Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Revenge of Gaia

I’ll admit it; The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity by James Lovelock was initially a difficult read for me. Part of me wanted to curl up a little depressed ball at the current state of Gaia, or Earth’s intricate balance of systems that function together. The other part felt risen to protective action by developing a deeper understanding of how Earth’s ecosystems function together and how delicate the balance is.

Lovelock proposed the initial Gaia Theory in the early 1970’s as (from Wiki): a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. To put it in the most simplistic terms I could visualize, imagine a see-saw. One side is pushed down to bring the other up, vice versa. To stay stable and balanced in the middle requires that both ends be manned at equal distribution. Mash one side down really hard and you get a sore tush and a partner that is flying too high in the sky.

The Gaia Theory has been embraced in many respects by a variety of different religions or spiritual beliefs as an embodiment of the spirit of the Earth. Though I was familiar with Gaia Theory to a certain degree, this was my first close look at the science surrounding theory development. Or, in this case, the revenge of such.

Lovelock proposes in Revenge of Gaia that Earth has regulated her (he personifies Earth as her) temperature and climate throughout history and that she now displays symptoms that we could liken to a fever while other ecosystems are crying out for relief. Lovelock also proposes that organisms on Gaia have also evolved in more of a symbiotic relationship then simply the Darwinist approach of “survival of the fittest.” For instance, did humans evolve (notice I said evolve, not created for those wary of alternate evolution theories) as a significant part of the nitrogen cycle? Maybe organisms evolve in a yin/yang approach rather then in our simple thought of individual evolution.

He proposes that when Earth has experienced major fluctuations in the carbon in our atmosphere self-regulating systems come into play to spring Gaia back the other way. It just happens slowly, ever so slowly as we count thousands of years. The current state of Gaia has us reaching the tipping points where feedback from each failing eco-system plays into each other to create a devastating ecological threat. We’ve crippled her self-defense systems, and even if a climate change was doomed to happen we have moved it along to a matter of decades and not thousands of years as it would have taken in ages before.

He does feel that we have gone beyond sustainable development in many respects, and that our dependence on fossil fuels must absolutely end. He moves us toward nuclear as the quickest, cleanest, and most possible immediate solution and doesn’t feel that other solutions will act as quickly or efficiently. And make no mistake, Lovelock feels that we must move very quickly if we stand a chance to survive. It is bound to be an extremely rough ride for those of us sticking out temperature changes, floods, food and water shortages and the ensuing changes to our civilizations. Is climate change inevitable as it serves as the ultimate fever to eradicate us? The one organism that evolved too quickly and destroyed the yin/yang? I ponder……

I have a priest bud that served to end Aparthaid in South Africa, and saw some of the bloodiest scenes that one can imagine. She was trained under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Winner of 1984. We had lunch the other day and had a passionate discussion about Earth, our spiritual and theological beliefs as they relate to the peril of Earth and what each of us can individually do to change the fate of our society. She shared thoughts from Tutu, and as I think of Gaia I’m revisiting thoughts on what I know of him.

Tutu gives us the well known quote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Though works like Revenge of Gaia may be initially depressing to read as they discuss more of the gloom and doom of our environmental situation, I propose that we must have a few of them speckled in our diet of literature in order to make sure that we understand the full scale of injustice, that we are not complacent as we strive to change the outcomes of climate change or other environmental challenges.

I think there are many of us that are deeply concerned about speaking with a fatalistic tone on issues of climate change and human sustainability. But I found great wisdom in this book as I looked to the symbiotic relationship of our humanity as it is tied to the survival of the Earth. When I revisited my thoughts on Gaia and tied them to Tutu I felt rejuvenated in that Gaia wasn’t fatally depressing, it was more a clear call to action for me in understanding the full range of challenges to our globe.

Technicals: It can be difficult to wade through in places, but Lovelock rather mirrors Hawking as he turns complex equations into a manageable narrative. There are scientific examples and data galore to support many of his theories. Not a very long read, but you will find yourself pondering the material and re-reading passages.

I’d rate it a 4 out of 5 for a good crunchy read. Readers: Those interested in climate change theory and evidence.

Update: I should also point out that this isn't his first book on Gaia Theory. If the Revenge of Gaia is hard to read, perhaps start with Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (c200) or The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth (c1995, revised edition).


Kale for Sale said...

I have always been curious about this book and after hearing an interview with Lovelock some years ago have tried to put the book out of my mind. But I've maintained a curiosity about it all the same. In the interview he sounded like such a humble guy. He drove an old Toyota Corolla or something silimar and lived simply and was so obviously brilliant. I wasn't ready to hear what he was saying at the time though. I may be ready to give it a look now.

And thank you for the quote by Tutu. I've not heard it before.

Unknown said...

I've actually never heard of this book, so thanks for the review. I'll be checking the library for a copy!

Going Crunchy said...

I should also point out that this isn't his first book on Gaia Theory. If the Revenge of Gaia is hard to read, perhaps start with the Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth or the initial Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth.

I'll update my review to include those two titles. Shan

Anonymous said...

Liked the review, will check out the book. Thanks.

Theresa said...

I really enjoyed this review - thanks! I hadn't heard of this particular book before, but now I will keep my eye out for it, along with the other titles you mention. I think I just need to quit my job so I can read all these great books! (And do a little gardening.)