Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Ages of Gaia by James Lovelock

We humans are puny creatures. With our short lifespans we have no innate feel for processes that happen over thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of years.

We think a hundred years is a very long time.


James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, the idea that the biosphere is a single, huge, self-regulating organism (remember the phrase "self-regulating" - it's going to be on the test), has been around since the late 1970s. By the time he wrote The Ages of Gaia in the late 1980s, it had been subjected to the first barrage of controversy already, and Lovelock had had several years in which to develop the idea through exchanging ideas with his fellow scientists and thinkers. Global warming was just beginning to intrude upon the global consciousness as a threat. The hole in the ozone layer and regulation of CFCs grabbed the headlines. That's the cultural climate Lovelock was writing in.

I read the book in the year 2011. The climate change debate has grown, developed, moved in a great many directions. The distinguished sixty-nine year old scientist who wrote The Ages of Gaia is now ninety-one years old, as sharp as ever, and has found himself a reputation as a prophet of doom.

The weather forecast for this holiday weekend is wildly unsettled. We had better get used to it.

According to the climate change scientist James Lovelock, this is the beginning of the end of a peaceful phase in evolution.

By 2040, the world population of more than six billion will have been culled by floods, drought and famine.

The people of Southern Europe, as well as South-East Asia, will be fighting their way into countries such as Canada, Australia and Britain.

But all that was in the future when Lovelock was writing The Ages of Gaia. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the Soviet Union still existed. Lovelock's book was full of warnings that the human race ought to respect Mother Nature, but there was little sense that DOOM was just around the corner.

So what was the book about? Well, it included a recap of the Gaia hypothesis, including the Daisyworld thought experiment, that gave me a severe childhood flashback. You see, as a kid I played a Maxis computer game called SimEarth, which included a simulation based on Daisyworld and also taught me the word "albedo". SimEarth lets you take charge of an entire planetary biosphere and lets you play with it. You can rain down meteors or make volcanoes erupt, to see what happens. You can try to nudge your planet's indigenous life forms along towards sentience. (You know mollusks have achieved civilization when you see the little octopus carrying a stick.)

Anyway, Daisyworld is an extremely simplified biosphere where the only life forms are daisies of various colors (no octopi with clubs). Light-colored daisies reflect heat, dark-colored daisies absorb heat, and via computer models you can show how this system regulates itself. No religious dogma required.

Lovelock then takes us through the development of Gaia and the history of our planet, from the Archean Age, to the Proterozoic, to the Phanerozoic (a relatively short Age compared to the other three, but contains the entire history of what we would recognize as animals and plants). I'll admit that I zoned out on occasion, and probably couldn't pass a test on the topic now. The specifics of microorganisms and atmospheric gases did not grab my attention. That said, Lovelock admits that he's filled the middle section of the book mostly with informed speculation, owing to a general lack of hard evidence. But he's not wasting anyone's time: he's showing how Gaia plausibly could have evolved, given what we know of the early history of the Earth.

In the book's final sections, he discusses the possibility of terraforming Mars (essentially starting up a second Gaia), as well as the philosophical and religious implications of Gaia.

So how did Lovelock come to be considered such a doomsayer? Remember that Gaia naturally regulates itself. If we tinker too much with the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, we run the risk of triggering a reaction that could be very, very bad for us.

I don't think humanity is really going to destroy all life on Earth. I don't doubt we could, if we set our minds to it, but I don't think it's likely. I do think we have the capability to really muck things up for ourselves, though.

Let's say we trigger slight climate shifts, of the sort that a visiting alien scientist ten million years from now would not even notice in the geological record. Let's say we can sail from Canada to Russia over the pole, and sip our pina coladas at Scottish beach resorts. That doesn't sound bad, does it?

Now think of the large percentage of this planet's poor underclass that lives in parts of the world that are extremely vulnerable to shifts in climate that are pretty minor, by geological standards. (Did someone mention Bangladesh?)

Maybe you don't care about poor people that you can't see. Well, okay then; I'm not trying to spread empathy to empathy-poor parts of the populace.

But I've got two words for you: political unrest. If a land becomes too full to hold its teeming millions, those people are going to spill over into lands that may be only marginally better off. You think eastern India, for instance, is going to be able to easily cope if Bangladesh starts overflowing with refugees?

The Middle Ages are over. There is no place on Earth where you can settle and feel disconnected from political instability elsewhere. You're not going to be able to forget the plight of the displaced masses in the tropics as you're relaxing in your new pleasant summer home in Greenland. Global interconnectedness won't let you.

And as sad as it sounds, Gaia really doesn't care about us as individuals.

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