The Guardian reviews James Lovelock’s updated warning to humanity about the state of our planet:
Lovelock is at pains to suggest escape routes, most controversially by calling for the rapid expansion of nuclear energy programmes, the one large-scale, carbon-free type of power generation we possess.
The Revenge of Gaia: James Lovelock – Allen Lane 2006
James Lovelock is either preternaturally young for his 80 years or someone is trying to kid us with the photo on the flycover. Perhaps this is an aspect of the same vanity and disingenuousness which mars the book as a whole. The surface text is a short polemic predicting the imminent end of civilisation via runaway global warming, and a rough guide to how the worst effects might be ameliorated. A major theme is the need to keep other perceived risks in perspective. The dangers of nuclear radiation and waste, cancer, contamination of food by pesticides etc, are all fundamentally trivial compared with the danger presented by global warming. This might all be valid, but the reader’s trust is undermined by an unattractive sub-text which might be summarised as something like:
” I, me, James Lovelock, invented a revolutionary theory about the nature of life on earth. I was way ahead of my time. I was a great innovator, and to prove it have scars of many arrows in my back fired by jealous, third rate scientific time servers. They have now all been proved wrong and are now eating dust or are converts. Now I am a humble guru, prophet and servant of Gaia, comfortably ensconced in my lovely home in Devon, reluctantly pointing to the coming apocalypse that only I and my theory can properly descry. ”
Global warming and the possibly imminent end of the world as we know it is about as serious a topic as you can get, but this book does not really rise to it. As a wannabee Biblical prophet Lovelock is too egocentric, too petulant, too preoccupied with old academic battles, to carry us forward with a simple, powerful vision of the ecological crimes and possible redemptions of humanity. At the same time his science is too polemical, too personal, and often too divergent. We need our science to be cool, exact in its reach and in its uncertainties. He is a great name dropper – I guess this book might be his last chance to pat all his friends on the back. It leads sometimes to bathos – “we are fortunate in Britain to have had our science led by those towering figures Lord May and Sir David King.…” Who? Towering up there with Copernicus, Einstein and .…James Lovelock perhaps?
He strays into politics, sociology, anthropology, economics, religion and indeed most areas of human endeavour. This is an admirable attempt to synthesise and go beyond traditional academic divisions of labour – but often this leads to what can seem rather ridiculous generalisations and creaky metaphors. For example, it is embarrassingly reductionist (something he frequently complains of in others) to claim that â€œTerrorism and genocide both result from our tribal naturesâ€. He describes himself as a â€œphysicianâ€ to our sick planet earth – which is both a grandiose self-description and an inaccurate metaphor. He has studied and written books – I hope my physician does something more practical than that when I next go to the surgery.
The thrust of the book is probably right. Global warming is now probably out of control, and at best humanity can stage a planned retreat to a more sustainable way of life, using nuclear power as a stepping stone to something better in the centuries ahead. At worst, we and the planet are set to fry for the next couple of hundred thousand years. Iâ€™ll be surprised if this book has the impact it should have. And it wonâ€™t just be because we are all too frightened, ignorant or slothful to face the facts( unlike our heroic author and innovator), but because the book simply doesnâ€™t work well enough as either science or passionate polemic.
Er, thanks mate. I think.