Written for non-scientists, GAIA is a journey through time and space, in search of evidence with which to support a new and radically different model of our planet. In contrast to the conventional belief that living matter is passive in the face of threats to its existence, the book explores the theory that the Earth's living matter - air, ocean, and land surfaces - forms a complex system which has the capacity to keep Earth a place fit for life.
Since GAIA was first published, many of James Lovelock's predictions have come true and his theory has become a hotly argued topic in scientific circles.
It's common knowledge that our planet's in trouble. The number of books and articles testifying to this condition are almost beyond counting. Lovelock himself acknowledges that there will be dismay at the appearance of "another book on global warming". Lovelock's approach, however, is a departure from the other offerings on this topic. Having postulated the Earth as an organic whole, he can address the problem as a physician. There will be diagnosis and analysis of symptoms. There will also be some suggested therapy. Like many medicines, his prescriptions will be unpalatable to many.
Lovelock diagnoses the Earth as suffering from a fever. Its atmospheric and oceanic temperatures are rising. The infecting agent is a complex organism that has emerged only recently in Earth's history, although it spread rapidly. It's Homo sapiens - ourselves. Humans have usurped woods and prairies, cutting down forests and turning rangeland into farms for our sustainance. Although we declare these transformations are necessary to our survival, the changes have fatally disrupted the Earth's fine balance among land, sea and air. To Lovelock, that balance is a natural system. He's named the system "Gaia" from ancient Greek mythology. Although the "Gaia" concept has its critics, from doubtful to severe, Lovelock has convinced most scientists that the interaction of many elements must be viewed as tightly integrated. What affects one part will surely influence another - or many. And the effect is incalcuable. In this case the effect appears to be terminal. Which means if "Gaia" dies, the living things on this world will go with it. That means us. Gaia's revenge will be to exterminate her affliction.
Lovelock's aim is to protect Gaia. To achieve this, he prescribes some drastic and serious doses while dismissing other, competing, cures as inadequate or lacking effectiveness. Some, indeed, will worsen the condition. What is most difficult to impart to the antigen causing the infection is the rapidity with which the terminal crisis may arise. Temperature rise may seem to be progressing at a leisurely pace. "Collapse" doesn't appear imminent today according to some forecasters. They are wrong. Past history suggests catastrophic change has occurred before and is likely to happen again. The result was the mass extinction of much life - the upcoming one will be as bad or worse. The rate discharge of our carbon by-products is increasing and the result is sure to be more severe, Lovelock says. Because the chief element in humanity's infecting their home is carbon compounds, particularly carbon dioxide, Lovelock insists on applying the therapy of nuclear energy to replace the various carbon dioxide-generating facilities now in place. Even more drastic is his suggestion that farm land be abandoned to return to its primordial state. The food human farms produce can be produced by high-tech chemical firms with minimal transition.
It's somewhat cheering that Lovelock hasn't given up on our future. He makes frequent references to his wife, Sandy, and their lifestyle. He recounts his shift from Wiltshire to Devon, dodging developers along the way. His "little patch of England" sounds idyllic. They're above the level the sea will reach when the Greenland Ice Cap dissolves into the North Atlantic. Storm waves will not lash his land, although wind and rainfall may be discomfiting. Yet, he recognises his special luck in living where he does. He wants the rest of the world to do at least as well. To that end, he endorses nuclear power vigorously, particularly since it will lead to the environmental panacea of Tokamak fusion. How the developing nations will pay for their share of this energy miracle is left unaddressed. He also embraces the idea of aerosols to be sprayed into the upper atmosphere to act as a reflective surface to sunlight. What that will do to forests and other plants is unclear. It's a paper proposal that can only be proven on a planetary scale. Finally, in the scariest of his scenarios, he admits that since most of the therapeutic methods of inhibiting the infection Gaia suffers from will come from the developed nations, there will have to be an enforcement body to make it all happen. Given the types of leaders these nations have recently elevated to "leadership" that's a daunting prospect.
Lovelock's analysis of the severity of the problem is dramatic, but hardly overblown. Our planet is under serious threat, and it's due to us. We must implement serious cures and quickly to forestall the inevitable. Once the carbon content of what we breathe reaches the critical level, there will be only some tough microbes able to sustain themselves. They will hardly be reading either this review or Lovelock's book. Nor will you or your children.
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Apr 12, 2011, 07:44:05
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