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Gaia's revenge - review of James Lovelock's, The Revenge of Gaia

By Ian MacDougall
Created 18/04/2006 - 10:28

Ian MacDougal is a long-time Webdiarist and occasional, highly valued contributor. His last contribution was also a review, Review of Stephen Pyne's 'The Still Burning Bush' [0].

James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia. Allen Lane, London 2006. rrp AU$29.95

Review by  Ian MacDougall.

James Lovelock’s major concern is rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, what it is likely to do to us, and what we in turn can do about it. That is, if it is not too late already to avoid a runaway greenhouse effect.

Just in case it has managed so far to evade you, the ‘greenhouse effect' occurs when radiation from the sun (mostly light and heat) passes through a transparent layer such as greenhouse glass, is absorbed by the materials in the greenhouse, and is subsequently re-radiated at a lower frequency which cannot pass back as easily through the glass to the external environment. So the original radiation finishes up as heat trapped inside the greenhouse. Some gases (eg carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, chlorofluorocarbons and water vapour) have the same effect as the greenhouse glass, and as their concentrations rise, the planet warms up.

Lovelock views the outer part of the Earth we live on, including the biosphere, as a single internally self-regulating organism, which he has named ‘Gaia’ (the ancient Greek term for ‘Mother Earth’). We might be lulled into false comfort and security by that, but he warns, its primary purpose as looking after itself, not us. However, nothing he has written would indicate that acceptance of the Gaia concept as such is necessary for forming practical policies and responses for dealing with climate change.

After reading Lovelock’s book I wrote down the following propositions. They are in order of decreasing certainty, a yet all but the last are probably true:

  1. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been rising for at least the last 150 years, and continues to rise due to human activity.
  2. The Earth’s climate is changing.
  3. There is increasing energy in the atmosphere.
  4. The Earth (land, sea and air) is warming.
  5. Global warming is due to rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.
  6. Global warming can be reversed by human activity designed to decrease atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2.
  7. Failure to kerb the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere will result in rising sea levels and higher mean temperatures.
  8. Rising atmospheric CO2 will result in the Earth becoming less and less fit for human habitation, with and massive losses of plants and the animals (including humans) dependent on them. Life will die back approaching the equator and concentrate towards the poles.
  9. Human civilisation on the surface of this planet is facing an immanent and massive environmental crisis due to global warming, with time rapidly running out before positive feedback systems take over completely, leaving us no way back from a runaway greenhouse effect and global ruin.
  10. James Lovelock will be proven wrong on point 9.

Note that the certainty of these does not decrease uniformly; nor does it go from 100% for the first down to 0% from the last. The global climate systems are also complex enough for global warming to finish up giving the UK and parts of Western Europe climates more like Alaska’s, due to a slowing of the Gulf Stream. (London at 51.5 degrees N is at about the same latitude as the bitterly cold Aleutians, and Puerto Natales at the southern end of Chile (51.4 degrees S) has a corresponding southern latitude. Like us in southeastern Australia at the moment, it is enjoying autumn, but at around 0 degrees Celsius.)

In the opening paragraph of his book, Lovelock says:

As always, bad events usurp the news agenda, and as I write in the comfort of my Devon home, the New Orleans catastrophe fills the television screens and front pages. Horrific though it was, it distracts us from the more extensive suffering caused by the tsunami in 2004 that disastrously splashed across the bowl of the Indian Ocean… But this is nothing compared with 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...


‘Sustainable development’ is no way out. “Many consider this noble policy morally superior to the laissez faire of business as usual. Unfortunately for us, these wholly different approaches, one the expression of international decency, the other of unfeeling market forces, have the same outcome: the probability of disastrous global change… To expect sustainable development or trust in business as usual to be viable policies is like expecting a lung cancer victim to be cured by stopping smoking; both measures deny the existence of the Earth’s disease, the fever brought on by a plague of people...

He says this “fever of global heating is real and deadly, and might already have moved outside our and the Earth’s control...”

Which brings me back to Gaia: In developing this idea, Lovelock collaborated with the American biologist Lynn Margulis whose theory of endosymbiosis accounts brilliantly for certain structures found within cells, such as chloroplasts and mitochondria. Also, and particularly well, it tells us why the latter two have their own DNA. They are most likely descended from free-living bacteria which eons ago invaded other larger bacterial cells as parasites, but finished up millions of generations later as endosymbionts. Cells emerge in this view as clubs of mutualist bacteria, or at least clubs of the descendants of such once free-living organisms. Each group of mutually supportive once-organisms-now-cell-components is enclosed as a community within a membrane boundary, like chocolates in a box, or even somewhat like a series of internally nesting Russian dolls. This view can be extended to cover and describe whole organisms such as human beings, populations, communities, ecosystems and even the biosphere, though it gets more tenuous and controversial the further it goes. Lovelock’s Gaia takes it to another plane altogether.

Going outwards from the center, the Earth is almost entirely made of hot or molten rock and metal. Gaia is a thin spherical shell of matter that surrounds the incandescent interior; it begins where the crustal rocks meet the magma of the Earth’s hot interior, about 100 miles [160 km – IM] below the surface, and proceeds another 100 miles outwards through the ocean and air to the even hotter thermosphere at the edge of space. It includes the biosphere and is a dynamic physiological system that has kept our planet fit for life for over three billion years. I call Gaia a physiological system because it appears to have the unconscious goal of regulating the climate and the chemistry at a comfortable state for life. Its goals are not set points but adjustable for whatever is the current environment and adaptable to whatever form of life it carries.

He views the continental basement rocks below us, and the rocks below the ocean basins, the water of the oceans, the whole biosphere and all of the air as part of a single living, internally self-regulating living being, of which we 6.5 billion humans are a mere tiny part. In my view of Lovelock’s view, we are as mitochondria inside the single cell of a free-living organism, like a monstrously huge and internally complex euglenoid [1] (also see Wikipedia [2]).

Lovelock’s Gaia concept no doubt still prompts some of his fellow chemists to raise an eyebrow at the mention of his name, if not to remark quietly that the poor fellow has clearly taken leave of his senses. But he was the man who discovered the natural molecular carriers of sulfur and iodine in their respective natural cycles: dimethyl sulfide (DMS) which is produced by algae, and methyl iodide, and who then in collaboration with others made the ‘awesome’ (Lovelock’s term) prize-winning discovery in 1986 that DMS was connected with the formation of clouds and with climate. Today he is a Fellow of the Royal Society. Though it is what they say rather than who they are that counts in peer reviewed science, such people as Lovelock should not be dismissed without a very good reason. (Needless to add, a cruise around the net reveals many who would do so.)

I personally have no trouble with the idea of a number of negative feedback systems operating in the biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere to hold the planet’s temperature and chemical composition within certain limits. But consider the following:

Gaia, the living Earth, is old and not as strong as she was two billion years ago. She struggles to keep the Earth cool enough for her myriad forms of life against the ineluctable increase of the sun’s heat. But to add to her difficulties, one of those forms of life… has tried to rule the Earth for their benefit alone. With breathtaking insolence they have taken the stores of carbon that Gaia buried to keep oxygen at its proper level and burnt them. In so doing they have usurped Gaia’s authority and thwarted her obligation to keep the planet fit for life; they have thought only of their own comfort and convenience.

Somehow, unconsciously, Gaia buried billions upon billions of plant bodies over millions of years in order to separate carbon from the air’s oxygen. A dog like my faithful friend Charlie might bury a bone and then forget all about it. But he will have consciously done something, though it might not be sequestering carbon to avoid a runaway greenhouse that he had in mind at the time. This conscious act could still somehow make him an agent of Gaia. But does the peat bog slowly sink for the same deliberate purpose?

The quotation two paragraphs above is a modern version of the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. Gaia, though described by Lovelock as lacking consciousness, nonetheless has her goals, which are being frustrated by humankind. Very well: Gaia will move to another stable state favouring other more thermally tolerant species, and let humanity seek refuge at the poles. If Gaia pulled all that carbon out of the earlier atmosphere and buried it for the safety of land vertebrates, then presumably she is responsible for volcanoes, earthquakes, mountain building and the drift of continents, all of which have effects on the climate, some large and infrequent; some small and frequent.

...like many regulating systems with a goal, [Gaia] tends to overshoot and stray to the opposite side of its forcing. If the sun’s heat is too little the Earth tends to be warmer than ideal. If too much heat comes from the sun, as now, it regulates on the cold side of the ideal. This is why the usual state of the Earth at present is an ice age. The recent crop of glaciations the geologists call the Pleistocene is, I think, a last desperate effort by the Earth system to meet the needs of its present life forms.

Gaia’s ‘ageing’ is also a bit hard to understand, because the individual species making her up are arguably just as vigorous as any at any stage in Earth’s history. Individuals age, thanks to genetic copying errors in somatic cells, accumulation of toxins and so on. Populations change with time but do not ‘age’ the same way, because generational change brings culling of the less fit, and therefore concentration of the most ‘vigorous’ genes. Likewise for ecosystems and presumably, biospheres; though of the latter we only have one for study.

I find the Gaia concept useful in some ways, less so in others. Why for example, limit the inorganic part of the Earth involved in it to that part above the hot, putty-like mantle? Why not everything right down to the core? And why ‘goal directed’ rather than merely ‘self-regulating’? Self-regulation of temperature may be occurring in the current slowdown of the Gulf Stream, which is cited as a likely cause of the harsh winter just experienced in Europe: a counter-intuitive manifestation of global warming. But the possibility remains that Lovelock has had the most brilliant insight into biology since Darwin and Wallace.

Lovelock keeps on the wall above his desk a copy of what he calls “the amazing graph of the temperature of the northern hemisphere from the year 1000 to the year 2000.” This was developed in 1998 by the American climatologist Michael Mann [3] (also here [4]) out of a mass of tree ring, ice core and coral data. It has been dubbed by climate change skeptics the ‘hockey stick graph’ and is reproduced below as a ‘quotation’ from Wikipedia [5].

The reconstructions of temperature of the last 1000 years vary between:
ones with significant variability prior to the current century with particular warmth during the Medieval Warm Period and particular coolness during the Little Ice Age and, ones with minimal variability prior to the current century, generally involving a slight cooling until the 20th century.

Reconstructions of Northern Hemisphere temperatures for the last 1000 years according to various older articles (bluish lines), newer articles (reddish lines), and instrumental record (black line).

In all cases, the increase in temperature in the 20th century is the largest of any century during the record.

The graph resembles a hockey stick resting on a table with its business end pointing upwards and the end of the handle (on the left side of the graph) slightly raised. It says that over the last 1000 years northern hemisphere temperatures have been trending gradually down a gentle temperature slope leading to another ice age in about 10,000 years time. But since about 1850 the Earth has been rapidly warming up. We are now according to Lovelock at nearly 1Celsius degree above the long-term average. But climate sensitivity to temperature is such that there is only a difference of 3 Celsius degrees between the long-term average of the graph and the last ice age, which ended 12,000 years ago. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2001 report suggests a further 5 degree rise this century.

Others stress that water vapour [6] plays a greater and more variable role than CO2. But CO2 has credibility due to the correlation between historical atmospheric concentrations and historical temperatures.) The hockey stick fits well with the data from the ice cores drilled in 1998 by the Russian-French-American ice-coring team at the Vostok [7] station in eastern Antarctica, which reached a depth of 3623 m in the ice, and provided a continuous ice core record spanning 420,000 years. That team found a strong positive correlation between temperature changes and changes in carbon dioxide and methane trapped in the ice at various depths, which has provided evidence of the magnitude of climatic feedback between increasing levels of greenhouse gases and temperature. Says Lovelock:

We either forget or never knew how different the climate was in the last ice age. Most of the United Kingdom and northwestern Europe including Scandinavia, was buried beneath 3,000 metres of ice, a glacier as thick as that on Greenland now. North America was similarly glaciated as far south as St Louis… Despite all this ice, it was probably a healthier world and more vegetation grew, both on land and in the sea. WE think this because the abundance of carbon dioxide in the air was then below 200 parts per million. It takes a lot of life to pump it down that low.

Lovelock would like the Earth to be back as it was in AD 1800, when there was a much lower concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the Earth was ‘healthier’:

We know that in the depth of the last glaciation carbon dioxide fell to 180 ppm [parts per million – IM], rose to 280 ppm after the ice age ended, and has risen now to 380 ppm as a result of our pollution. Already we have made as large a change in the atmosphere as occurred between the ice ages and the interglacials. If it stays at 380 ppm we might expect a comparable rise in temperature, but more probably as we continue to pollute it will rise to 500 ppm or more.

That will bring hell on Earth, “perhaps six to eight degrees hotter than now.” Paradoxically, a repeat of the last ice age would see sea levels fall 120 metres as ice formed at the poles, and while much land would disappear under ice, causing certain adjustments in real estate values, an area equal to the continent of Africa would be released from the sea. As continental and ocean life was arguably more abundant during the last ice age than it is now, a greater not lesser human population would be possible. (Most of them of course, would soon learn to ski and skate.) I would add to that the massive quantities of CO2 released by industrial civilization would in large part be naturally sequestered in the biomass of forest, grassland, oceanic and other ecosystems. Life would possibly be as abundant as in the Permian and Carboniferous periods long ago in geological time.

Photosynthetic organisms can pull CO2 out of the air and sea. The trouble is, we humans keep sending it in. If CO2 is what is driving the temperature upwards (a reasonable assumption) then arguably we have to cut back on CO2 emissions to the atmosphere and step up the rate of CO2 removal from the air if we are to avoid that hell on Earth. For Lovelock, that means switching over to nuclear power, and at high priority. I would incline also to massive reforestation programs and bans on further land clearing. The possible danger for us is that the Earth’s temperature will click over like a light switch from one metastable state to another, and be impossible to bring back to what we had in 1800, when we were heading gently down that temperature slope to the next ice age.

Lovelock is sanguine about the risks of the sort of massive nuclear power program he advocates, and dismissive of other options. He puts the Chernobyl disaster down to ‘”the worst example of the wrong kind of nuclear technology.” Though many think that tens of thousands if not millions perished in Europe downwind of the disaster, he says it was no more than 75 individuals. 400,000 people are estimated to have received an above background radiation dose from that disaster. That will reduce their life expectancy, he agrees. But when you do the relevant calculations, he says, it turns out to be a reduction of only a few hours at the end of an otherwise normal (for each person) life expectancy. There are many scientists of course, who think otherwise. (NB: Since I began writing this Kalman Mizsei and Louisa Vinton have contributed Chernobyl's myths and misconceptions [7] to Webdiary.)

Lovelock also goes through the renewable alternatives to nuclear power. Wind power, wave and tidal energy, hydro-electricity, biofuels and solar energy are all considered in turn, and found wanting. For example, he claims that to supply the UK’s present power demand, 276,000 one megawatt wind turbines would be needed, each 100 metres tall, at an average density of about 3 per square mile if national parks, urban, suburban and industrial areas are excluded. A recent German report he cites puts wind energy down as available only 16 percent of the time. “No sensible community would ever support so outrageously expensive and unreliable an energy source” he says, “were it not that the true costs have been hidden from the public by subsidies and the distortion of market forces through legislation.” Note here that much the same has been said about nuclear power, particularly with regard to the industry’s habit of leaving decommissioning costs of nuclear reactors out of its cost per kilowatt-hour calculations. But while he stresses the inadequacy of each alternate energy source for supplying all our power needs (as in the case of wind) he only gives a passing nod to the running of the future global economy on energy from a mix of these sources: solar and wind and geothermal and hydro and wave and tidal and biofuel and fossil fuel and nuclear. No one source can possibly cover all needs, places and times.

In Lovelock’s view, the nuclear waste problem is a non-event, and is certainly not as difficult as sequestering CO2 in a solid form.

But it is not enough to use this as an argument favouring a wider use of nuclear energy, because the public belief in the harmfulness of nuclear power is too strong to break by direct argument. Instead, I have offered in public to accept all of the high-level waste produced in a year from a nuclear power station for deposit on my small plot of land; it would occupy a space about a cubic metre in size and fit safely in a concrete pit, and I would use the heat from the decaying radioactive elements to heat my home. It would be a waste not to use it. More important, it would be no danger to me, my family or the wildlife.

There will be disagreement on this matter. According to the website of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission [8]:

Since the only way radioactive waste finally becomes harmless is through decay, which for high-level wastes can take hundreds of thousands of years, the wastes must be stored and finally disposed of in a way that provides adequate protection of the public for a very long time.

On the more cheerful side, the more radioactive the waste is (and thus the hotter) the shorter the half-lives of the responsible radioactive elements are. The World Nuclear Association [9] points out that 40 years after removal of spent nuclear fuel, less than one thousandth of its initial radioactivity remains. But though the decay curve drops steeply at first, it then flattens out with the passage of time, necessitating long term storage in borosilicate glass (similar to Pyrex) or perhaps in the future in synthetic rock like the ‘synroc’ developed at the ANU. This involves deep disposal, such as down 500 m deep shafts in stable geological locations. Deposition in subduction zones on the seabed is another possibility, where over time the waste will move down towards the Earth’s mantle. The problem for Lovelock’s heirs will be that the concrete housing the backyard reactor and its metal parts will all have weathered away long before the radioactivity of the waste gets to anything near the relatively safe level of the normal background.

Before reading Lovelock’s book, I was of the opinion, based on reading of the odd popular science article, that fusion power was as far away as ever. In my recollection every year since the first fusion bomb was detonated in the 1950s, a first fusion power station has always been about 50 years away. It has been just like the carrot dangled in front of the donkey’s nose from a stick held by the man on its back, never getting any closer. But Lovelock reports that in February 2005, the Tokomak reactor at the Culham Science Centre heated a mixture of hydrogen isotopes to a temperature of 150 million degrees Celsius (50 million degrees above the core temperature of the sun) and held it there for two seconds, releasing 16 megawatts of energy from nuclear fusion as it did so. This is encouraging, as fusion power by its very nature is free of risk from radioactive by products. But even so, the transition from this to commercial fusion generated electricity probably does not lie down a predictable path with predictable costs.

Critics argue that even if what Lovelock wants comes to pass, which is a fast tracked massive investment worldwide in non-polluting (at least, not with greenhouse gas) nuclear power, the uranium reserves to fuel it will not last more than 100 years. If fusion power has not overcome its technical problems by then, then it will be the alternate sources of wind, geothermal, tidal, hydroelectricity, solar and biofuels which will have to do it. So if the investment in them must be then, it might as well be now. The inherent danger in the fission nuclear option is the inevitable pressure to carry on to the full plutonium economy when the uranium runs out if the fusion reactor by then is not up to commercial operation. This carries with it the dangers (accidents; terrorists) inherent in using plutonium, the most toxic substance known, as the world’s primary source of energy. Unfortunately, Lovelock does not discuss this.

Solar power does not work as well in the UK, where Lovelock lives, as it does in other more sunny parts of the world. In Australia, it is possible in some places for those with solar cells and grid power to reduce their net load on the system and their power bills by putting their excess solar-generated power into the grid. “I find it hard to believe” he says, ” that large-scale solar energy plants in desert regions, where the intensity and constancy of sunlight could be relied on, would compare in cost and reliability with fission or fusion energy, especially when the cost of transmitting the energy was taken into account.” Given the present known costs of solar and the unknown costs of fusion, that is a bit of a leap.

Not as great a leap, however, as the one being made on a daily basis by the climate change deniers favouring business as usual. The Precautionary Principle [10] right now looks very good to me.

A final reviewer’s note: My apologies to Webdiary readers for the apparent lateness of this review. The Revenge of Gaia was originally scheduled by the publisher for release in Australia in early April, and though no advance review copies were to be made available in this country, the publishers promised me a copy by mail as soon as it came in. So I waited for mine to arrive by post. However, due to popular interest, the book was released in early March. I only found out about that by accident when I happened to walk into a bookshop and found it on display. (The publishers had unfortunately forgotten all about me. But no surprise: that sort of thing happens to me all the time. Then again, you could say that I am used to it now. Aaagh!)

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