Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Lovelock's dire predictions

With our mid-January weather befitting the birth of spring, rather than the dead of winter, one could forgive northern New Englanders concluding that our planet is definitely warming. Rather than engage in anecdotal conjecture, however, I would rather look to scientific evidence and the opinions of authorities from that community in making my argument.

British scientist, James Lovelock, is no stranger to environmental controversy. His crime--not soft-pedaling his views about the long-term health of the planet. Dr. Lovelock, writing in Britain’s Independent newspaper, warned of the dire consequences resulting from our current love affair with lifestyles that are not sustainable. Lovelock, the originator of a theory, called Gaia that views the planet as a living organism, warns that the earth is “soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last 100,000 years." Through his theory, Lovelock speaks metaphorically about the earth in human terms, equating it with a human organism.

Some key points of his article touch on the following:

--temperatures will rise 8 degrees centigrade in the temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics

--the tropical areas of the world turned into scrub or desert

--this will add to the 40 percent of the earth’s surface already depleted and unable to produce necessary food and other plants for the planet

--the ecosystems of the earth will be disrupted bringing widespread death to species and many plants

Interestingly, Lovelock contradicts the idea represented by leaders who should know better and repeated by the pied pipers of the press—that the world has the capability to grow unlimited quantities of food and other plants. In reality, writes Lovelock, “We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.”

This contradicts the majority of people who believe somehow, that technology will save us. That we can continue to embrace our western modes of one car-one person travel, our rampant consumerism, replete with its rash of packaging waste and believe like Pollyanna, that technology—in the form of biofuels, photovoltaic collectors, windfarms, etc.—will come riding in on its white horse and save us from ourselves. Added to the insane mix that is pushing us towards our environmental Armageddon are burgeoning economies in China and India—each ramping up their use of diminishing supplies of fossil fuels with new modes of consumption rivaling our North American patterns.

These ideas aren’t limited to a handful of environmental “kooks,” as members of the right-wing talk radio family would have you believe. Other scientists across the globe subscribe to the potential of similarly grim scenarios, but some believe that we still have time to correct our course, before our plunge into global darkness and chaos.

Australian scientist, Timothy Flannery believes that we have “one or two decades” to take action. He takes issue with Lovelock’s “pessimism” and says it might be driven more by the political unwillingness of his own government and the current regime in Washington.

Quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, Flannery offers some balance to Lovelock, saying, “''It seems to be that [Professor] Lovelock's pessimism about things is due to the pathetic political response we've had from the US, Australia and some of the other polluting nations,'' said Dr Flannery, who is director of the South Australian Museum and author of climate book, The Weather Makers.

While saying he respects Lovelock and can understand his dire predictions and pessimism, but it’s important to “keep up hope.”

While I agree with what Flannery is saying and recognize that it is important to remain hopeful, it isn’t acceptable to stick one’s head in the sand and hope all this doomsday talk goes away. In the same piece, Flannery also warns that countries “have no choice” but to stop polluting. If we stopped our current greenhouse emissions today, it would still take 100 to 200 years to reverse the current direction we have chosen in climate change.

I think all of us who are aware of what’s happening need to keep Lovelock’s predictions and work in mind, but like Flannery, remain hopeful and most important—committed to doing what we can to both educate and reduce our environmental footprint, however small that might be. However, while individual responsibility is important, governments have the means, as well as the resources to shift the debate and the direction of our current non-sustainable course. Because combining trips and limiting packaging waste makes us feel good, it's difficult to alter the march of global warming without government-mandated changes in all areas of our daily life. I know this sticks in the craw of conservatives (the small-c kind) and libertarians, but we've moved past the point where ideological pissing contests are permitted.

In our own state, and many other rural areas, public modes of transportation are virtually non-existent. In order to get anywhere in rural Maine requires an automobile. Without population density, light rail and other modes of public transport probably won't happen. Significant tax breaks and subsidies that would provide an incentive to trade in our internal combustion-driven automobiles for hybrids might be a positive first step.

Regardless of what gets done, there isn't alot of time for hand-wringing, pontification, studies and commissions--and that's what scares me the most.


Crazy Jane said...

Excellent post Jim. Thank you so much for this.

We have a triple whammy headed our way. While the networks may treat these as controversial, there's really very little scientific controversy as you rightly point out.

Global warming ( is going to radically change our climate, humans have already exceeded the carrying capacity
( of the earth creating massive extinctions ( that are already taking place, and we're about to run out of oil (

One constructive thing we can do as individuals is to find out our own ecological footprint ( Each one of these problems is at root a problem of too many people using too much stuff.

I think you can make an argument that people lived much better lives when we didn't consume so much.

Without a doubt, we live in interesting times.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the heads up.