It’s the end of the world as we know it

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 31 May 2006.

James Lovelock – known to many as the visionary scientist who in the 1960s formulated the Gaia Hypothesis – was interviewed recently by Mark Lawson for BBC Television. Based on some of the issues raised in that fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, I shall introduce the concept of Earth System science and briefly outline Lovelock’s view of the implications for human civilisation of our current behaviour. If I continue in this battle of blogging egos, other articles will discuss themes such as natural resources, agriculture and energy from a Gaian perspective.

In Greek mythology, Planet Earth is personified as the goddess Gaia, daughter of Chaos. The Gaia Hypothesis suggests that the Earth is a self-regulating system able to maintain an atmosphere that allows life to flourish. Lovelock argues that the detritus of human existence has unbalanced the Earth System to such a degree that Gaia threatens now to take revenge and rid herself of humanity for the sake of the biosphere as a whole. Gaia is a powerful and scary metaphor, and even though the Earth is not a sentient being, it is a complex entity with many of the characteristics of an organism. It is also bigger than us, and we depend on it for our survival as a species.

At the core of Earth System science is the understanding that the atmosphere, oceans, geological processes and life interact in a closely-coupled and systemic way. A product of space research, Gaia amounts to a major paradigm shift in science, and it is science rather than philosophy since it is quantifiable and provides predictions that can be tested against reality. Research has so far confirmed some of the predictions of Gaia Theory, which, developed in cooperation with the biologist Lynn Margulis, is the original Gaia Hypothesis revised in the light of criticism from life scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Ford Doolittle.

According to Lovelock, the worst that could happen during this century is an 80-90% reduction in world population as a result of starvation and drought, and the word “cull” is used to describe such a nightmare scenario. Many coastal cities could be swamped by a sea level rise of up to a metre, and if melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets goes into positive feedback, sea level will rise by several metres. Given that nearly half the UK population, and more than half of its prime agricultural land, are in coastal areas, the implications for our own way of life are clear enough.

Climate change, whether it be due to natural causes or human activity, will have serious consequences in a world with high population densities in contracting fertile areas. We talk of oil wars, but violent conflicts over water and other natural resources are set to increase in frequency and intensity. Crop failures and loss of land to the sea will lead to mass migration, with all the conflict and suffering that entails, and the developed world will find that it no longer has access to cheap food imported from across the globe. But the biggest issue of all is our insatiable need for energy. Whatever we in Europe decide to do about our own carbon footprint, our influence on a global scale is minimal in comparison with that of North America and Asia. The Kyoto Protocol, while well-intentioned, will have a negligible effect on global carbon emissions.

We have, according to James Lovelock, already passed the point of no return, and are engaged now in a struggle for the survival of humanity. Our only option is to face up to what is happening and deal as best we can with the consequences of climate change, resource scarcity and over-population.