Wrong Friends

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Review of 'The Revenge Of Gaia', James Lovelock, Allen Lane £16.99

James Lovelock's Gaia theory is arguably the most significant contribution to environmental science since Vladimir Vernadsky theorised the biosphere in 1926. Like Vernadsky's work, Lovelock's theory of a dynamically integrated, self-regulating Earth system is fundamentally dialectical. It synthesises into a single Earth history previously isolated understandings of the evolution of organisms and the material world they inhabit.

The scepticism with which it was originally greeted was exacerbated by Lovelock's decision to name this process Gaia. Lovelock insists that this reference to the mythical Greek goddess is metaphorical, but New Age followers have not always perceived it as such.

The more central debate is whether accepting the idea of Gaia necessitates Lovelock's view of the Earth as a purposeful system - one which has the goal of sustaining optimal conditions for life. This need not suggest consciousness, Lovelock argues. So increased glaciation is comparable to the way the human body sweats to return itself to its preferred temperature of 37 degrees centigrade. Earth system scientists accept much of Gaia without subscribing to this immanent purposefulness.

As useful as Lovelock's work has been in our environmental understanding, he fails to ask serious questions about society's dynamics. So while rightly decrying reductionist science, he makes equally reductive statements such as "tribal behaviour is surely written in the language of our genetic code" and "terrorism and genocide both result from our tribal natures". Such assertions say nothing about the material conditions which shape us as social animals.

This lack of a materialist analysis of human society also makes Lovelock credulous to a number of misguided arguments, which form the bulk of The Revenge Of Gaia. The most well publicised of these is his longstanding enthusiasm for nuclear power. He argues that nuclear plants are necessary if we are to contain the extent of global warming. Implicit in his argument is nuclear's supposedly low-carbon credentials, although within its life cycle the average nuclear reactor produces up to 40 percent of the C02 of a typical gas-fired plant, as well as Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and sulphur hexafluoride (more potent greenhouse gasses).

Lovelock's longer term aim is the development of nuclear fusion, a speculative technology which requires heating hydrogen to 150 million degrees centigrade. Even its advocates admit that it is a generation away - the EU has launched a 35-year, 10 billion euro research project. Yet without a hint of irony Lovelock criticises wind power for its relatively miniscule subsidies and the research needed for energy storage and transfer.

Lovelock says that "the green community should have been reluctant to found lobbies and political parties... our task as individuals is to think of Gaia first." And there's the rub. Lovelock relates how Lord Rothschild of Shell, who he was scientific adviser to, responded with pain and anger when the effects of Shell's hazardous insecticide DDT were revealed. He was angry at the "politicising" of an issue that "could have been resolved in a seemly way". Lovelock's faith in the good intentions of business is the other side of his disdain for collective action to deal with the multiple threats to the environment produced by rapacious capitalist production. If such sentiments prevail, then the horror movie image of The Revenge of Gaia may well be our children's inheritance.