Posted by Tim Stobbs on September 4, 2009
Today I’m doing a double book review. I’ll be covering two books by James Lovelock: The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia.
Since The Revenge of Gaia was written first I’ll review it first as well. This was a very interesting book for a several reasons first off James Lovelock is an independent scientist who was in his 80’s when he wrote this book. So in general he’s straight forward to fault and has no problem hitting us over the head with a 2×4 to get his point across. I suspect at his age the concept of playing word games is so utter pointless he doesn’t really care is he crushes our illusions. So the fact he studies climate change and the feedback loops that have been holding it in check makes for a very refreshing read.
James is likely the most famous for proposing the Gaia theory where you can consider the planet is ‘alive’ in terms of a metaphor to explain the multiple feedback loops that the planet has to help keep the planet in a range that supports life. The concept and the feedback loops are very interesting reading about. For example, I didn’t realize algae growth in the oceans act produce water vapour that helps seed cloud formation which helps cool down the planet. So there is some scientific parts to the book, but nothing too complex.
What is interesting was his general point about climate change: we are very closed to screwed if not past that point already. He points out the IPCC predictions where done in a committee with heavy political influence so to expect us to have until 2050 to fix things he considers it laughable. If anything the most recent data say we might already be at the point of no return and if you expect the planet to fix it self, well that will happen after about 200,000 years or so. So life will continue, humanity will likely continue, but we can kiss goodbye civilization as a whole if we overheat the planet past it’s feedback loops ability to hold it in check.
He rightly points out that there is a lot of cherished ideas out there by environmentalists that are romantic in nature. The concept of producing all our energy from renewables is laughable since the technology isn’t develop enough and cheap enough to keep civilization running. Our civilization is based on cheap energy so to keep that you have really only one option to achieve massive CO2 reductions in the short term: nuclear. He then goes about breaking down the myths of nuclear power generation’s safety record (it actually has less deaths per GWh than hydroelectric by a factor of 500), the issues with waste (size wise all our CO2 emissions per year in a supercritical state would be a mountain 1 mile high and 12 miles in diameter versus a swimming pool to hold all the nuclear waste to produce the same amount of energy). Then to hammer the point home he says that if people want they can bury some nuclear waste in his backyard and he won’t mind at all.
So in general he calls for a sustainable retreat from our current methods of energy production. Where we get serious about really doing something with the facts of the situation rather than the romantic nature of some people’s ideas like running everything from renewables.
After that book James wrote another one a few years later called The Vanishing Race of Gaia: A Final Warning. Now in this book he does repeat some concepts from the early book, in order to introduce new readers to the critical concepts. So you don’t have to read the first one before this one.
What was interesting was he pointed out average air temperature is a poor measure of the earth’s warming since after you melt the ice caps, like an ice cube in a drink, the water stays cold for a while keeping things cooler than they really are around you. So in the end if you really want to measure warming you have to use rising sea levels since they can only rise from expanding due to heating or adding water from melting ice. At that point he points out an article in the last few years that showed sea levels were rising by 1.6 or 1.7 times that predicted by the IPCC.
So overall he feels we are past the point of mitigating our emissions to prevent things, it will happen anyway. It’s too little, too later. So he is calling for international plans to now include adaptation to our new climate, rather than just trying to reduce emissions. This leads us into the real issue with this point of view: we have very hard choices ahead of us. We won’t be able to support the current population in our current lifestyles and for those areas that will support us in the long run we will have to choose who will be let in and who will not be. He doesn’t propose how you would determine that but leaves that issue hanging.
He does repeat that nuclear power is still a good option and why. Then he also points out some positive developments with solar thermal power generation that could work in some areas to produce power.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book was towards the end called: To Be or Not to Be Green. In this chapter he explored his own story of trying to be ‘green’ and how he learned how little he knew about the world and the best way to do it. So in short he realized we often think we could be stewards of the planet which is laughable due to our ignorance. Planting trees doesn’t make a forest, the interactions in a real forest are much more complex than just trees. In the end he points out the one item we tend to forget. We are part of Gaia, she’s the only home we have and just like a mother she can smack us upside the head when we’ve been stupid.
So overall these were very interesting books to read, but they will make you feel a bit depressed. Are we past the point of no return? To be honest it is possible, but I’m not sure. Unfortunately we won’t know that until we have past that point. I do know that just about any government in the world isn’t even close to meeting the recommendations of the IPCC so if they are really as wrong as James suggests it seems likely we are going to be in trouble sooner than later.