Few people question James Lovelock’s status as a pioneer in the development of environmental awareness. His latest book Revenge of Gaia (Penguin 2006) returns to the difficulties of interpreting scientific evidence, making sense of the future and identifying ways we can (or can’t) influence it. Here academic Stephen Rowland, who reviewed the book for the London-based Future Cities Project, assesses its impact.
It’s given me plenty to think about. When I first read his earlier book on Planetary Medicine, I thought the whole idea of the Gaia metaphor was intriguing, and this book takes these ideas further, albeit in a rather scary way.
Lovelock describes himself as being both ‘green’ and a ‘scientist’. I guess that since others have criticised the idea that Earth is a life, on the grounds that this is not scientific, Lovelock is concerned that his readers should acknowledge him as a scientist. This doesn’t worry me too much since all sorts of people with quite contradictory theories claim they are scientists and that their opponents are not. Rather like Christians in that respect! Indeed, his claim that ‘Gaia resists explanation in the traditional cause-and-effect sequential language of science’ would, according to some scientists, rule him out as a scientist. I guess these are the scientists that he refers to as being ‘scientifically correct’. But, not being a scientist myself, I’m not really able to evaluate such arguments ‘scientifically’. Reason is good enough for me.
How does his book fit into the future cities debate?
His supposition that it is society’s ‘love affair with the city’ that is the cause of our problems – or rather the cause of Gaia’s problems – might not go down well in such quarters.
Like him, however, I also enjoy country life. But we obviously have some radically different views about what country life is and was. He refers to an ‘achingly beautiful world of 1800’. My reading of history leads me to quite a different conclusion: that in 1800 most people lived in wretched poverty in the cities and rural poverty was characterised by many living on the edge of subsistence with little freedom from the control of those who owned the land. I agree with him that things don’t always get better, but to say that aesthetically, morally or politically things have got worse since 1800 makes me wonder if this is not a rather ‘elderly’ viewpoint, if he’ll excuse me saying so.
Also, our aesthetic of the countryside is different in other ways. Lovelock considers the new electricity generating windmills to be an eyesore, but makes no complaint against electric pylons marching across the countryside. I differ. I don’t like the pylons much and it seems to me that windmills are much more ‘natural’, whatever that means. At least, what they are doing is waving their arms around in the natural wind, reminding me that the forces of nature are both great and useful.
But more importantly I really think his view of nature fails to recognise the extent to which humans have created the countryside we know, at least in England. The suggestion that those born before 1950 would have seen the world ‘in its natural state’ is extraordinary. Even the desolate moors that I know so well are the consequence of humans stripping away the forests that preceded them. And views of rustic charm are all man-made consequences of the practical struggle to make a living off the land. They are often also the selective perception of the privileged who prefer to ignore rural poverty.
Does he break new ground?
There are some ideas he puts forward here that are important and need to be said. For example, Lovelock exposes the argument against banning DDT and introduces what appears to be some good sense into the issue of acid rain. In developing these arguments he appears to rely upon the kind of cause-and-effect reasoning that he disparages amongst the ‘scientifically correct’. But never mind. It works well.
The ideas put forward for new forms of energy are interesting too – although I would need some persuading to eat synthetic roast beef and Yorkshire pud.
The arguments against some of the excesses of the green movement point to the dangers that are created by a climate of fear. I think he’s right here. I’m tempted to say that the increasing climate of fear may be an even greater danger than increasing warmth. And perhaps an even more difficult climate to correct. However, it seems to me he is in danger of feeding the very fear he warns us about. It’s in this respect that I am particularly struck by his latest book.
The title – The Revenge of Gaia – sets the scene. I get pretty scared when threatened with revenge. It’s a powerful emotion that resists rational or scientific argument. The idea that the mother God Gaia, which is the Earth, can take revenge on me (her child?) sounds like a pretty powerful inducement to be afraid. What is the Gaia whose revenge we should fear?
Lovelock appears to acknowledge that life means different things in different contexts. A live circuit to an electrician is alive in a different sense than that in which a patient may be alive to a doctor. And different again from the sense in which we might say in politics that Marxism is (or is not) still alive and well. So he is saying that Earth is an ‘alive’ organism in a metaphorical sense, what aspects of life does he have in mind?
So is this about life or death?
Lovelock claims that the Earth is at, or very near, a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be unable to sustain itself. This is based on scientific evidence, but can only be provisional. Since the Earth is a unique system in our experience – unlike fashions and epidemics – we could not really know that a tipping point had been reached until it had started to tip, by which time it’s too late to do much about it. So we need to heed his warning, but with a degree of scepticism. It reminds me of the claims in the 1980s that the world would soon run out of oil and then, just last week, I heard that some oil producers believed that the price of oil would fall by two thirds in the next decade because of vast new reserves that had been found.
But to return to his metaphor of the Earth as an alive being. If by this he means a complex system with certain characteristic responses and feedback mechanisms, and an ability to sustain itself within certain limits, that’s fine. But revenge seems to me to be a characteristic of a very different sort of system: indeed it is a particularly human characteristic. Electric circuits may be alive, but they don’t take revenge. This view of the Earth as a system which can exhibit revenge is explained by Lovelock’s statement that ‘our primary obligation is to the living Earth. Humankind comes second’. And elsewhere he says that the Earth has a ‘goal… to sustain habitability’, as if the Earth were a being with purposes.
Does he give us any sense of what we can do?
Lovelock’s view of life seems to be one which has a moral as well as material aspect. If his science is right and the Earth as a system is approaching its tipping point, he seems to be saying that the reason I should do something about it is not in order to enable mankind to survive, but in order to enable Planet Earth to survive. I have, according to him, an obligation to Gaia which is beyond my obligation to people. Put this way, it is beginning to sound fundamentalist or ideological. Might he not therefore be open to the same sort of criticism as he successfully raises against other ideologically motivated conservationists? It also sounds rather like religion. Since Gaia was a God, that presumably is what he intends.
Some may object to my fundamentalist interpretation. His views are certainly very different from those of many fundamentalist Greens. Lovelock puts forward a case for nuclear fuel, for example, which draws upon claims that are certainly unusual. Reports of increased genetic malfunction around the site of Chernobyl; the dangers of nuclear fallout; the problems with dealing safely with nuclear waste, all appear to be problems that he says are vastly exaggerated. That may be so – I cannot judge and must take into account the views of different ‘scientists’. But the religious tone of his primary obligation to Gaia makes me a little wary of accepting his version of science.
I may have sounded more critical than I would wish. I like big ideas and Lovelock has given us a big idea that can be very useful. When all’s said and done, Gaia is a figment of his lively scientific imagination. Science without imagination is of little value. But imagination can be dangerous.
Stephen Rowland is Professor of Higher Education at University College London.