James Lovelock certainly wasn’t the first human to figure out that the Earth is alive or to identify her as a Mother -- most pre-xian religions in Europe, parts of Africa, and the Near and Middle East did so long ago -- but his Gaia Theory
certainly popularized the notion in the latter half of the Twentieth Century C.E. And he caused many of us to wonder, if the Earth is a living organism, what role do humans play? Are we similar to the brain, the nervous system, the heart, or the eyes, or are we a germ, beneficial in small colonies, but likely to kill the host organism if not reigned in?
In today’s Independent
, Lovelock states that “Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. Each nation must find the best use of its resources to sustain civilization for as long as they [sic] can.”
He notes that “climate centers around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth’s physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years.” He explains that Earth has suffered from similar conditions before, but that her recovery can only be measured in tens and tens of thousands of years. One function of fevers, I’ve always understood, is to raise the temperature high enough to kill off many of the germs and bring them back to a stable (i.e.
, tolerable to the organism) population level.
How sick does Lovelock think Earth is? He says that as this century progresses and temperatures rise, “Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will no longer serve [to help regulate Earth’s temperature]; this adds to the 40 per cent of the Earth’s surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.
He notes that current air pollution in the Northern Hemisphere actually cools the earth by reflecting sunlight back into space but (pace, wingnuts! don’t embarrass yourselves the way Ronnie Raygun did! keep reading!) this “global dimming” could “disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool’s climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."
Well, it’s interesting to think that the Eskimo and Laplanders will be the ones to survive this fever. Ursula LeGuin could write a fascinating novel about what that civilization would look like. But ecological stresses often lead to population movements that displace the original inhabitants. Somehow, I’m afraid that the rich and powerful (at that point, likely the Chinese) will claim those tolerable climates for themselves.
But Lovelock has more to say about what Earth’s fever means for civilization: First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realize how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilization for as long as they can. Civilization is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered decent.
I don’t know about you, but I have a grandchild about to be born whose life expectancy covers a large part of this century. The idea that this child will be involved, not in colonizing Mars or conquering cancer or writing transcendent poetry, but in conducting triage in order to “sustain civilization for as long as” possible so as to ensure a softer crash -- well, shit. Shit. Fuck. Damn. Who’s Hummer was worth that?
Lovelock still can’t completely answer the question that his theory originally caused us to ask: What role do humans play in Earth? Or, he answers the question in a way that creates even more questions: Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilization the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.
Then, he concludes with a sentence scarily reminiscent of some of Al Gore’s themes from his speech this week: "So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords."
I fully expect many to ignore Lovelock as an alarmist. I wont. I take what he says very seriously. So along with “fear” and “thriving” -- my understanding of both of which concepts are enriched by Lovelock’s article -- I’m going to spend some time over the next year or so thinking about what this means. What does it mean for me -- as a grandmother, as a witch, as a lawyer -- to do my part to sustain civilization for as long as possible in order to try and win a softer crash? A softer crash for some baby. Some baby who will have straight black hair or Nordic blonde hair, who will grow up to speak Mandarin or Aleutian, who will wear shorts at the North Pole. Some baby who will learn about our time not as the time when people reached for the stars, but as the time when people had their last best chance to save civilization and chose to drive Hummers instead.
I guess I’ll start by reading Lovelock’s new book, The Revenge of Gaia
How will you start?
PS Thank you to SITTENPRETTY for directing me to this article. I took the liberty of Americanizing a few of Dr. Lovelock's spellings.