Monday, April 7, 2008

Climate Change—Part Three: The Dark "Optimism" of James Lovelock

“Climate science maverick James Lovelock believes catastrophe is inevitable, carbon offsetting is a joke and ethical living a scam,” says Decca Aitkenhead in an article in the Guardian. When Aitkenhead asked the 88-year old scientist what he would do, Lovelock replied—rather pithily, I might add: “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."

“Lovelock has been dispensing predictions from his one-man laboratory in an old mill in Cornwall since the mid-1960s, the consistent accuracy of which have earned him a reputation as one of Britain's most respected - if maverick - independent scientists,” says Aitkenhead. “[Lovelock] introduced the Gaia Hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all climate science.”

His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation by 2020; and that much of Europe will be Saharan by 2040; and parts of London will be underwater. The most recent Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report reflects some of 88-year old Lovelock’s predictions.

“As with most people, my panic about climate change is equalled only by my confusion over what I ought to do about it,” laments Aitkenhead. “More alarming even than [Lovelock's] apocalyptic climate predictions is his utter certainty that almost everything we're trying to do about it is wrong.”

The current canon of eco ideas like ethical consumption, carbon offsetting, recycling and so on are based on the calculation that individual lifestyle adjustments can still save the planet. This is, Lovelock says, a deluded fantasy. Most of the things we have been told to do might make us feel better, but they won't make any difference. Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable.

"It's just too late for it," Lovelock says, briskly dismissing eco ideas, one by one. "Carbon offsetting? I wouldn't dream of it. It's just a joke. To pay money to plant trees, to think you're offsetting the carbon? You're probably making matters worse. You're far better off giving to the charity Cool Earth, which gives the money to the native peoples to not take down their forests."
Do he and his wife try to limit the number of flights they take? Asked Aitkenhead. "No we don't. Because we can't." And recycling, he adds, is "almost certainly a waste of time and energy", while having a "green lifestyle" amounts to little more than "ostentatious grand gestures". He distrusts the notion of ethical consumption. "Because always, in the end, it turns out to be a scam ... or if it wasn't one in the beginning, it becomes one."

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics, says Aitkenhead. “To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.”

Lovelock argues that nuclear power could solve our energy problem. The bigger challenge, says Lovelock, will be food. “He fears we won’t invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects about 80% of the world’s population to be wiped out by 2100,” reports Aitkenhead.

“Faced with two versions of the future - Kyoto's preventative action and Lovelock's apocalypse - who are we to believe?” asks Aitkenhead, who offers that some critics have suggested Lovelock's readiness to concede the fight against climate change owes more to old age than science.
I’m reminded that there's more than a hint of controversy in his work and agree with Aitkenhead, who also ponders the unlikely coincidence that Lovelock became convinced of the irreversibility of climate change in 2004 just when the international consensus was reached that urgent action was required. Aren’t his theories at least partly driven by a fondness for heresy? Lovelock vehemently denies this while suggesting that humanity is in a period exactly like 1938-9, when "we all knew something terrible was going to happen, but didn't know what to do about it". But once the Second World War was under way, "everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday ... so when I think of the impending crisis now, I think in those terms. A sense of purpose - that's what people want."

Aitkenhead ponders Lovelock's credentials as a prophet. “Sometimes he seems less clear-eyed with scientific vision than disposed to see the version of the future his prejudices are looking for.”
Lovelock tells of seven disasters that have occurred during human history, “very similar to the one that's just about to happen,” says Lovelock. “I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That's the source of my optimism." Lovelock adds: "We are about to take an evolutionary step and my hope is that the species will emerge stronger."

In the next several posts of this Climate Change series, I present yet other views and strategies to a phenomenon that will prove one way or another to change all our lives irrevocably. As for optimism, I don’t share Lovelock’s kind of dark optimism. My optimism comes from elsewhere… but that’s for a post later on in this series.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

We had three inches of snow here in Britain yesterday, so the climate is rather weird.

Good post!

sfgirl said...

Indeed! Shades and echoes of things to come... My son sure likes the added snow (he is an avid freeskier). Meantime, I'm building an ark in our backyard... :)

Brenda said...

Unlike Lovelock's take on ethical consumption, my attitude is that no right deed is ever in vain. Maybe more technology is the answer, but I don't have control over that. I do have control over what I purchase and how I consume energy.

sfgirl said...

I so agree with you, Brenda! I will be posting more on that in my series. I think that there is an awful lot we as individuals can still do. Let's not give up!!!! More on that later. I think that is our biggest problem... how we are "shutting down" because we don't think we can make a difference. A combination of "solastalgia" and panic that we are powerless. Lovelock's kind of "optimism" does little to promote a sense of power in us. The worse thing we can do now is to go stiff with fear. Most of us cope by avoiding it all together. We must not give up. Each of us CAN make a difference. And I don't just mean directly to do with the environment (each of us has his or her own way to contribute). I really like what you said, Brenda, about "no right deed is ever in vain."

(As for me...ok... I'm NOT building an ark...but I am building something like an ark... call it a metaphoric ark...)

dan said...

metaphoric ark? sounds interesting, do tell more.

all ears

-- danny

I must confess I share Lovelock dark optimism, about breeding pairs in the Arctic, I think that is exactly where we are headed, but as I am only a mere 59 years old and he is 89 years old, I am a bit more optimistic on the time frame for this chilling future scenario. He says 20 - 40 years and it's over......I say we still got 400-500 years to either find a fix and work things out..... so my dark optimism has some cream mixed in.....

Polar cities, here we come. But not until 500 more years.....give or take a few. 2525 might be the time. But I do think we should start preparing for these moves northward NOW, at least mentally, spiritually, and even at the design and planning stages..... but for the most part, nobody is taking me seriously....... execpt Dr Lovelock, who has seen the images of polar cities that Deng Cheng-hong has created online and he told us: "thanks for showing me those may very well happen and soon." YIKES!

But yes, Decca did a nice interview with Dr Lovelock. She told me she doesn't normally cover green issues or science, more often raves and ectasty stories, but this was a one off interviewe sje was assigned to

sfgirl said...

Well, it's all in the timing, isn't it, Dan?... who's right?...It won't necessarily be us finding out; it'll be our children...


Many adults in the United States are concerned about climate change, according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports. 47 per cent of respondents think global warming is a very serious problem, while 26 per cent deem it as somewhat serious.

Brenda said...

I wanted to let you know that this post ( and your continuing series) is still making me think! In fact, I just posted a family story on my blog that relates to our comments here!

sfgirl said...

Cool, Brenda! Can you provide us with a link?