Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review: The Revenge of Gaia

James Lovelock: The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin, 2006), 204 pages plus glossary, index, "further reading", photos / illustrations. Missing: a serious bibliography - absolutely essential for a polemical work like this! A major failing on the part of Prof Lovelock here..




abbreviations used in this article:

- CC: Climate Change
- GHG: Greenhouse Gas (example: carbon dioxide)
- GW: Global Warming 

          Lovelock's thesis is simple (and correct): humans are causing GW by burning fossil fuels, energy intensive agro-agriculture and cutting our forests (which remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in an environment friendly way). The fact that we, as a species, press so heavily on the earth with our numbers only multiplies and exacerbates our impacts. Overpopulation renders viable solutions to our environmental problems more difficult to discover and implement. CC threatens our violent, overpopulated, hungry, thirsty planet with diminished harvests, droughts, killer heatwaves, catastrophic flooding and geopolitical chaos on an almost unimaginable scale. (Think: 9-11, just for openers.) In the limit, apocalyptic visions of famine-driven fanatics jockeying for power and control of the remaining reserves of essential resources like oil or arable land. Lunatics with atom bombs..

           In Revenge, Prof Lovelock is issuing a plea to humanity to radically - and quickly! -  change its spendthrift ways to avoid the fulfillment of these apocalyptic visions. He has donned the mantle of the Old Testament prophet: repent or die!

            To meet our growing global hunger for energy while simultaneously reducing GHG emissions will require a massive re-animation of the currently flailing nuclear industry, he argues. The world needs more fission (uranium) reactors to produce electricity without GHG emissions. Money should be invested in fusion reactor development as a long term cheap (and clean) source of inexhaustible energy. Lovelock believes such drastic measures are now necessary because the consequences of GW / CC are perilous in the extreme.

             Lovelock does not totally discount green - renewable - energies like solar, wind, hydroelectricity, geothermal, tidal currents,..  In his list of affordable and effective energy options he includes energy efficiency measures, organic farming, tidal power, for example. However, given our desperate and immediate need for cheap, GHG-free energy, particularly in developing countries, he assigns renewables a secondary role. Only nuclear is developed enough - he claims - to provide the quantities of GHG-free energy the world needs at a price it can afford. I found myself strongly agreeing with Lovelock's premises but equally strongly disagreeing with the conclusions he draws from them.

          The tone of Revenge is highly polemical in places, for example, when he demolishes the pretensions of "green washing" - the commercialization of "green", supposedly environment friendly products and services. Or the naive belief that we can maintain our current hyperconsumptive lifestyles while extracting the energy needed to sustain them from wind mills and solar panels. (Although I hold that Lovelock himself is guilty of business-as-usual thinking by promoting technology dependent nuclear energy..)  

          Lovelock's polemicism is not, in itself, problematic. Polemic however does demand rigor - else one rapidly degenerates to the level of the pathetic ad hominem attacks by intellectually bankrupt GW deniers and Climate Science "sceptics".  Lovelock, by failing to provide well refereed references to support his claims, does not meet the level of intellectual rigor such a debate demands. As a counter example, I refer the reader to Andrew Guzman's Overheated, the human cost of Climate Change (Oxford University, 2013). Guzman's text polemically discredits GW deniers and discusses probable future impacts. It is 230 pages in length, roughly the same length as Revenge, but Guzman provides no less than 64 notes for chapter 2 (of nine). Each note refers the reader to one or more published technical papers, books or websites. Lovelock in Revenge, by contrast, leaves us a few paltry "further reading" suggestions. His discussion of the comparative health risks of nukes and green energy are largely unreferenced. We must accept them on faith! - even when they are controversial. Thus we are "informed" - page 14 - that "renewable energy sounds great, but so far it is inefficient and expensive". Why this is so and by what criteria, we are not told. The serious reader simply deserves better. The lack of references vitiates his arguments. This is an example of polemic badly done.

             And there is worse - not much - but mentionable, nonetheless. In his ardor for nuclear energy, Lovelock falls into the error of oversimplification. Thus he cites United Nation studies that GW / CC are already killing hundreds of thousands each year. This risk is compared with the much smaller dying from nuclear effects. Fine! But the world has been heavily into fossil fuels since about 1800: Industrial Revolution - 1820. Nukes, however, have been providing energy only since about 1950. Thus fossil fuels have had at least a one hundred and fifty year head start on polluting the environment. In addition, fossil fuels produce a larger percentage of world energy than nukes. It's not a level playing field. Wait about 150 years for nuclear waste, gene and environmental damage to accumulate and then see how safe nukes really are compared to fossil fuels!

             At one point, Lovelock stoops to an argument of silliness comparable to those heard from GW "sceptics". The nuclear industry is a "David" battling the "Goliath" of the Environmental Movement. To justify this silly claim, he resorts to an even sillier argument. The nuclear industry is "small" because, compared to coal, it's energy density is high - what goes in the door of a nuke as fuel is much smaller - volumewise - than the fuel load of a coal fired electric plant. (I had to read this "argument" a couple of times to figure out what the hell he was talking about..)

             In his defense, it should be noted that Dr Lovelock is a brilliant inventor and thinker (founder of the Gaia Hypothesis so cherished by green activists), and a powerful "lateral thinker". Now, ideas fly off lateral thinkers like sparks off a grindstone but only a fraction of those thoughts hit pay dirt. The majority are, well, just dirt.. It's only that they produce so many ideas that some are bound to be good. For this they are considered - rightly - as geniuses. However, caution is needed in assessing the quality of that waterfall of ideas (hence my plea for references!).


            One of the gifts Dr Lovelock brought me with his book was this: he forced me to think through my own observations and perceptions of environmental issues and the meaning of the oft-bandied term "development". One can not ask more of a teacher or a guru: they set you on the path of discovering your own version of Truth. If I had to sum my opposition to his conclusions, they would center, I think, on the issue of how bad we think things will really get - and how fast..

            I believe Dr Lovelock has not thought through his analyses of the global crisis to its logical end. In essence, he is preaching a modified form of the "business-as-usual" scenario proposed by neoconservative economists, the fossil fuel industry and their lobby (Fox News, CNN..) He believes things will remain close enough to what they are today to permit us to build a bunch of nukes and avoid Armageddon. We can just go on living as we do today - more or less, with the same value systems - more or less. All we need are a few "adjustments", the odd tweak here and there in our technologies and our values and we sail off into a glorious 21st century of continued and renewed progress.

           I once held such a "reformist" vision of the world. For me it ended back in the autumn of 2008 when the world economy collapsed into what is now euphemistically called, The Great Recession. Until then, I still tried to argue with GW deniers and "sceptics" (footnote 1). I still believed Sustainable Development was still possible. I now no longer believe that is possible. 

           Circa 1960, when environmentalist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring,we still had a good chance to build the terrestrial paradise the Utopian Socialists and, later, Karl Marx believed in. Maybe not that good! - utopia is impossible on earth, but at least better than what we got now and where we are headed to. If the world - back in 1960 - had heeded Carson, if the United Nations had been delegated to study the global environmental and demographic situation and report back to the worlds' leaders in ten years (1970), the world might have been ready to launch a Global Green Energy Transition circa 1975. This would have been a sort of global "Man on the Moon" project to make the transition to a fossil fuel energy free world by 2050. If - if only if! - we had been so wise. 

            But, collectively, we weren't wise. We believed madmen and fools who taught that we could continue on the non-renewable path forever, that unending economic growth was not only possible on a finite planet but that it was even a good and desirable thing. Never was it questioned what kind of growth was needed. There is a difference between the healthy growth of a child's body and a cancerous tumor..

             What happened, really, back in autumn, 2008? Some people call it Peak Oil. Basically it means that all the cheap oil has been pumped out of the ground ("the low hanging fruit has been picked"). What remains - a lot - is not so easy to get. Over time, oil, and other non-renewables, will become so expensive that they will stifle the continuous economic growth our economic system depends on (investors invest because they are counting on the future growth of the economy: this provides them with their profit.) According to neoconservative economic theory - this is the part I believe in - such a situation of "tight supply" in the energy sector will lead to "price volatility". This is what we saw in spring and summer of 2008 when speculation on future oil prices sent prices rocketing up to 140 dollars per barrel. It was this speculation - and attendant rise in energy prices - which "primed the pump" for the collapse of the American housing market in the fall of 2008. 

            Yuppies had been persuaded to move out to the suburbs to lead the "good life": city job / mortgaged suburban home, swimming pool, SUV, computers, home entertainment center and other energy consuming "conveniences", long daily commute to the city.. When gas prices got too high these folks began to fail to meet their mortgage payments: some just walked away from their new homes, others had their property repossessed and so were legally evicted. This created the atmosphere of panic that led to the financial collapse of the autumn of 2008 as creditors came to realize that the "derivative products", based on "bundled" (and risky) American house mortages weren't worth s--t with all those folks bailing out on mortgages they could no longer manage.

            To over-simplify a bit, according to peak oil theorists, attempts to re-invigorate the economy will only re-inflate inflationary pressures in the fossil energy market(s). Some energy sector economists believe that, despite The Grand Recession, marginal costs in the oil sector - the price of "new" oil just coming on line from hard-to-get-at reserves like the Alberta tar sands - are already near the magical 90 - 100 dollar / barrel level. Beyond this price, a growth addicted economy like ours cannot function. In short, we simply waited to long to launch the Green Energy Revolution. Investors will find it hard to invest in radically new - and unproven - technologies if they cannot be assured of a return on investment (otherwise, why invest?). But price volatility - unpredictability - in the fossil fuel sector will make it impossible for them to be assured of a return. So they won't invest.. In short, we simply waited too long to begin the transition to a green energy economy.

           The only option left? Energy descent: reduction of our collective ecological footprint. After reading Revenge, I am still opposed to nukes but NOT because I disagree with prof Lovelock's analysis of the dangers of GW but because he fails to apply the Precautionary Principle with sufficient rigor. Nukes are an extemely demanding technology requiring advanced industrial infrastructure, a high degree of centralization and a globalized market to provide a sufficently large demand to make the enterprise viable economically (and technically).

          Now, given the way the world is going, the Precautionary Principle - footnote 2 - suggests that we not count on the continued existence of advanced industrial economies (not on the scale we have today at least!) Nor should we count on the continued existence of globalized markets (these also depend on the dying fossil fuel economy!). 


          On the other hand, COMMUNITY RESILIENCE demands that we begin ASAP to scale down our economic activities, relocalizing and decentralizing them as much as possible. Windmills - which Lovelock heartily despises - require less advanced industrial infrastructure and smaller markets than do nukes. Thus I choose windpower over nukes..       The real difference between myself and Prof Lovelock is that he is counting on the continued existence of a heavy industrial infrastructure and global markets that would justify (and render feasible) a continued global nuclear industry. I do not count on that degree of social and political stability. The Precautionary Principle, rigorously applied, requires instead that we prepare for the maximum amount of economic and geopolitical disruption in the years to come. We should, as Prof Lovelock cautions, reduce our carbon footprints - individually, at the community level, nationally, globally (to the degree this is possible). But the Precautionary Principle requires that we plan on achieving these reductions in ways that least depend on the continued existence of heavy industrial sectors. What we need to do is reduce our carbon footprints by producing and consuming locally and / or regionally as much as possible.  We urgently need to implement locally and regionally based organic farming which requires less energy inputs, consumes less energy in transport and refrigeration as well as providing more nutritious and less toxic food.

          In a FaceBook discussion of Revenge, a green activist friend made the following pertinent remarks which deserve reflection upon:

"The Precautionary Principle suggests that we not count on the continued existence of advanced industrial economies." That is the psychological block I keep running into. People are looking for the solution that saves us and the global markets and advanced industrial economies as well. There is no way. Choosing a livable planet means giving up the way of living that has brought the crisis to this decisive moment. I, too, get Lovelock's desperation, if not his solution. We are going to have to move from large scale energy systems to small local scale using what is available in renewables (sun, wind, water, tides, etc.). Doing that, doing what we need to survive, does mean the end of the industrial era as we have known it.


Some of us don't think that's a bad thing, may actually free us to become who we really are. But getting there is going to be one helluva journey, the hardest in our history." Well put, Margaret..


James Lovelock: http://www.jameslovelock.org/key1.html

This is Prof Lovelock's personal site. 

Prof Lovelock as innovator:

"A lifelong inventor, Lovelock has created and developed many scientific instruments, some of which were designed for NASA in its program of planetary exploration. It was while working as a consultant for NASA that Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis, for which he is most widely known. He also claims to have invented the microwave oven.[6]
In early 1961, Lovelock was engaged by NASA to develop sensitive instruments for the analysis of extraterrestrial atmospheres and planetary surfaces. The Viking program, that visited Mars in the late 1970s, was motivated in part to determine whether Mars supported life, and many of the sensors and experiments that were ultimately deployed aimed to resolve this issue. During work on a precursor of this program, Lovelock became interested in the composition of the Martian atmosphere, reasoning that many life forms on Mars would be obliged to make use of it (and, thus, alter it). However, the atmosphere was found to be in a stable condition close to its chemical equilibrium, with very little oxygen, methane, or hydrogen, but with an overwhelming abundance of carbon dioxide. To Lovelock, the stark contrast between the Martian atmosphere and chemically dynamic mixture of that of the Earth's biosphere was strongly indicative of the absence of life on the planet.[7] However, when they were finally launched to Mars, the Viking probes still searched (unsuccessfully) for extant life there.

Electron capture detector developed by Lovelock, and in the Science Museum, London
Lovelock invented the electron capture detector, which ultimately assisted in discoveries about the persistence of CFCs and their role in stratospheric ozone depletion.[8][9][10] After studying the operation of the Earth's sulphur cycle,[11] Lovelock and his colleagues developed the CLAW hypothesis as a possible example of biological control of the Earth's climate.["

from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Lovelock


footnotes:

1- GW "sceptics": why we use quotes. Two meanings of scepticism given in wikipedia are relevant here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skepticism

in common usage: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism that is characteristic of skeptics (Merriam–Webster) and

in philosophy: a method of obtaining knowledge through systematic doubt and continual testing.

Neither of these - accepted - uses of the word "sceptic" is applicable to GW "sceptics" of course since they already have their minds made up and are simply looking for rationalizations to support their prejudices. Likewise, they do not face all facts equitably: facts are sifted through, only those which support their prejudices are retained. Neither of these procedures accords with the accepted usages of the word "sceptic". Hence our use of quotes in speaking of GW "sceptics"

2 - Precautionary Principle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle

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