Gaia's last stand
Climate Change is Everybody’s Business by Helke Ferrie
“Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees . . .” Revelations 7:3
When I was a child, the Earth was incomprehensibly huge, solid and eternal. Now it seems as fragile as a Christmas ornament. Within a hundred years most life forms and human civilization may be completely gone, as if they had never existed at all. As I write this, I cannot believe I am actually doing so.
The quantitative figures are simple: last year saw the largest increase of greenhouse gases on record – CO2 and methane (which is 24 times more potent than CO2). In one year they rose by 2.6 parts per million in our atmosphere, bringing the total to 381 ppm – the highest in 30 million years (BBC, March 14). Unless drastic action is taken immediately, we will reach the critical point within four decades, namely 500 ppm. Then greenhouse emissions will have increased average global temperature by possibly five degrees Celsius.
The oceans would no longer support life; the Greenland ice sheets would begin their unstoppable meltdown, splashing giant ice cubes into the oceans and drowning entire countries and the coastal cities of the world; the Atlantic thermohaline circulation current would collapse and stop regulating ocean temperatures and rain and cloud cycles would stop; most of the Earth would become a desert. One leading climatologist, James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goodard Institute of Space Studies, says this would “constitute practically a different planet.” (Washington Post, January 29). Maybe “a few breeding pairs of people will survive in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable,” predicts James Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia, the subject of this article.
Lovelock has three maps showing life’s distribution on Earth – 1) during the last Ice Age when average temperatures were five degrees Celsius less than today, 2) the current Earth, and 3) what to expect in another 100 years. The first map shows life everywhere, even in all current deserts. The third map shows life supported at the tip of South America, a corner of southern Australia, the Himalayan regions of India and Tibet, a sliver of northeastern China, a thin long swath of Siberia, all of Northern Canada, and Alaska. This understanding of climate change is based on international consensus which is: it’s happening and we did it with “combustion, cows and chainsaws,” as Lovelock puts it. Or, gasoline-powered vehicles and all economic activities causing CO2 production, the beef/poultry/pig industry, agricultural methods that increase methane output, and the relentless deforestation that removes the Earth’s air conditioning system.
The Bush administration has tried hard, and failed, to shut up climatologists. The Washington Post reported on April 6 that the White House requires clearance of all media requests to climatologists through the government first. Press releases coming from climatologists have key words routinely “purged” – terms like “global warming” or “climate change.” The US government wanted them removed even from the proceedings of the Seventh International Carbon Dioxide Conference held in Boulder, Colorado, last fall, but was ignored. NASA’s James Hansen told the New York Times, the Washington Post, and a university audience about this pressure to silence climatologists as being “more like Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union than the United States.”
Confirmation of the reality of climate change actually comes from President Bush’s decision last year to replace the chairman of the world’s most influential climate policy body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), because oil companies didn’t like their “alarmist” pronouncements about global warming. To the administration’s shock, the successor Bush chose, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, announced that “without very deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions we are risking the ability of the human race to survive.” (World-Watch, March/April, 2006)
LEADING SCIENTIST SOUNDS THE ALARM
James Lovelock’s new book is in my opinion the most important book of our time — bar none. Not to take it seriously and act on it would be global suicide, or lunacy, or both. In the book, the end of civilization on planet Earth is projected as a real possibility within a century or so by climatologists on five continents. Alarmed? Damn right I am.
James Lovelock is a British scientist whose CV would take up most of this article. Among his many inventions is the electron capture detector which in the 1970s led him to discover the ozone depletion caused by chlorofluorocarbons. International treaties ended their manufacture. His work with NASA and the first space photographs of planet Earth led him to the insight that planet Earth is a self-regulating living system, just as our bodies are homeostatically regulated within critical limits. Lovelock founded a new discipline now called geophysiology. His friend, Nobel laureate William Golding, suggested the name Gaia, after the ancient Greek earth goddess.
Lovelock explains: “Gaia is the whole system of animate and inanimate parts ... a thin spherical shell of matter that surrounds the incandescent interior; it begins where the crust’s rocks meet the magma of the Earth’s hot interior, about a hundred miles below the surface, and proceeds another hundred miles outwards through the oceans and air to the even hotter thermosphere at the edge of space. Gaia includes the biosphere as a dynamic, physiological system that has kept our planet fit for life for over three billion years ... it is a physiological system because it appears to have the unconscious goal of regulating the climate at a comfortable state for life.”
At first Lovelock was considered a New Age crazy man, but in 2001 the world’s climatologists unanimously put this preamble in their Amsterdam Declaration: “The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components.” Lovelock comments that “humanity and the Earth face a deadly peril, with little time left to escape ... [because] we live on a live planet that can respond to the changes we make either by canceling the changes, or by canceling us.”
Lovelock wrote his book between the December 2004 tsunami and the drowning of New Orleans, observing that those events, both due to destabilized greenhouse gases, “are nothing compared to what may soon happen; we are now so abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does, most of us, and our descendants, will die ... I speak as a planetary physician whose patient, the living Earth, complains of fever; I see the Earth’s declining health as our most important concern, our very lives depending upon a healthy Earth ... Even if we stopped immediately all further seizing of Gaia’s land and water for food and fuel production, and stopped poisoning the air, it would take the Earth more than a thousand years to recover from the damage we have already done, and it may be too late even for this drastic step to save us.
We, as a civilization are all too much like someone addicted to a drug that will kill us if continued and kill usif we suddenly withdraw.” The March 2006 issue of Scientific American reported: “If China and India were to catch up [with consumption levels in North America and the EU] then the resources of an entire second planet Earth would be required to sustain just those two economies.”
LOVELOCK’S BLIND SPOT
Great minds suffer from great blind spots. Mahatma Gandhi was so determined to restore India to its ancient simplicity, he seriously wanted to have the parks surrounding the elegant government buildings in Delhi handed over to farmers to plant vegetables. Dr. Theron Randolph, the father of environmental medicine, initially could not wrap his mind around the concept of detoxification and the need for nutrients in therapeutic doses, believing that in order to cure environmentally induced illness only avoidance of offending substances needed to be taught. Linus Pauling and Dr. Abram Hoffer finally changed his mind.
Similarly, Lovelock is not disturbed by the increase in cancer and recommends that nuclear power, being “clean energy”, is the ideal alternative to all the CO2 producing energy systems. He relegates environmental medicine and the organic movement to mere silliness; he is clueless about pesticides.
It would be foolish, however, not to examine his blind spots carefully. Blind spots in great minds highlight the important ideas these minds produced. What they don’t see clearly makes what they do see clearly even clearer. The sheer enormity of the destruction we may face within less than a century becomes very real when we observe Lovelock dismissing environmental health concerns, a soaring cancer rate, and organic agriculture as mere band-aids. How many people died at Chernobyl does not interest him because billions will be wiped off planet earth if average temperatures increase by five degrees. Nuclear powered generators would prevent this mass destruction but increase cancer rates. “So what?” says Lovelock.
The valuable insight that connects destructive climate change with his obvious ignorance in other matters is this: we are made for the Earth, the Earth is not made for us. We are one item in the biosphere, not its master. Being our true mother, all her children — from bacteria and butterflies to humans — are equally important or potentially annoying to Gaia; we are not her favourites. Expanding on the anthropomorphic metaphor, Lovelock observes: “Like an old lady who has to share her house with a growing and destructive group of teenagers, Gaia grows angry, and if they do not mend their ways, she will evict them.”
MINIMIZING THE DAMAGE
Lovelock argues that “sustainable development” and “stewardship of the earth” are ludicrous notions. “To expect sustainable development or a trust in business as usual to be viable policies is like expecting a lung cancer victim to be cured by stopping smoking.” Needed instead is “sustainable retreat” and recognition of the arrogance inherent in the concept of stewardship. Lovelock demands that we re-write the Hippocratic Oath to state: “Do nothing that would harm the Earth.” He wants this warning “placed on every bulldozer, chainsaw, and on all energy-using devices [because] the well-being of Gaia must always come before that of ourselves: we cannot exist without Gaia.”
On the other hand, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to belong to the family of ostriches which leads most industrialized countries (he just cut programs for minimizing global warming by 40%). This potential global disaster cannot be left to politicians, who are the least qualified. Politicians are never stupid, in my experience, and I have found most of them to be very nice people, but their hands are tied by the economic delusion that celebrates theft on a planetary scale.
Imagine a Prime Minister announcing the need for reduction in energy use such as turning off the lights in all cities, stopping SUV production and phasing in large-scale public transit, stating that meat consumption must be reduced drastically, encouraging organic food, reducing all mining and logging activities, focusing on recycling absolutely everything, implementing waste reduction in packaging, and curbing advertising to cool the fever we call the economy. Imagine him then proudly announcing that any decline in earnings registered on the stock market and in annual GDP constitutes environmental solvency and shows that civilization is succeeding, not failing. That would, of course, be the break-out of sanity — it won’t happen.
We must do this ourselves. You and I. Every one of us. We are the consumers and only we can stop it. And apparently we want to: on April 9 the Detroit News reported that 71% of Americans believe global warming is real and caused by humans. Of those, 90% are willing to do whatever it takes to reduce global warming. Here are some suggestions:
- In the December 6, 2005, issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal the editor reported that “if every household in Canada replaced just one regular light bulb with an Energy Star-qualified compact fluorescent one, the reduction in pollution would be like taking 66,000 cars off Canadian roads.” They emit 70% less CO2. Energy Star, initiated in 1991, is an international effort involving more than a hundred countries and thousands of businesses. Their website reports that in 2005 Americans switched to such bulbs and similarly designed appliances in such large numbers that the savings in energy costs to the consumer were equivalent to $12 billion (USD) in that one year alone and the reduction of greenhouse gases equivalent to 23 million cars. Last fall I changed all 32 bulbs in our house at a cost of about $300. By this March our monthly billing plan was reduced from $344 to 148. We then gave one of our daughters a big bag of these bulbs for Christmas with similar results. Now that hydro prices are going up, as indeed they must, these bulbs are what you and Gaia need.
- We decided some time ago to eat fish once a week, and meat at most once a month, and never beef. My culinary skills have vastly improved, I probably grew new brain cells under this creative stress, our meals are better, and the methane that arises from beef production is reduced as well. This planet cannot afford to feed even one billion people on meat, let alone six billion. What’s more important: your hamburger or planet Earth?
- Last December we placed magnetizers (about $200) on our 15-year old Volvo station wagon. They are the equivalent of chelation therapy for cars, cleaning pipes and hoses of accumulated debris and streamlining fuel flow. By the end of March our fuel consumption had gone from 550 km to 720 km per tank. As well, on February 16 the mandatory emissions inspection report showed drastic reductions in toxic emissions from our car — way below the allowable limits of even a new car. The magnets are easily transferred to a new car. (See Resources at end.)
- Here is my challenge to you. How would you like to join me in a campaign I have provisionally dubbed “Starlight Only by 2007”? (My e-mail address is Helke@inetsonic.com). The idea is to expand on Toronto Mayor David Miller’s excellent light-reduction program to save birds’ lives. I suggest, in addition, that Toronto to be the first city that turns off its lights after sundown, leaving only the most important street and emergency lights etc., so that one can walk through the city at night and see stars again. The reduction of CO2 emissions would be gargantuan. If Toronto were to do this, all other big cities in the world could do it. Lovelock’s demand to turn off the lights in the world, before Gaia turns the world off for us, would be met.
R.C. Anderson, Mid-Course Correction
Chelsea Green, 1998. Featured in the documentary “The Corporation,” a Fortune 500 member and pioneer in planet-friendly industry.
E. Kolbert, “The Climate of Man”
three-part series in The New Yorker, April 25, May 2 and May 9, 2005. Best comprehensive survey of climate change.
J. Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia
Penguin, 2006. The must-read book of our time.
R. Wright, A Short History of Progress
Anansi, 2004 Massey lectures; a Canadian perspective on global collapse.
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