James Lovelock is about as famous as a scientist can get and still be a serious scientist. He is known most widely for proposing the Gaia Theory which states that the Earth acts as if it were a single organism regulating conditions in ways that are favorable to life. But more recently he has been in the news for two positions that have infuriated environmentalists. He supports nuclear power as a way to address humankind’s energy needs without worsening global warming and he opposes wind turbines which he claims are merely an attempt to shore up unsustainable cities at the expense of the countryside.
In his most recent book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock also downplays the chemical contaminants in food and criticizes organic agriculture as unable to feed the world. This comes from the man who invented the electron capture device that made it possible to detect miniscule quantities of pesticides and other pollutants in places like Antarctica. The device thus opened a new chapter in toxicology about the ubiquitousness and persistence of pesticides in the environment.
Lovelock is brilliant, and as an independent scientist he is beholden to no corporation or government. He can’t be accused of special pleading on their behalf. His independence and broad view of the planet’s workings have made it possible for him to see things that others could not see.
Given the way the news media covers Lovelock and the man’s talent for a colorful turn of phrase, it’s easy to see how his main message gets obscured. I think this is because his main message is far more disturbing than anything he has said about nuclear energy, wind turbines or pesticides. That message is that we must put Gaia, the great climate and physical system of the Earth which sustains life, first before any other concern. Logically, this makes sense. The well-being of every human on Earth depends on a healthy planet. But surprisingly, this logical necessity is lost on the political classes, both left and right.
How can this be? Aren’t those on the left more concerned about the environment? Yes, those on the left are generally more sympathetic to environmental concerns. But, the main agenda on the left is social and economic justice, and this runs head on into Lovelock’s dictum that Gaia must be put first before any other concern.
The watchword among those focused on alleviating worldwide poverty is so-called sustainable development. Here I agree with Lovelock. Perhaps when the world had 1 billion people and the ecological footprint of each person was a tiny fraction of what it is now, we could speak of such a thing. But, today the world is full, beyond full. We are in overshoot. This doesn’t mean that progressives should abandon their quest for social and economic justice. It means that they will have to pursue it under different circumstances.
The unfortunate truth is that ideologies of both left and right share one crucial assumption: a belief in unlimited economic growth. For the right the fruits of that growth should go to the individual whether due to hard work or inheritance. For the left the fruits of that growth should be redistributed so as to insure at least a minimum of education, health care and nutrition for all.
But as the twin pressures of climate change and energy depletion begin to weigh on world societies, the left will have to come to terms with a possibly shrinking or at least stagnant economy. It has been fairly easy to make the case for redistribution of wealth so long as the wealthy kept getting wealthier. But it will be considerably more difficult to make the case for greater sharing in a world of diminishing prospects. As for the right, its focus on individual achievement within free markets has arguably created considerable vigor in economic life so long as economies were growing, but at the cost of great inequality. However, the hyperindividualism which this focus has spawned will likely only amount to every man or woman for him/herself in a constricted economic environment.
And so, the case for sharing the burdens of a diminished world will need to be made since the only alternative will be intense conflict over declining resources. The results of that approach are already on display in Iraq. Those concerned about building a sustainable world instead of fighting over the scraps of our unsustainable one already know the drill: conservation and efficiency; low-input, small-scale agriculture; public transportation; electrification of transport; relocalization of most economic tasks; alternative energy that is truly renewable and which addresses global warming without displacing critical food crops. The focus must be on increasing the fertility of the soil and reducing the human impact on the ecosystem.
All of this implies that the great concentrations of wealth made possible by a hypercaffeinated, networked world provisioned by colossal extractive technologies will end up dissipating. Wealth, after all, depends on the availability of energy and raw materials. When the energy needed to extract and refine those raw materials declines, so does wealth.
To lead in such a world will require a different kind of thinking. It will require building hope and solidarity around the notions of survival and simplicity. It will mean restoring dignity to manual labor. It will mean re-thinking what we mean by wealth and security. It will mean focusing on reducing population rather than growing it.
This is what flows from putting Gaia first. We can put Gaia first or we can watch it move into a new state that will be inhospitable to human civilization. Despite the scope of changes needed to move toward sustainability, we won’t be ending civilization; we will be enabling its continuity.
Lovelock sees himself as a planetary physician who has made a diagnosis and suggested that the patient has a fever so severe that she needs drastic remedies. We must all now become planetary physicians and do our part to apply the necessary remedies.