Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Gaia goes nuclear

James Lovelock is an ex NASA scientist and founder of the Gaia hypothesis.

He was a darling of the green movement until in 2004 he made a sensational announcement: nuclear power was the only solution to global warming. He went further in January 2006 and said “before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”

Lovelock is a lifelong inventor and has created many scientific instruments some of which have been adopted by NASA in its program of planetary exploration. It was while working for NASA that Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis. Probably his most important invention was the Electron Capture Detector in 1957 which can detect tiny amounts of chemical compounds in the atmosphere. This discovery provided the hard data for Rachel Carson's landmark 1962 environmental book, "The Silent Spring," which launched the international campaign to ban the pesticide DDT. Later, it made possible the detection of Chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) as pollutants of the atmosphere.

His most persuasive and controversial idea is Gaia, the concept of Earth as a single living bio-organism. He developed this in the 1960s and then expanded upon it in collaboration with the American microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the New Scientist magazine in 1975 and then in his 1979 book: Gaia: A new look at life on Earth.

The Gaia hypothesis was based upon Lovelock’s study of the atmosphere of Mars. In his own words “thinking about life on Mars gave some of us a fresh standpoint from which to consider life on Earth and led us to formulate a new, or perhaps revive a very ancient, concept of the relationship between the Earth and its biosphere.” Lovelock came to the view that Earth's atmosphere is actively maintained and regulated by life on its surface: the biosphere. Life first appeared three and a half billion years ago and the fossil record shows that the Earth's climate has changed very little. Yet the output of heat from the sun, the surface properties of the Earth, and the composition of the atmosphere have almost certainly varied greatly over the same period. Lovelock argued that it was life itself which kept the climate steady. His friend, the Nobel prize winning author William Golding (they were neighbours in Wiltshire in the 1960s) recommended that this phenomenon be called Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess also known as Ge, from which root the sciences of geography and geology derive their names. The goddess Gaia was described as the giver of dreams and the nourisher of plants and young children.

The theory is not without its critics. Among some scientists, "Gaia" carries connotations of lack of scientific rigour and quasi-mystical thinking about the planet Earth. Oxford University's Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene," has condemned Gaia theory as a "profoundly erroneous" heresy against Darwin's theory of natural selection. Lovelock himself defined it as “a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.” Operating with a Darwinian philosophy, Lovelock has had difficulties time explaining why life manipulates the environment in the first place and the theory has been accused of being teleological. It was looking dangerously like a quasi intelligent design.

To overcome this, he came up with the model of Daisyworld in 1983. Daisyworld is a computer simulation of a hypothetical world whose temperature is slowly increasing. There are only two lifeforms: black daisies and white daisies. In the beginning, the planet is cold and only a few a few black daisies survive. The black daisies absorb heat from the sun which causes the temperature to rise. This causes the number of black daisies to rise. The heat allows a small amount of white daisies to thrive also. The white daisies cool the planet and eventually it reaches temperature equilibrium. A remarkable stability occurs, a process known as homeostasis. The daisies modify the climate to make conditions more hospitable for themselves. Lovelock ran the model to include other species (eg rabbits and foxes.) He found that the greater the diversity, the greater the temperature regulation.

In 1990 he quarrelled with Mother Theresa about which was more important: humanity or the health of the planet. Lovelock's premise is that if we take care of the Earth, humanity's problems will start to take care of themselves. Mother Teresa insisted that taking care of people will solve the Earth's problems.

In 2004 Lovelock got himself in hot water with many in the green movement over his advocacy of nuclear power, and also his criticisms of renewable energy wind farms. In May that year Lovelock wrote an article for Britain’s Independent newspaper. In it he argued that global warming was a worse problem than terrorism. Then he made his controversial statement “only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy.” He argued that opposition to nuclear energy is based on irrational fears fanned by Hollywood fiction, the Green lobby and the media. He concluded by saying “We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear - the one safe, available, energy source - now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet.”

The backlash wasn’t long in coming. Shawn-Patrick Stensil, Greenpeace Energy Campaigner, spoke at an anti-nuclear power rally in Toronto “Nuclear power is a turkey. It’s dirty, dangerous, expensive, and cannot be built fast enough to meet our energy needs over the next decade,” He spoke to a background of a giant inflatable turkey. Others reminded the world of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. The dangers of storing nuclear waste were cited. Many isotopes have a half-life of thousands of years. The critics also point out potential environmental dangers associated with uranium mining and criticise the policy of transporting waste to less developed countries for storage. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) argued “The entire commercial chain of processing nuclear materials produces a highly toxic legacy for thousands of years to come. Moreover, the creation and handling of highly toxic nuclear products and the unsolved issue of safe storage of waste demonstrates the unsustainability of the technology".

Lovelock is unmoved by these arguments. In his latest book The Revenge of Gaia (2006) he argues that because of global warming the world population should brace itself for the inevitable: most of the planet will become uninhabitable by the end of this century.

Lovelock argues that the deathrate in Chernobyl was greatly exaggerated and only 75 people died. He states “I do not see nuclear energy as a panacea but as an essential part of a portfolio of energy sources.” He warns of complacency and “the imminent danger of a climate storm whose severity the Earth has not endured for 55 million years”

Whether he is correct or not about nuclear power, he does continue to ask the question no one wants to face up to “in the cities the party goes on; how much longer before reality enters our minds?”

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