April 20, 2006

Lovelock's environmentalist sabotage

James Lovelock, the environmentalist and deep ecologist who popularized the Gaia Hypothesis, is as infuriating as he is fascinating. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this man, but my gut instinct tells me he's a bit off his rocker.

A few months ago he grabbed attention by announcing the beginning of the end for Earth and human civilization. In his Independent Online article, Lovelock argued that we recently passed the point of no return in regards to global warming 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."

I offered a rebuttal to this perspective, but I recently discovered another article of his that also has me shaking my head.

Back in 2001, Lovelock told the Telegraph that we need nuclear power. He also asked the British government to revive atomic energy as an alternative to burning fossil fuels. He went on to downplay the Chernobyl disaster, claiming that it was not the industrial catastrophe that so many people made it out to be. He claimed that only 45 people died at Chernobyl, a figure that was recently blown out of the water by Greenpeace who now claim that the total figure will eventually exceed 93,000.

Further, Lovelock noted his delight in the fact that diverse wildlife had once again returned to the 30km area immediately surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear facility. This is the area, of course, that remains off-limits due to radiation. “The wildlife of Chernobyl know nothing about radiation and do not fear it,” he says, “That they might live a little less long is of no great consequence to them.”

Inspired by this shining and radioactive example of passive environmental remediation, Lovelock argues that we should actually recreate similar situations elsewhere: “I have wondered if the small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers.”

Now that’s a hardcore solution to the global warming problem if I ever heard one.

Spread radioactive material around to keep the pesky humans out.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, Lovelock has no faith that the Establishment will ever acquire the resolve to deal with ongoing environmental problems. Rather than work to see certain areas declared off limits, or see that moratoriums and treaties are established and enforced, Lovelock instead promotes a curious call for coercive environmentalist sabotage.

As for nuclear energy itself, “The worst that could happen, if Chernobyls became endemic, is that we lived a little less long in a mildly radioactive world,” he says, “To me this is preferable to the loss of our hard-won civilisation in a greenhouse catastrophe.”

Although I could be wrong, I find his concern for our "hard-won" civilization to be disingenuous. The problem with many gaianists is their disregard for the individual, whether they be human or non-human. Lovelock's lack of interest for animal welfare in radioactive zones and his dangerous call for the spread of radioactive materials shows that his concern is for the abstract super-organism and not for the individual creatures themselves.

One could counter-argue that by looking out for the health of the entire planet he is expressing concern for the individual. If there's no habitable planet, after all, how can there be individuals?

At the same time, however, I cannot help but think that the road to an entire array of personal hells is paved by Lovelock's good intentions. Upholding concern over conceptual entities rather than tangible living creatures is a moral failing and a grave mistake. Sustaining life at the expense of an acceptable quality to that life is an end that is not justified by the means.

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6 comments:

mindmaker said...

We need a Joint Stewardship of Earth by homo sapiens and AI robots.

island said...

You made me laugh at this guy, George, but I have heard about the fact that both wild and human life flourishes in the "dead-zone" surrouding chernobyl, to spite us.

I have also heard that endangered species thrive better in bombing ranges than in nature preserves, but don't tell that to Lovelock or he'll have us blow up the world to save it... ;)

I hear what you say about complacency if we accept that the Anthropic Principle is somehow protecting us from ourselves, but I think that you miss the point that gets made by the principle that the ecobalanced cosmic/anthropic coincidences are self-regulating, as are all ecosystems.

It isn't that we should not be careful, but nature will do the necessary culling if we don't or do to much.

EITHER direction is relevant, in extreme.

For example, if we don't create enough global warming, then we will die from the next cumulative runaway trend toward glaciation that occurs at the end of the 10,000 year interglacial that we currently exist at the extreme tail end of.

Think about it...

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

I've enjoyed reading your essays in the past, so this comment should not be considered representative of your larger body of work. But since this essay was posted on the IEET site (and I happen to be an IEET intern), I have to raise a minor question. I'm a little concerned about the sentence: "I'm still not quite sure what to make of this man, but my gut instinct tells me he's a bit off his rocker." I would hope that IEET-endorsed critiques of others' work would focus on their ideas, rather than their personae. I oppose, in other words, "ad hominem" attacks, because they weaken arguments. Do you agree? Or am I splitting unnecessary hairs?

island said...

I oppose, in other words, "ad hominem" attacks, because they weaken arguments. Do you agree? Or am I splitting unnecessary hairs?

Let's test this theory...

E=mc^2... you freaking moron.

hmmm... nope, it doesn't weaken the point in the least... Maybe it doesn't add to it, but it sure as heck can make for effective punctuation!

Never be afraid to call a duck a quack... or at least, "eccentric"... ;)

George said...

Hi Jonathan,

Well, my comment probably comes off sounding more severe than what was intended, and I can see why it might be construed as ad hominem. That being said, I was trying to make a point about Lovelock himself and how he has recently strung together a series of questionable and irresponsible ideas. I am explicitly putting into questions both his arguments and his ability to formulate ideas worthy of public discourse and consideration. While my choice of language could most certainly be toned down, I do reserve the right to question the man himself.

Derek Gunn said...

Lovelock says:
"I have wondered if the small volumes of nuclear waste [should be used to protect biodiversity]"

In his book "The revenge of Gaia" he provides several examples, all of which are verifiably working.

He doesn't actually argue that that they should be created elsewhere as you claim. Looking at national parks and reserves around the world, I have got to say, the more human involvment, the worse they are. Can you think of any exceptions?

You say you were left shaking your head at another article from 2001 where he said that only 45 people had died at Chernobyl. A figure you say was; "blown out of the water by Greenpeace who now claim that the total figure will eventually exceed 93,000." Of course, not only does a forecast not equate to a death toll, but a large number of people do not believe Greepeace's speculation. Take a moment to read some of the reasons why in this article.

I find it fascinating that Greenpeace do not support nuclear power. They focus the money of millions of people on stopping minke whale hunting while doing worse than nothing about the global warming which will kill far more whales (warmer water decreases the phytoplankton production which simultaneously photosythesises CO2 and provides food for krill).

Lovelock provides many other examples of other nasty positive feedbacks. Yes, it is scary, but truth isn't necessarily nice, nor does it have a guaranteed happy ending. Also, it is pessimistic, but he does provide reasons e.g. that stopping CO2 outputs from India, China, the US is going to be hard.

Very hard I'd say.

You say: "Upholding concern over conceptual entities rather than tangible living creatures is a moral failing and a grave mistake."
- Is it?? The conceptual entity here is the planet. What do you suppose is keeping the tangible living creatures alive?

You conclude: "Sustaining life at the expense of an acceptable quality to that life is an end that is not justified by the means."
Really. You do understand Lovelock's core focus is on reducing CO2, yes?
Perhaps this is a continuation of the strawman argument I referred to at the beginning.

No, I don't think Lovelock is off his rocker. I think some people judge too soon.