The radiating face of Gaia
I decided that my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006, was dragging on a bit, so have decided to finish it off. This is therefore the fourth and final part (and thus longer than normal posts).
Having explained what Gaia is (part one), discussed the need to decarbonise our economies (part two), and discussed the various sources of renewable energy available to us (part three), we must now confront ‘the radiating face of Gaia’. The possibly surprising reality is that almost half the book is taken up by Lovelock discussing the sensibility – if not inevitability – of the widespread use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.
As before, some may consider this a self-contradictory position to adopt because, as indeed Lovelock concedes, the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth in a post-carbon age is unlikely to be greater than it was before the Industrial Revolution. That being the case, why would such a small population (of say one billion humans) need nuclear energy; and who is to say they would be capable of harnessing it? When the history of human failure (to see the writing on the wall) has finally been written, catalogued and left in the library long enough to be coated in dust, some may well wonder if today’s nuclear power plants will become the curious prehistoric monuments of a distant, post-carbon, future.
However, I see Lovelock’s pro-nuclear stance as part of the technological optimist side of his split personality: Whereas his pessimistic side laments the unintended ecocide being caused by human arrogance, greed and stupidity; the optimistic side of Lovelock assumes humanity will somehow avert the approaching environmental catastrophe and will, therefore, need lots of energy to power a post-carbon civilisation.
However, to be fair, Lovelock has always been in favour of nuclear energy. In this respect, he is probably very unusual amongst those concerned with issue of environment degradation. He may never have quite been a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but the truth of the matter is that most pro-nuclear environmentalists have not always thought as they do now (e.g. Mark Lynas and George Monbiot). Nevertheless, however and whenever they came to be so, they join with the likes of Tom Blees, Stewart Brand and James Hansen – in being pro-nuclear. Personally, I think it is much more accurate to describe them as ‘ecopragmatists’ (and would count myself as one too). Indeed, Brand’s most recent book sounds like it is worth reading: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
As such, all would agree that nuclear energy will have to be the main source of power in decades to come if billions of humans survive the approaching environmental meltdown, which we are causing by burning fossil fuels.
Before continuing, I think it is worth drawing attention to a couple of things recorded by Brand in the online Afterword he is maintaining in relation to this book. (i.e. as quoted on the Wikipedia page for the book – as per the above link):
(1) Brand quotes Lovelock as having repudiated his alarmism because “Something unknown appears to be slowing down the rate of global warming”. This would appear to suggest that Lovelock was not satisfied by the answers that climate scientists have given, namely that: (a) warming is being offset by ‘global dimming’ (caused by other forms of atmospheric pollution); and (b) the ‘missing’ heat will be found in the deep ocean (because it must have gone somewhere).
(2) Brand has appears to admit having been influenced by the ‘global warming has stopped’ myth that has been peddled so fiercely by the fossil fuel lobby. He has therefore suggested that maybe nothing (more) will happen as a result of the accumulating greenhouse gases. However, he also chose to add that doing nothing about our CO2 emissions would be “like playing Russian Roulette with five cylinders loaded”.
As I have now said quite a few times, although sympathetic to the overall message, I am concerned by intellectual incoherence, selective blindness and a tendency to exaggerate, which Lovelock appears to display in the writing of The Revenge of Gaia. Although not limited to his remarks about radiation and nuclear power, these traits are certainly very much present. This is a shame, in my view, because Lovelock also makes some very valid points about the irrational way most people assess the chances of either good or bad things happening. For example, the chances of any individual winning a lottery is extremely small but, even so, a great many people waste an awful lot of money trying to do so. Similarly, the risk of any individual dying as a result of travelling in a car is much higher than that of flying in an aeroplane but, even so, how many of us worry about the former more than the latter?
Lovelock, correctly in my view, blames widespread anti nuclear sentiment today on fears, stoked by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), over mutually assured destruction that grew out of the insanity of the Cold War. Such fears were entirely justified but, as Lovelock says, the demonisation of the civil nuclear power industry was not. Just because it was a by-product of military programmes to build atomic bombs does not make it inherently bad. Mobile Phones were a product of military surveillance technology, but they are generally accepted as being beneficial (apart from those who blame them for killing bees and causing brain cancers).
Cancer is another subject about which Lovelock has a lot to say; but here also, I think he takes his argument too far. It is undoubtedly true that cancer is very common; that very little of it is caused by radiation; and that even less is caused by artificially-created radiation. Lovelock makes the point that the whole planet was irradiated as a result of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s but the only deaths linked to such tests have been among those who witnessed them. Lovelock also recalls the reactor fire at Windscale (now called Sellafield), which also irradiated the entire UK but has not been linked to any deaths. Most famously of all, of course, Lovelock cites the meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in what is now Ukraine. Estimates vary but, given the amount of hysteria caused in Europe about radiation clouds, the numbers of people killed as a result (i.e. as determined how many more people have died than might otherwise be expected to die) is really not that great. This is not intended to belittle the suffering of individuals; merely to suggest that people put these things in some proper perspective: Perspective that might include considering how many people are shot dead every day; or die in car accidents every year; or how many were killed in wars in the last decade; or died as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic nearly 100 years ago.
However, Lovelock goes further; and the point at which I think he ceases to be reasonable is this: He suggests that oxygen is a carcinogen. Noting that – whereas some photosynthesising plants can live for hundreds of years – humans tend not to live for much more than 100 years, he argues that oxygen is a carcinogen because it of its involvement in biochemical processes at the level of individual cells (i.e. respiration). This may be true but, if so, it would also be true to say that eating causes constipation. However, that does not mean that we should be worried about eating! Furthermore, there are also scientific studies that have linked the development of cancer with oxygen-deficiency at cellular level. Far more importantly still, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the risks of any individual dying of cancer are dramatically increased by their inherited DNA and lifestyle choices they make (such as excessive alcohol consumption or tobacco smoking). For all of these reasons, I find Lovelock’s argument about oxygen being carcinogenic to be misleading; if not disingenuous.
Nevertheless, I agree with Lovelock that civil nuclear power should not be feared in the way it is (in many minds); and it should not have been abandoned in the way it has (in many countries). However, I remain bemused by the conflict between Lovelock’s misanthropic pessimism (most recently echoed by Bob Geldof) and his technological optimism, which ignores the geologically unprecedented rate of both CO2 rise and warming that has occurred in the last 200 years.
In addition, there remains the problem that the global use of civil nuclear power would likely be a new form of technological dependency (along with the widespread use of GMOs) that will probably not reduce inequality of opportunity because the ‘trickle-down’ effect does not seem to work.
There is also growing evidence that time is no longer a luxury that humanity has. The relatively stable sea level and climate that has made agriculture, civilisation, urbanisation and modernity possible has now been brought to an end by the folly of humans believing they were superior to nature; rather than part of it.
We have fouled our own nest; and we appear to be running out of time to clean it up.