Book review: The Vanishing Face of Gaia, by James Lovelock.

Reviewed by: Rodrigo Sanchez M., November 2011, Cambridge University.

The very word Gaia may be sufficient to scare away prospective readers of this book (Peter Schroeder, Physics today) but make no mistake: This is a scientific book, far from unfounded public opinions and politics driven media debates over climate change, pitifully frequent nowadays.

James Lovelock, 91 years old, is an independent scientist and a lifelong inventor. In 1961 he was engaged with NASA and its program of planetary exploration studying the composition of the Martian atmosphere for detecting life forms. He is the author of more than 200 scientific papers, distributed almost equally among topics in Medicine, Biology, Atmospheric Science and geophysiology. Lovelock was the first to detect the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, by inventing an electron capture detector back in 1957.

The Gaia theory establishes that earth climate self regulates, and that the biosphere affects and transform the environment, implying that the Earth and all its living forms behave as an integral living being. This implies an extraordinary complex system. This theory places man away form the ownership of the Earth to one of its many species, an uncomfortable position for many.

Nowadays science is divided into sets of well-differentiated and specific disciplines. However, this reductionist approach seems to be not suitable for dealing with complex problems such as climate change. The Earth climate problem in no exception to this approach, and scientist in general seem to lose the sight of the problem as a hole. Consequently, holistic systems science seems to be an emergent era.

Gaia theory complicates specific science elegant explanations and troubles independent scientific territories. Logically, this is an important reason of why this theory has irritated so many scientists and it has taken a long time for recognising it. The author thinks that this delay and the current reductionist approach of science in general, convenient for personal aggrandizement, could bring deadly consequences.

Lovelock makes a call, not to abandon the Cartesian way of thinking that has served the world so well, but to take the integral Gaia science seriously. He believes that the scientific world tends to live on the theory and models, missing good observers as Darwin was. He recognise this branch of science as the most important. Through the reading you will found interesting insights on how scientific theories evolve till becoming generally accepted.

He doesn’t propose a tangible solution to deal with the complexity of the climate change problem, but the value of this work relies in making the important step of uncovering the deficiencies of actual science.

Parables between his ideas, history and personal experience makes this reading easygoing. Nevertheless, the reader wont lose a pleasant tension created by the thought-provoking nature of Lovelock reasoning and proposals. But not everything is idyllic in this book.

In the first chapters the author has a very pessimistic posture over the future of humanity and life on Earth. His harsh posture becomes annoying when you realise that many of his negative predictions are not consistent or unfounded. In fact the authorrecognize that his pessimism is due to counteract the wrong belief of governments and businesses that climate change is easily and profitably reversible. Though his noble intention, this fact becomes a negative point for the book. Although he strongly criticise the credibility of International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, when basing his negativeness he relies on them “IPCC report predicting a lack of water in many parts of the world by 2030”. Also he ventures to predict future climate even on specific pieces of land, after disapproving all current models and methods.

On the other hand Lovelock scares the reader with strong and well founded evidence, for example how the current Earth warming can’t be fully perceived yet, as the heat is mainly absorbed by the fast melting ice poles and the gradual sea temperature rise. But what will happen when there isn’t enough ice on the Earth to absorb the heat excess? A sudden movement to a hot state and bursting temperature rise seems to be very rational.

Lovelock argues for a faster movement towards a hot earth than the IPCC predicts. Through feed back loops, currently ignored by models, climate changes could occur at an astonishing speed, and rush towards hot states. An example of the above is the melting of the ice poles: as they melt, more heat is absorbed by the earth, which at the same time increases the ice melting. He criticizes actual models, as they fail to include this non-linear relationship between variables. Also he point out that observations are not being taken into account as most scientist seems to be sucked into their models. Observers scientists have measured sea level and temperature rising 1.6 and 1.3 times faster than the last IPCC prediction.

Climatology is mainly based on geophysics and geochemistry and climate change models don’t include physiological respond of ecosystems of land and oceans. This omission hides essential feedback loops, leading to incorrect predictions. James brings to mind that climatologist should be modelling Gaia instead of modelling atmospheric physics only.

Lovelock’s negativeness places the world in a situation where policy making should be equally focused on adaptation than in climate change mitigation. But if we are failing to predict the climate of the future, how are we going to plan any adaptation to it? I am more inclined to believe in a gradual process of adaptation in response to unknown changes, as man has done in his migratory history.

As you progress in reading the intentional pessimistic attitude of Lovelock seems to start dissolving together with the repetitive characteristic of his writing. Thus opening space for a rich and wide range of scientific reflection over different elements of the climate change issue, making clear that is much more than mere CO2 concentration in the atmosphere and its related warming. For example: Acidification of the oceans, due to human waste, makes the seas decrease the amount of CO2 that they can absorb, generating another important feedback loop.

In the Eocene epoch (millions of years ago) a geological accident released a huge amount of CO2 in the atmosphere enough to warm the earth up to 8 °C and took around 200,000 years for Gaia to return to the previews state. Geological records suggest that 55 million years ago the Arctic basin was tropical in temperature with abundant vegetation. Fourteen thousand years ago sea level rose 100 meters. Two billions years ago plant population growth produced a massive climate change in the earth by  ́polluting ́ it with Oxygen, condemning anaerobic ecosystems to and underground life. Like plants we could not avoid reaching an overpopulated state, so should we feel guilty?

The facts presented by Lovelock can make the reader question deep preconceptions,

as it happened to me: If we are just a specie in the Gaian auto-regulated system, aren’t our actions and impacts on the environment integral part of Life and a manifestation of its intelligence? The solutions we are planning to take aren’t part of the self-regulative intelligent power of Gaia also. If so, shouldn’t we do what we instinctively think is better and stop worrying? At the end all would be in the hands of Life, or Gaia.

Back to the book, you will find it ‘eyes opening’ in energy matters, as it contains groundbreaking ideas that reveal his quality as a scientist.

No alternative renewable energy source has yet made a significant impact on energy supply. He accuses the attractiveness of this energy sources to be linked with the benefits produced by subsidies and interrelated with the pressure of a fashionable green ideology. He thinks that this same force is responsible for penalizing clean nuclear energy. Subsidies generate more advertisement on still expensive green energy, generating a feedback loop ending in a growing unfounded trust over these solutions. He accuses green energy to be still to premature for mass implementation and affirms that probably it will take at least 10 years of technology and industry development to make a global impact with solar and tidal energy. Lovelock predicts that the wind energy agenda for England will be remembered as the great killer of this century and looks at the green ideology as a blind way of thinking instead of the life saving of the world. Nevertheless, he intelligently thinks of wind power as good energy source for desalinating water, another issue we will have to deal with.

Lovelock accuses a falsehood around Nuclear energy. The latter has been responsible of 100 dead since it’s operating in the world, much less than those caused by the fossil fuel generation industry. He sees wind energy as a weak solution, because its intermittent and it needs a constant back-up, commonly fossil fuel generation, when not producing. He uses this and other evidence to end in a well-founded conclusion that wind energy in the UK should be abandoned in favour of nuclear energy.

The author explores solutions to predicted problems of food scarcity and living space. He goes through some technological dreams as food synthesis from carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water. Not to crazy considering that a similar product, Qourn, is already commercialized in the supermarket. Lovelock dreams of high-tech compact civilizations able to manage global scarcity of food, water and space.

About geoengineering , you will discover its not new. Human became geoengineers as soon as they discovered fire. Plants also have been geoengineering the planet by changing the atmosphere composition since millions of years. However this solution is described as a double-edged sword, as it could be an excuse for continuing business as usual and with very dangerous side effects like ocean acidification due to uncapped CO2 emissions. I share his point of view that we are still to ignorant for using intentional geoengineering, and I aggregate that if we haven’t been able to reach tangible results in international CO2 reductions then why should we think that we could plan a global geoengineering policy?

Considering actual models and its characteristic uncertainty, I don’t share the opinion that geoengineering could serve as a solution to survive until something better is available, as its effects and side effects are impossible to quantify in a Gaian complex system. In 1991 Pinatubo eruption injected enough aerosols into the atmosphere to cool the temperature of the earth by 3 degrees, so at what extent should we plan, or believe we plan our future climate? Time will tell, but I don’t think we have reached enough maturity as specie.

Lovelock recalls that to understand Gaia requires and instinctive familiarity with the

dynamics of systems. Moreover he speaks about the importance of natural intuition, and thinks that we haven’t yet starting to develop the intuition of Gaia because it haven’t been important, till now, to the natural selection of our specie. It seems that our concern for the impact we are causing on the environment has not been honest enough, an as the author affirms, this could be because no consequences are visible yet. Nevertheless, natural catastrophes seem to condensate in time over the last decades.

Powerful statements in line with his holistic approach are expressed towards the end of the book: “We will fail to react correctly to changes and events until we intuitively recognize the Earth as a living organism”. I totally share this point of view, since we seem to have lost the intuition that makes other animals instinctively escape to the hills before a tsunami. Buffaloes, goats, dogs and flamingos don’t play with complex climate models, but were found unharmed in tsunami events where thousands of people perished (National Geographic).

For Lovelock, the modest experience of learning the old names of flowers from the farmland where he grew was a fundamental catalyst to develop this intuition, which goes beyond numbers.  ̈ We have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves….but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet. ̈ (E.O Wilson).

Finally Lovelock goes farther than you could think, suggesting deep questionings as: What separates an illusion from what we perceive as reality in our minds? In this way, reminding us that our impression of the world is limited to what mind makes with what it gets from our senses.

Totally recommendable reading if you want to understand the climate change problem and its implications from a scientific point of view, and form your own informed opinion. Considering that we completely depend in natural systems, that we are depleting natural resources at a higher rate than they recover and that population is growing day by day. I recommend this book for all backgrounds.

If we are intrinsically part of Gaia, does anthropogenic climate changes exist elsewhere than in our minds? Should we feel proud if being able to win our imaginary battle versus climate change, stealing from the self-regulatory intelligence of Life? Has the life of Gaia an intrinsic finality? Find your own answers and enjoy the reading.