OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE CO2
James Lovelock is the much honoured British scientist famous for a beautiful and irresistible idea known as the Gaia hypothesis. Lovelock is a self-made man in the best tradition of scientists of a previous age. His parents were too poor to send him to university, and he financed his own education through evening classes at Birkbeck college before being accepted into Manchester University to study Chemistry. He went on to receive a PhD from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, worked at the London Institute for Medical Research and conducted research at both Yale and Harvard Universities. While his work up to this point had been in the medical field, in 1961 he was engaged by NASA to develop instruments for the study of the atmospheres of other planets. He invented an electron capture detector, which led to the important discovery that chlorofluorocarbons were depleting the Earth’s ozone layer. He was studying the planet Mars, knowing that if life existed on the planet it would have altered the composition of its atmosphere. It was the inert stability of the Martian atmosphere, with its dearth of oxygen, hydrogen or methane and its disproportionate abundance of carbon dioxide, that told him that the planet was dead: a stark contrast with the chemically dynamic nature of Earth’s biosphere. It was as a result of this that he began to develop his Gaia hypothesis.
Essentially the Gaia concept is that the animate and inanimate components of planet Earth constitute a self-regulating, interactive system that can be thought of in its totality as a single living organism. The biosphere, in other words, has a regulatory effect on the environment that acts to preserve the balance necessary to sustain life. It builds on the so-called CLAW hypothesis (an acronym of the names of four collaborating scientists, Charlson, Lovelock, Andreas and Warren) proposing negative feedback loops between oceanic ecosystems and earth’s climate. As an example, Lovelock detailed the role of marine phytoplankton’s production of dimethyl sulphide in response to rises in temperature. The sulphide rises into the atmosphere, seeding clouds, the resultant albedo effect then cooling the surface. The effect also works in reverse, falls in temperature leading to lower production of sulphide, decreased albedo, and an increase of sunlight reaching the surface. Thus Gaia is characterised by negative feedbacks preserving a planetary-scale homeostasis.
This idea has that quality of many brilliant ideas, that once conceived it seems absolutely obvious, and amazing that nobody had come up with it before. The only people who couldn’t accept it were militant materialists like the evolutionary biologists Richard Dawkins, to whom the idea that nature might attain spontaneous balance and order seemed a little too redolent of an intelligent system to suit his nihilistic view of the universe.
The name for the Lovelock’s homeostatic earth system theory was suggested by his close friend the novelist William Golding, Gaia being the Greek earth goddess — without the name one doubts if the idea would have become so well-known beyond scientific circles. Thus named, the hypothesis became wildly popular in New Agers as well as environmentalists.
In 1974, at the age of 55, Lovelock was elected to Britain’s Royal Society of scientists in recognition of his work on cryopreservation, atmospheric physics, marine biology, gas chromatography and much more. He served as president of the Marine Biological Association, became an honorary fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, and continued his work as an independent scientist, author and inventor. In 1990 he was awarded a CBE — Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
It was only after the turn of the century that Lovelock’s career entered a chaotic phase that did some damage to his reputation, with his involvement in the catastrophic global warming movement. In 2006 he published a book which he would repudiate within a few years. Its premise was that destruction of primary forest and consequent reduction in biodiversity is stretching Gaia’s capacity to absorb the additional greenhouse gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels. It was Lovelock’s apocalyptic projection of this observation into the future that suggested the book’s sensationalist B-movie-style title, The Revenge of Gaia. In the book’s thesis, humanity’s destruction of tropical rainforest eliminated the regulatory negative feedbacks and switched them into positive mode — vicious cycles, in other words. Warming oceans would extend the thermocline layer of tropical waters into the the Arctic, preventing oceanic nutrients from rising to the surface waters and eliminating the blooms of phytoplankton on which food chains depend. Most of the earth’s surface, he predicted, would be turned to desert. The Sahara would reach to Paris and Berlin. All food production in Europe would cease; billions would die — 80% of the human race, he predicted — and by the end of the 21st century human survival would depend on a few breeding pairs of humans who had managed to hang on in the Arctic, the only region where the climate would remain tolerable. The only way to avoid this apocalyptic scenario would be the exclusive adoption of nuclear power, radioactive waste being absolutely preferable to “that truly malign waste, carbon dioxide.”
“The earth is about to fall into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years,” he said in an interview with The Independent newspaper. “We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise 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 civilisation for as long as they can.” His hyperbole fed into the millennial panic promoted by profiteers like Al Gore and Maurice Strong.
It’s an astonishing episode in the thought-history of the scientist — to go from conceiving of the earth as a living, self-regulating organism to characterising atmospheric carbon, the basis of all life on the planet, as “truly malign”. How on earth could such a contradiction be resolved? Was the Earth Goddess so fragile that the evolution of a creative life-form would destroy her capacity to sustain life?
Humanity, like every other species on the planet, must be thought of as a child of Gaia. Of course humanity has an effect on the environment. But the same is true of other species — in fact that is the basis of the whole Gaia hypothesis, that Earth’s dynamic atmosphere is the product of its biosphere. So the question — and it’s a vitally important question to ask — is at what precise point did we depart from our natural destiny to the extent of exhausting the mother’s tolerance for her problem child and invoking her fury? Something about us puts us in opposition to the Gaia system — but what? How do we define it? Lovelock, if he asks this question at all, does not have a coherent answer to it. If it is just that we produce the “malign waste” of CO2, then how are we different from bacteria and decaying vegetation and volcanoes and oceans and all the other sources of carbon dioxide, responsible for the presence of at least 97% of the life-giving gas in the atmosphere? The book, and his statements in support of it, represent a contradiction of his original hypothesis that could only make sense if humanity is viewed as somehow completely separate from the Gaia system. How could that be true of our species, unless we came from somewhere else or were genetically engineered by aliens or something like that? As far as I know Lovelock never espoused any such theory.
Less than a year after this attack of panic-stricken hyperbole, Lovelock was already backing off from his melodramatic conclusions, saying that the climate would stabilise and that the Earth was in no danger. Nevertheless, in an article in Nature in 2007, he promoted a geo-engineering solution using ocean pumps to bring water up from beneath the thermocline to “fertilise algae in the surface waters and encourage them to bloom”, thus accelerating the transfer of CO2 from the atmosphere to the oceans, where it would eventually fall to the bottom in the form of ‘marine snow’. His drift into the eugenicist worldview behind catastrophic global warming theory was confirmed in 2009 when he became a patron of the organisation Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust).
Lovelock’s geo-engineering scheme attracted a lot of media attention and was roundly criticised in some quarters.”It doesn’t make sense,” objected Corinne la Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, in an article in The Times. “There is absolutely no evidence that climate engineering options work or even go in the right direction. I’m astonished that they published this. Before any geo-engineering is put to work a massive amount of research is needed – research which will take twenty to thirty years”. That didn’t stop a commercial company from designing the technology to realise Lovelock’s proposal for biological ocean sequestration of CO2.
By 2012 Lovelock had come to his senses, and thoroughly repudiated his Revenge of Gaia aberration, saying he had made a mistake and been guilty of alarmism in that book, and dismissing Al Gore’s propaganda film An Inconvenient Truth in the same terms. He called anthropogenic global warming theory ‘green drivel’, and criticised the alarmists for behaving like the priests of a new religion.
“It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Sun (“Green ‘drivel’ exposed”, 23 June 2012.) “I don’t think people have noticed that, but it’s got all the sort of terms that religions use… The greens use guilt. That just shows how religious greens are. You can’t win people round by saying they are guilty for putting [carbon dioxide] in the air.”
His repudiation of his own earlier work was explicit. In an MSNBC article Lovelock made it clear that “we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew twenty years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened. The climate is doing its usual tricks. There’s nothing much really happening yet. We were supposed to be halfway toward a frying world now. The world has not warmed up very much since the millennium. Twelve years is a reasonable time… [the temperature] has stayed almost constant, whereas it should have been rising — carbon dioxide is rising, no question about that.”
These statements represent a return to science and sanity on Lovelock’s part. Where a correlation appears to exist in the detailed climate reconstructions we now have, it is clear that temperature leads CO2 levels and not the other way round. For long periods in the record there is no linkage at all. And of course, as in the Gaia theory, Earth possesses negative feedback loops which operate to mitigate extremes. Higher temperatures feed the water cycle; increased evaporation brings increased cloud cover, and the albedo effect cools the planet. In any case, a warmer planet is a wetter planet — a healthier planet, a better home. There is no runaway positive feedback triggered by CO2 or we would have seen it in the past, and the logarithmic dependence of temperature on CO2 concentration explains why not. The idea conflicts with the Gaia hypothesis as well as the historical climate record. Lovelock’s description of anthropogenic CO2 as “truly malign” is an absolute contradiction of his theory, resulting from a deep-seated dualism, a categorical separation of the human animal from the rest of creation which makes no sense at all.
One way or another, Lovelock’s intervention in the global warming controversy did a lot of damage, hyping up the apocalyptic imagery and setting a precedent for geo-engineering which went completely against his original Gaia theory of a homeostatic biospheric-oceanic-geological system. Of course he was right to attack the destruction of primary forest and habitat by greedy corporations. Of course that is an injury to Gaia, and we must, must, must stop it from happening. But the destruction of rainforest is wrong in itself — not because we are destroying sinkholes for the ‘malign waste’ of carbon dioxide, which creates the forest in the first place, but because we are destroying forests!
The argument is completely backwards. We must defend the rich biodiversity of primary forest from rapacious corporations for its own sake, not on account of some ill-grounded and exaggerated fears about average global temperature. The burning of any organic fuel, whether wood, peat, coal, oil or natural gas, produces carbon dioxide. To argue that mankind departs from nature and destroys the balance of the system simply by using the gift of fire is an absurd superstition, as Lovelock implicitly admitted with his comments about a green religion, and certainly no justification for ham-fisted interference in interactive earth systems with hubristic geo-engineering schemes.
To argue that humanity’s accessing of energy from fossil fuels is in itself wrong and immoral is to say that we rebelled against Gaia at the very beginning of our existence. Even our hominid precursors used fire. Did it really all go wrong when Prometheus, in the symbolism of the Greek myth, saved us poor naked humans with the gift of fire, the divine spark for all our creativity? Must we side with the eugenicists at the UN, using global warming theory to block Third World development and dismantle the industrialism which has increased human life-span and hugely improved our quality of life? Must we side with Zeus, the enemy of mankind, and return to the shivering vulnerability from which Prometheus rescued us?
That’s the crucial philosophical question we must address.
Let’s acknowledge, for the sake of argument, the teleological paradigm that hovers in the background of the original Gaia hypothesis. Human beings evolved on this planet and are a product of nature. At what point, then, can we say that our actions cease to be natural? At what point did we fall from ecological grace to the degree that the UN, like Lovelock in his 2006 nightmare, assumes? This is the crucial question in determining how we should move into a future which does not incur ‘Gaia’s Revenge’. So I ask you to lay aside for a moment your preconceptions and to consider the question through the lens of the Gaia hypothesis. And let’s take the hypothesis seriously, as Lovelock, perhaps, never really did.
When most of the major phyla of animal life suddenly arrived in the Cambrian era, atmospheric carbon dioxide was super-abundant at around 6,000 parts per million — as compared with the puny 400 ppm considered to be cause for such panic in our own times. Carbon is the basis of all known life-forms, its unique properties distinguishing it from all other elements: specifically, its ability to form an endless diversity of organic compounds, with more than ten million scientifically described to date, a figure which represents only a fraction of those theoretically possible. In addition, it has an unusual ability at temperatures experienced on earth to form polymers, that is, macromolecules with repeating sequences, as found in DNA. It will not ionise under any but implausibly extreme conditions, and its allotropes are thermodynamically stable and chemically resistant. An atmosphere thus loaded with carbon is ready for the evolution of life.
CO2 levels were not much lower at the beginning of the Carboniferous, when great forests spread across the surface of the planet, drawing down most of this atmospheric carbon over the course of fifty million years and inducing a steep, deep plunge to less than 1,000 ppm. Levels stayed low throughout the Permian, with temperatures falling, before rising again steeply with carbon remaining low. Consistently high temperatures throughout the Triassic and Jurassic brought atmospheric carbon levels slowly back up to around 3,000 ppm at the beginning of the Cretaceous, 150 million years ago.
At that point, the proliferation of marine calcifying organisms become a major factor in the carbon cycle, locking up more and more carbon in calcium carbonate shells and exoskeletons, and ultimately in limestone and other carbonaceous sedimentary rocks. With more and more carbon inaccessible to the life-cycle in oil, coal and limestone deposits, atmospheric carbon entered on a continuous downward trend. At the height of the last glaciation it fell as low as 180 ppm, perilously close to the lower limit of 150 at which any plant — and therefore any life on earth — can survive. If the downward trend continued, all life on earth would go extinct within the next 2-3 million years.
Gaia had to do something to save herself. Something had to happen, and it did.
Homo sapiens were not the first to use fire — Neanderthals, Australopithecines and Homo Erectus had it too. Archeological evidence dates the earliest use of fire by human precursors at around 1 to 1.5 million years ago.
In Greek mythology, fire belonged to the Olympian gods and was stolen from them and given to humans by their creator, the Titan Prometheus, to alleviate their naked, defenceless state. There are rival etymologies for the name. It is usually thought to signify ‘forethought’, just as the name of his brother Epimetheus means ‘afterthought’, or lack of foresight. An equally convincing derivation identifies it with Proto-Indo-European roots, the Vedic pra math, “to steal”, hence pramathyu-s, “thief”.
So perhaps this theft of fire is our original sin, and we are cursed from the beginning. But Prometheus is the son of Themis, identified with divine law, so let us leave that thought to one side for the moment. As well as giving humans divine fire, Prometheus taught them the arts of civilisation — writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine and science. Prometheus thus stands for human creativity in all its aspects, and our ascent from primitive misery to a civilised condition.
When Zeus, the king of the gods, discovered the theft of fire he was furious, fearing that humans would in time become powerful enough overthrow the Olympians. He inflicted a hideous and eternal punishment on Prometheus, chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus mountains and sending an eagle to gnaw out his liver in an agonising torture, a perpetual living death: as an immortal, Prometheus could not die, and his liver regenerated every night, only for the eagle to eat it out again the next day, and so on for all eternity, as Zeus intended. However, after thirty thousand years of this torment, the hero Heracles passed by on his search for the Apples of Hesperides, killed the eagle, and freed Prometheus from his agony.
Of course the Promethean theft represents the ambiguity inherent in human ingenuity. Without divine fire, humans, the weakest of animals, would not have survived at all. But with it, they had heat and light and defence against night-predators, the means to create weapons, and eventually to smelt metals, drive engines and generate electricity, and they not only survived and prospered, but began to revive the impoverished carbon cycle by unlocking the element from mineral deposits and releasing it back into the air.
The industrial revolution was powered by coal. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, humans began bringing oil deposits back into the cycle. As atmospheric carbon rose and Earth began tentatively to emerge from its carbon famine, a wonderful thing started to happen — across the surface of the planet, vegetation thrived, growing faster and stronger, especially in dry, semi-desert areas, since carbon dioxide confers drought-resistance on plants, enabling them to use and conserve water more efficiently. Increased crop yields promised to relieve human hunger and poverty, for even in the twentieth-first century much of humanity was still in the miserable state which had evoked the pity of the Titan.
It is industrial development that registered that tiny uptick in atmospheric carbon to 400+ ppm in our own times, and this rise is feeding reforestation. Tree cover is greater now than it was a hundred and fifty years ago. The use of coal, and later oil, prevented the utter destruction of forests across all of Northern Europe during the industrial revolution, giving us a much more concentrated fuel than wood.
Coal saved the forests. Forest cover continues to expand, though admittedly this is mainly in subtropical, temperate, boreal, and polar regions, and tropical rainforest continues to suffer destruction. We must stop this — but doing so does not require the dismantling of industrial civilisation in the West, as envisioned by UN’s agenda 21, which seeks to deny humanity access to 98% of the energy available to it at current levels of technological development.
It is humanity’s production of CO2 that has begun to reverse the disastrous decline of atmospheric carbon which threatened all life on earth. We have produced a very, very slight uptick in levels of CO2, and already we see the planet greening, especially in the arid fringes of deserts. Greenhouse farmers have long increased yields by pumping in carbon dioxide from special generators or engine exhausts. All farmers know that no matter how much they irrigate their fields and artificially fertilise their crops, atmospheric carbon is always the limiting factor on yields.
The Gaia hypothesis states that the biosphere regulates the atmosphere, and as part of the biosphere we have done what Gaia needed us to do. Carbon dioxide is the gas of life and we have freed it from its prisons.
None of this is an offence to Gaia.
Only to Zeus, the eternal enemy of mankind.
A provocative argument, no doubt, and readers who have been subjected to decades of unrelenting ‘global warming’ propaganda will probably find it utterly incomprehensible. But the past proves that carbon dioxide does not drive climate, and anyone who claims it does is a eugenicist liar or a useful idiot in their cause. Atmospheric carbon levels do not drive variations in temperature but follow them. Our tiny contributions to overall CO2 levels have a negligible effect on temperature, but make a huge difference to the health and proliferation of the plant-life on which all life on this planet depends. Yes, the conflict and pain wrapped up in the Prometheus myth evokes the ambiguous impact of human creativity on the rest of creation. We must be thoughtful and responsible and ready to do battle with the greedy and destructive, the psychopathic strain within us. But let no one tell you that the gift of fire is a sin against nature or is destroying the planet. The opposite is true. These lies are coming from the enemies of mankind and of nature, who want to destroy this creation and substitute their own, becoming, as they hope, gods in the process. The eugenicists want to deprive humanity of the energy it needs. They want to block Third World development. For them the end of poverty and hunger is the great catastrophe to be averted, because without it they lose their power at the top of this hierarchical society — and they have enlisted most of us unknowingly to their side, using our best instincts against us.
As for the point at which we genuinely depart from Gaia, severing our connection with nature and its self-regulatory negative feedbacks, I will offer two possible answers. The first will occur to many, and that would be when we split the atom, becoming Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. Lovelock in 2006 was so horrified by a slight rise in CO2, the basis of all life on the planet, that he sang the praises of nuclear power to the rafters as the saviour of humanity and planet earth, and that seems to me a glaring aberration, a defacement of the beauty of his theory, and a (thankfully temporary) departure from sanity and sense.
The other would be when we start to think we know better than the earth goddess herself, and start to try to re-engineer her systems, messing with ocean currents and modifying the weather, burying the gas of life in great vats underground, erecting a sunscreen of metallic particles in the sky to block the sun. This is tragic hubris. To start playing God, or playing Gaia, is utter insanity — utter Satanity.
That’s why I find Lovelock to be such a strange case. What happened to his powers of intuition that he took his great theory and brutally turned it inside out? What devil got into him? His fault was a failure of faith in his great discovery. It was an aberration, a brain-fugue, and thankfully he quickly came to his senses, rejecting the ‘green drivel’, of the inverted religion that demonises the element of life.
So, reader, where do you stand? With Prometheus or Zeus? With creativity and plenty, or famine and eugenics?
Humanity has committed terrible crimes, but producing carbon dioxide is not one of them. It’s the psychopaths among us who want us to think that, and who use it to distract us from their true crimes against nature.
We must stop destroying the sacred, ancient forests.
But we must not, cannot, renounce the fire of creativity, the gifts of Prometheus. Instead we must slay the eagle that never stops tormenting us, and reject Zeus and the eugenicists, the haters of mankind, the usurpers of Gaia.
The war on carbon is a war on life.