Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Gaia's Irrepressible Prophet

When I was writing this, I'd forgotten several other relevant titbits: levels of carbon pollution rose again last year, and a lot of it is coming out of China; revelations that sea levels are rising at a faster rate than expected, threatening coastal cities in the US; more proof that the classic Maya civilisation was laid low by climate change, among other things; a tornado in New Zealand (tornadoes in New Zealand?) killed some people; and the nasty winter weather in the US this year.

I needed more examples outside the US, as I've already chewed enough schadenfreude over the American panic over climate change after Hurricane Sandy. You're still with the rest of us, Yankees! Our problems are also ours. Still.

As for Lovelock, well, I thought he was a bit of a crackpot. But that's because Lovelock's a seemingly lucid mind that is supporting a theory that now seems less outlandish than it was when it was first introduced.

Mankind has been unfavourably compared to a virus; the notion of an Earth that can wipe us out if we overstay our welcome should be the cause of many sleepless nights and/or suicides. What's perhaps more terrifying than rocks falling from outer space is the possibility, however remote, that Lovelock could be right.

Puts everything in perspective, doesn't it?

Gaia's irrepressible prophet

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 26 December 2012

Floods in Madeira, Portugal. The "snowmageddon" in parts of Europe and the US. Hail in parts of Damansara and KL. The ash from that Icelandic volcano. And the earthquake bonanza of 2011, along with the Fukushima tsunami. The world appears to be going mad.

But it wasn't until Hurricane Sandy flooded New York that brought home the news that maybe, maybe, this whole global warming/climate change thing wasn't born out of some New Age-fuelled paranoia.

Just when we thought we'd be okay after dodging the Mayapocalypse ...

James Lovelock, author of The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009), seems to suggest that all this is natural, at least where climate change is concerned.

One year earlier in a Daily Mail report headlined "We're all doomed!", he pictures a hot, chaotic world coping with climate-caused disasters: droughts, famine and floods, and that we might as well get used to it instead of trying to fix it, because "it is too late to repair the damage".

Our living planet ...
Arguably, not many people have heard of James Ephraim Lovelock, but they may have heard of NASA's search for life on Mars, and the fight against ozone-eating CFCs. Lovelock was the British scientist who invented the scientific instruments that would be instrumental in both. He is perhaps more famous for another invention: the Gaia theory.

To most of us, Earth is just a ball of rock with a liquid centre and a thin layer of air. The Gaia theory depicts the Earth as a living, self-sustaining super-organism (this is as non-scientific as I can manage). The theory was formulated in the 1970s and developed with the help of a few others, particularly the microbiologist Dr Lynn Margulis.

This theory suggests one way the Earth regulates its own temperature is with the help of ocean-dwelling phytoplankton. When the seas warm, the organisms breed and produce a gas which ultimately helps seed clouds and increases cloud cover, creating a sun shield of sorts that cools down the planet's surface. Proof that seems to support this was said to have been found, though conclusive evidence remains elusive,

The concept of a living, sentient Earth wasn't the only strange idea he had. He loves nuclear energy — his answer to our CO2 and energy problems — and rubbishes the idea that radioactive waste is bad. As a Brit and beneficiary of the British National Health Service (NHS) he also believed "there was always a nagging fear that in the States you could be financially ruined by a severe illness."

... and its spokesman
James Lovelock's youth gave little indication of the man he would become. He skipped classes and didn't care about homework. He cleared "obstructions" to wherever part of the English countryside he wished to roam with home-made explosives. He went to study chemistry in Manchester because a girl he'd fancied was there.

He was once accused of cheating in class because he gave all the correct answers, but it turned out that the university's standards were... a bit low. Lovelock argues that when lives are concerned one must be correct — a viewpoint shaped by his days at school and an accidental chemical explosion. He didn't just "know" he was right, he made sure he was.

He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia, penned by John and Mary Gribbin is a celebration of his life, philosophies and Gaia theory and, perhaps, given the more positive reception to the latter these days, an "I told you so" to his detractors. Lovelock also received the Geological Society of London's highest award, the Wollaston Medal, in 2006 for his work on the Gaia theory.

John Gribbin himself is an interesting character. The astrophysicist and science writer predicted — wrongly — that a huge earthquake caused by an alignment of the planets would destroy Los Angeles. His book, Get a Grip on Physics (2003), was reportedly spotted in Tiger Woods' wrecked SUV.

Sadly, the way the biography is written isn't nearly as interesting as the authors, the subject or his ideas. The writing is dry and uninspiring and it's jam-packed with lots of information about Lovelock, his work and the history of the Gaia hypothesis. It was hard work, digging out all those gems about his life and any other relevant titbits. The material that over-explains the Gaia theory is deadweight to the average reader, but one suspects the average reader is not really who the authors are writing for.

He may still be right
John and Mary Gribbin may think Lovelock knew he was right about climate change, but do we?

Until Climategate, most of us seemed to agree with Al Gore. Lovelock's gloomier predictions of mankind's fate takes into account the planet's extremely long, but finite lifespan (perhaps like Lovelock's own — the man's pushing 100); our Sun has five billion more years before it loses all its energy, and when that happens the Earth will die anyway, but not before the planet, he hopes, shapes us into better beings.

"We are about to take an evolutionary step and my hope is that the species will emerge stronger," he said in that gloomy Daily Mail report. "It would be hubris to think humans as they now are God's chosen race."

Early this year, however, Lovelock more or less conceded that maybe his projections about how our climate would change the world were a bit "alarmist", though his views on nuclear energy, wind power and sustainable development remain unchanged.

Even if The Day After Tomorrow isn't happening any time soon, the things happening in some parts of the world of late pretty much shows just how screwed we are if the weather catches us off-guard. Just ask those who were flooded out by Hurricane Sandy in New York.

He Knew He Was Right
The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia

John and Mary Gribbin
Allen Lane (2009)
240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-846-14016-7


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