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Gaia Wizard Sets Doomsday Time Bomb

By Robert S. Becker

30 July, 2009

What’s scarier than severe recession? Okay, depression. Terrorism looms still, but for sheer panic, nothing matches 90% species die-off. Not from asteroids, nor nukes, nor is our planet doomed, though the approaching Andromeda galaxy looks to digest our Milky Way – but not for billions of years. Let's worry instead about our progeny and how they sustain humanity if James Lovelock is right. He foresees shrunken habitat, resource wars, scorched landscapes, and gruesome casualties.

Erratic populations are hardly novel: 99% of earth's emergent life forms have gone extinct. The demise of dinosaurs, awarding an obscure, half-pint mammal a leg up, dramatizes extinction – and yet a billion birds came forth. Our species is special in this regard: we hog 40% of global energy, but nothing (but the Rapture, a variant end of time fable) overrules physics, chemistry, and biology – or willful blindness towards overpopulation, pollution, and rising oceans.

Scads more of us jeopardize all, as oxygen-breathing, carbon-dioxide exhalers burn down life-forests that freely redeem oxygen from carbon dioxide. If we “grow, baby, grow” then we must “build, baby, build” and “drill, baby, drill” beyond sustainable practices. Actually, anointing ourselves “earthlings” doesn’t change our newcomer status: our million year genealogy pales next to a planet pushing 15 billion years. Lowly snapping turtles are 200 times older. On a 24 hour clock tracking 15 billion years, homo sapiens span the last 10 seconds. And may not make 15.

The 10% Doctrine

So, by logic alone, should we be gobsmacked when Lovelock, pre-eminent British wizard who authored the stunning Gaia Theory, predicts 90% species die-off when heat storms erupt – and without a sharp tipping point, “just a slope that gets ever steeper.” Destined for emergency action, survivors will “escape to higher ground. We have to make our lifeboats seaworthy now [and] stop pretending there is any way back to that lush, comfortable, and beautiful Earth we left behind sometime in the 20th century.” Post-apocalypse, planetary carrying capacity: 700 million, 10% of today’s booming population.

In comparison, Cornell ecologist David Pimentel figures two billion will live decently, though 12 billion more will scrape by, plagued by heat and famine. Irony reigns: too much procreation equals the opposite, and success spells failure. So effective in decimating other creatures, our species stands as the first to jeopardize its own existence, perhaps life on the planet – and, doubly doomed, be conscious of it. We are masters of our fate, but not as anticipated, potential fossils done in by addiction to fossil fuel. And some doubt God’s peculiar sense of humor.

Rising Seas Tell All

Lovelock favors sea levels to track global heating, his marker we’re beyond return to a 1950’s earth. Yet why the steep slope, not incremental change? The explanation lies in "positive" feedback loops by which one kind of warming feeds another: greenhouse gases melt reflective ice caps, thus more of the sun’s heat gets absorbed, thus warming oceans, thus fewer carbon-feeding algae, thus more greenhouse effect. Feedback loops amplify the rate of heating, causing today's rising ocean elevations double official U.N. predictions.

In the process, Lovelock debunks politically-popular “green” scams as half-assed, feel-good dodges, even snake oil, profiting tech and finance opportunists but not deflecting catastrophe. Included scams are “cap and trade,” the incentive program to reduce emissions, and carbon trading, whereby one entity, having reduced carbon-dioxide pollution below set levels, sells this “gain” to those above allowances. Three years ago, at 87, he published The Revenge of Gaia, warning the window to save the earth was shutting. Now comes Vanishing with his dire call, like J. Robert Oppenheimer after creating the atomic bomb, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Gaia Rings the Globe

Two decades ago, Lovelock introduced his own feel-good theory, encapsulating the planet with a mythological name. Gaia science depicts a self-adjusting, homeostatic balancing act in which major biosphere constituents – plants, animals, minerals, gases, the sun’s heat – interact to sustain a life-friendly habitat. Unless one clever, greedy animal finds a way, say running dirty industrial machines for 150 years, to overtax innate safety values. What Gaia provides Lovelock is a predictive global model more comprehensive, he claims, than experts monitoring parts of the whole. Thus, his focus on rising sea levels, not temperature, for they measure two heavy-duty warming sources: “the melting of glaciers and the expansion of water as it warms. Sea level is the thermometer that indicates true global heating.”

Admittedly, Lovelock is a minority doomsayer, but what if there’s a 1% chance he’s right? Or 10%? If Dick Cheney’s 1% Doctrine on terrorism holds for this greater menace, shouldn’t we do more than organize summits? Cheney equated a 1% chance of renewed terrorism with certainty, thus feeding wildly counter-productive over-reactions. Happily, Lovelock’s solutions don’t involve unwinnable wars against wrong foes, or thrashing humane Geneva Conventions or basic privacy rights, simply respect for science and technology, like nuclear power.

Epilogue on change

In The Black Swan, economist-finance guru Nassim Taleb delivers his own wake-up call: what impacts history isn’t foreseeable change, thus the past serves as notoriously misleading guide. Taleb argues paradigm shifts come out of the blue, consequences are disproportionately transformative, and disruptive shocks often contaminate best responses. Take 9/11 as “black swan:” Bush-Cheney egregiously misread terrorism, inflating it from incendiary, symbolic tactic into full-fledged assault on civilization, thus instigating a trillion dollar “global war on terrorism.”

We’ve handled the Internet better, a black swan whose seismic shifts persist, unintended or not, positive or not. I find Lovelock useful, even as alarmist, by projecting a worst case – well, short of extinction. Yet Lovelock remains a humanist, reinforcing Santayana’s maxim, “those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We need far more scientific literacy that honors empirical data, trends, and methodology: otherwise, wise and rational planning will again be trumped by paranoia and ideology. What if planetary disruptions are ultimately more predictable than one-time shock treatments malevolent radicals think will change the world for the better?


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