Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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6 Mar 2006

“Revenge of Gaia” – James Lovelock Speaks at Dartington.

lovelockLast Friday I went to see James Lovelock speaking to a packed Barn Cinema in Dartington as a promotion for his new book “The Revenge of Gaia”. The evening was, as I expected, one of mixed emotions, although ultimately I found it deeply frustrating. Lovelock is of course best known as creator of the Gaia theory, that of the Earth as a self-regulating organism. The original book on this theory had a profound effect on me. Seeing him last night, telling us that we are all doomed, and nothing we can think or do will have the slightest effect, felt a bit like seeing a band whose first album completely changed your life and became the soundtrack of a part of your history playing, ten years later, in Butlins, all flabby and sweaty and directionless. The most dynamic and insightful thing that came out of his talk was the discussions in the bar afterwards, which offered far more hope and possibility.

gaiaHe began his talk by saying that he had decided to write Revenge of Gaia when he became aware of the scale of the problem of global warming after a visit to the Hadley Centre near Exeter, one of the world’s foremost climate centres. The sober and detached way the scientists told him of the various processes underway in the world, almost as if they were talking of a different planet, shocked him. He talked of the various feedback loops that are starting which will speed up climate change, and that the Earth has ‘caught a morbid fever that will last 100,000 years”. In the same way that when a human has a fever their self regulation mechanisms go awry and do the opposite of what they are meant to do, the Earth is starting to act in ways that go against self regulation.

earthHe spoke of the ‘global dimming’ phenomenon, caused by particulates in the upper atmosphere, mostly from air travel, which ironically keeps the earth 2 – 3 degrees cooler than it would otherwise be, in effect, he said, we live in a ‘fool’s climate’. He repeated his belief that in 100 years there will be only a few breeding pairs of humans living in the Arctic Circle. He then moved on to what can be done about it. He said that the challenge is to to sustain life for as long as possible. We can’t just turn the power off, we need to facilitate a gentle descent. The UK is like a large city he said, dependent on the developing world for food. We can grow enough food to be able to live like we did in World War Two, but that would not lead enough land for growing biodiesel. Even if we did our best, it is unlikely that the US and China will adapt, so we have to face the fact that our children will need to adapt to ‘one hell of a climate’. Humanity, rather than being a disease on the planet, needs to act as its nervous system, we should be the heart and minds of Gaia, and act now while we are still a cohesive mass, rather than a broken rabble.

The most useful part of the evening was the questions and answers session that followed. He was asked about renewables, and he trotted out the tired and entirely redundant argument that the countryside is for growing food and the city for people to live. It was criminal, he said, to put wind turbines in rural areas, “we’ll need every inch of land to grow food on”. This is complete nonsense, why on earth are windturbines and agriculture mutually exclusive land uses? Wind turbines are usually sited on marginal land only good for grazing anyway. His ‘urban/rural’ split failed to take into account the fact that cities can be net producers of food, seeing cities as farms, in many ways they are the ideal places to grow food, more shelter, more immediate markets, nutrient cycles, as can be seen in Cuba. The recent book Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes (review pending) sets out this concept very persuasively.

He argued that nuclear power is the only realistic way to power the transition, although I was interested to hear, contrary to the impression I had of his position, that he was not advocating a programme of new nuclear power in the UK, rather simply not decommissing those that are due to be closed in the next 10 years.

LKHe said that we have passed the point of no-return, and that basically whatever we do now will have no effect. Another area that I disagreed with him strongly on was his assertion that people know something is looming, but will do nothing until there is a crisis, a shock. He said that Government will not act in time, but that we need leadership which is real and purposeful, we need, he said, “good generalship”. Ultimately he felt people are not going to act, so we are finished. I feel that the critical mass of people who are aware that there is a problem is already in place, what is missing is the mechanisms to do anything about it. If you have 2 kids, a mortgage, and job and are running furiously in order just to stay still, it is not a realistic option to stay home and grow carrots…. . As I have often written at **Transition Culture**, we need to build the infrastructure for a post-carbon world around people in such a way that it is relevant to them. Buckminster Fuller put it very well, ““you can never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete

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Tom Atkins
6 Mar 9:20am

Brilliant stuff Rob – I think the Independent should publish this with similar prominence to Lovelock’s piece that was on the front-page a while back.

Perhaps he needs to read some Richard Douthwaite or Helena Norberg-Hodge – they make powerful cases about the benefits of NOT procedding with ‘business as usual’.

Has anyone read ‘The Revenge of Gaia’? Does it say anything else interesting?

David Johnson
6 Mar 10:19am

Hi Rob,

I’m printing off what you have said here to look through again later today. While I don’t feel that it helps too much to go around telling people “the end is nigh” – it creates despair, and numbs response – I do think that there is something very important being said by Lovelock. I started ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ but have now put it on hold while I get other work finished.

Has he “thrown in the towel” or is he saying things that are so big that they become very difficult to hear? – I don’t know the answer, but the question hangs there for me.

Graham Strouts
6 Mar 5:58pm

Yes Ive read “The Revenge of Gaia” and would really recommend it. I actually read the whole thing in a couple of hours, couldnt put it down.
The main thing that makes it worth reading is Lovelock’s perspective, and the way he tells the story of Earth and Life and the truly cosmological scale of the changes that we are setting afoot by emmiting grenhouse gases. I actually believe that the ability of our species to actually develop such a perspective- through science- is one of ther most amazing things, and could actually be part of the “solution”, in that in order to be informed and make the right decisions, we need such a perspective.
I do agree with Rob that there are huge gaps and ommissions- no mention of Peak Oil, no consideration of Powerdown as a response, etc.. But I found his severe chastising of the environmental movement for being overly emotional in regard to Nuclear Power opver the last few decades to be extremely interesting. Why? Because I think we can all see that ones emotional response can get in the way. Lovelock could have a point about the dangers of Nuclear being vastly exagerated- and he has personally offered to bury a years’ supply from a Nuclear Power station in his back garden!!- it all depends how you add things up. The point is, we all KNOW the extreme destruction caused by an extractive oil/coal/gas industry, but somehow it doesnt provoke the same emotional response. The attitude of many environmentalists when you even dare mention that nuclear should be discussed in a sober debate is that you are some kind of Nazi for even mentioning it. The fact is, even human roadkill- a side-effect of an oil-addicted society- kills far more than Nuclear power does.You dont get freaked out at every time you mention you are going to drive a car. Lovelock’s main point is that whatever about the threats of Nuclear, GLOBAL WARMING IS WORSE. Much worse. And he lays part of the blame on the fact we limited our nuclear industry in favour of more oil and gas at the door of the environmentalists.
Now, dont get me wrong- obviously I dont think nuclear is any kind of answer to the problems we are facing- only localisation and a hopefully measured Powerdown can be- but the fact remains, countries like France are going to have their lights on long after places like Ireland return to the Dark Ages.
Deeper questions need to be asked: what will we do with whatever energy we have? And of course it is too late to start to think of building new nuclear power stations.
Let’s hope we are not past the point of no return for humanity and do everything we can to build lifeboats and to Powerdown. Rob, you are a shining inspiration for us in this endeavour. But we shouldnt shoot the messenger either.

David Johnson
6 Mar 9:13pm

Graham, thank you for your post – clearly presented.

heather witham
12 Mar 1:22pm

I agree with Graham and have read Lovelock’s latest, too. It was very sobering (cancer, nuclear, etc.) and I highly recommend it. I too believe it’s too late for new nuclear build, which gives me mixed feelings: if Lovelock was right about its safety, then maybe it would’ve been nice to have that as a temporary stop-gap for the energy descent. But I’m also quite glad that the nuclear debate should be moot: too late. But I’m interested to read that Lovelock says he doesn’t think there should be new build, only no decommissioning. But what about how they’re situated in coastal areas?

In any case, I think apocalypse and localisation can go hand in hand. It’s how I do it! Of course, if it was the kind of apocalypse like waiting for a nuclear cloud to arrive, or for a meteor to destroy the planet, that’s different. In those scenarios, I’d say: yes! let’s party til it’s over. But with this apocalypse, we’re going to have suffering in a slower way. You won’t be saying “oh well” as the bank takes your house, as you and your kids get hungry, as you worry about food from your garden getting stolen. You’ve got to create the infrastructure now, around you, immediately around you, to deal with these things in the best way possible. I liken it to hospice work. You don’t just abandon the patient when you know s/he is going to die! You give quality of life and try to ease the pain. And there’s a lot of intrinsic value in that quality: things we seek now, even with no crisis: less stress, more time with family and friends.. things that can go with localisation.

The key is definitely about selling it the right way. So doom and gloom need to be accompanied by WHY you still need to do something now and also why it can be good, very good (except, don’t watch the news).

Joseph Feely
14 Mar 5:50pm

I love your atitude in all your articles, it’s positive, fun and endearing. There is hope and a positive atitude will carry us through. I am only learning about all this but I do know that we create the system we live in by our actions and do not have to rely on governments to change. I’ve moved closer to work and got out the bike instead of the car. No Garden though but plans for an alotment. As the culture builds we will see more communities and the built environment integrating permaculture/ eco-frienly systems. As Billy Bragg said on “Talking with the taxman about poetry ” From the tv the unwatched voice says the answer is tyo plant more trees”. We can all learn responses. The only real crime (once one becomes aware)is to do nothing.

23 Mar 5:51pm

I think people’s disappointment with Lovelock is interesting in that while many people were profoundly influenced by the Gaia hypothesis I don’t belive there was an implicit politics in it. Lovelock has never been a left winger or a green in the sense that many would consider that term – he was a friend of Margaret Thatcher and other high Tories – he is a patrician, as his talk of ‘generalship’ suggests. I heard him on the radio the other week and it was noticeble whenever he said ‘we’ Andrew Marr had to ask him if he meant ‘the British’ because all the other panelists were using ‘we’ in the sense of humanity. Lovelock always did support nuclear power. although he enjoyed courting the publicity it brought he consistent disavowed any mystical connotations to Gaia, which was just a short hand. I know people for whom “ Gaia “ and the Goddess (and they’d kill me for saying it) and God are synonymous. Would it all have been a bit different if he called his magnum opus “Global Biospheric Complex Feedback and Equilibrium Theory”?

I’m not saying this to have go at Lovelock, I think it’s important because there is a problem with the assumption that there is an implicit politics that arises out of a scientific idea or an objective situation, such as peak oil. Elements of the politics or the value system that we hold at any one time may seem to inhere together in some natural way but there can be many different ideological justifications for the same position and even if the element is part of a consistent whole it does not mean that it might not be part of another, radically different, consistent whole. An extreme example and one often used against ecological positions, is Nazism. Nazism believed that there was a mystical connection between the people and the land, that the modern, the urban, and the technological led to spiritual degradation, that spiritual authenticity was impossible without community, that there was archetypal value in the pre-Christian European religions – Nazi Germany banned vivesection (on animals, not people) and Hitler was famously a vegetarian. It was of course the Nazi’s very understanding of the community and the land as a holistic, biological and spiritual entity, which supported their de-humanisation of Jews and groups of ‘others’ by seeing them as a cancer on the health of the nation. I’m not promoting Nazism here, and I’m not attacking green thought; I’m just illustrating that these beliefs, which many in the green movement adhere to, do not necessarily or naturally inhere together in a whole with which they would agree.

Perhaps the most useful lesson Lovelock teaches us is to give us a foretaste of the political dangers to come – recognition of the problems leading to responses we find unpalatable. Popular consciousness of climate change and peak oil does not necessarily lead to what we think of as green politics – it may lead to a “green nationalism” or calls for a strong hand. The far right have been trying to colonise green territory for a long while and Jeremy Leggett noted recently the uncomfortable presence of BNP representatives at a meeting promoting awareness of peak oil. Economic and social crises as always fertile ground for chancers, megalomaniacs and demogogues.

This is all the more reason for us to promote the Oil Depletion Protocol Project and powerdown strategies that offer a practical, positive and humane way forward.

24 Mar 6:37pm

Lovelock seems to have calmed down a lot since writing his book where he couldn’t be clearer on new nuclear build: “My strong pleas for nuclear energy come from a growing sense that we have little time … this is especially true in the UK … The important and overidding consideration is time … new nuclear building should be started immediately”. Rob’s notion that “the last thing the world needs is more nuclear technology” seems so widespread that maybe Lovelock is beating a retreat into political realism. But promising your friends the Holiday of a Lifetime when you’re really heading to Fawlty Towers wouldn’t be fair; better warn of high farce ahead.

The point that it is now too late for nuclear is just plain wrong. As just one example, the South African government are considering pebble bed reactors which are said to be even safer, cleaner and cheaper than current generations of nuclear power and they only take two years to build. If a sober examination of the facts about nuclear energy convinces people of the necessity of new nuclear build, then power down could be avoided and climate change could be mitigated within the comparative twinkling of an eye.

DanDreadless’s observation that there is no implicit politics arising out of peak oil or climate change is bang on, but of course both of them will be used by every political faction. The political campaign “nuclear power is not the answer” that CND and Friends of the Earth are currently running eagerly plays on people’s fear of cancer, radioactivity and toxic waste. But here are the fatality figures that Lovelock takes from a 2001 Paul Scherrer Institute report, in deaths per terrawatt year, “Coal 6400, Gas 1200, Hydro 4000, nuclear 31”.

Nuclear power may also provide a practical, positive and humane way forward.

30 Mar 12:55pm

If you have 2 kids, a mortgage, and job and are running furiously in order just to stay still, it is not a realistic option to stay home and grow carrots…. .Let me guess the author has the previous sentence as his life..
Which is WHY lovelock is right. We had 20+ years to learn and we have done NOTHING. The time to have made a difference is past. The american military is polluting at full force just as it has for every single year since mister Lovelocks first book. People are living farther than every from work(exburbs now) DU spread over more land mass than ever (taking whole populations out of life in the future and land for the effective half-life of 4.5 bil years).
As soon as the planes stop the planet will warm FASTER. We already have Earthquakes under the ice-sheets at record numbers because we have Lightened the load on the land below by melting what we have already.
Then we have PeakOil which is, peak copper, peak farmland, peak water, peak silver, we have nearly used everything possible there are NO more frontiers for the first and LAST time, and if we go nuclear peak uranium. We had a chance to regulate our population and we did nothing. We had a chance to switch to some form of economy that was sustainable but again we did nothing. Nobody wants to really change, people dont get involved until something directly effects them it is our nature and our biggest problem.

Richard O'Brien
31 Mar 5:01pm

Whilst I enjoyed the book I do think that he is overly pessimistic and he does not seem to give enough credit for societies capacity to realign itself and drastically reduce it’s dependence on carbon fuels before it’s too late. I think that the biggest problem has been that people just were not being told about what was going on and therefore the markets for renewable technology were restricted to a tiny number of enthusiasts that were willing to take a financial hit to be sustainable.

There are big technological advances going on right at this moment and now that the public and politicians are waking up to the enormity of the problem I believe these will be pushed forward at a rapid rate.

In the home we have solar heaters (water and\or air), photovoltaics, wind turbines, CHPs, heat pumps and very good thermal materials available plus the opportunity to buy green electricity for those who can’t generate their own.

As for transportation I recently have read about a revolutionary new battery that can be fully charged\discharged in 3 minutes and can be discharged at least 9000 times (commpared to 300-500 for a normal car battery) ( With technology like this the goal of genuine electric cars becomes a lot closer and another spin off is a far more realistic means to be able to store home generated electricity too. Of course the electricity supply needs to be cleaned up which is a large task but by exploiting sun\wind\wave\tidal\geothermal energy there is enough energy around to be able to do it. With a change in our attitudes backed up with a change in our technology we can dramatically clean up our act, it just needs the will.

I would like to think that Lovelock is deliberately over egging the gloomy message to get us up and out of our torpor. Whilst I do not underestimate the problem I really believe that the wheels are starting to turn and with the public and government behind renewable technology we do have a fighting chance to get out of this mess.

daniel arthur
2 Apr 11:16pm

Dear Rob

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but over the last TWENTY YEARS, hasn’t the largest peer-review scientific research group in the history of science itself (IPCC) been projecting as well as Lovelock, that civilization had to curb its CO2 emissions before positive feedback loops were triggered, or else there is little-to-nothing humanity can do to prevent massive climatic change—and as just an aspect of the science of Global Warming, has this not been accepted by the general scientific community as probably now being in effect. Yet now that these very feedback loops are being triggered, and Lovelock is basically calling a spade-a-spade that even highly rational proponents of Climate Change are now slipping into the irrelevant emotion defense as to how it makes us feel—even though Lovelocks is basically acknowledging only what we can all perfectly see for ourselves.
Excuse me for pointing asking the obvious, but we are talking about the collapse of the inter-glacial period are we not. Aside from how extraneously inappropriate it is to focus on ones private response is to empirical knowledge, the logical fallacy of commenting on natural existing phenomena from an anthropomorphic egocentric perspective is both logically absurd and emotionally immature.
Next time you’re looking for a little hope and inspiration, don’t go and listen to one of the leading scientist on Climate Change.

18 Apr 12:19am

Lovelock certainly offers much to ponder when first awakened to the cold reality, however, his general message is clear: it’s too late, so prepare to die/die-off. Using words like ‘generalship’ is not helpful either-no bedside manner with him! Given this attitude it would be a public service if he communicated a bit more ‘start living everyday with more quality of life’ and less material acquisition(since it really is too late!)-all the more reason to begin ‘powerdown’ communities and embrace the process. In my small city within a large city, we have local gardens and peekoil groups the meet, many of us are quite aware of what needs to be done-we aren’t just sitting around waiting for judgement day-what’s the point? It’s already here.

15 Jan 6:12pm

He speaks truth to power:

A new specter is haunting the entire world, the specter of Gaia Nemesis. From whence this next uncanny visitor comes and what does it mean for the future of humankind?
Every power of the world turns, like a herd of animals caught unawares by a predator, to face this new menace; the powers fail. They have come to face the very power of nature herself.

Jason Cole
18 Jan 2:15pm

Lovelock is a cretin.

He urges the adoption of nuclear energy as a “sticking plaster” to curb CO2 emissions.

Then he admits that there are very limited reserves of high grade Uranium ore.

But then he says “that’s not a problem” because there is an abundance of low-grade ores, failing to observe that:
a) Low-grade ores require a lot of energy in mining, milling and separation,
b) Below a certain concentration, less energy is yielded from the reactor than is consumed (embodied) in making the fuel
c) Fossil fuels are used in mining, milling and separation, so CO2 emissions for low grade ore will be high.

Therefore he effectively shoots his own argument in the foot.

Victor Esteve
24 Sep 10:42pm

Mr. Lovelock comments on Gaia’s Revenge that serpentine an alcaline magnesian rock has capacity to absorb dioxide carbon, has left me to think why such mineral compound cannot be added to cars catalitic conversors, in a stage after CO has been converted to CO2?

7 Aug 8:19pm

I’v found it so interesting reading everyones comments,Mr Lovelock it seems is not the only person to be sending the world into panick regarding the end of human existance in the near future,Patrick geryl and many others are saying the same thing that there will be a world cataclysm,why then dont the leaders of the world start making arrangments to ensure the safety of us all rather than just sitting back and letting us all be wiped of the face of the earth,apparently unless we have enough money to buy unsinkable ships and a years supply of food for ourselfs and our children then we dont stand a chance,that makes me so angry everyone should be given the chance to survive if the worst happens(they estimate in the next 4 to 10 years)if these scientists want to get the message across to us then why are they not giving their books away for free?no they are making money out of the sales of their books-lots of money in fact,that seems pretty shitty to me that we have to pay in order to find the truth,(if it is the truth,)when the truth should be given freely,especially in regard to human life.If i come across as angry its because iam.