James Lovelock and Gaia’s revenge

Camilla Toulmin
29 March 2006

James Lovelock's passionate and provocative book The Revenge of Gaia (Penguin, 2005) takes us on a beautifully written journey through the dangers that beset our planet. The language is crafted to inspire a sense of urgent pragmatism. As such, it provides an excellent further twist to the hurricane of opinion whirling around energy policy, climate change, and globalisation today.

At the beginning and the end of Lovelock's journey is Gaia, the Greek goddess, metaphor for our living planet. In practice, Gaia represents the thin shell of matter making up the Earth's crust and the layers extending for 160 kilometres or so above the surface, which together make up the living and inanimate elements on which we all depend.

Lovelock describes how the Earth is a living planet, able to adjust and rebalance changes in chemistry and temperature through multiple mechanisms, in contrast to Mars and Venus, both inert and lifeless. Gaia acts as a powerful metaphor for a divinity upon whose health and good humour we rely. Lovelock argues that Gaia's fever today has been brought on by a plague of people, making her angry and damaging her powers of self-renewal.

Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), a policy-research NGO based in London. An economist by training, she has worked in the drylands of Africa on land, agriculture and livelihood systems.

Also by Camilla Toulmin in openDemocracy:

"Africa: why climate change matters"
(May 2005)

"The G8 and climate change: a campaigners' scorecard" (July 2005) – with Saleemul Huq

"Why Montreal matters" (December 2005)

"Montreal scorecard: Kyoto 157, United States 1" (December 2005)

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The war of the world

James Lovelock and the idea of Gaia have existed in close symbiosis since Lovelock's first Gaia book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979). His argument and conclusions are filtered through this personification of our planet, a strategy aimed at engaging with people on another level than the purely scientific. His approach throws up unexpected and counter-intuitive findings, and ensures that he enrages and enthuses in equal measure. Scourge of many greens, he is scathing about "sustainable development", and its feeble prescriptions, in the face of massive changes to our planetary systems. It's too late now for a concept based on such reasoned humanism, he thinks. Rather, the tightening environmental constraints make more rapid changes to the way we live essential. Thus we should follow the lead of wise generals, and opt for a sustainable retreat, not sustainable development.

He lambasts those who think that renewable energy can provide a clean solution to our energy needs, while lashing out at organic agriculture as a useless strategy given the scale of the challenges faced. Putting more land under agriculture will merely reduce our ability to benefit from the Earth's self-regulating processes. The Kyoto agreement is just playing for time, like the Munich peace agreement that failed to prevent the second world war, since "we have unknowingly declared war on Gaia".

Lovelock says that DDT was a good thing, and it was selfish, ill-informed western liberals who have caused millions of people in poor tropical countries to pay a high price in death and illness from malaria, with the ban on use of DDT. By the end of the book, all sacred cows have been slaughtered and false idols have crashed to the ground.

Iconoclastic and idiosyncratic, he argues that all human civilisation is in imminent danger. The language is apocalyptic, even violent. He makes frequent reference to war, the need for defence against the coming attack, proposes the rationing of goods and fuel, and urgent plans made to ward off the chaos ahead. He thinks we cannot rely on international agreements to solve climate change – instead individual nations must start, here and now, to find ways of protecting themselves from the risks ahead, regardless of international agreement. There will not be a gentle rising temperature but extreme and unpredictable events, fierce storms, floods, heat and drought. The Earth may then settle into a new steady state, but at temperatures 6-8 degrees hotter than today, with all the consequences this implies, for water shortages, crop harvests, and forest cover.

Lovelock sees people in big cities as alienated from the natural world. Their hubris leads them to see themselves as owners or stewards of this Earth. People do not know or understand where food comes from. We are farming far too much land, since preservation of natural ecosystems is essential to maintain Earth's climate and chemistry. Given that so much of the Earth's surface is now cultivated, there is much less capacity to regulate essential bio-physical processes.

Lovelock argues strongly in favour of nuclear energy, on the grounds that electrical power is absolutely vital for civilisation. How rapid our descent into chaos would be, if the power system fails. He presents data which shows that, on the basis of past experience, nuclear energy is forty times safer in terms of numbers of people killed per unit of power generated, than coal, oil, and hydropower. He is probably right that the aversion to nuclear power is partly based on association with the devastation wrought by the atomic bombs, and many years of campaigning against nuclear weapons. For Lovelock, nuclear-waste problems are "a nightmare fantasy wholly without substance". We have far more to worry about from the huge volumes of carbon dioxide which, though invisible and intangible when compared to nuclear waste, will bring far more catastrophic consequences.

Also in openDemocracy on issues of climate change, sustainable development, and the global future:

Caspar Henderson, "The politics of climate change: a debate guide" (June 2005)

Jonathon Porritt, "'As if the world matters': reconciling sustainable development and capitalism"
(November 2005)

John Ashton, Tom Burke, Andrew Simms, et al, "Capitalism, the environment, and sustainable development: replies to Jonathon Porritt" (December 2005)

Alarmist, but true

So what to make of this diatribe – a potion of science and passion, with much stirring born of frustration at the slowness with which we are acknowledging the urgent problems we face?

As Crispin Tickell notes in his thoughtful introduction to The Revenge of Gaia, the key question is how to achieve a symbiosis between people and the planet – currently much out of alignment, given our carefree and extravagant use of fossil fuels, and the inertia inherent in our economic and politic systems. Will this orchestration of argument into a planetary Götterdämmerung create the purpose and energy needed to spur us to action? Or might we not feel happier curling up with our iPods, and wait for the end of the world? How far are we along the "rocky path to a stone-age existence" or is there still time for us to build a much more ambitious set of targets into Kyoto after 2012? I am hoping for a bit more time than Lovelock allows us, but his strategy is probably right – to kick us into action sooner rather than later.

There is a lot to irritate in this book. He castigates those who don't listen to scientists, yet indulges in the language of myth and theatre. He argues the need for an urgent shift to a militaristic, imposed set of solutions, which our systems of democracy cannot generate. But can we really assume a benevolent dictator able to play this role? While he criticises us for thinking of ourselves as stewards of this earth, this is indeed what he then counsels us to become.

Moreover, while it is certainly true that much urban life is separated from the wider world, there is a powerful hunger from many an urbanite for knowledge about where food comes from, and willingness to pay for more socially just and environmentally sustainable patterns of production.

Equally, if the Planet Earth series produced by BBC is any guide, urbanites (in Britain at least) are transfixed each week by the astonishing and bizarre nature of the world around us. And as Lovelock himself acknowledges at the end of his book, a concentration of people and activity within high-density urban centres is a sensible way to reduce transport costs and spur greater investment in combined heat and power and other forms of energy. Meanwhile, it's hard to reconcile his views on nuclear energy with those who argue the need for major energy efficiency measures, decentralised supply and cheaper renewable sources now being developed.

But as a loud and insistent wake-up call that helps us understand (as the book's subtitle has it) "why the earth is fighting back – and how we can still save humanity", there is nothing to beat The Revenge of Gaia.

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