The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity
The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
We’ve been living in the 21st century for several years now. Yet, due to a few political mishaps and society’s own inertia, the 21st century so far has looked an awful lot like the 20th. And nothing is so reflective of this as our treatment of the natural world. Impervious to science, logic or good taste, humanity has continued on with its destructive, shameful exploitation of the environment, our standard practices not so much resembling “development” as they do organized pillage. Such outrages though, have been carefully enumerated in other places, and I will not revisit them here. My concern is not with the past — full of injustices and blunders, to be sure — but with the future, with what will come next.
Each historical era inevitably produces a set of ideas that come to define it. Consider the iconoclastic rationalism associated with the Enlightenment or the rapacious, ideological capitalism that has dominated our own era for several decades now. I don’t want to jinx it, but it looks as if that consumption-driven mode of thinking is on its way out. Undoubtedly, another set of ideas will emerge to replace those now discredited. But what will they look like and what stamp will they leave upon our civilization?
Consider the above a drawn-out (and perhaps grandiose) introduction to James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (2006). Although most environmental books stress the interconnectedness of nature, Lovelock takes it a step further, putting forth a theory of life expansive enough to include the rocks and the waters, the clouds and the subterranean fires. His conception of the Earth is nothing short of visionary, and its eventual adoption or rejection could indeed decide “the fate of humanity.”
The controlling idea of The Revenge of Gaia and indeed, the bulk of Lovelock’s long and distinguished career (he’s now 90, the author of more than 200 scientific papers) is the theory that the Earth functions as one giant organism, a self-regulating super-system. Sound far out? I’ll let Lovelock explain himself by pulling from the helpful glossary in the back of the book.
Gaia theory: A view of the Earth that sees it as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sees this system as having a goal — the regulation of surface conditions so as to always be as favorable as possible for contemporary life.
Like a cell, or a human being for that matter, the Earth regulates itself in order to maintain life. It is important to note that this conception of the Earth as one massive organism is simply metaphorical. Lovelock does not think rocks are alive, or that any grand hive mind is behind this regulation. What he does think though, is that, for all intents and purposes, the living and non-living elements interact in such a way as to support and sustain life. In the framework of this theory — a break from the traditional, top-down, Darwinian theory of evolution — living organisms have the (unconscious) ability to shape their world so as to make it more hospitable.
The implications of this theory — a theory the scientific community rejected when it was initially proposed by Lovelock and a colleague back in the 1970s; they have since recanted — are staggering and profound. The natural world is a far, far more complex place (or system, if you will), than we could have imagined. In light of this, the piecemeal efforts of human beings to heal the Earth are revealed as Bandaids on a gaping wound. Indeed, our cures, which we formulate based on crude diagnoses and administer with even cruder methods, many at times do more harm than good.
Consider the curbing of acid rain, a problem that pales in comparison to climate change. A massive public outcry led to a reduction of acid rain back in the 1980s. Sounds good, right?
Well, unbeknownst to scientists at the time, the sulfurous chemical clouds still remaining and blanketing the whole of Europe actually contribute to “global dimming” — they cool the Earth by reflecting sunlight into space, a good thing for our warming planet. In a cruel irony, panicky humans chose to solve a problem that was actually a partial solution. While doing this, they ignored the greater issue of carbon emissions, which continued unchecked. “Iatrogenic” is the word Lovelock uses to describe the worst aspects of pollution. “They arise from treatment that adds damage instead of curing the malady.”
The Gaia Hypothesis, as it is called, leads one to some radical conclusions, some that seem counter-intuitive. Lovelock is a learned iconoclast, and his recommendations may shock those who consider themselves “green.” He is an outspoken advocate of nuclear power, as it produces the lowest emissions.
But what of nuclear waste? The Earth is perfectly capable of disposing of nuclear waste, Lovelock says. It is irrational humans who have a problem with it. (In a rejection of NIMBYism — the Not in My Backyard syndrome — Lovelock has volunteered to store a year’s worth of nuclear waste underground at his country house, literally in his own backyard.)
As he argues, nuclear waste is, in a perverse way, good for the environment. He rightly points out that some of the most vibrant and unmolested ecosystems in the world are located in land “tainted” by nuclear waste. Intriguingly, he suggests that any future wastes be stored in fragile and endangered ecosystems, as their presence will serve as a deterrent to any human settlers — inanimate guardians, far more effective than GreenPeace. A strange idea, but such is the curious world of Gaia theory, in which the systems of the Earth — geological, biological, meteorological, etc. — balance and interact with one another to ensure the maintenance of life.
Human beings, Lovelock argues, have thrown the ancient Gaian system into chaos. In our brief existence, we have managed to put half a million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, damaging Gaia’s crucial and intricate regulatory feedbacks. In an appropriate metaphor, it is as if the Earth has been smoking three packs a day for thirty years. This crisis is awesome and unprecedented, and it requires a new way of thinking, a solution every bit as radical and expansive as the problem it is meant to solve. Drawing upon virtually every scientific field, while acknowledging the stunning complexity of nature, this could very well be Gaia theory. And its growing acceptance among the scientific community only serves to bolster its potential.
Recommended treatments from the Gaian school of medicine include an immediate embrace of nuclear power and a serious investigation into the potential of nuclear fusion and solar power. Coal power, in any form (looking at you, clean coal) will only make things worse. Other malignancies needing removal include industrialized monoculture agriculture, the automobile, and the idea of “sustainable development” sold to us by politicians. As Lovelock says, we must see that our “primary obligation is to the living Earth. Humankind comes second.”
Undoubtedly, conservative charlatans will seize upon that last phrase to lob the traditional criticism they always have at environmentalists: They don’t care about people; they neglect their fellow human beings in favor of the trees and the animals. This is exactly wrong. Taken as a whole, environmentalism at its core is guided by the most human (and humane) of values: compassion, empathy, humility. A concern with the Earth is a concern with humanity, with its physical and moral well-being and, perhaps most of all, with its future. The Revenge of Gaia presents us with a new way of thinking, one metaphorical, scientific, and spiritual. I, for one, hope our thinking comes to resemble Lovelock’s vision as we walk bravely, but humbly, toward our future.
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