Ministry of Controversy

First the good news

Tree

(Have the cocktail shaker at the ready. Or maybe just the bottle.) There could be about 20 years left for us to “enjoy life while we can.” That’s according to climate scientist James Lovelock, who was interviewed Sunday in the The Guardian, and a few months ago in Rolling Stone. By the dawn of the 22nd century, Lovelock says, the earth’s population will be reduced by at least 80%. The reasons: floods, deserts, food shortages, and other problems related to dealing with a world that has largely become uninhabitable. Lovelock is the author of The Revenge of Gaia; his theories, formulated in the 60s, were first ignored but are now the basis of most climate science. I’ll quickly and superficially run down why he doesn’t see anything we’re doing now as possibly alleviating this Armageddon.

Windmills? You could cover the earth with them—waste of time. No way would they generate the energy needed.

Sustainable development? Don’t make him laugh. It’s all just a grotesque scam, aimed to use anything that could be termed “green” to profit from a doomed population.

Energy efficient bulbs? No more plastic bags? Backyard gardens? That would be: no, not so much, and sorry, Michele, there won’t be enough. You’ll have to get used to Quorn. Basically, Lovelock feels that if drastic measures had been taken about forty years ago when he and other visionaries began to sound the alarm, perhaps we might have been able to turn things around. Not now.

Do I buy all this? I’m trying not to; I can certainly see why such views are not widely reported. Nobody wants to hear this kind of talk. But seriously. When you use your canvas shopping bag instead of plastic, when you buy your hideous compact fluourescents, when you recycle, compost, or buy a hybrid—do you really think it’s helping? I do all this stuff (well, not the hybrid—I’d rather just get down to one car and use more mass transpo), but it’s hard to believe that it’s enough to create real change. As I send the first Green issue of the magazine I edit to the press, I also am pretty sure it will be our last. Either sustainable becomes the rule and it helps (or doesn’t), or everyone gets tired of the green talk and doesn’t want to hear it anymore.

Lovelock, as all his interviewers report (Jeff Goodell, the writer of the Rolling Stone article, is Michele’s husband, BTW), is actually pretty chipper about the whole situation. He feels only a massive catastrophe will force us into a new paradigm. He also feels nuclear energy deserves a second chance.

I was fascinated by the Lovelock interviews (Goodell’s is the more thorough) and feel you will be too. Tough talk, but it’s probably needed. We may be spending too much time arguing about “if.”

Posted by on March 5, 2008 at 5:00 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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25 responses to “First the good news”

  1. Ed Bruske says:

    I’m betting on something cataclysmic.

  2. This new Indian car company Tata is starting to produce $2,500 cars – for a population over a billion, with aims to sell worldwide. It’ll raise the standard of living for some of the people on earth that need it the most, and the gas mileage is very good. But the potential pollution a billion new cars?

    China is puttting one coal-burning power plant online every week to ten days for the foreseeable future. (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/business/worldbusiness/11chinacoal.html). The effects are already being felt world-wide.

    I’m not generally a fatalist either, but it does make one pause to think. With just those two assaults on the environment alone, it may not matter one wit that we stop using plastic bags or build a windmill farm to power a small town. But I do still think these are the right things to do.

  3. Dave M says:

    Doing the little things is important, Elizabeth, if for no other reason than quiet adherence to them influences others. I never proselytized my tree-hugger views at work, but after a year I got my right wing “global warming’s a liberal conspiracy scare tactic” boss recycling- solely because he saw me do it every day.

    Is much of what we do small and insignificant in the face of the damage we’re still doing? Maybe, but there will be no ecological Pearl Harbor that galvanizes people to act. Rather, it’s a slow decay that will only reverse itself when a critical mass of people awaken to it.

  4. Michele Owens says:

    I gather up the week’s garbage every Wednesday night and think two things: 1. Something is seriously wrong with our culture that five people can generate so much garbage. I compost and recycle, and we still produce bags of plastic garbage.
    2. We’d better at least try to control the damage we do as individuals. While none of us has the power save the planet all by our lonesomes–we do have the power to tread very heavily on our little corner of it. That brings its own responsibilities.

  5. tai haku says:

    Of course Lovelock’s talk assumes the only benefit of doing all the little things is solely in terms of global warming. Yes in 90-150 years time the earth may be burning but in the mean time more windmills means less kids with coalfired power station related respiratory problems, less plastic bags means I can keep enjoying seeing a few turtles on my dives and beaches for a few more years. That car with increased fuel efficiency/hybrid skillz means I put less money in the pocket of oil-rich regimes with ropey human rights records….and so on and so on.

  6. eliz says:

    I don’t know how much hybrids really help. A lot of fuel is used in their production. I’d really like to get rid of my car period. I actually know a number of people who have–even here in Buffalo.

    That said, I feel I MUST continue doing little things, but I also feel surrounded by people who will never even make that effort. They just don’t want to hear it. One of my colleagues at the magazine, said “Isn’t it hypocritical not to polybag our green issue when we’re polybagging all the other ones.” I agree. But I can’t convince anyone that we should STOP encasing our mag in plastic for no reason.

  7. Earth Girl says:

    Fatalist? No, nihilist. That explains why he is so chipper.

    Regardless if Lovelock is accurate, I will follow Wendell Berry’s advice:
    A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways.”

  8. Melinda says:

    I have been reading Lovejoy’s books for a long time, and it definitely has changed the way I view the world (for the better). We’re definitely in for some tough times, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do *anything*. It’s no excuse for becoming complacent.

    It seems that we are at a tipping point regarding climate change, but I’m confident that we can still make it even worse with our actions now. It’s very much too bad that we didn’t act earlier, but we are in the present and all we can do is what we can do! And I would suggest that while it’s important to use our canvas shopping bags, maybe we should be doing a lot more.

    Learning to adapt is a good place to start. How can we adapt our gardens to growing changes in the climate?

  9. If Lovelock is right, then at last I’ve found a reason to be cheerful about aging: I won’t be around to see it.

    Anyway, I’m a skeptic about all the doom and gloom scenarios.

  10. Lisa Albert says:

    To quote a lobster, “Is it getting warm in this pot or is it just me?”

    I don’t like fatalistic viewpoints, not just because they are uncomfortable (which this is, no ifs, ands, and buts) but because they can result in people throwing up their hands, saying, “What’s the point of it all?” and not making any efforts to be green.

    What if the fatalistic viewpoint is wrong and efforts, even small ones, are beneficial after all?

    I’m reminded of a story my dad told me about a friend of his who was given a full college scholarship. The friend refused it. Why? Without a doubt in his mind, he believed that the world was going to end soon and he saw no benefit in preparing for a future he wouldn’t have. That was more than 60 years ago – he had a future after all.

    A crystal ball would sure come in handy.

  11. grouchylisa says:

    It won’t be famine, drought or the immediate effects of global warming that will reduce our population by 80%, but it will be reduced by 80% all the same. Infectious disease will reduce our numbers.

    And, being the mad microbiologist I am, I hope I’m around to see it (NO, I will NOT engineer the coming plague or intentionally transmit it), at least until I succumb to the coming pandemic myself. Even then, if I can die of something fascinating and infectious, I’ll die happy, no matter how painful that might be.

    Just a few cheery thoughts to brighten your morning…

  12. Michele Owens says:

    Elizabeth’s right–tonight’s a good night for a third cocktail.

  13. Doug Green says:

    I believe that Lovelock stated in a CBC interview that conservation efforts will either reduce the severity of the environmental crash or shorten the length of time it takes the earth to recover. But both scenarios means that there will be a “culling” (his term) of the human population as we return to climatic patterns of 50,000 years ago.

    Sceptics point out it “ain’t gonna happen” yet we see growing examples across the globe – from drying up western US water reservoirs and returns to previous water levels to shifts in both Arctic and Antarctic ice patterns.

    So change and conserve for your grandchildren but the compost is gonna hit the fan.

  14. 20 years eh? Right when I might be able to retire and collect a pitiful guvmint check to suppliment my meager earnings from the roadside possum stand. Now I guess I ain’t gonna get that check if all hell breaks loose.

    It is going to have to get pretty damn warm before I consider moving further north again at that age.

  15. eliz says:

    Chris C., you will love Buffalo/WNY. There are all kinds of rural outposts where you can live off the grid and garden (with plenty of canned goods and ammunition stored up of course) but the city is close enough when you’re ready to see other humans.

    If I were you, I’d get a head start before all the good land is taken.

  16. I’m going to have to rely on elevation Elizabeth. I have land now. Free. Can’t get a better price.

  17. susan harris says:

    Or MAYBE the researchers being funded by Richard Branson will find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14936341/

  18. Michele Owens says:

    Elizabeth, I recently read a piece about a guy who made a killing in Brooklyn real estate. Guess where he says he’d be investing now? Buffalo.

  19. Garrett S. says:

    I think all the green things people commit to will only prolong the inevitable. AS long as the population keeps increasing, we’re doomed someday in the future no matter what we do. The greenest things people can do for the world is to either die, or having children will have to be on a lottery system. What a joke about nuclear energy being considered again! He’s all doom and gloom and he’d like to see more nuclear energy…LOL!
    I think that the critics that have “suggested Lovelock’s readiness to concede the fight against climate change owes more to old age than science” are right! I notice that about the older generations, they always talk about the apocalypse, death, revelations, disease, famine, disasters…lol, My mom is like that, shes compleatly fascinated by all that(Shes a boomer). Probably about a third of the less affluent baby boomers, including most of the boomers parents already don’t want to live anymore because it’s too hard , I think all the predictions come from being comfortable with dying, or wanting to die. Out of the 100% of the world population, 80% of which will be gone by 2100 as in his claims, the remaining 20% will probably be those who live sustainably, sustainability is not that much of a joke. To me, those who live sustainably obviously want to keep going on in life, and so they will. They have the will power to continue at whatever costs, or work it’s going to take. The people that will be alive in the future will be descendents of the people that are already living green today or are starting to, and possibly some select groups that have won the geographical lottery. Those that live wastefully and harmfully to the environment without regret will parish in my opinion.

  20. Lisa Albert says:

    Susan, you beat me to it. I was going to post that perhaps, just perhaps, someone will discover a way to counteract our actions. I’m not surprised that someone as deep-pocketed as Richard Branson is paying (typo on purpose) the way for scientific discoveries.

    I’m not ready to lay down, curl up and give up yet!

  21. eliz says:

    I just got back from a talk given by Tina Brown, whom I met beforehand. I mentioned the Lovelock stuff to her and she seemed quite disdainful–laughed it off. (She had asked me what we ranted about.)

    Then she proceeded to give a breathlessly enthusiastic 50-minute talk about Princess Diana (her new book). So I guess we all have our priorities.

  22. Tina Brown former editor of Vanity Fair and now the New Yorker I think, that Tina Brown? She must not be very well read. She’s just now getting around to a book on P. Di.

  23. eliz says:

    Well, I think it’s significant that such books, ten years after the fact, are still what people want to read. She mentioned in her talk that Charles wasn’t quite as loathed as he had been and is now having his “Al Gore moment.” (her words)

  24. Peg says:

    ammunition?

    I go camping every summer at a campsite a couple hours south of Buffalo. Land is indeed fairly cheap in that part of the state, as long as you’re not buying in Chautauqua or some other tourist enclave.

    I detect a note of survivalism…which is not surprising, given the rise of this movement during the Y2K panic. I like the of living off the grid and growing vegetables. But hoarding guns and antibiotics? Is that a world we still want to live in?

    Still, the idea of a world where things like chocolate or aspirin have greater value than, say, iPods…nice.

  25. We are living in the Anthropocene Era. And if we survive the next 30 years, we’ll bear witness to the birth of our successors in the Technological Singularity.

    “While the world is running down,
    we make the best of what’s still around.”
    – The Police

    All makes me want to plant trees.

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