Only a fool says, “There is no Gaia!”
As promised earlier this month, this is the second part of my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006. Having been told by many people I should read it, I have now done so (almost). It is a deeply challenging book – for people with or without religious beliefs; and for people with or without strong views regarding the environment.
In the first part of my book review (as per the above link), I said that I thought the concept of Gaia was convincingly argued and well explained. Indeed, I still consider that to be the case.
However, throughout my reading of the book I have been troubled by a little voice in my head repeatedly reminding me that Lovelock has since said he was wrong to be such an Alarmist (April 2010) and/or Fracking is the answer to our energy problems (June 2012).
This kind of inconsistency and intellectual incoherence also runs right through the book. However, to be fair to Lovelock, once you have been fooled into thinking burning carbon is not the problem you once thought it was, fracking is bound to seem like a dream come true. I will return to this issue later but, for now, let’s get back to the book.
Just as it deeply inconsistent to argue that humanity is on a self-destructive path and then argue that it may not be so bad as we thought – or that now we know we are in a hole we should just keep on digging it deeper – it is also inconsistent to argue:
–(1) that the primary problem is the post-Industrial increase in the global human population and then argue that the best solutions may be highly technological and require the consumption of vast resources; and
–(2) that modern agriculture has reduced biodiversity and then argue that Rachel Carson was wrong see modern agriculture as the problem in her seminal book, Silent Spring, and that DDT should not have been banned.
Sadly, Lovelock does both of these (and more).
However, to be fair to Lovelock once again, he has always been pro-nuclear and anti-wind; and – in this book – he explains both positions very clearly and convincingly. There is no intellectual incoherence or internal inconsistency here. There is, however, a great deal to challenge the conventional wisdom of environmentalists. Although I think Lovelock takes his opposition to wind farms just a little too far, I think he is absolutely right to challenge the anti-nuclear stance of most environmentalists. However, once again, I think Lovelock damages his case by being a little too enthusiastic – offering to heat his own house by having a nuclear waste repository in his own back garden. However, rather than be side-tracked into a debate about the safety of the civil nuclear power generation, let’s do as Lovelock does – and review all the options.
Lovelock prefaces all his remarks by pointing out how completely dependent modern civilisation is upon the constancy of supply of electricity. Given this, he then looks at all the energy sources we could use to generate this electricity, starting with fossil fuels:
Bizarrely, Lovelock begins by trying to falsify the argument that fossil fuels are a finite non-renewable source of energy. Sure, their energy is ultimately derived from the Sun, but, if we are using them up many times faster than they are formed, their potential future formation is irrelevant (as is the fact that the Sun is also a finite source of energy). However, before moving on to compare individual fossil fuels, Lovelock does make the valid point that there is nothing “unnatural” about using them; and then concludes by making the fundamental point that the rate at which they are now being burnt vastly overwhelms the planet’s natural capacity to recycle the CO2 produced by our doing so.
Lovelock then begins his comparative review of fossil fuels by pointing out the inefficiencies of burning any solid or liquid fuel to generate electricity; whilst also acknowledging that the petroleum industry can produce petrol, diesel and aviation fuel from natural gas. However, in a way that makes his most recent pronouncements about Fracking appear very strange, he then goes on to point out all the problems of reliance upon natural gas: These arise from the fact that it is very hard to prevent between 2 and 4 percent of methane escaping without being burnt. As lovelock explains, because methane is nearly 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas (GHG), the warming effect of the unburned methane is almost equivalent to that caused by burning the methane that does not escape. This is just one reason why relying on natural gas is not a good idea.
Along the way, Lovelock also alludes to the problems of scaling-up carbon capture and storage (CCS) to the point that it becomes effective (i.e. atmospheric CO2 concentrations will only begin to fall when sequestration is greater than emissions). He points out that, as with every other technological innovation in history, it will probably take humanity about 50 years to get to the stage where this is happening globally. In 2006, at least, Lovelock was adamant that time is a luxury humanity does not have; and that we must stop using fossil fuels (for generating heat and power) as soon as practicable (within a decade being suggested as a sensible target).
Although I have not completed Lovelock’s review of all our energy options, I think I will stop there. The rest of my book review will have to wait. However, I would just like to conclude by returning to the subject of Lovelock’s subsequent pronouncements (2010 and 2012). In light of the most recent statements by the IPCC, these would now appear to have been very foolish indeed: Gaia is not mocked; and as humanity sows, so it shall reap.