A CENTURY IN THE GARDEN
The Revenge of Gaia James Lovelock Allen Lane, UK, 2006, £16.99
JAMES LOVELOCK IS a fine writer and this book, given its scope, is readable and admirably brief. There is little jargon, and acronyms are rare. And it treats global warming (or global heating, as Lovelock insists on calling it in a show of gratuitous individualism) with the seriousness it deserves.
But my guess is that many readers will find the book a disappointment, as I did. Lovelock assumes a good deal of prior knowledge, so it is not a good introduction to the subject: Andrew Dessler and Edward Parson’s recent book The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change is much better in that respect. Nor does it have anything new to say. As the author points out himself, the key arguments were contained in his original book Gaia, published in 1979. The Revenge of Gaia is essentially a polemical tract based on the following thesis: Gaia, the interdependent, self-sustaining system of life on Earth, is being destroyed by human fecklessness, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, and the most urgent action we can take to save civilisation is a quick shift from fossil fuel to nuclear power.
There is nothing wrong with polemic, but I suspect that even readers with less of a vested interest than me would find this unconvincing. Lovelock’s argument suffers from (at least) three fundamental flaws. First, there is a narrow focus on technology choice as the driver of climatic destruction or salvation: nothing on the socio-economic causes, nothing on the vibrant debates about carbon justice, nothing on the fiscal or regulatory frameworks that might lead to the necessary changes in consumer behaviour. No environmentalist that I know is against technology – photovoltaic panels don’t grow on trees – but equally no serious environmentalist believes that technology alone will be enough, or that the existence of clean alternatives will make much impact without fundamental changes in markets and societies.
Even within the discussion of technology Lovelock takes a narrow and at times contradictory approach, and herein lies the second flaw. Apparently based on his objections to wind turbines near his Devon home, he rejects renewable energy as “inefficient and expensive”, yet places his hope in nuclear power.
He appears to have missed the fact that both of Britain’s nuclear operators have gone bankrupt and been bailed out by the taxpayer in recent years. He says that “we have no time for visionary energy sources” yet pins his ultimate hopes on nuclear fusion, a technology that has been fifty years from commercialisation for as long as anyone can remember.
The apogee of this techno-optimism comes in his support for a seven-mile-wide sunlight-reflecting disc to be positioned at the point where the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Earth are equal and opposite. This might conceivably work, but it’s hard to see it as a cheaper or more reliable option than developing wave or tidal power or cladding buildings in solar panels.
Lovelock’s support for nuclear power is hardly new and hardly news, even though sections of the media treat it as such every time he voices it. Here he rehearses the familiar arguments of the nuclear lobby: a proven and reliable technology; more people die every year in coal-mining accidents; Chernobyl was not so bad really.
But the tone is more personal and more immediate than the propaganda emanating from the industry: it reads as the cri de cœur of a man frustrated at the obstinate refusal of others to see the world as he does. And his worldview is that of the scientific elitist. We, the scientists, understand. Public opposition is a result of lack of understanding and must be overcome through more education and, of course, through countering the scaremongering of those pesky environmentalists.
What this worldview lacks is any comprehension that the public might reject scientific wisdom, not because they are stupid or have been duped by Greenpeace, but because they have a different set of values. Failure to acknowledge this is the third major flaw of the book.
Public attitudes to nuclear power are vastly more sophisticated than Lovelock allows, as recent research for the Tyndall Centre has shown. A majority of respondents would support nuclear power if it were, as Lovelock contends, the only way to fight climate change. Fortunately for those of us concerned about the waste it produces, the risk of accident or terrorist attack, and the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, it is not.
Decentralising the energy system, generating power close to the point of use so that the heat that is the inevitable by-product can also be utilised, would lead to greater cuts in carbon – and lower costs – than recreating the centralised electricity system that nuclear power requires.
Lovelock is worth reading, but the debate is moving on.
Stephen Tindale is Executive Director of Greenpeace UK.