January 23, 2006

James Lovelock's Gaian despair

James Lovelock, an independent scientist, author, researcher and environmentalist, has written an OpEd for the Independent Online that is receiving a fair amount of attention. Most famous for proposing and popularizing the Gaia hypothesis (the idea that the Earth functions as a kind of superorganism), Lovelock contends that the Earth's symptoms are pointing to the blatantly obvious fact that our planet is very, very sick.

Lovelock doesn't mince words in this article; he says we're in deep trouble.

"The Earth's physical condition," he argues, will "soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years." Lovelock says that humanity and its civilization is in "grave danger" and that before this century is over billions will die and the "few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

Lovelock is fairly certain that we've passed the point of no return and that the only thing to do now is to maximize the time we have left before extinction. "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act," he says, "and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent."

In other words, he argues that we need to slowly turn back the technological clocks in hopes of reverting to a state of being with the Earth that's more amenable to symbiosis rather than parasitism.

Throughout the article it's clear that Lovelock lives and breathes Gaianism. He speaks of the Earth in a flowerly and quasi-religious tone. "If we chose to be the stewards of the Earth," he writes, "then we are responsible for keeping the atmosphere, the ocean and the land surface right for life. A task we would soon find impossible - and something before we treated Gaia so badly, she had freely done for us."

While I realize that part of his choice of language is meant for literary effect, he does comes across as being a fair bit over the top. Compounded by his pessimistic tone, he doesn't endear himself to his readers.

But perhaps that's the point. There's a part of me that believes the planet is now officially fucked and that we've entered into the opening salvo of a runaway greenhouse effect (ie similar to the effect as it occurs on Venus where the interaction of the greenhouse effect with other processes results in feedback cycles). If that's the truth -- and certainly that's how Lovelock perceives it -- then it really needs to get out now matter how much it hurts to hear it.

However, I do take exception to his idea that a) humanity cannot get over the complexity issue in regards to managing the environment, and that b) Luddism is the only recourse left to us.

First, over-complexity as an excuse is never satisfying, and in this day in age in which Moore's law still very much in effect, and with molecular assembling nanotechnology and SAI on the horizon, all bets are off in terms of what we can or cannot do as "stewards" of this planet.

Secondly, Luddism is another way of saying, "abandon all hope ye who enter here." While continuing to progress technologically may result in our eventual extinction, Luddism will almost guarantee our eventual extinction. A primitive civilization still requires energy and resources, and with no hope of technological progression, a civilization will eventually wither away. Like any system that requires energy, Earth is heading toward an entropy point. Consequently, Luddism is a dead-end street that would leave humans consistently helpless to environmental stressors and easy prey to catastrophes like NEO impacts.

As biologist Rene Dubois once said, "despair is a sin." Moreover, it's caused by sheer lack of imagination. Quick glances at World Changing, the Viridian design movement, and burgeoning environmental technology disciplines show that there is still a lot of vigor and hope in making this planet work for us and vice-versa.

Rather than despair and permanently pull the plug on human civilization and progress, we need to better develop our minds and tools to help us manage our super-organism planet before it's truly too late. We have passed a point of no return of sorts; there's no going back to the Stone Age. We have no choice but to make our technologies work for us now if there to be any hope for our survival into the 21st century and beyond.

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