The Revenge of Gaia

‘The Revenge of Gaia’ by James Lovelock; Penguin, 2006. 192pp

Stephen Rowland reviews The Revenge of Gaia in the form of a letter to the author

Dear James

Many thanks for your latest book, The Revenge of Gaia. It’s given me plenty to think about. When I first read your earlier book on Planetary Medicine, I thought the whole idea of the Gaia metaphor was intriguing, and this book takes these ideas further, albeit in a rather scary way.

You describe yourself as being both ‘green’ and a ‘scientist’. I guess that since others have criticized your idea that Earth is a life, on the grounds that this is not scientific, you are concerned that your readers should acknowledge you as a scientist. This doesn’t worry me too much since all sorts of people with quite contradictory theories claim they are scientists and that their opponents are not. Rather like Christians in that respect! Indeed, your claim that ‘Gaia resists explanation in the traditional cause-and-effect sequential language of science’ would, according to some scientists, rule you out as a scientist. I guess these are the scientists that you see as being ‘scientifically correct’. But, not being a scientist myself, I’m not really able to evaluate your arguments ‘scientifically’. Reason is good enough for me!

I recently joined a readers’ group of the Future Cities Project – a group which does not have any highly focused objective, as far as I can make out, but is concerned to think about how city life might develop. The group has asked me to open up our discussion of your book.

From your perspective our group might be amongst those who have ‘a love affair with the city’. In fact, this might be the one thing that members of this readers’ group share. So your supposition that it is this ‘love affair with the city’ that is the cause of our problems – or rather the cause of Gaia’s problems – might not go down well in these quarters.

Like you, however, I also enjoy country life. But we obviously have some radically different views about what country life is and was. You refer to an ‘achingly beautiful world of 1800’. My reading of history leads me to quite a different conclusion: that in 1800 most people lived in wretched poverty in the cities and rural poverty was characterized by many living on the edge of subsistence with little freedom from the control of those who owned the land. Now I agree with you that things don’t always get better, but to say that aesthetically, morally or politically things have got worse since 1800 makes me wonder if this is not a rather ‘elderly’ viewpoint, if you’ll excuse me saying so.

Also, our aesthetic of the countryside is different in other ways. You consider the new electricity generating windmills to be an eyesore, but make no complaint against electric pylons marching across the countryside. I differ. I don’t like the pylons much and it seems to me that windmills are much more ‘natural’, whatever that means. At least, what they are doing is waving their arms around in the natural wind, reminding me that the forces of nature are both great and useful.

But more importantly I really think your view of nature fails to recognize the extent to which humans have created the countryside we know, at least in England. Your suggestion that those born before 1950 would have seen the world ‘in its natural state’ is extraordinary. Even the desolate moors that I know so well are the consequence of humans stripping away the forests that preceded them. And views of rustic charm are all man made consequences of the practical struggle to make a living off the land. They are often also the selective perception of the privileged who prefer to ignore rural poverty.

But let’s leave these differences aside for the moment, for there are some ideas you put forward here that are important and need to be said. For example, you expose the argument against banning DDT and introduce what appears to be some good sense into the issue of acid rain. In developing these arguments you appear to rely upon the kind of cause-and-effect reasoning that you disparage amongst the ‘scientifically correct’. But never mind. It works well when you need it.

The ideas you put forward for new forms of energy are interesting too – although I would need some persuading to eat synthetic roast beef and Yorkshire pud.

In your arguments against some of the excesses of the green movement you point to the dangers that are created by a climate of fear. You’re right there. I’m tempted to say that the increasing climate of fear may be an even greater danger than increasing warmth. And perhaps an even more difficult climate to correct. However, it seems to me that you are in danger of feeding the very fear you warn us about. It’s in this respect that I am particularly struck by your latest book.

The title – The Revenge of Gaia – sets the scene. I get pretty scared when threatened with revenge. It’s a powerful emotion that resists rational or scientific argument. The idea that the mother God Gaia, which is the Earth, can take revenge on me (her child?) sounds like a pretty powerful inducement to be afraid. What is the Gaia whose revenge we should fear?

You appear to acknowledge that life means different things in different contexts. A live circuit to an electrician is alive in a different sense than that in which a patient may be alive to a doctor. And different again from the sense in which we might say that Marxism is (or is not) still alive and well. So if you are saying that Earth is an alive organism in a metaphorical sense, what aspects of life do you have in mind?

You claim that the Earth is at, or very near, a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be unable to sustain itself. Your claim for this is based on scientific evidence, but can only be provisional. Since the Earth is a unique system in our experience – unlike fashions and epidemics – we could not really know that a tipping point had been reached until it had started to tip, by which time it’s too late to do much about it. So we need to heed your warning, but with a degree of scepticism. It reminds me of the claims in the 1980’s that the world would soon run out of oil and then, just last week, I heard that some oil producers believed that the price of oil would fall by two thirds in the next decade because of vast new reserves that had been found.

But to return to your metaphor of the Earth as an alive being. If by this you mean a complex system with certain characteristic responses and feedback mechanisms, and an ability to sustain itslef within certain limits, that’s fine. But revenge seems to me to be a characteristic of a very different sort of system: indeed it is a particularly human characteristic. Electric circuits may be alive, but they don’t take revenge. This view of the Earth as a system which can exhibit revenge is explained by your statement that ‘our primary obligation is to the living Earth. Humankind comes second’. And elsewhere you say that the Earth has a ‘goal… to sustain habitability’, as if the Earth were a being with purposes.

Now this view of life seems to be one which has a moral as well as material aspect. If your science is right and the Earth as a system is approaching its tipping point, you seem to be saying that the reason I should do something about it is not in order to enable mankind to survive, but in order to enable Planet Earth to survive. I have, according to you, an obligation to Gaia which is beyond my obligation to people. Put this way, it is beginning to sound fundamentalist or ideological. Might you not therefore be open to the same sort of criticism as you successfully raise against other ideologically motivated conservationists? It also sounds rather like religion. Since Gaia was a God, that presumably is what you intend.

Now you may object to this fundamentalist interpretation. Your views are certainly very different from those of many fundamentalist Greens. You put forward a case for nuclear fuel, for example, which draws upon claims that are certainly unusual. Reports of increased genetic malfunction around the site of Chernobyl; the dangers of nuclear fallout; the problems with dealing safely with nuclear waste, all appear to be problems that you say are vastly exaggerated. That may be so, I cannot judge and must take into account the views of different ‘scientists’. But the religious tone of your primary obligation to Gaia makes me a little wary of accepting your version of science.

I must end now and feel that I have been a bit more critical than I would wish. I like big ideas and you have given us a big idea that can be very useful. When all’s said and done, Gaia is a figment of your lively scientific imagination. Science without imagination is of little value. But imagination can be dangerous.

All the best


13 June 2006


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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