The revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

I thought that as he had been writing on environmental issues for decades, it might be interesting to read ‘The revenge of Gaia’ by James Lovelock (the guy who first popularised and named the idea of Gaia in the 70s). I also decided to start writing in the book, as I said I would recently when I realised when I came to write about it that I had forgotten the bits that most intrigued me by the time I had got to the end. Well, I wrote quite a bit in this one. Some of it was new news to me that I found surprising. Most, however, were things that irritated me enormously.

Clearly, he knows a good bit about his subject, as you might expect from someone who has spent a lifetime in it. So, some of the intriguing things that come out are about the real risk of nuclear waste – next to nothing in his view, certainly by comparison with the risks from conventional fuel waste, and necessary anyway given lack of alternatives. The best figures available for deaths caused by different power sources shows nuclear at 8 per terawatt year, and hydro-power at 883 – two orders of magnitude higher! (Coal is 342 and gas is 85 for comparison – nuclear is by far the lowest). IT was also great to re-see the statistics on bio-fuel, pointing out that it simply cannot be a subtitute for fossle fuels since it would require multiples of the currently agriculturalised areas, notwithstanding the need to still eat food.

The basic concept behind Gaia – that of a self-regulating set of interactions that has managed to ensure a pretty constant environment for millennia despite material change in solar gain – is intriguing. Indeed I was left wanting much more on that to understand how an arbitrary set of processes, some with negative feedback loops (ones that preserve the staus quo) and ones with positive loops (that zoom off until restrained by some larger change) could result in a self-regulated system – that is, one with overall negative feedback. Intrigued enough to want to understand whether it was an unavoidable result, or just something peculiar to the Earth (and therefore prone to observer bias – we are here to see it, so it must be that way). It feels like the former, since there have been massive perturbations and the system has recovered. But, along the way the atmosphere has gained toxic amounts of Oxygen (to earlier life-forms), so the regulation clearly has different relatively stable operating points.

The piece that annoyed me most was the use of anthropomorphic language about Gaia throughout. Phrases like “Why does Gaia not resist this adverse change?’, or ‘Gaia grows angry’. He says that he used it only as a metaphor, one that is useful as it helps people understand the concept. I have trouble with this since it relies on changing peoples view of what ‘alive’ is. Metaphors that require you to change your view of the world to understand them don’t feel like useful ones to me … those that can handle that level of abstraction can probably take the concepts straight, and those that can’t will misunderstand it (as many gave done with Gaia).

Sadly, it wasn’t just the language that annoyed. Lovelock also contends that giving an account of how the self-regulation works is ‘not just difficult, it is impossible’. He clarifies his meaning by saying that it ‘resists explanation in the normal cause and effect language of science’. This is utter nonsense. There are perfectly good ways of describing and analysing systems with all sorts of feedback loops, whether these regulate or tend towards extremes. It isn’t even new – it was well established when I did my degrees 20 years ago. We may not know all the mechanisms, and the exact feedback loops – that I buy, but it reads like he means this at a much more general level. Indeed he makes this clear by asserting that ‘Engineers are able to design complex self-regulating systems such as automatic pilots … but I doubt if any of them have a conscious mental image of their inventions; they develop and understand them intuitively’. This is absolute rubbish, as a 10 second test would tell – autopilots that were developed and understood only ‘intuitively’ would not be allowed to operate safety critical control systems. And, from a personal point of view, I don’t find them hard to understand at all (I’m not being arrogant – they really aren’t).

He also seems to mix up whether the environment is beautiful or effective, as he rails against wind turbines. I’ve no issue with the contention that they may not solve the issues since the wind is variable, so lots of capacity needs to be retained. And, he talks about unforseen effects from altering the vorticity of the air (must look into that – never heard it before). But, the language he uses seems as much designed to preserve the beauty as to be effective in helping the earths self-regulation. Both may be laudable, but conflating them merely muddies the waters.

In summary, I learnt some new things, but through gritted teeth. I can’t remember when I last disliked a book I expected to like quite as much as this one. I won’t be reading anything else he has written.

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