19 January, 2006

We're all dooooomed!

On Monday, James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia concept, published this article in The Independent, in which he gives a rather gloomy diagnosis of the planet’s health:

The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth's physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger…

…before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

These levels of doom-mongering are unfortunately far too easily caricatured as a typical outburst from the sandal-wearing eco-evangelist set, and unlikely to be taken that seriously by anyone who isn’t worried already. Which is a shame, because this article contains the kernel of a point which I think should be hammered home to those who refuse to take our effect on the planet seriously at every opportunity: we need to spend much more time talking about the fragility of human civilisation in the face of rapid climate change. Whose crops fail when rainfall patterns are altered? Whose cities are flooded when sea-levels rise, or flattened by increasingly severe storms? Whatever damage we’re doing to the rest of the planet, our own house is also tottering on increasingly rotten foundations.

You might be surprised to learn that I’m not particularly worried about the long-term health of the planet, but that’s because I’m using long-term in the geological sense, and palaeontology teaches us that life as a whole can endure and bounce back from even extreme calamities. However, it also teaches us that change is the key to this recovery – new species supplant the old, and despite our technological prowess there’s no guarantee that we can buck that trend. In 50 million years, if Lovelock’s fears are realised, the planet might be host to another sentient species, who will puzzle over the apparently self-inflicted extinction of a tool-using, hairless race of primates which clearly had ideas above its station. They’ll probably also curse us for burning all the oil.

The obstacles to healing Gaia’s fever lie not in means, but in motive, in finding the will to possibly compromise our short-term comfort for a long-term goal. Sadly, this is not a defining characteristic of our species, as Lovelock discusses in his own hyperbolic way:

…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.

To the cynic, the reasons for the pessimism become clear when we are informed that Lovelock has written a whole new book, ‘The Revenge of Gaia’. Ah-ha. Interestingly, if the synopsis if accurate, this expands his opinion from ‘We’re all dooooomed!’, to “We’re all doooomed! Unless you do what I say!” Even he thinks we have some hope, he’s just suppressing it for promotional purposes (in fairness to The Independent, they do let someone else argue that the problem is not yet insoluable).

Self-interest is a powerful force if we can harness it, trumping altruism every time. As more people realise that it’s not just the whales and rainforests which are at stake, but their own necks, they are more likely to start worrying, and forcing the hand of our spineless leaders.

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