A New Look at James Lovelock – Gaia then and now

Today the Guardian review Mark Lynas’ new book “The God Species” which examines environmental issues and our attitudes towards them:

Lynas puts it briskly in this new book. “Gobal warming is not about overconsumption, morality, ideology or capitalism. It is largely the result of human beings generating energy by burning hydrocarbons and coal.” Inevitably, the beliefs of most environmentalists involve a cluster of other goals and ideological imperatives but if some of these are inimical to the need to reduce carbon emissions then, Lynas believes, a decoupling is necessary.

The review would seem to be a very excellent summary of the book, which I have not yet had a chance to read. In a previous article on this blog, I wrote about planetary boundaries, and here we see this research mentioned in the review, along with an explanation of the complexity of these deeply interconnected systems.

A second wake-up call came at a meeting in Sweden in 2009 when he encountered the Planetary Boundaries Group. This is a body of experts that is campaigning for the recognition that there are nine critical planetary limits. Lynas’s purpose in this book is to explain and popularise this concept.

The nine boundaries are: climate change, biodiversity loss, biogeochemical cycles (such as nitrogen and phosphorous), ocean acidification, water consumption, land use, ozone depletion, atmospheric particulate pollution, and chemical pollution. Of these, the group believes that the first three have already passed the planet’s limit, the next four haven’t, and the last two have not yet been quantified.

It’s certainly a useful concept for the kind of planetary management that Lynas believes is now necessary. He is wonderfully sane and cogent on difficult issues, explaining why organic farming is not an option globally and why we need genetically engineered crops. The natural limit to food production is set by nitrogen which, in a form usable by plants, is rare in nature. We owe our present 6.9bn population to the 100-year-old Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation to produce fertilisers. Take that away and the current population is already twice the Earth’s carrying capacity. Our best hope for the future is to genetically engineer a nitrogen-fixing plant (the green kind) to replace nitrogen-fixing plant (the heavy industrial kind).

The review also had a link to articles relating to James Lovelock, and this triggered off my idea for this article. James Lovelock first wrote “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth” in 1979, and an article last year reviewed just what an impact his book subsequently went on to have on our understanding of earth.


To reread Gaia is to be reminded about how little we knew about our own planet in 1979, and how much of what we now know began to emerge as Lovelock and other scientists addressed some of the questions raised in this remarkable book: the first of a series of books that have developed, propagated and defended a remarkable and enduring idea.

The article points out just how little we knew about earth, even as recently as the 1970s:

The Gaia hypothesis, as it then was, is simply put. Life may be the product of blind chance and opportune circumstance, but once it has established itself on a planet, it takes over. It manages the planet in ways that continue to sustain life in more or less optimum circumstances. That is why it may be a mistake to call Earth the Goldilocks planet: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. In fact, Earth’s average temperature may be just right because life, by unconsciously manipulating the planet’s oceanic and atmospheric chemistry, sets the thermostat that keeps its Earthly home within a temperature range that is comfortable for life.

At the time of publication, this idea seemed either thrilling or preposterously New Age, and sometimes both. Biologists in particular were annoyed because they see evolutionary forms as having adapted to their environments through natural selection, blindly and without purpose or direction. This remains true, but it is also true that having found an ecological niche, all creatures – elephants, ants, orchids and economists – tend to maintain their environments to their own advantage, and it now looks as though collectively, the whole assortment that we call life has got a good grip on Earth, has dug in, so to speak, and made itself at home.

Lovelock won over first his readers and then his fellow scientists by asking questions that might not have been obvious to any of us at the time. Where did the nitrogen in the atmosphere come from? Why was the proportion of atmospheric oxygen just within the safety zone? Why wasn’t the sea far more salty? Why hasn’t all that water boiled off into space? From such questions, he patiently built up an argument that began to sound increasingly interesting: that life is an agent in its own survival. At the time, some of us admired the book enormously, and still do, for its provocation, for its daring, for the huge sweep of the ideas that unfold.

Only now, on rereading, have I realised how tentatively Lovelock put his argument. Of course it depended on reasoning, but good evidence had still to be established. The other thing that strikes me is how well written it is. Having invested a few paragraphs in rehearsing the improbability behind the assembly of sentient, self-replicating life from a chemical soup, in turbulent conditions, over immense timescales, Lovelock cheerfully resolves it all on page 14 by concluding, “Life on Earth was thus an almost utterly improbable event with almost infinite opportunities of happening. So it did.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a neater or more graceful summation.

However, it should be noted that Lovelock is sometimes characterised as an “ecofascist” for his views on the need to temporarily suspend democracy, so help solve our current climate and ecological problems. For example, last year journalist Micah White wrote:

Earlier this year he told the Guardian that democracies are incapable of adequately addressing climate change. “I have a feeling,” Lovelock said, “that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.” His words may be disturbing, but other ecologists have gone much further

In this article, White proposes that rather than ecofascism, a better response would be a reduction in consumption:

Environmentalism is currently marketed as a luxury brand for guilty consumers. The prevailing assumption is that a fundamental lifestyle change is unnecessary: being green means paying extra for organic produce and driving a hybrid. The incumbent political regime remains in power and the same corporations provide new “green” goods; the underlying consumerist ideology is unquestioned. This brand of environmentalism only emboldens ecofascists who rightly claim that shopping green can never stop the ecological crisis. And yet, ecofascists are wrong to suggest that the suspension of democracy is the only alternative.

Humanity can avert climate catastrophe without accepting ecological tyranny. However, this will take an immediate, drastic reduction of our consumption. This requires the trust that the majority of people would voluntarily reduce their standard of living once the forces that induce consumerism are overcome.

The future of environmentalism is in liberating humanity from the compulsion to consume. Rampant, earth-destroying consumption is the norm in the west largely because our imaginations are pillaged by any corporation with an advertising budget. From birth, we are assaulted by thousands of commercial messages each day whose single mantra is “buy”. Silencing this refrain is the revolutionary alternative to ecological fascism. It is a revolution which is already budding and is marked by three synergetic campaigns: the criminalisation of advertising, the revocation of corporate power and the downshifting of the global economy.

My country, the UK, is going through a great transition right now, as the phenomenal corruption of many of our establishments and media is being laid bare for all to see. It is these people who Lovelock suggests would be in control of our drive to solve our ecological problems, while suspending democracy. “Democracy” as it is right now is more simply just an illusion of democracy in the UK, but to even give that up I feel would be a disaster. But people are beginning to make changes, and one such example is the Transition Towns movement, built up organically, with no reliance on any form of government or top down control. It’s just people trying to do their best in their local communities. Some things that they do work, other things don’t, but this approach has been so successful in the UK it is now spreading rapidly. We can’t rely on our so called leaders or elites, they are stuck in their own quagmires right now of their own making. But when we are sensitive to the delicate complexity of the miracle that is life on earth, then we can find the motivation within ourselves to contribute to the great transition now underway all around the world.

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