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The Anti-Green Ecologist

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The Anti-Green Ecologist

Book Review in Standpoint

James Lovelock is a creative scientist and inventor, a visionary
thinker, and a fascinating individual. Not the least remarkable thing
about him is that at the age of 89 he still writes clearly and
beautifully. The Vanishing Face of Gaia is his second book on global
warming and covers much the same ground as The Revenge of Gaia,
published in 2006. However, both books, indeed all his books, contain
interesting and often charming excursions into a number of topics
scientific, personal, and speculative.

Lovelock believes
that it is not possible to understand the looming global warming crisis
and to know what to do about it without taking Gaia into account. The
name Gaia, which was suggested to him 40 years ago by his country
neighbour, the novelist William Golding, is the ancient Greeks’ goddess
of Earth and is the etymological root of words such as geology. By
Gaia, Lovelock means that the biosphere – the totality of life on Earth
– regulates itself and the air, water and rocks upon which it depends
so as to maintain favourable conditions for itself. Lovelock promotes
Gaia as both a public religion (we humans need to realise that we are
merely parts of a larger organism) and as a scientific theory (the
biosphere should be studied as a self-regulating system analogous to an

The current scientific consensus on global warming, as represented by the assessment reports of the UN Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, is far off the mark, according to Lovelock.
Consensus has no legitimate role in science. It’s rather a way of
resolving political differences than pursuing truth. Moreover, this
specific consensus is based on agreeing that computer models can
predict what global temperatures will be in 50 or 100 years, which
Lovelock argues is preposterous. Instead of models, science must be
based on observations and measurements.

What do observations
and measurements tell us about the global climate? Lovelock says that
the evidence is unambiguous: the rate of warming is much faster than
predicted by the computer model forecasts of steady, gradual warming.
The almost certain result is that the self-regulating feedbacks that
maintain the climate in its current rather cool state will collapse and
the climate will change suddenly to a much hotter state.

is fine for Gaia, which looks after itself, but spells calamity for
humankind. Lovelock believes that jumping to a hot climate is probably
inevitable and that most of the Earth will become desert. Human beings,
if they are clever enough to save themselves, will be able to survive
only in the most northern and southern land masses and on a few
islands, including the British Isles. This hot new world will support
at most a billion people.

Thus for Lovelock the programme
undertaken with the Kyoto Protocol to try to limit warming by reducing
greenhouse gas emissions is catastrophically foolish. We should be
concentrating on how to adapt to the hotter world. Even if it is not
too late to stop global warming, Lovelock cannot contain his scorn for
the promoters of wind farms and biofuels and for the silly people who
adopt a green lifestyle to lower their carbon footprints. Instead of
windmills and fuel from crops, which will enrich special interest
groups without reducing emissions, Lovelock argues that the only
effective measures are geo-engineering (that is, climate modification
by means such as adding aerosols to the upper atmosphere or increasing
algae growth in the oceans) and a crash programme to build nuclear

It is with Lovelock’s enthusiasm for nuclear power
that his fundamental disagreement with and antipathy for the Green
movement becomes most apparent. The Greens have turned people against
nuclear power with “a concatenation of lies”. Ironically, Lovelock
acknowledges that he played a small but essential role in creating
modern environmentalism. His invention of the electron capture detector
in 1957 provided Rachel Carson with evidence that industrial toxins
were present in everything, including human tissue. Lovelock points out
that everyone knows that the dose makes the poison. Minute traces of
chemicals pose no threat to human beings, nor do the low levels of
radiation found in nuclear waste. The most potent carcinogen, Lovelock
observes, is oxygen.

Blatantly dishonest opposition to
nuclear power is not, however, the heart of Lovelock’s hatred of what
he calls the “urban green ideology” and which he describes as perhaps
the most deadly and most environmentally damaging of all ideologies.
Lovelock has spent most of his life working as an independent
scientist, that quaintest of callings, partly because it suits his
quirky character, but largely because it has allowed him to live in
that quaintest of locales, the English countryside. He deeply loves the
landscape that has been intensively managed by people since time out of
mind and that he has watched over the course of his life being
destroyed by mechanised agriculture. Now, what’s left is being
obliterated by hundreds of thousands of acres of crops to produce
biofuels, and the views are being ruined by gigantic windmills.

blames this destruction on “urban imperialist infiltrators” who know
nothing of the beauties of plants and animals or the pleasures of
country life and who have been duped by the Greens into thinking that
the worst things imaginable are trace pesticides in their food, or
electricity provided by politically incorrect sources. As a countryman
who is passionate about the country and who sees citification as the
greatest threat to what is best in being human, Lovelock draws on a
much deeper stream of Western culture than is present in his Gaia
theory. He partakes of the tradition represented by Henry Williamson
and J. R. R. Tolkien in England in the 20th century and by Coleridge
and Wordsworth in the 19th.

I recommend The Vanishing Face
of Gaia as a book worth reading, despite the fact that I disagree with
both Lovelock and the conventional alarmists that global warming is a
crisis. I agree with Lovelock on consensus, the computer models and on
the primacy of observation. But he seems unaware of the wide array of
observational evidence that does not support his position. For example,
he quotes one study that sea levels are now rising at a rate much
faster than the models predict. That study is not supported by the
scientific literature or by the satellite measurements of sea levels
that have recently become available. Lovelock is not alone in this: my
experience is that global warming alarmism depends on cherry-picking
the evidence.

Even on the small chance that he is right that
we face a much hotter world, there have been similar climate eras in
Earth’s history that were times of lush vegetation and a flourishing of
the biosphere rather than widespread droughts and deserts. That’s not
necessarily due to temperature: plants need carbon dioxide to
photosynthesise and higher carbon dioxide levels cause nearly all
classes of plants to grow more vigorously and to withstand adversity
better, as hundreds of agricultural experiments have demonstrated.
Maybe Lovelock is right, but he pushes it much too far. He claims that
humanity would have done better causing the next ice age to start “even
though we would have had to abandon much of the northern temperate land
to the glaciers” (including much of Britain).

I would like
the chance to discuss the entire issue with Lovelock and would
undoubtedly profit handsomely from listening to him. That is because he
is a most unusually open and honest scientist in today’s global warming
debate. Unlike most of the scientists pushing alarmism, Jim Lovelock
does not mould the scientific evidence to fit a political agenda.
Instead of dismissing global warming sceptics as “deniers”, he praises
Nigel Lawson’s sceptical book, An Appeal To Reason: ”...I applaud his
astringency and his disapproval of the trendy populism that now
attaches to anything and everything seen as Green.”

And if
I have serious philosophical doubts about Gaia, it goes without saying
that I agree with Lovelock on windmills and biofuels, nuclear reactors,
Rachel Carson and pesticides, urban green imperialist ideology and the
ridiculous and futile commitments to reduce emissions.

and Mary Gribbin’s He Knew He Was Right is advertised by the publisher
Allen Lane as the “definitive, authorised biography” of Lovelock. It’s
not remotely definitive, but it’s not as bad as the Trollopian title
portends. The Gribbins recount many episodes large and small in
Lovelock’s life based on conversations with him and on his
autobiography. They also provide much historical background on climate
science and on the precursors of Gaia theory.

Their aim is
to show Gaia as one of the great breakthroughs in the history of
science and Lovelock as Gaia’s prophet. This is bad enough, but they
then shorten their book’s shelf life by tying it all up to the global
warming fad.

As an uncritical look at some episodes in
Lovelock’s scientific career and life, the book cannot compete with
Lovelock’s own autobiography, Homage to Gaia, because it lacks
Lovelock’s charm. But it does have one or two moments that reveal his
remarkable character. In a chapter titled “What doesn’t kill you makes
you strong”, the Gribbins recount Lovelock’s coronary problems that
almost killed him because he didn’t want to have surgery in the United
States in 1972 on the grounds that it would cost too much. After a
decade of misdiagnoses and delay, during which he might have had a
fatal heart attack at any time, the National Health Service finally
operated in 1982. The bypass was “a complete success”.

a catheter had not been sterilised properly due to a labour dispute
that was taken out on patients by working to rule. The result has been
continual urinary tract infections, at least 40 operations, and “pain
and misery that persists to the present day”. The Gribbins cheerily
report that Lovelock “holds no ill will towards the hospital or the
National Health Service. If anything, his experiences over the next 25
years reinforced his belief in a free medical service available to