Beautiful mind, fucked up planet By William Bowles

15 April, 2010

Beautiful Minds – James Lovelock, BBC 4, 14 April, 2010 (available on BBC iPlayer until 28 April)

“If the planet flourishes then we will flourish” — James Lovelock

But clearly the planet isn’t flourishing thus it follows that neither will humanity. This is the core of James Lovelock’s thinking that ends the excellent and decades-overdue recognition of the genius of James Lovelock in the second of BBC 4’s Brilliant Mind series.

I first came across James Lovelock’s book Gaia: A new look at life on Earth years ago (I think it was first published in 1979) and although not only dismissed as mystical nonsense and indeed as Lovelock himself says, censored by the scientific Establishment, the Gaia thesis is now pretty much accepted as fact. But is it too late for us to act on Lovelock’s brilliant insight (triggered by being asked to devise a method for detecting life on Mars)?

Lovelock’s contention is simple, in fact so obvious it hardly needs debating: Life, the oceans, the atmosphere/climate and the land are all part of a single self-regulating system that Lovelock calls Gaia after the ancient Egyptian goddess of life (a god that Lovelock incorrectly identifies as Greek). Life maintains the right balance through regulating the type and proportion of gases in our atmosphere, which in turn maintain the right temperature for life to flourish, and it has been doing this for around three billion years, until that is industrial capitalism came along around 250 years ago.

‘Gaia theory forces a planetary perspective. It is the health of the planet that matters, not that of some individual species of organisms. This is where Gaia and the environmental movements, which are concerned first with the health of people, part company.’ — The Ages of Gaia by James Lovelock

This is not to say that life on Earth will vanish, far from it. Once the source of the problem is eliminated, namely us, then Gaia will reestablish the balance that has evolved over the past three billion years even if it takes thousands or even millions of years. Lovelock is not too optimistic about the future of humanity, in fact he thinks it is already too late; that we have passed the ‘tipping point’ and I tend to agree with him. The question then is do we have a future as a species?

“…we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it”. — Frederick Engels, from the introduction to ‘The Dialectics of Nature’, 1883.

Of course during the 250 or so years since the birth of industrial capitalism and unfortunately including the state bureacratic economies of the former Soviet Union et al, we have totally lost the plot. On the one hand driven by capitalism’s innate drive to expand and on the other by the Soviet Union’s desire to ‘catch-up’ with the West.

But even as late as the 1960s had we listened to Rachel Carson in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring perhaps we could have averted the coming catastrophe.

Lovelock reckons that perhaps one billion of the nine currently on the planet will survive, the rest dying, largely through starvation as a result of climate change.

But as a socialist getting rid of industrial, consumer capitalism becomes an even more vital task for us to accomplish if we are to stand even a chance of rescuing Mother Earth and perhaps saving the lives of millions if not billions of people.

It took the Establishment getting on for forty years to accept, if not act upon the Gaia theory and strangely, or perhaps not, I have long surmised that the ruling elites know and have known for decades that it is not only too late to do anything about the mess they have created, they are actively depending on it (See my ‘Climate Change: World War III by another name?’) and hopefully it will be the billions of the poor who as ever, will pay the price with their lives. The privileged few will survive and ‘coincidentally’ the figure of one billion is around the total population of the ‘developed’ countries.

“Mandatory programs may be needed and we should be considering these possibilities now,” the document continued, adding, “Would food be considered an instrument of national power? … Is the U.S. prepared to accept food rationing to help people who can’t/won’t control their population growth?” — Henry Kissinger, ‘National Security Study Memorandum 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests.’ Dec. 10, 1974.

Note that what the title tells us: ‘Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests’, surely reveals that what motivates the ruling elites is not saving the planet but saving their own sorry selves. An attitude perhaps best revealed by the US government’s (lack of) response to Hurricane Katrina and this year, the Haiti earthquake let alone the disastrous wars it is waging across the planet.

Is Lovelock too pessimistic? Not if you accept the thesis that upsetting the planetary balance is now unstoppable by the actions of man, unless we immediately cut greenhouse gas emissions back to their pre-industrial levels. Even then Lovelock calculates that the melting of the Arctic ice cap is releasing as much CO2 as the entire amount released over the past 250 years.

Of course it can be argued that the collapse of industrial capitalism is in itself the first step in redressing the imbalance. But what kind of world will it be? Will it be a world that any of us want to live in?

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