Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Word suggested by William Golding ...

“The Vanishing Face of Gaia - A Final Warning” by James Lovelock, 2008

James Lovelock is a scientist famous for inventing the apparatus that tested the atmosphere for ozone depletion, and warned of the consequences of that event. He is an Englishman who lives in the Devon countryside with his wife.

In this book, Lovelock switches between the disconnected ramblings of an aging conservative and a brilliant scientist dwelling on valid themes. Lovelock so frequently contradicts himself or makes factually ignorant statements that I’m not sure which we have here. You must separate the wheat from the chaff.

Gaia is a brilliant concept Lovelock came up with in the 1960s (no surprise here…) which refers to the totally interconnected nature of all things – humans, rocks, the atmosphere, the ocean, animals, plants, fire, human structures, energy sources – and how they are all one organism scientifically. This is not a religious concept but a scientifically observable one. I think his concept makes perfect sense, as it breaks down various isolated scientific disciplines, and instead explains what is happening on the planet ‘holistically.’ In essence, everything on the Earth, and ‘in’ the Earth, is Gaia. This theory allows Lovelock to bridge the gaps between biologists, climatologists, geologists and other scientific disciplines. As this applies to global climate change, it means that the earth as a whole is a 'self-regulating' system, so any disruptions in the dynamic system - such as excess carbon - will affect and be affected by nearly every part of the environment. And that environment will react. Lovelock contends that most Gaia predictions have been born out by testing.

I’m again going to bullet-point his main issues. I do this because many of these books are full of facts and ideas, and certainly not elegantly-crafted pieces making a central point. Lovelock wanders all over, repeating himself, and repetition is not a pretty thing:

1. Lovelock points out that the IPCC panel (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) that issues UN reports on climate change is affected by political pressures and limited computer modeling programs to downplay the threat of global warming. Factual, scientific observations, even in 2007, showed their predictions erred far on the conservative side. The process of global warming is happening much faster than the IPCC is predicting.

2. The IPCC recommendation that 450 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere is acceptable is too high. Lovelock understands that the earth system can go from gradual change to sudden, irretrievable change in a very short period. The computer models used by the IPCC leave out many variables, and do not account for various multiplier/feedback effects. At 450 ppm he believes we are already past the point of no return. (Bill McKibben says we have to bring it back to 350 ppm. We are now at 385 or perhaps higher…) Lovelock created a more correct model called "Daisyworld" which more closely resembles what is actually happening on the planet.

3. Lovelock feels we cannot stop the slide towards a hot planet – 9 degrees hotter, given what he sees as the various human ‘weaknesses’ in favor of the status quo. He suggests we prepare to adapt to a hotter planet with higher seas by protecting various islands (England, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan…) and areas on the top and bottom of the earth that will survive the full effects of climate disaster. In a sense, creating protected enclaves. The vision he has is of nuclear-powered, dense cities, surrounded by walls, with green valleys that fade into red deserts. Sort of a sci-fi vision of the planet, come real. Or “Children of Men” - with a few children.

4. There are too many people for the carrying capacity of the planet. Lovelock says, “a massive natural cull of humanity’ could occur to bring ‘Gaia’ back into balance. Mass migrations and conflicts are inevitable due to climate change.

That is the bad news. As to solutions? This is where it gets dicey. Lovelock says:

1. Nuclear power and thermal solar are the only solutions that will provide enough energy to maintain the present standard of living. A solar thermal block 3,600 square miles (60 miles by 60 miles) in the Southwest, given DC transmission lines, would provide enough electricity for the whole United States.

2. The coal industry has provided a haze of ‘soot’ across the globe that has blunted global warming, reflecting sunlight back into space, at the same time as it is injecting more carbon into the atmosphere. So if coal plants are shut down without some replacement for the ‘soot’, that ‘soot’ floating in the air would disappear, and solar heat would grow even more intense.

3. Lovelock rages on and on again against wind power (and even solar cells) as a conspiracy by evil businessmen to just make money, and to lull us into a false complacency. (Presented by the Al Gore wing of the ruling class, I might add, as the solution.) He claims wind towers take up too much room, use too much concrete and would obscure his pristine view of Devon. However, he had a complimentary meeting with the head of Duke Energy in 2008, a large coal producer. And it is no secret that there are massive profits in nuclear power for firms like GE. Some could see Lovelock as a shill for the nuclear and coal industry – but I think he’s just somewhat clueless, to not see there is money to be made no matter which way you turn. One nuclear plant uses far more concrete than many wind farms. And wind farms can be farmed around – the whole area is not off limits to land use, as he imagines. He does support wind farms in the US Midwest – but only there. (The wind only blows steadily in the Midwest, you see.) And in a somewhat ridiculous passage, certainly not in merry old England. (“I must declare a special personal dislike of large wind turbines onshore.”) However, he is right that wind power cannot provide all the energy that nuclear or coal can. And there is the rub.

4. Lovelock is a big supporter of nuclear power. To argue his case, he claims that only 75 people died at Cherynobyl, ignoring the thousands that got cancers. According to observers, an area the size of Switzerland, or 16,000 square miles (41,000 square kilometers) around Cherynobyl, is uninhabitable for the next 300 years. He says that the objections to nuclear are 'trivial' – but he seems never to have read a word about nuclear contamination of groundwater coming out of plants like Hanford Nuclear Reservation (mentioned in St. Clair’s book, “Born Under a Bad Sky,” reviewed below) or the end-of-its-life Vermont Yankee plant. Here is Lovelock on nuclear power: “inexpensive”; “The falsehood that they are uniquely dangerous” and the best; “It is sad…that so many… still oppose nuclear on grounds as insubstantial as a fear of hellfire and Satan.” He even has a paragraph making fun of people worried about a small earthquake in Japan that released a tiny bit of radiation in 2007. What could happen? Recent events in Japan indicate that building a nuclear plant on a fault line, near an ocean, is really not a good idea. The problem with nuclear is not their rampant problems – it is that when you have one – it is a doozey. And we cannot overlook the direct connection between peaceful nuclear power and it’s wartime cousin – they are connected industries. Lovelock seems to think their connection is accidental. Lovelock, with some justice, makes fun of people who think radiation is always evil – as there is radiation everywhere. Some people are looking at ‘micro’ nuclear plants that might power only one town. At any rate, the key thing here is to understand our energy situation, not just from a Pollyanna view or a wood-sprite point of view.

5. Lovelock used to be a socialist in his youth, but now he yearns for a ‘Churchill’ to lead the struggle for little England against global warming. He even has a kind word for Obama and Al Gore (who was one of the 'first' to figure out global warming in 2004, according to Lovellock. Just like Gore invented the internet.) Lovelock does not think the ‘profit system’ is the problem – but never names names as to ‘who’ is holding back the fight against global warming. Not one oil or coal company gets a nod – just evil environmentalists and human nature.

6. There is a bit of truth in what he says, because ‘big’ Green groups actually hinder the fight against global warming by supporting corporate economic, environmental and political policies. They lull people into thinking carbon trading will somehow stop the process. However, Lovelock seems to loathe everyone who is an environmentalist – not just big Green groups or profit-seeking ‘green’ businessmen. The truth is, a technological fix is not possible. Lovelock sometimes believes the technological ‘fix’ is possible; and then sometimes he believes we should just start setting up our protected islands. I think he wants to do both.

7. Lovelock has no concept of peak oil or even peak gas (see fracking). Lovelock: “There are huge reserves of coal, oil and natural gas.”

8. To slow or stop global climate change, he suggests:
A. putting sulphuric acids or other materials in the air to re-create the ‘cloud’ now provided by coal plants – mimicking the effects of the eruption of Mount Pinitubo, which cooled the planet for 3 years.
B. Hang a sun-shade in space ten miles in diameter. Yes, you heard that right.
C. He thinks churning the ocean water with floating pipes can bring more algae to the surface, which will absorb carbon.
D. He wants to create low running clouds across the surface of the earth by spraying seawater in the air, thus cooling the surface of the earth.
E. Sequester carbon underground. One way to do this is making ‘char’ out of carbon, which is almost inert.
F. Create ‘Artificial trees’ out of treated concrete and rock that would remove carbon dioxide from the air.
G. Pay people not to cut down forests, not plant fake forests in empty places, and to let the empty places grow up naturally.
H. Use naturally occurring photo-synthesis to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He is not clear on this.

9. Lovelock supports vegetarianism/veganism because he knows that domesticated animals – and the food they eat – are a significant source of global warming and hunger. He even comments about pets being sources of carbon dioxide and an extravagance.

10. And then:: “We imagine that” …“organic food” is ‘fundamentally different and better in quality than what is manufactured.” (Notice the word ‘manufactured’ used un-ironically.) We 'imagine?' Most studies of the two show that organic is better for human health, for soil health, and is less carbon-intensive. But Lovelock seems not to have studied this topic either.

Lovelock has not a word about how our profit economy encourages the destruction of the environment. Taking from nature is seen as ‘free’ on the capitalist books. (See the review of “The Ecological Revolution,” below.) Unfortunately there is a cost to every withdrawal. At some point, the biospheric-bank will become depleted, and Gaia will be forced to make adjustments – as it is already doing.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog 3/23/2011

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