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Lovelock’s ‘final warning’

In Leonard Shlain’s wonderful book, Sex, Time and Power (2003), he makes the following observation: “Our ancestors would … bring about the greatest mass extinction of large animals since the dinosaurs abruptly disappeared 65-million years ago. Through their ever burgeoning technological prowess, humans would plant crops, tend herds, invent writing, build the Parthenon, discover gunpowder, transform the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, compose the Eroica Symphony, and eventually evolve into a biological force capable of influencing the very climate of the earth. Eve’s descendants have steadily accumulated the power to destroy each other in an unholy Armageddon and, like sleepwalkers, are shuffling toward a planetary ecological disaster. How could a slight, five-foot-tall, two-legged animal create such sublimity and yet wreak so much havoc in so minuscule an interval of earth”s history?” (pp.11-12).

This passage captures succinctly the paradoxical nature of humanity, the strange species capable of such opposing extremes. The sentence that is particularly germane to what I wish to focus on here, is the one where Shlain remarks that humans, “like sleepwalkers, are shuffling toward a planetary ecological disaster”.

Shlain’s book was published seven years ago, and the remark in question is even more valid today, judging by James Lovelock’s latest book, The Vanishing face of Gaia: A Final Warning (2009). I know that many readers will dismiss Lovelock’s carefully considered prognosis for the planet out of hand, and for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that they have vested interests in believing, blindly, that everything on earth is still hunky dory, and that we can go on with “business as usual” (especially when there is much profit to be made out of “green business”).

So, what is his prognosis? In a nutshell, he paints a bleak picture of the prospects facing the inhabitants of this once verdant planet — in fact, he counsels that we may as well accept that the lush world of the 20th century is forever something of the past, and that all indications are that we are witnessing the Earth inexorably moving towards what he calls a “hot state”, where many of the things and conditions that we now take for granted will have changed beyond recognition, and to our and other living beings” detriment.

How does he know this, one may object. His answer is an interesting and multi-faceted one, in so far as it takes into consideration many variables not often (in fact, hardly ever) referred to in discussions of climate change. For one thing, it rests on the distinction between those scientists who work with theoretical models for climate prediction, on the one hand, and those, on the other, who are engaged in ongoing, painstaking observation and measurement of certain conditions — always within a theoretical framework, too, of course, in this case that of Gaia theory, which considers the Earth as a single, if enormously complex and variegated, physiological, geophysical and biological system.

Those scientists who work with climate models in order to predict what the climate will be like in, say, three decades’ time, extrapolate from present conditions in terms of a set of assumed conditions about the current geophysical state of the planet, the rate of change in greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. On the other hand, those who — like Lovelock — do not rely on the projection of theory-based, anticipated conditions, and are constantly engaged in observing and measuring existing conditions, instead, to be able to adjust their present picture of the Earth system, are loathe to predict any conditions which are unattainably distant from today in observational terms.

Lovelock expresses his appreciation of the work done by many scientists who use the modelling approach, but painstakingly explains why such an approach is inadequate when it comes to forecasts pertaining to decades into the future. First, it assumes that the rate of heating of the planet will be an even, gradual process, and second, that humanity will be able to restrict it to only 2°C by 2050, when the global population is expected to stabilise around eight billion.

Third, it is almost wholly based on atmospheric physics, while a full understanding of the planet’s climate involves much more than this, for instance a sound knowledge of the way that living creatures — humans, animals and plants (especially in forests) — influence the climate. In fact, one of the things that recommends Lovelock (a geophysiologist) as scientist is his multi-disciplinary approach, where he constantly brings the latest findings of geophysics, marine biology, plant and animal physiology, biochemistry, as well as ongoing measurements of Earth conditions by scientists and satellites into an illuminating constellation.

The expectation that humanity can control climate modifications to keep them within bearable limits, when pronounced by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), seems authoritative enough to feed into international policies on climate change, but is nevertheless highly misleading. In addition to what was said above, Lovelock is quick to remind one that science is a probabilistic discipline, where hardly anything can be predicted with complete certainty — especially when so many variables are at stake — so that it is absurd for scientists like those on the IPCC to commit themselves to such a (politically correct and reassuring) forecast, decades into the future. Many of the variables used in climate models could change in a very short time, making a mockery of what was predicted, as it happened regarding faulty model predictions pertaining to the hole in the ozone layer.

To mention only a few things that could upset the applecart before then, a catastrophe of human making could completely skew the prediction by introducing factors into the equation that the model does not include. (I wonder of the present Gulf of Mexico BP oil disaster would qualify as such a calamity.) A natural event such as a large meteorite hitting the planet, although less likely, would also throw the IPCC forecast off the tracks. Or, on the more optimistic side, there could be a series of unpredictable volcanic eruptions, which would cool the atmosphere significantly by injecting cool particles into the atmosphere, as it happened when Pinatubo erupted in 1991, cooling the Earth significantly for the following three years. Or, he concedes, geo-engineering could conceivably make such strides as to invent ways of “engineering” a cooler state.

These possibilities aside, however, Lovelock believes it far more likely that the heating of the Earth will continue, but at a much more accelerated rate than predicted. Even if there can still be bickering among scientists and members of the public about this, he points out that one of the indisputable factors indicative of a steady rise in global temperature is the rise in sea level worldwide, which had been predicted to be between 2 and 4cm worldwide from 1970 until 2007, but turned out to be almost 5cm instead. Moreover, this is a progressive rise, whereas mean global temperatures vary from year to year. The height of the Earth’s atmosphere, too, is such a reliable yardstick, because the air, like water, expands as it heats up.

Anyone reading this will probably realise that I cannot report on all the many detailed discussions that Lovelock devotes to the issues that I have referred to in his book. Let me therefore cut to the chase, as it were, and try to summarise briefly the consequences of the changing climate that he foresees. They are beyond disconcerting; they are truly shocking, because no less than the fate of living beings is at stake here.

Lovelock points out that, based on his experiments with atmospheres that resemble that of the Earth, given the present greenhouse condition of the planet — which is now well above 400 ppm of carbon dioxide — the first stabilisation of global temperature that we can reasonably expect, is at 5°C above present temperature levels. Moreover, this “jump” to a “hothouse state” will probably — as in his experimental setup — be precipitated by a relatively small increase in heat or in carbon dioxide (or methane, nitrous oxide, and/or CFCs) quantities in the atmosphere. Most disconcerting is the fact that, based on his experiment, before the rapid escalation to global desert status, there will probably be a brief period of cooling down, manifested in a cool summer, or a series of them.

As might be expected, such a rapid rise in world temperature will be nothing short of catastrophic — if it happens; and Lovelock stresses that unpredictable things could prevent it from happening. Nevertheless, there are many factors worldwide at present — listed by him, and too many to repeat here — that indicate a movement in that direction, such as the growing acidification of the world’s oceans (which has already turned vast areas of ocean into desert, with no sign of life), the growing desertification of land in many areas, the persistent droughts in parts of the world (like Australia), and so on.

Lovelock compares the Earth and its human inhabitants to a terminally ill patient, who, on receiving the bad news from his or her doctor, goes through the usual stages of shock, denial, anger accompanied by turning to conventional medicine, disappointment and subsequent turning to alternative medicine, before calm acceptance of the unavoidable end is finally reached. But let me give Lovelock the opportunity to address you himself at this stage (pp. 46-47): “Scientists, who recognize the truth about the Earth’s condition, advise their governments of its deadly seriousness in the manner of a physician. We are now seeing the responses. First was denial at all levels, then the desperate search for a cure. Just as we individuals try alternative medicine, our governments have many offers from alternative business and their lobbies to “save the planet”, and from some green hospice there may come the anodyne of hope.

Should you doubt that this grim prospect is real, let me remind you of the forces now taking the Earth to the hothouse. These include the increasing abundance of greenhouse gases from industry and agriculture, including gases from natural ecosystems damaged by global heating in the Arctic and the tropics. The vast ocean ecosystems that used to pump down carbon dioxide can no longer do so because the ocean turns to desert as it warms and grows more acidic; then there is the extra absorption of the sun’s radiant heat as white reflecting snow melts and is replaced by dark ground or ocean. Each separate increase adds heat, and together they amplify the warming that we cause. The power of this combination and the inability of the Earth now to resist it is what forces me to see the efforts made to stabilize carbon dioxide and temperature as no better than planetary alternative medicine …

… I have mentioned several times before that breathing is a potent source of carbon dioxide, but did you know that the exhalations of breath and other gaseous emissions by nearly seven billion people on Earth, their pets and their livestock are responsible for 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions?”

And a few pages further (p. 50): “There is no tipping point; we are sliding down a bumpy slope that grows ever steeper to the future hot world. Even the survival havens [like the UK and New Zealand] where climate change is gentle enough to allow the continued growth of food there will be disasters and difficulties. Thus in the more fertile parts of Europe unaffected by heat and drought, including The Netherlands, the UK and Ireland, rising sea level and storms may lead to catastrophic inundations. Much of London is likely to be flooded, and the underground transport system disabled. The Netherlands may be uninhabitable …”

The worst source of suffering and large-scale dying of living beings, Lovelock believes, will be drought. All living creatures depend on water for survival, and as the water resources of the world dwindle more and more, it is not impossible that wars may ensue over access to it (as it has already been happening in Darfur).

So what is to be done? Lovelock’s advice to governments worldwide is to stop believing that a process that has been gathering momentum for a century or more can be stopped by turning to alternative energy sources; on scientific grounds he believes that this is unlikely, and that the best we can do is to secure our water and food resources as much as possible for surviving the hot climate that lies ahead.

The most likely response on the part of people reading this post, or his book, is to reject it out of hand, because — as the saying goes — the prospect it outlines is just too ghastly to contemplate. However, one should think twice before rejecting his diagnosis of the present precarious state of the planet, as well as its future prospects. But why should one not scorn or ridicule it, especially because his assessment is extremely troubling? Lovelock himself raises this question, and answers as follows (p.23): “Why should you read — much less believe — a lone scientist, when the consortium of most of the world’s climate professionals, the IPCC, appears to express a much milder consensus on climate change [?] … what makes my forecast of future climate different is not simply a disagreement among scientists, although that is normal and healthy enough; why I speak out so strongly and talk of catastrophe is because I am a scientist influenced by evidence coming from the Earth, and viewed through Gaia theory. I work independently and I am not accountable to some human agency — a religion, political party, commercial or government agency. Independence allows me to consider the health of the Earth without the constraint that the welfare of humankind comes first. This way I see the health of the Earth as primary for we are utterly dependent upon a healthy planet for survival.”

For my part, I have always admired someone who has the autonomy of mind to resist the easy option of bowing to political correctness and convention, and I therefore — especially because he addresses the issue himself — don’t see him as an alarmist. His credentials are just too good, and being already 90 years of age, he has nothing to gain by just being otherwise. The philosophical point raised by his book is not the scientific-technological one of our chances of survival, but one raised (if I recall correctly) by the theologian, Rohrmoser, years ago, namely: If we can and do survive as a species, would conditions be such that it would be worthwhile surviving as a human being. Anyone who has seen the film, The Road, would know what this means.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.