The Revenge of Gaia

In a universe long, long ago The Townsville Bulletin had a weekly books page independently edited by a staff journalist. I approached her about the possibility of doing some reviewing, and she was open-minded enough to give me the opportunity. She had no budget to pay me for my time but I got lots of free books and a completely (well, almost) open choice of what to review and how; I thought that was good enough and enjoyed the role for several years. This is an early example, with just a few words (the last one, for instance) changed now that there is no need to consider editorial proprieties.

It was added to Green Path in April 2020 but like some of my other reviews, it is published to the blog under its original date.

cover of The Revenge of GaiaThe Revenge of Gaia
James Lovelock
Penguin, 2007

The Revenge of Gaia was first published in England in early 2006 but Penguin have just released it here in a new, sensationalising, cover. In that eighteen-month interval we have seen the new IPCC report, the Stern Report and the beginnings of a political response. The (admittedly vigorous) legitimate debate that remains is over the extent of warming, and the best ways to slow and reverse the inevitable damage. In this context, The Revenge of Gaia is unhelpful: Lovelock presents such an overstated doom-and-gloom scenario that he undermines any emerging consensus.

Worse, though, is the illogicality of his proposals to mitigate the disaster he foresees. He wants us to rely on nuclear fission and dirty coal to keep industrial civilisation going until nuclear fusion takes over as our main energy source and carbon sequestration lets us safely continue to burn coal.

He is confident that both technologies are going to be developed in time, although neither exists yet, but he dismisses the possibility that renewables – solar, geothermal, biomass, tidal, wind – will be able to contribute significantly to our power supply soon enough to be useful although the technologies do already exist and are improving rapidly. And he dismisses energy-saving strategies as too difficult to implement although they are already making worthwhile reductions to carbon emissions.

But Lovelock’s Gaia Theory makes even his energy science look relatively reasonable. He proposed forty years ago that we should think of the biosphere as if it were a living being, and he named the being ‘Gaia’ after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth. He says now, as he did then, that his Gaia is only a metaphor to help scientists and everyone else to think more holistically about our fragile environment, but he continually slides into speaking of Gaia as a real, purposeful, intelligence: ‘She acts as a mother who is nurturing but ruthlessly cruel towards transgressors,’ is typical. One whole chapter is an appeal to channel our religious impulses into the veneration of Gaia, so that we may rebuild a sustainable relationship with our world.

Lovelock’s heart may be in the right place but his critical intelligence is, sadly, a long way away.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of good introductions to the science and implications of global warming. I won’t pretend to have read them all, but We Are the Weather Makers by Tim Flannery is good and has the advantage of an Australian emphasis as well as sound, clearly presented science. The Revenge of Gaia, on the other hand, will be most useful as mulch.

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