It's not often that an 86-year-old scientist can revolutionize our understanding of a complex subject with the clarity of his reasoning and the moral quality of his prose. It's even rarer that a scientist of any age or discipline posits a new secular religion, defined as a belief system devoted to an appreciation of something larger or more incomprehensible than an individual or a species. This is what the maverick British inventor James Lovelock has done in his latest rumination on Gaia, The Revenge of Gaia.
Almost thirty years ago, Lovelock published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, the first of his Gaia series that argues that life on our planet unconsciously acts in concert to regulate Earth's climate so that it remains within parameters favorable to the biosphere's health. Gaia created a firestorm of criticism from conventional scientists, perhaps partially because of the literary allusion of its name. Gaia was the Mother Earth goddess to the Greeks, a naming suggestion given to Lovelock by his Cornwall neighbor, the novelist William Golding (Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors). The hard-headed materialists saw Gaia as mytho-poetry, and their cynicism was probably confirmed as ecological romantics of the Eighties adopted Gaia as a kind of naturopathic faith.
Lovelock has a different calling, however. Gaia may have been a metaphor, but proving that the atmosphere and oceans were the critical components of a self-regulating homeostatic planet was not an exercise in metaphor, but an exercise in cause and effect evidence gathering. Identifying the chemical transactions that regulated the planet's climate, and devising experiments and instruments to prove his contentions, became Lovelock's life calling, and drove the Gaia hypothesis from heresy to grudging acceptance.
This is the background that propelled Lovelock into a study of the details surrounding global warming, the details that are enumerated in The Revenge of Gaia. For Lovelock, global warming is the biggest challenge the biosphere has faced since the last mass extinction 65 million years ago, when a bolide impact killed off the dinosaurs and many other living things, creating the niche for mammals to diversify. The global warming of the last couple of centuries, caused by burgeoning population growth and man's propensity to use fossil fuels, clear-cut forests, and burn wood, has drifted off the self-regulated parameters that characterized the last million years of biospheric activities. In short, one beguilingly clever species, homo sapiens sapiens, has in a few short decades upset the balance that kept the Earth a living planet for over three billion years.
Some of this is standard environmentalist rhetoric, but Lovelock is gifted with the ability to see beyond conventional wisdom and pierce the smugly-held beliefs of both industrialists and greens. He is able to do this because he has developed a unique planetary perspective; he is more like a physician diagnosing a sick patient (Earth) than a scientist playing out the consequences of a thought experiment. However disturbing his conclusions, they deserve to be taken seriously and vigorously debated by all parties, no matter what special interests they offend or cherished convictions they challenge.
For example, Lovelock decimates the arguments of environmentalists that sustainable technologies and alternate sources of energy can somehow smoothly replace the looming negative consequences of global warming caused by an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. He sees these as politicians' rhetoric, designed to make people living in the luxury and comfort of the First World assuaged when they should be terrified instead. Lovelock believes we must retreat from our profligate energy usage, going so far as to use an analogy with Napoleon's Russia campaign, which also might have benefited from a planned pullback.
Lovelock is mindful that the billions of people now on the planet cannot go back to pre-industrial days but carefully analyzes the existing alternative energy schemes and finds them lacking. Solar power is doomed to be a niche technology, perfectly adequate for supplying some of the grid requirements, but never likely to have the ability to supply energy to nine or ten billion souls. Wind-powered energy would necessitate so many wind turbines that it would clog other land uses and interfere with Gaia's ability to keep the thin surface layer of our planet habitable for all life forms. Hydroelectric power is regionally dependent upon the robustness of rivers and is, surprisingly, the most likely of all energy technologies to create a truly massive disaster (the collapse of the newly-erected Yangtze Dam in China could result in many millions of people downstream being killed or dispossessed of their lands and abodes). Continued fossil fuel use in the form of coal or natural gas merely piles on to the already out-of-control planetary heating that has caused this crisis in the first place.
With great caution, Lovelock endorses the development of truly safe nuclear power as the only hope that the planet can be saved and our energy-consuming lifestyles be maintained. He knows this will offend many greens, with whom he identifies, and he is careful to qualify his support for nuclear power with many caveats. Fusion, which is not currently a viable technology, is preferable to fission, which is viable but carries a greater waste problem. Nuclear scientists and engineers have gotten, he feels, a bad rap, excoriated by an ignorant popular culture and egged on by a sensationalist press more dedicated to selling papers or building a viewer base than to reporting contextual truth. An example he cites is the public's association of cancer with nuclear radiation. If a low level exposure to radiation shortens the lifespan of a million people by one week each, this is still more acceptable than drowning a million people outright by catastrophic dam failure.
The Revenge of Gaia is a slim volume that can be easily devoured in one sitting, but it raises many profound questions and offers a perspective on planetary health that will not be found elsewhere. It is occasioned by Lovelock's pessimism that we may have already passed a planetary tipping point regarding global heating, and by his impassioned desire to make humans see the folly of their unexamined ways and take the appropriate corrective actions.