From memory, Gaia: A New Look At Life On Earth came out on 1978. I didn’t read it until 1990, when I was studying for a Geography degree, then it hit home how little I knew about the world, and how little I was likely to ever know. James Lovelock has always been there at the back of my mind as a dominant figure, an intellectual giant who was responsible not only for bringing to wider humanity the concept of a self-regulating global system that would be able to take care of itself during even the darkest of times (and yes, Daisyworld was just symbolic, but a bloody good symbol at that), but also alerting us to the terrible dangers of CFCs, and the horrible potential of positive feedback loops in taking us towards climatic catastrophe. He is the public face of environmental scientific radicalism.
No wonder then, that when he speaks, we take note: even when he makes life difficult for himself in avowedly supporting nuclear power, or just making statements that are plain wrong. No one is perfect, and some people can be forgiven the odd quirk more than others.
Proposing a series of heavily-defended climate refuges, in which Industrial Civilization can remain, locking out the billions who failed to live in the “right” parts of the globe, is not a quirk.
In his latest book “The Vanishing Face Of Gaia”, Lovelock sees the world as already having passed the climatic point of no return – he may be right; in fact he is most definitely right, but only in the context of Industrial Civilization remaining as the dominant cultural influence on Earth. Whether we will definitely see the predicted loss of billions of humans, and the desertification of half of the Earth’s landmass, whatever we do, is another question entirely, but one that Lovelock is seemingly unable to contemplate.
I posed a difficult question to him (via an interviewer) on BBC Radio 5Live last week:
“I have been a follower of your work for a long time, and watched your views harden and become more apocalyptic in recent years. In many ways this is welcome, especially to warn people of the likelihood of catastrophic change, and also to ridicule the ideas of the mainstream environmental movement, who still think we can tinker around with civilization to make things better. I was wondering, though, whether you welcome the views of people like myself and Derrick Jensen, who see Industrial Civilization as the cause, and the removal of Industrial Civilization as the solution to our current predicament?”
The key point was the last one, which would reveal whether Lovelock could see beyond civilization into a world in which humans lost all pretence of domination over the Earth, and instead accepted that only true sustainability would allow humanity to continue as a going concern.
His response can be heard by clicking on this link.
His response is factually wrong: Industrial Civilization is an extreme way of living, and other ways of living are not “stone age” they are just non-industrial; whether hunter-gatherer, kitchen garden, permaculture or a hybrid of these, or any other way of life that is fundamentally sustainable. These ways of life can easily support as many people as are currently on the Earth, but with far less impact.
It’s difficult to explain to someone who is so cast in a civilized mould, that everything they believe about civilization may be wrong: even more difficult to convince them of this. After all, when you are civilized, surely that makes you the epitomy of what it means to be a fully developed human being – Homo sapiens sapiens civitas – and so anything else is a step down from your current position. Step down or not, it is surely not a morally defensible position to suggest that you can carry on living in much the same manner as you have become accustomed to – providing you have been lucky enough to have been born in the right place, at the right time, to the right people (you don’t really think everyone living in a Lovelock “Life-Raft” will be allowed to stay, do you?).
But we continue to defend this way of life, and this Culture of Maximum Harm, because it is all we have ever known: we are blinded by our lack of perspective, and are thus prepared to support this behemoth, even though we probably know it will end up killing most of us; just as it has started killing so much life already. No other way of life is more destructive than Industrial Civilization.
Your choice: do you follow Lovelock and the rest of the civilized world into a future where we live in city states, ringed by gun turrets, thronged by the bodies of the unlucky millions; or do you make the leap into a way of thinking that may be alien to you now, but which – when you have a chance to contemplate it – is really the only logical conclusion.
Keith Farnish is the author of “Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution To A Global Crisis.”