Warming enthusiasts have long adopted the adage presented to atheists by believers: you don’t lose anything by believing in a God: if there isn’t one the results are the same—believe of not—but if there is one and you believe you will be welcome to the kingdom of heaven, but if you don’t hell fires await. The global warming version goes something like this: maybe man has something to do with global warming, or maybe he doesn’t. But you don’t lose anything by reducing CO2 emissions and have everything to gain. So believe already! Do it!

    Trouble is what happens when there is schism? You must believe in MY God ONLY to get into the kingdom. Otherwise you are screwed. Choose. Wisely. Based on no evidence, and lots of bad advice. One Shot.

    The Global Warming version of this goes: This guy tells me there is something that can be done about it, that guy tells me there is nothing can be done about it, everybody’s evidence looks really shaky, but the policy decisions each camp would have me do are radically different, and mutually exclusive, to say nothing of the vast opportunity lost of following either. What should I do?

    Well, perhaps I’m just boring and dull, but when presented with a series of unproven ideas that led to extremely costly policy solutions, I hesitate.

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