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Old 03-01-2008, 07:15 PM   #1
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carbon offsetting is a joke, and recycling is a waste of time

so says what appears to be a very cynical old man, who unfortunately... is quite brilliant in terms of the science of climate change and the environment.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardia....climatechange

In 1965 executives at Shell wanted to know what the world would look like in the year 2000. They consulted a range of experts, who speculated about fusion-powered hovercrafts and "all sorts of fanciful technological stuff". When the oil company asked the scientist James Lovelock, he predicted that the main problem in 2000 would be the environment. "It will be worsening then to such an extent that it will seriously affect their business," he said.

"And of course," Lovelock says, with a smile 43 years later, "that's almost exactly what's happened."

Lovelock has been dispensing predictions from his one-man laboratory in an old mill in Cornwall since the mid-1960s, the consistent accuracy of which have earned him a reputation as one of Britain's most respected - if maverick - independent scientists. Working alone since the age of 40, he invented a device that detected CFCs, which helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer, and introduced the Gaia hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all climate science.

For decades, his advocacy of nuclear power appalled fellow environmentalists - but recently increasing numbers of them have come around to his way of thinking. His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report deploys less dramatic language - but its calculations aren't a million miles away from his.

As with most people, my panic about climate change is equalled only by my confusion over what I ought to do about it. A meeting with Lovelock therefore feels a little like an audience with a prophet. Buried down a winding track through wild woodland, in an office full of books and papers and contraptions involving dials and wires, the 88-year-old presents his thoughts with a quiet, unshakable conviction that can be unnerving. More alarming even than his apocalyptic climate predictions is his utter certainty that almost everything we're trying to do about it is wrong.

On the day we meet, the Daily Mail has launched a campaign to rid Britain of plastic shopping bags. The initiative sits comfortably within the current canon of eco ideas, next to ethical consumption, carbon offsetting, recycling and so on - all of which are premised on the calculation that individual lifestyle adjustments can still save the planet. This is, Lovelock says, a deluded fantasy. Most of the things we have been told to do might make us feel better, but they won't make any difference. Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable.

"It's just too late for it," he says. "Perhaps if we'd gone along routes like that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don't have time. All these standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me saying you can't say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of things you want to do."

He dismisses eco ideas briskly, one by one. "Carbon offsetting? I wouldn't dream of it. It's just a joke. To pay money to plant trees, to think you're offsetting the carbon? You're probably making matters worse. You're far better off giving to the charity Cool Earth, which gives the money to the native peoples to not take down their forests."

Do he and his wife try to limit the number of flights they take? "No we don't. Because we can't." And recycling, he adds, is "almost certainly a waste of time and energy", while having a "green lifestyle" amounts to little more than "ostentatious grand gestures". He distrusts the notion of ethical consumption. "Because always, in the end, it turns out to be a scam ... or if it wasn't one in the beginning, it becomes one."

Somewhat unexpectedly, Lovelock concedes that the Mail's plastic bag campaign seems, "on the face of it, a good thing". But it transpires that this is largely a tactical response; he regards it as merely more rearrangement of Titanic deckchairs, "but I've learnt there's no point in causing a quarrel over everything". He saves his thunder for what he considers the emptiest false promise of all - renewable energy.

"You're never going to get enough energy from wind to run a society such as ours," he says. "Windmills! Oh no. No way of doing it. You can cover the whole country with the blasted things, millions of them. Waste of time."

This is all delivered with an air of benign wonder at the intractable stupidity of people. "I see it with everybody. People just want to go on doing what they're doing. They want business as usual. They say, 'Oh yes, there's going to be a problem up ahead,' but they don't want to change anything."

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.

Nuclear power, he argues, can solve our energy problem - the bigger challenge will be food. "Maybe they'll synthesise food. I don't know. Synthesising food is not some mad visionary idea; you can buy it in Tesco's, in the form of Quorn. It's not that good, but people buy it. You can live on it." But he fears we won't invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects "about 80%" of the world's population to be wiped out by 2100. Prophets have been foretelling Armageddon since time began, he says. "But this is the real thing."

Faced with two versions of the future - Kyoto's preventative action and Lovelock's apocalypse - who are we to believe? Some critics have suggested Lovelock's readiness to concede the fight against climate change owes more to old age than science: "People who say that about me haven't reached my age," he says laughing.

But when I ask if he attributes the conflicting predictions to differences in scientific understanding or personality, he says: "Personality."

There's more than a hint of the controversialist in his work, and it seems an unlikely coincidence that Lovelock became convinced of the irreversibility of climate change in 2004, at the very point when the international consensus was coming round to the need for urgent action. Aren't his theories at least partly driven by a fondness for heresy?

"Not a bit! Not a bit! All I want is a quiet life! But I can't help noticing when things happen, when you go out and find something. People don't like it because it upsets their ideas."

But the suspicion seems confirmed when I ask if he's found it rewarding to see many of his climate change warnings endorsed by the IPCC. "Oh no! In fact, I'm writing another book now, I'm about a third of the way into it, to try and take the next steps ahead."

Interviewers often remark upon the discrepancy between Lovelock's predictions of doom, and his good humour. "Well I'm cheerful!" he says, smiling. "I'm an optimist. It's going to happen."

Humanity is in a period exactly like 1938-9, he explains, when "we all knew something terrible was going to happen, but didn't know what to do about it". But once the second world war was under way, "everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday ... so when I think of the impending crisis now, I think in those terms. A sense of purpose - that's what people want."

At moments I wonder about Lovelock's credentials as a prophet. Sometimes he seems less clear-eyed with scientific vision than disposed to see the version of the future his prejudices are looking for. A socialist as a young man, he now favours market forces, and it's not clear whether his politics are the child or the father of his science. His hostility to renewable energy, for example, gets expressed in strikingly Eurosceptic terms of irritation with subsidies and bureaucrats. But then, when he talks about the Earth - or Gaia - it is in the purest scientific terms all.

"There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that's just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That's the source of my optimism."

What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."

----------

it's easy to discount his opinions as being irrational, perhaps even merely senile.

but like i said, that'd be easy. perhaps a little too much so.

still... i can't help but think he's unfortunately spot on.

does anyone else feel that their personal contribution to reducing, reusing and recycling is perhaps a case of too little too late?
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Old 03-02-2008, 02:48 AM   #2
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Quote:
Lovelock...introduced the Gaia hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all climate science.
Really? Let's learn more about Gaia from Mr. Lovelock.
Quote:
(from http://www.ozi.com/ourplanet/lovelock2.html)

If we are "all creatures great and small," from bacteria to whales, part of Gaia then we are all of us potentially important to her well being.
It may be that one role we play is as the senses and nervous system for Gaia. Through our eyes she has for the first time seen her very fair face and in our minds become aware of herself. We do indeed belong here. The earth is more than just a home, it's a living system and we are part of it.
Again, we are told that this theory
Quote:
forms the basis of almost all climate science.
Ok, this is more than "new age nonsense," it's pure horseshit.
So much so that, even Al Gore's animated polar bear (last seen desperately clinging to the last piece of ice in sight) is having a hard time keeping a straight face.

Of coarse, some of us never had any doubt that Paganism was alive and well in the science and politics of climate change (formerly known as global warming).
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Old 03-02-2008, 03:36 AM   #3
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Re: carbon offsetting is a joke, and recycling is a waste of time

Quote:
Originally posted by Zoomerang96
What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."
I should be ok then. I'll be about ready to check out and I have no kids.
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Old 03-02-2008, 05:05 AM   #4
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Gaia theory is the man. I remember playing SimEarth when I was little. Man all those little binomes and shit. Gaia was the shit....Gaia and Will Wright, that is.
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Old 03-02-2008, 05:17 AM   #5
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In terms of having a system with as many different feedback mechanisms the earth the Gaia hypothesis is reasonable; it is not describing a conscious entity merely an interconnected system.

And yes, carbon offsets are rife for corruption - the carbon isn't sequestered in real time and recycling is only useful when it is economic (aluminium cans) and uses less energy than just making new ones (frivilous recycling would contribute more to carbon emissions than just dumping it).
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Old 03-02-2008, 03:57 PM   #6
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Your fellow atheist terrible Richard Dawkins disputes how natural selection could ever work on a planetary scale to form a homeostatic Gaia. And there is, of coarse, a pseudo-religious aspect to all this.
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The Gaia hypothesis is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears, and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here. It is an alternative to that pessimistic view which sees nature as a primitive force to be subdued and conquered. It is also an alternative to that equally depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever travelling, driverless and purposeless, around an inner circle of the sun.
--James Lovelock (1979)
So Gaia gives meaning to our empty lives. Ummmm, and of coarse others build on this to the extent that we now hear of Mother Earth, Nature (capitalized) and, like any religion, a roster of sinners and prophets.
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Old 03-02-2008, 04:05 PM   #7
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To each his own.
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Old 03-02-2008, 04:20 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally posted by INDY500
Your fellow atheist terrible Richard Dawkins disputes how natural selection could ever work on a planetary scale to form a homeostatic Gaia.
I dunno, I think the current rate of climate change-related species migration and natural phenomena like El Nino are pretty good indicators of a planetary scale of interconnectivity in nature.
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Old 03-03-2008, 03:15 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally posted by INDY500
Your fellow atheist terrible Richard Dawkins disputes how natural selection could ever work on a planetary scale to form a homeostatic Gaia. And there is, of coarse, a pseudo-religious aspect to all this.

So Gaia gives meaning to our empty lives. Ummmm, and of coarse others build on this to the extent that we now hear of Mother Earth, Nature (capitalized) and, like any religion, a roster of sinners and prophets.
I am a materialist and I think that describing the Earth in terms of complicated feedback mechanisms is not absurd (unravelling and understanding them is very tricky though). The hypothesis that life creates the conditions for more life is not implausible, the first photosynthetic bacteria appeared on Earth 3.5 billion years ago and dominated the planet until around 640 million years ago; the effect of this was the transformation of the atmosphere from a very reducing one to one with free oxygen, today plants and algae have a huge effect in regulating atmospheric composition and by extension climate.

Dawkins discussing natural selection at gene level (bodies and structure are merely tools for the replication of the DNA inside our eukaryotic cells nuclei) and not planet level is different than dumping the recognition of Earth as a complicated and interconnected system. Earth as a complex system isn't a spiritual revelation, blurring the line between ecotheism and a scientific hypothesis does not refute the hypothesis (one which still demands more evidence and specificity in explanation).
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Old 03-03-2008, 08:16 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally posted by INDY500
Ok, this is more than "new age nonsense," it's pure horseshit.
So much so that, even Al Gore's animated polar bear (last seen desperately clinging to the last piece of ice in sight) is having a hard time keeping a straight face.

Of coarse, some of us never had any doubt that Paganism was alive and well in the science and politics of climate change (formerly known as global warming.
Well, admittedly, I hate how its phrased too, because I cringe at "New Age nonsense" quite a bit too. And, secondly, it is true that quite a few atheists, including Richard Dawkins, cringe at anything that implies that we aren't in full control of our own destiny. His reaction reminds me of the scientific community's initial reaction to the Big Bang theory. They hated it, because it was proposed by a Catholic priest/scientist. Prior to the Big Bang theory, most scientists believed that the universe "just existed" and had no beginning; having a beginning, however, they thought it implied "pseudo-religious elements." Nonetheless, the Big Bang theory has since been justified by the scientific method, so now it is a legitimate part of science.

As for this, though, I think A_Wanderer's discussion about complicated feedback mechanisms is precisely what I would have stated, so I won't repeat it. If you strip out all the New Age nonsense, at its core you have the importance of ecosystems, and how destroying them isn't in our best interest.

And as for Earth being "living," it isn't; instead, look at Earth as a chemistry set that has different chemical reactions depending on what "chemicals" are put into it.
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