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Going to Hell in a 4x4

Book Review: The Revenge of Gaia, by James Lovelock
I've been aware of the "Gaia theory" for years, but always kept it and its protagonist at arm's length; the whole New Age association by name is unappealing, to put it mildly. However, this book caught my attention when it was published last year and I decided to give it a try.

It is one of the best-written books I have come across for a long time. It isn't comfortable reading, but Lovelock's arguments are sincere, well-constructed and explained, and he makes a point of the uncertainty inherent in the scientific method - something zealots in all walks of life are keen to avoid.

Lovelock begins with a brief three billion year history. I wasn't aware that the Sun had become about 25% hotter over this time, so that was news to me; the discussion of the early atmospheric changes and how we arrived at the current nitrogen-oxygen balance is also interesting.

Most of the book focuses on our energy-hungry lifestyle, and in particular the carbon-hungry aspects of it. Lovelock is pro-nuclear and wind- and biofuel-sceptic. His scientific argument on the nuclear question is convincing, but he admits that there is an enormous battle to be fought on public opinion. He is right that much public opinion is misinformed, on the basis of sensational and doom-laden speculative journalism on episodes such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but in his insinuation that we, the general public, are to blame for our nuclear phobia, he conveniently omits any discussion on the specifically non-scientific aspects of the question: for me, it's not about the science, but about the politics and management. Look at Railtrack; look at all our public-private finance schemes, the risk-reward balance and the inherent "commercial" secrecy with which they are conducted. For me, any nuclear industry has to be transparently competent and run in the national interest - apparently out of fashion and something of a tall order.

On wind and biofuels, he accepts their use in principle but argues that they have significant flaws and can only provide small-scale solutions. There's only a brief mention of geothermal energy, and I'm confused by it: Lovelock says that it's only available in a few places like Iceland, but I thought heat was available more or less anywhere if one goes down a few tens of metres below the Earth's surface. (Maybe he is referring to nuclear-generated energy from the Earth's core whereas I am including essentially stored solar energy). He also mentions wave power, potentially a particularly useful source for a country like Britain. Yet twenty years ago wave power was on the list of potential sources when I was studying GCSE geography, and little significant progress seems to have been made.

Lovelock considers other short-term remedies, such as the placing of solar deflectors in orbit or artificially inducing aerosols above the oceans, to decrease the intensity of solar heating. In later chapters he broadens the target to discuss "bad science", highlighting misuse of chemicals such as DDT (initially an effective preventative treatment against malaria, then abused as a wider insecticide, then banned - including being banned from its initial use).

Where Lovelock fails to persuade is in his unashamed elitism. He happily talks about life in the Devon countryside, while stating that food will have to be produced synthetically for the masses, and that the human population of the Earth should fall to no more than 1 billion. One wonders whether he might have been a role model for Harrison Chase. What he says may be true, but if it's interpreted that the many should cut their consumption for the benefit of the few, it isn't going to happen.
Tags: books, science
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