Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Jackson 1

Peter Jackson, rotund director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and sometime civil servant, has very kindly sent me a few of his writings to put up. Eventually we'll sort out logging him on properly, but for now, I'm posting on his behalf. First up is a review of James Lovelock's Gaia:

Lovelock, J. (1979) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James Lovelock presents an intelligently, well researched and fascinating view of the self-regulating systems of the Earth, presented not as a group of complementary processes but rather as one single system, or entity, that he calls Gaia. What I find very interesting about Lovelock’s theory is that I find myself agreeing with every word until the conclusion at the end of the chapter where I find myself wondering if he is totally insane! This is quite a feat of excellent writing.

The basic premise of the book – that the planet has many complex and amazing systems in place that help to regulate atmospheric and planetary conditions for life – is beyond dispute and Lovelock’s explanations are both insightful and a fascinating read. When you think of all the other planets humanity is aware of and their inability to support life – its fairly obvious that something special has happened on Earth. The search for this special factor has been the goal of human philosophy since the beginning of time in one form or another, and is the basis of most modern religions; our inability to accept the randomness of the universe. I don’t mean to dismiss Lovelock’s work, as many other have suggested he is a genius, he has an ability to establish in very simple terms the complicated scientific evidence that proves the Earth long been self-regulated to ensure its continued ability to support life. He is his deduction of what this fact means that I disagree with.

The entire surface of the Earth including life is a superorganism and this is what I mean by Gaia.’ (p vii)

Firstly, the overarching argument is that a system of planetary self-regulation must signify some kind of meta-life, planetary life if you will. This does not mean consciousness, merely life – in the same way a plant is alive; it takes actions to ensure its survival by instinct rather than conscious thought. Lovelock is not explicitly saying that the Earth is a life form that created us and is some sort of God (Mother Earth) that we should worship this of course would be ridiculous and he states explicitly this is not his intent.

I did leave his book however concerned that his desire to name his discover – Gaia, after an ancient goddess – and empower it with a implicit identity betrays an age old human desire to bring humanity, and order, to every form of life. I don’t think that we should reject his idea just because it has something spiritual about it, I’m not even sold that it does, but I do feel that this approach masks a theory that is otherwise a statement of the blatantly obvious. Has it not been common knowledge for hundreds of years that life adjusts to change and even its most basic forms aim for self-preservation above all else? Is the idea of an eco-system a new one? Is it a revelation to anyone that these eco-systems interlink and complement each other across the whole world? Some how I feel Lovelock has done little more here than express very commonly held beliefs into a coherent whole and given it a name. This isn’t itself a problem, some of the most brilliant theories of history have been very obvious in retrospect, I’m not claiming I would have thought of it, but as I will now argue his applications of his theory are not only ill thought out, they are actually quite dangerous.

Like any living creature the Earth is subject to the laws of Darwinian evolution, that is it does not only rigidly maintain its current condition, but also evolves to take account of environmental changes in its eco-system. If, for example, someone comes along and dumps carbon dioxide in the system, the system is capable of adjusting, or redressing the balance. Carbon dioxide, and almost every other chemical we consider to be ‘pollution’, might be alien to the system we are entering it into, but it is not alien to Gaia – most pollution originally come from somewhere on Earth. Gaia has a pre existing system to redress too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and in the mean time – while this is kicking in – if the temperature does increase to levels comfortable for today’s creatures she has methods for cooling the planet. If some species do not survive their functions in the eco-system will be replaced – in the long term. This is Lovelock’s theory of why global warming is not really as big a problem has people make out, life is not threatened by it at all, we might have stared the process, but its natural and Gaia will only let it upset the balance for so long. The problem with this view is that it overlooks a major problem with the timescales involved here. Gaia and humanity operate to very, very different timetables. When Lovelock says, the planet will naturally adjust to increased in carbon dioxide he is talking about hundreds of years. He means Gaia will adjust in the way she adjust to an ice age. Now it might just be me but I think that’s a tad too long for most of us!

In the current times, a clear and unquestioned consensus about global warming is vital if we are to avoid the tipping point of critical levels of green house gases in the atmosphere beyond which the only solution will be to wait for generations while Gaia catches up. In the mean time millions of people will be made into refugees, thousands will die and many more will suffer, the global economy will likely take a nosedive as a result and regional wars will be a near certainty. This is why I call Lovelock dangerous. It is of course necessary to be truthful with the pubic about global warming and to have healthy debate about the unknown consequences and many possible solutions. With all the misinformation flying around on the subject, Lovelock’s clear explanation of the actual problem is helpful. The fact that he doesn’t clearly spell out the irrelevance of his argument to the very real short to medium term problem we will face is however highly irresponsible.

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Blogger Uncle Petie said...

I've not read the book, only heard him interviewed, but I always understood his point to be that you don't have to love the planet to worry about global warming - self-interest will do: the earth might be able to adjust to whatever we do, it's just a case of whether we like the adjustments.

24 July, 2007 19:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the status of the proposed film adaptation of The Hobbit and will you be directing it? And will Sir Ian McKellen be reprising his role as Gandalf?

27 July, 2007 14:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

King Kong sucked bigtime, muchacho!

27 July, 2007 14:59  

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