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We’ve Pushed the Earth Too Far

by Pamela Leavey

Are we facing the end of Eden? Is it too late to curb the effects of Global Warming? One controversial scientist thinks it is. James Lovelock, discovered four decades ago that “ozone-destroying chemicals were piling up in the atmosphere.” Soon after, Lovelock proposed the Gaia theory (named for the Greek Goddess Gaia, the earth’s mother), “which holds that Earth acts like a living organism, a self-regulating system balanced to allow life to flourish.”

Biologists dismissed this as heresy, running counter to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today one could reasonably argue that Gaia theory has transformed scientific understanding of the Earth.

Now, James Lovelock has turned his attention towards global warming, with a new book, “The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity.” On Friday, he’ll be speaking at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. about his new book, “The Revenge of Gaia,” which is already a big seller in the U.K.; it was released in the U.S. last month. Michael Powell, staff writer for the WaPo says, “Lovelock’s conclusion about Global Warming is straightforward. ‘To wit, we are poached.'”

Lovelock has “measured atmospheric gases and ocean temperatures, and examined forests tropical and arboreal (last year a forest the size of Italy burned in rapidly heating Siberia, releasing from the permafrost a vast sink of methane, which contributes to global warming).”

He found Gaia trapped in a vicious cycle of positive-feedback loops — from air to water, everything is getting warmer at once. The nature of Earth’s biosphere is that, under pressure from industrialization, it resists such heating, and then it resists some more.

Then, he says, it adjusts.

Within the next decade or two, Lovelock forecasts, Gaia will hike her thermostat by at least 10 degrees. Earth, he predicts, will be hotter than at any time since the Eocene Age 55 million years ago, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean.

“There’s no realization of how quickly and irreversibly the planet is changing,” Lovelock says. “Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this. Even if we took extraordinary steps, it would take the world 1,000 years to recover.”

At 88, Lovelock “remains one of the world’s most inventive scientists, an Englishman of humor and erudition, with an oenophile’s taste for delicious controversy.” He works on independent “biochemistry projects, in a lab in an old barn behind his farmhouse in Devon.”

He often quarrels with the scientific establishment, which he sees as crippled by clubby orthodoxy. (Nor does he hesitate to tweak environmentalists — Lovelock is a passionate backer of nuclear power as a carbon-clean palliative for global warming.) But it’s difficult to see Lovelock, an inventor with 50 patents to his name, a fellow in the Royal Society — England’s scientific society — as a Gaian bandito.

What’s perhaps as intriguing are the top scientists who decline to dismiss Lovelock’s warning. Lovelock may be an outlier, but he’s not drifting far from shore. Sir David King, science adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, saluted Lovelock’s book and proclaimed global warming a far more serious threat than terrorism. Sir Brian Heap, a Cambridge University biologist and past foreign secretary of the Royal Society, says Lovelock’s views are tightly argued, if perhaps too gloomy.

The Gaia theory and Lovelock’s predictions may not capture the attention of some in the scientific realm, but it should be noted that James Lovelock was “a prodigy, earning degrees in chemistry and medicine.”

In the 1950s he designed an electron capture machine, which provided environmentalist Rachel Carson with the data to prove that pesticides infected everything from penguins to mother’s milk. Later he took a detector on a ship to Antarctica and proved that man-made chemicals — CFCs — were burning a hole in the ozone.

“Gaia, shmaia,” says Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist, who has been critical of Lovelock’s latest theory. “If Lovelock hadn’t discovered the erosion of the ozone, we’d all be living under the ocean in snorkels and fins to escape that poisonous sun.”

The birth of the Gaia theory came in 1961 when Lovelock was working with NASA to “design a lander to search for life on Mars.”

That, Lovelock thought, was silly. What if a lander set down in the wrong spot? What if Martian life wasn’t bacterial?

Lovelock took a conceptual leap. If Mars bore life, bacteria would be obliged to use oxygen to breathe and to deposit their wastes as methane. Lovelock found that Earth’s atmosphere contained massive quantities of oxygen and methane, gases that are the very signature of life. Mars’s atmosphere was thick with carbon dioxide, the calling card of a dead planet.

That discovery changed his life. He came to see Earth as a self-regulating biosphere. The sun has warmed by 25 percent since life appeared, so Earth produced more algae and forests to absorb carbon dioxide, ensuring roughly constant temperatures. In 1969, Lovelock lacked only a name for his theory. He took a walk with novelist William Golding.

A big concept needs a big name, Golding said. Call it Gaia.

Gaia proved controversial, and not just because the name made New Age priestesses go weak in the knees. (“Gaia’s not ‘alive’ and I’m afraid I’m not a very good guru,” Lovelock notes dryly.) Biologists nearly choked — they argued that organisms cannot possibly act in concert, as that would imply foresight.

Lovelock recalls being denounced at a conference in Berlin.

The intolerance gave him a pain. Lovelock said that the world’s biomass can act without being “conscious.” “The neo-Darwinists are just like the very religious,” Lovelock says. “They spend all their time defending silly doctrine.”

Forty years later, talk of an interconnected planetary system is the lingua franca of Earth science. The queen has handed Lovelock a prize, Oxford has invited him to teach, and his small forest lab had more government contracts than he could handle.

It’s all rather gloomy, Lovelock explains, “our splendid Spaceship Earth” has so “quickly become the oven of our doom.”

It begins with the melting of ice and snow. As the Arctic grows bare — the Greenland ice cap is shrinking far faster than had been expected — dark ground emerges and absorbs heat. That melts more snow and softens peat bogs, which release methane. As oceans warm, algae are dying and so absorbing less heat-causing carbon dioxide.

To the south, drought already is drying out the great tropical forests of the Amazon. “The forests will melt away just like the snow,” Lovelock says.

Even the northern forests, those dark cool beauties of pines and firs, suffer. They absorb heat and shelter bears, lynxes and wolves through harsh winters. But recent studies show the boreal forests are drying and dying and inducing more warming.

Casting 30, 40 years into the future, Lovelock sees sub-Saharan lands becoming uninhabitable. India runs out of water, Bangladesh drowns, China eyes a Siberian land grab, and local warlords fight bloody wars over water and energy.

As the environmentally conscious “seek salvation in solar cells, recycling and ten thousand wind turbines, Lovelock reminds us, “It won’t matter a damn. They make the mistake of thinking we have decades. We don’t.”

“It’s too late to turn back.”

I’m reminded in reading the WaPo story and writing this post of Native American activist and poet John Trudell‘s song “Crazy Horse” from his “Bone Days” cd. We have squandered our resources, tread on our mother, sold her wealth to the highest bidders, and while some may debate whether Global Warming really exists, others see a dire future ahead…

2 Responses to “We’ve Pushed the Earth Too Far”

  1. Heck yeah, we pushed the earth too far and we humans are going to pay for it big time.

    I’ve always thought in the end the earth will heal herself and unfortunately for humanity we won’t like the prescription.

  2. My sister told me of a rather obvious comment she had heard. Humanity is on the verge of destroying the planet for humanity and many other species. But the planet will continue in it’s disrupted evolution – without us to interfere any further.

    Maybe some aliens will be able to inhabit it.