James Lovelock's recent essay in the Independent has prompted abundant discussion across the sustainable blogosphere, including here at WorldChanging, with Alan's recent post on Mega-Engineering. It's a dark and intentionally depressing vision of widespread famine, ecological crashes and conflict -- all driven by human-caused global warming. Lovelock, who claims to be an optimist on most issues, simply cannot see a way for humankind to avoid utter ruin.
The commentaries and discussions arising from the Lovelock essay have been wide-ranging, but the one that stands out for me is Bruce Sterling's most recent Viridian Note, wherein he tears apart Lovelock in a caustic and merciless fashion. This is Bruce with poisoned daggers drawn, and unlike some of Lovelock's critics, he doesn't pay lip service to Lovelock's past influence.
"Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. (((On the plus side, Gaia won't pen any editorials about that.))) Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not merely a disease; (((hey, speak for yourself, planetary physician))) we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself from space, and begins to know her place in the universe. (((And then, through us, her nervous system, Gaia went into the garage, turned on the engine and died of the fumes.)))
"We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. (((If we're heart and mind, plus nerves and damaged kidneys to boot, Gaia's got very few organs left.)))
As much as the Gaia concept helped to spur the consideration of the planet as a system of systems, I must admit to a great deal of sympathy for Bruce's take. Lovelock was once a highly-regarded environmental scientist, but little of that shows in this essay. Instead, he joins the list of apocaphiles, strenuously denying that humans can do anything else but wallow in their own filth and destroy the planet (or, as he describes it, put Gaia into a "morbid fever" for 100,000 years). He expresses great dismay that we've come to this state, but offers neither solutions nor solace, choosing instead to detail some of the awful ways that billions of us will die.
I really dislike apocaphilia.
Apocaphiles tell us that our fate is pre-determined, and that any attempt to avoid it is doomed to failure. They're not simply defeatist, they're positively offended by any suggestion that we might figure out a way to avoid disaster. People who believe that we'll muddle through are accused of having their "heads in the ground;" people who try to change our behavior are derided as "unrealistic;" and people who look for tool-based solutions are castigated for trying for a "techno-fix." The only allowable opinion is that we are lost. There's a distinctly Calvinist flavor to apocaphiles, as they revel in laying out the doom we face because of our own sins, be they environmental, sociological or technological. Ironically, the apocaphile refuses to admit to any human ability to avoid this fate -- we can bring it about, but we can't prevent it, either because the time to do so has long past (i.e., we've left the Garden of Eden) or because we're too greedy/foolish/short-sighted/power-hungry to do so (i.e., we're mired in Original Sin).
I dislike apocaphilia because I believe that deeds can make a difference.
I also dislike apocaphilia because it presumes to predict the future. The truth is, we simply cannot know if we are, in fact, doomed. We may be -- but there's a damn good chance that we aren't, at least if we make an effort to change global conditions. And that, ultimately, is what makes me so irritated at doomsayers: the denial of our ability to make a difference. Tell people over and over that there's nothing that they can do, and eventually they'll start to believe you, making the negative outcome inevitable. I would much rather try to change things for the better and fail than to lie back and just let the world collapse around me.
Lovelock tells us that billions of us will die, that it's too late to stop the end of the world. I say that such an outcome is a choice, one that we need not make.
*the sound of humanity falling off a Gaian cliff*
*the sound of humanity falling off a Gaian cliff*
You know, Lovelock sounds like a lovelorn old man dying far away from the arms of an elusive Rapunzel.
Sterling sounds like....well, happier.
It is completely irrelevant whether YOU like apocaphilia or not. This isn't a topic that is determined by your personal preferences.
The question is whether it is too late or not, and that can only be answered by hard scientific fact, or specific solutions to known (and future) problems.
You will agree that there is a time to act and a time after which acting would not help anymore. If you are on a car, going at 200 km an hour against a solid wall, when you are at 1 meter from the wall it is too late to turn, stop or jump out. The time to act was there, it has just passed. Lovelock does not say that there was no choice. It says, the choice was there, NOW it is too late. He does not say we should suicide en masse. He says, we should try to conserve as much as possible.
"If you are on a car, going at 200 km an hour against a solid wall, when you are at 1 meter from the wall it is too late to turn, stop or jump out. The time to act was there, it has just passed."
That doesn't work because:
1. If I survived, it's all cool. No need to panic.
2. If I died, you're talking to a dead man. I got time, and lots of it.
Therefore, no one dies to regret a disaster, and the few who survive it are always thankful.
We are the survivors.
Regarding this 200 km/h analogy, since we know so little about the Earth and its systems, perhaps the analogy might be more accurately described by covering the windscreen. We know we're careening towards a wall, we know that if we don't stop in time we're strawberry jam. So when do we start slamming on the brakes? As soon as we can, of course. Even if we're only 1m from the wall and it's too late, because we don't know it's too late.
We can't control the attitude people will take towards the facts that have been presented about global warming and peak oil.
Despair, outrage, and pessimism are acceptable, but they often prevent people from feeling they are potent in any way to affect solutions. There are many practical things that can be done on a local level to develop sustainable habits-- these all are a positive contribution.
Something I have found useful is to consider various scenarios among which the apocalypse is one. We can fully imagine the worst happening, and then start thinking about the kind of society that could exist on the other side, from a visionary perspective. It might have some positive characteristics: people might be more helpful to one another; people might learn how to raise food locally, which will be healthier; power and control may devolve to the local level, which is more responsive to citizen concerns. I avoid getting bogged down in despair by thinking in an idealistic way about the positives that could happen on the other side, and working to create those right now.
I enjoy this site but find that the technologies and solutions do not lend themselves to my participation. I can sit on the sidelines and gasp admiringly at the hypercar, much as I might enjoy watching the Nature channel on TV. It doesn't give me traction for much else.
I'm kind of bored with the interspersed text thing (seems last-century), but at least it got me to look at Lovelock's own turgid prose. The guy is out there.
(((unfortunately, the fisking seems out there as well)))
Despite all our knowledge, CO2 increased by more than 2% last year. There is nothing on the horizon that would indicate that the U.S., not to mention China, etc. will take the necessary action to avoid catatrophe. Lovelock is probably right, and yet there is hope, only because we must, hope, that is.
My individual actions probably mean nothing, and yet I take them anyway.
Regardless, the earth will march on without us, to evolve somehow even under the worst of circumstances. Global warming may mean the end of humankind, which under the circumstances, may be welcomed by the Gaia.
There is little evidence that we can overcome our short term greed for the sake of the planet.
Wholly agree with odograph about the fisking. I saw Sterling do this with Jim Kunstler and it struck me as pointless. Sterling's obviously got a great enough mind to counter the flaws in these people's thinking without resorting to a technique that's pretty widely recognised as an immature abuse of the net medium.
On apocaphilia, whenever I read sweeping dismissals of it like this, I can never not think of the Futurama episode where a ball of 20th century garbage is shot into space. A newscaster narrating the story says, "Some experts claim the ball might return to Earth someday, but their concerns were dismissed as 'depressing'." :-)
Still, I agree with Jamais' basic conclusion, that at bottom, we don't really know how things are going to go. That's scary to people who believe we will prevail as well as to those who believe we won't.
However, I'm also dubious about the need to rubbish all "negativity". On a personal level, I've only hauled myself out of some terrible ruts when I've been shocked into a new frame of reference by some pretty negative self-perceptions. Equally, I've often maintained myself in those very ruts with a resilient, but ultimately stultifying kind of "maybe if I just try harder to make things better" optimism. I'm not saying "yay negativity" or "down with optimism"; it's just that each have their ups and downs.
It should also be noted that Lovelock's hardly just shrugging his shoulders and kicking back: "So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. ... So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords."
That's a pretty clear call to action. This has to be combined with a warning about how bad things will get if we don't act and, to avoid pandering, some indication of how bad things might still get even when we do act. I can accept disagreements with the degree to which Lovelock pitches these things - and sure, some people will baulk at his metaphors - but the general structure of his pitch seems sound.
You seem strangely off base with this post. Lovelock comes across (to me) as mournful but not fatalistic. Read his last paragraph. Sterling, otoh, comes across as an irrational hack.
I don't mind dire warnings as long as they end with specific, concrete plans of action. What can we do individually, locally, nationally, internationally? What political, cultural, economic and, yes, technological changes do we make to save ourselves?
Saying, "It's worse than we thought," is fine as long as you follow that up with, "and here's what I think we should do...." Otherwise, in this trauma-ridden world, you'll just get tuned out.
I avoided reading Sterling's full "piece" as the extract didn't seem tempting, but then I felt I should be fair... Well, there's plenty of pointless sniping - and I'm not sure it's in his favour that he concedes to it mostly being a bit of "fun" at the end.
I have to say, though, I agree with Sterling's basic point that this whole situation is much more about saving ourselves than saving Gaia. I've long thought that "Save the Planet" is a presumptuous and wrong-headed banner - for so long, I think, that I forget some intelligent people still rally under it.
Sterling's antipathy to anthropomorphism (which I see as a natural tendency that can be a powerful, useful tool) is pretty standard fare for rationalist scientism; but Lovelock's clumsy wielding of this tool is as much an enemy of it as Sterling's broadsides. Even if we could prove on a Etch-a-Sketch that Gaia's heading for a 100,000-year fever, I doubt she'd be any more worried than you or I would be at the prospect of a 24-hour bout of flu. Anthropomorphism works best if you scale everything accordingly.
As I read Lovelock, his point wasn't that there's nothing we can do -- there are plenty of actions that *could* be taken. His point was that we WILL NOT do those things.
As for Bruce, he's prone to a touch of apocalypsiphilia (that's what the word should be, IMHO) himself from time to time - but I think that he's fully justified in doing so!!
And I think Jamais ought to have included Bruce's conclusion, which is not exactly a dismissal, and has its own dose of pessimism in it:
>>> (((For all the acerbic fun I've had with it, this is a very disturbing article. After some days' consideration, I've come to this conclusion about it. I don't think humanity has the capacity to put "Gaia" into a 100,000 year "coma." Humanity's heading for the clinic before Gaia does; we've already got dubious food security, some cracking little resource wars and emergent major-league diseases. We don't have the capacity to expand industrial development flat-out while being hammered by global climate change and three out of four apocalyptic horsemen. We won't need Gaia's Revenge to do us in by the time Gaia was good and ready, we'd be doin' a heck of a job eliminating ourselves.))) <<<
My last word for now: in the metaphor, an Earth without an aware human presence is indeed in "coma" - humanity, specifically, can be seen as not the whole brain but the cerebral cortex of "Gaia", the part that can make choices, analyze data, have amoral sense, etc. - and act consciously to change the functioning of the organism.
To torture the metaphor a bit more, we've been using that capacity to engage in a bunch of body modification - tattooing, piercing, mutilation, and scarifying - just like any primitive would. But we're awfully close to reaching that state where we understand enough about what we are, what Gaia is, and how she works, to make it - her - us - healthier as an organism. The question is whether or not we will choose to do so, and therein is the root of the apocalypsiphilic view.
Thanks for those points, Skip. I'd fallen foul of another problem of simplistic anthropomorphism applied to the Earth: seeing it as an organism separate from ourselves, when of course we are to the planet (in this view) as cells (specifically, neurons) are to us. To me, this conveys a shocking level of responsibility to us - a potentially very powerful motivator.
(To wax a little more anthropomorphic than is pragmatic, I've often thought of the post-KT-boundary rise of mammals as a Gaian response to that asteroid impact, evolving organisms - us - with the technological means to repel future "planet-killers".)
Thanks for the (generally) good discussion here, folks. Re-reading my own piece, I can see why it's getting some of these reactions. One big problem: I presumed that the readers would be familiar with the previous apocaphilia argument I made last year, and linked to in this essay.
(Here's the link again: Apocaphilia, Peak Oil and Sustainability)
The problem with apocaphilia (and, sorry, Skip, but apocalypsiphilia is too much of a mouthful) is not that it tells us that the world is ending, but that it tries to claim that attempts to avert that fate are pointless. This is directly derived from the fact that human actions caused the problem to begin with. It's *our* fault that the world is ending, and we're flawed, evil beings, deserving of the fate we're about to receive.
Lovelock's position isn't as strident as (say) Kunstler or Bill Joy, but the conclusion (that we won't do what needs to be done) fits the broad characteristics of apocaphilia.
To respond to some of the more specific comments:
* Apocaphilia isn't about scientific facts as much as it's about human behavior. If Lovelock (or whomever) argued that, for such-and-such scientific reasons, a world which was uninhabitable except at the poles was now irreversibly going to happen by 2075, that would be awful, but not apocaphilia. But that's not what Lovelock is saying here.
* MJ's point about not getting enough hands-on ways to improve the planet is well-taken, and is something we talk about back-channel quite often. When I post about a 300mpg hypercar (e.g.), it's not to say "here, you can make one of these," but is meant as another small part of the larger argument that solutions are possible, that we can adopt behaviors and technologies and systems to improve the planet for all of us.
* I suppose I need to keep in mind that the deeply acerbic approach that BruceS sometimes takes is not to many people's liking. The interspersed comment method struck me less as fisking than as a textual version of something like MST3K.
* Nobody has said this directly, but to be clear: by no means am I saying that we have nothing to worry about, or that disaster isn't a possibility. It's far more likely than any of us would wish. But the only way we can say decisively that it's a certainty is if we decide to give up trying to make changes for the better.
* Gyrus, I love that Futurama episode, too. I'm not trying to argue against negativity, but a particular species of it. We do have an overall aversion to negative posts on WC, but that's because Alex & I realized early on that information about problems is far easier to find than information about what can be done about the problems.
I don't really see Lovelock's conclusion to be as constructive as you seem to, however. He seems to be saying "let's preserve what we can" (something I support quite a bit), but otherwise doesn't go beyond the strictly metaphorical.
* Ultimately, the Earth is much more resilient than any particular species. We may wipe ourselves out, we may push the climate into a new stable high-temperature state, but the Earth itself will go on. Even a 100,000 year "morbid fever" is a blip in the geologic time scale.
My apocophiliac ways have been put aside thanks to WorldChanging. I've known many Christians in particular who believe we're almost at the end and who almost relish the idea. I believe we're just at the beginning. I've seen our enemies become our friends and our failures become our education enough times to believe we've still got a damn good hope.
It strikes me that some people say "crisis"(*) and don't consider themselves to be harbingers of the apocalypse. A lot depends on where you stand. One person's caution (or crisis) may be an other's doom and gloom.
FWIW, what's kind of emerged for me out of the last year of surfing sustainability (and peak oil) sites is that we are dealing with population response. Even if we think that humanity (or some portion thereof) will ultimately get and act on idea X, we have to understand that there will be an acceptance curve. I suspect that it will follow the sort of curve we see in tech products ("early adopter" - "chasm" - "pragmatic adopter" - "last skeptic").
And as we know from past sustainability cycles (1970's alternative energy), things don't leap the chasm just because we want them to.
On the other hand, the early adopters and proponents are certainly essential. If they (we) do not make the case, the majority pragmatists will have no where else to learn it. No one will know for instance, that you can run your car on french fry grease, until some crazy guy tries it.
IMO the outcome in many of these things is not guaranteed, in some sense it IS an experiment in sociology (will they or won't they come on board?). As you might guess from my choice of that curve, I think the most effective messages are those that will appeal to the pragmatists.
I don't think you can change the psychology of the majority - but you can find solutions that appeal to them (over time).
* - Global Warming-Resistant Agriculture
BTW, to highlight the "dark side" of that acceptance curve ... it is sometimes the "last skeptics" who can do you in. Who caught the last cod on the Grand Banks ... the pragmatists, or the last skeptics?
What can be done about the problems? One thing I find useful is the thought that I myself am anything but unique. What I decide to do is what a lot of people are going to decide to do since they are the same as me. So--I try to decide what a lot of people are going to do. And then I do it.
The Strong Anthropomorphic version of the Gaia Hypothesis would state that "Humanity is Gaia's way of getting access to all of her lost Carbon." We might be playing our role perfectly ;-) (this is a joke, please don't flame it seriously)
Lovelock offers no actions to moderate or reduce this impact. He's not even suggesting that the Wise buy bits of land in otherwise fridged corners of Canada to survive the enormous population die off.
Neither does he mention that, well, life went on when it was a lot warmer. The Oil we're burning - plant matter that grew when it was a lot hotter, and grew so prolifically that we are **STILL** burning the energy stored by it.
Think about that: the hot earth was abundant enough to support *enormous* animals and plants: global warming is not going to be like a holocaust or an ice age. The problems will be problems of rapid change, and of excess.
But this is not a future of failing agricultre, necessarily. Even in the worst projections, some areas win big time. I'm unwilling to concede that this is a disaster which can be predicted.
Any hacker knows that screwing around with a system for which you do not have a backup is bad. But there may be unknown moderating factors, feedback loops which slow the warming which we don't know about, technological fixes (solar mirrors to reflect away solar radiation come to mind, because they can be *reversed* if it doesn't work) and so on.
We're not dead yet. We're not even getting started.
I think it is a safe prediction that climate change will result in loss of species (as climates move out from under plant and animal communities). But (a) that is certainly hard to quantify, and (b) I'm not sure how many "plain folks" out there really care.
No, there isn't any conclusive scientific evidence other than strong indicators that global temperature is rising. And it doesn't really matter whether or not you believe it will bring life as we know it to a screeching halt - the fact is our current business as usual practices are not only harming the earth but they're harming us in the process. So for all you skeptics out there - should we just wait and see how bad it can get before we institute change?
Don't you suspect that we (in this forum) have already instituted change?
> We can't control the attitude people will take
> towards the facts that have been presented about
> global warming and peak oil.
Really? ExxonMobil didn't take such a defeatist attitude about that; they went out and bought the best PR money could buy:
Someone else commented that this isn't about somebody's personal attitude. NO, it's about a lot of people's personal attitudes. The more people who buy hybrid vehicles, the more the car manufacturers will make them, and the fewer people who buy ExxonMobil stock, the more even they will have to notice that people want something done.
Death loving Apocraphiles are sad, but they're a pretty harmless precursor to the *real* worry: those who have read their scripture without any idea of cause and effect. The thought that the Second Coming might be *deliberately* induced by triggering the apocalypse is a very tempting prospect to such mentalities.
Is it possible that Lovelock's article was *deliberately* pessimistic? That it was intended to ignite the indignant reaction it appears to have done here?
the *real* worry: those who have read their scripture without any idea of cause and effect.
Timely that you mention the big C&E, since my quote of the week is by Dr. Abdulkarim Soroush, and it goes:
"...we step onto the ladder of effects in the hope that, one day, we can reach that cause."
Rohit have you read Lovelock's book on Gaia theory?
I had the same reaction as Tony: that Lovelock was deliberately sparking debate (given his age, how many more chances will he get?) to encourage renewed effort because despite all of our efforts, anthropogenic GHG emissions are still increasing and it's clear that they will continue to increase. Further, his short piece is promoting his new book. Why have people here dismissed his claims outright without justifying their dismissal or even asking whether he has reasonable evidence to justify his claims? Who's going to read and review his book?
I too find Bruce Sterlings' annotated/fisking approach largely unintelligent and unamusing. It might be tolerable if there was less quipping and twittery and more in the way of insightful comments. It's clear that Jamais idolises Bruce, but I encourage you to think critically before you quote flippant remarks from him or follow his lead with an irreverent tone such as "Lovelock was once a highly-regarded environmental scientist" (((he still is, unlike Bruce or yourself))).
Rohit have you read Lovelock's book on Gaia theory?
Um, no Flannel - I haven't. I did read the essay in question, and Sterling's fisk-ure of it. And that's all I'm commenting on.
Personally, from what I've read "about" the Gaia theory, secondary texts that is - I am quite a fan of it. However, I think a different understanding of the same processes can be gained by reading Deleuze's theory of a BwO, or "body without organs".
The more people who buy hybrid vehicles, the more the car manufacturers will make them....
That's not necessary. They may simply churn out the same old vehicles with a different branding and spin, and allude to their eco-friendliness.
Corporations can lie for breakfast,lunch, dinner and the late night snack, if it'll save them some more R&D money.
Tony -- I would hope that, if the essay was intentionally pessimistic, the goal wasn't to prompt an indignant reaction, but to push people into action. It's actually a little hard to achieve that balance: too pessimistic, and it comes off like you're saying that it's too late (which is how I took Lovelock's piece); not pessimistic enough, and it doesn't lead to a sense of urgency.
Flannel Flower --
It's clear that Jamais idolises Bruce
Actually, that's not at all true. He has insights into a variety of topics that match my own observations, but I disagree with his take on some pretty big issues, as well (for better or worse, they tend not to be topics that fall into our coverage at WC). I do admire his writing style, however, including the flippant tone that clearly you dislike. There's already far too much earnestness and humorlessness in the traditional environmental movement, and I find Bruce's snark and sarcasm appealing.
[Lovelock] still is [a highly-regarded environmental scientist], unlike Bruce or yourself
Actually, I don't think either of us has ever claimed otherwise. I'll let Bruce defend himself here (he occasionally reads the comments), but as for me, I'm a writer with a background that encompasses science and politics, scenario-based futurism and historical analysis. I'm not an environmental scientist, but I have a pretty good understanding of both what environmental scientists are talking about and the big picture context in which they operate.
And the fact is, sadly, Lovelock had fallen off of the radar of most environmental scientists years ago, from what I've seen, and his visibility of late comes largely from his call for more nuclear power plants last year.
For what it's worth, I agree that his essay was written in part to promote his upcoming book; I refrained from mentioning that because, frankly, it makes it sound like he's drumming up controversy to sell books, like an older, smarter Michael Crichton. When the book is available (it's not out until next month in the UK, and has no current scheduled release date in the US), I -- or someone else here -- will assuredly read it, and, if it looks like something worth recommending, give it a review.
I've known Americans to boast that sarcasm is
the most fabulous aspect of their 'humor'. Many other nationalities find sarcasm to be the lowest form of humour. It's caustic and deliberately insulting rather than intelligent or informed, and you don't do your credibility any favours by repeating it.
There is nothing original in Bruce's conclusion "Humanity's heading for the clinic before Gaia does" etc. Lovelock made the point years/decades ago that a self-regulating planet doesn't need humanity to persist, but humanity needs the planet. Essentially what Bruce has scribbled is a snide example of post-modern deconstructionism. Contrast it with Alan's piece, which is a constructive, respectful and intelligent response to Lovelock's article.
Thanks for this post. I'm intrigued by the parallele you draw between apocaphilia and a certain kind of religious worldview that focuses on "original sin."
As far as our deeds making a difference -- I'm reminded, again, of that famous quote from Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic wisdom. "It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it."
Nice discussion, wrong angle. The whole gaia theory is systems based. All your focus on apocaphilia as a affliction of individuals incapacitating effective responses is misplaced. Decisions on any measures within the scope of effective mitigation of any of the 'four horsemen' are made by our total social systems of which individuals are only 'cells' off whether or not they are affected by any mental 'philias' of their preference. Our social systems are not capable of implementing meaningful responses fast enough.
To put this into experiential context: Our 'local' politicians are very aware of 'Peak Oil' for example. What they are rightly saying is: We know how bad it is. We can't do anything about (Hirsh or not) though until the crisis is right upon us. The social function of a politician is to be a hero to the populace. Hero's need crisis by definition to be elected. For all of the big problems including climate change we know that waiting for the crisis to be unfolding is rendering any response pathetic. But that's all politicians (for example) can do within our systems - exactly nothing - which leads back to Lovelock's prognosis.
It doesn't help the victim - in this case our species ability to survive - to analyse the individual mental afflictions of the lynch mob - and that's all of us.