Gaia: Shifting of Scientific Consensus

I’ve just finished reading the 1979 book Gaia: A New Look At Life On Earth by James Lovelock.  It’s a good read and I’d highly recommend it, even if it may be a bit outdated.  In it, Lovelock sets out a summary of his ‘Gaia’ theory, a theory of the ‘Organic Earth’.  He visualises life across the planet as, although existing in an array of individual life forms, comprising something greater – a bit like how cells and bacteria in our bodies come together to comprise us.  His evidence and conjecture really are fascinating; he uses the improbable stability of the atmosphere as evidence, for instance, with there being an optimal level of oxygen to support life but not so much that there’s a danger of flammability.  This is an easier example to understand how Gaia works: if the oxygen level gets too high then forest fires would begin breaking out, adding carbon dioxide to the air and also limiting oxygen produced by plants.  If it gets too low in favour of carbon dioxide then plants will prosper, thereby creating an increase of oxygen into the air.  He also discusses the implications of human civilisation on Gaia.

I’m interested at the extent to which his ideas have entered the scientific mainstream opinion.  Lovelock clearly wrote Gaia knowing that parts of it would be perceived as a radical new idea, yet, much of it is familiar to things I recall learning at school.  I can’t name any specifics but the general concept of all life on Earth existing in a mutually-dependent relationship is one which seems obvious to me as a result of my education.  Has the consensus changed that much in just 30 years?  There are other things I noticed that have changed, such as successful steps taken to limit the emission of CFCs to save the ozone layer from depletion (a remarkable feat, in retrospect) which was only beginning when Lovelock wrote the book.  It’s now accepted that this action was well-judged and may have saved us from terrible consequences.

One thing which hasn’t changed is the debate over fossil fuels.  Lovelock seems to hold the position that they are not as great a problem as is often claimed (he even considers whether activities on land could ever truly threaten Gaia as long as the oceans are left intact; I disagree, though his example of the destruction Ice Ages cause is convincing).  He is outspoken in his opposition to renewable energy and even seems in favour of using fossil fuels which is, uh, a strange position for an ecologist to take.  To be fair, Lovelock aside, most scientists are in agreement that the use fossil fuels ought to be limited – it’s largely the public which still grasp on to outdated ideas.

Another idea I found fascinating was Lovelock’s speculation on the ‘purpose’ of humanity for Gaia.  Unlike evolution within a species, changes to Gaia don’t seem to necessarily require being advantageous to it so it’s possible that humanity could simply be an ‘accident’, but it’s interesting to speculate nonetheless.  He wondered whether an intelligent species (intelligence defined as having the ability to store information collectively and add to it throughout successive generations) might act as a kind of guardian of Gaia.  He pointed to a hypothetical asteroid collision with Earth, which in normal circumstances would be a catastrophe for life on Earth.  Humanity’s presence, however, through our development of technology might actually be able to stop this threat to Gaia.  It’s certainly a challenge to the accepted view that humans are nothing more than a cancer to the planet – though Lovelock does warn of the dangers human overpopulation might have for Gaia.

Despite being out of date in places and even despite disagreeing with bits of it, Gaia is still a book well worth reading.  You’ll need a basic understanding of chemistry and biology to understand everything but it is generally written in a readable and often quite poetic style.

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My Issues with Westminster Politics

I’ve noticed that, other than to discuss opinion polling (a post on which is overdue), I don’t tend to speak about British politics very much on this blog.  This isn’t because it doesn’t interest me, nor because I don’t follow it.  I just don’t tend to have much to say, for some reason or another.  I think this may partly be due to the fact that, regarding Westminster at any rate, I tend to feel a general antipathy towards the entire system.  I dislike our monarchical system, I blame the electoral system for a large number of problems our country faces – or, at least, for limiting our solutions – and I don’t feel inspired by any of the major parties:

The Conservative Party
My views tend to veer to the left so, clearly, the UK’s main right-wing party does nothing for me.  I oppose our current Conservative-led government’s obsessive drive to enforce austerity upon us, thereby punishing the weakest of our society for a crisis they didn’t cause.  While recognising the private sector has its place I oppose the relentless agenda of privatisation they’re enforcing upon us.  Ridiculous assaults on people in need of benefits with policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ are disgraceful.  While I am thankful for David Cameron’s somewhat moderate leadership, trying to reign in the Eurosceptic backbenches and pushing through gay marriage, I still think he is a poor prime minister.

UKIP
Same as the Conservatives, but worse.  As someone who is pro-Europe, pro-immigration, pro-renewable energy but not particularly fond of pubs, I don’t think I have a single thing in common with this party.

Labour
I really want to like Labour.  In theory the mainstream party of social democracy, my amateur opinion is that it abandoned this title long ago.  New Labour did some great things – most of which were before I became politically aware – my favourite of which is introducing the minimum wage, but it seemed to bow to the concept of privatised, unadulterated individualism which Thatcher imposed upon the country.   More shockingly, I’ve read a few criticisms from Labour supporters at the flimsiness of Labour’s policies which, after a whole 13 years of being implemented, are easily being torn away in a fraction of the time by our current coalition government.  If Labour were to promise some real, left-wing progressive policies – nationalisation of the railways,  ambitious cuts to carbon emissions, the scrapping of Trident and a proper, growth-focused alternative to austerity, to name a few – I might change my mind.  As it is, we have a shadow cabinet which has stated it will more or less continue the coalition’s austerity drive and is currently tearing itself apart over the role of unions in the party.  I’m not well informed enough about this issue to make a detailed comment but, without the unions, what would be the point of Labour?  They’d simply be a less scary version of the Conservatives.

Liberal Democrats
I think people have been too harsh to the Liberal Democrats at times.  As a junior partner in a coalition, with less than 1/5 of the seats the Conservative party have (they should have three times as many but, you know, our electoral system…) they really can’t be expected to live up to all of their promises.  That said, Liberal Democrat policies have taken such a beating in this government – tuition fees, changing the electoral system, reforming the House of Lords, etc – that I’m amazed any of their MPs see the coalition as still being worthwhile.  I suspect they’re staying in only in the hope that their abysmal poll performance improves.  The last three years has been proof that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is in reality a vote for either Labour or Conservative, depending whichever performs better.  That said, of the four they would still probably be my preferred option, if only because they are the only party seeking to reform the electoral system and end this straitjacket upon British politics.

It’s not the only reason, but an electoral system which only lets our vote count for two almost identical parties is why I largely feel disillusioned with Westminster politics and why I have far more confidence in the Scottish system.  I’m sure I can’t be the only person being pushed by this charade towards viewing Scottish independence as a positive thing.

Nevertheless, I will try to pay greater attention to developments in both UK and Scottish politics, and I’ll make an effort to blog about them a little more.  I doubt that will do much for my lack of faith but it might make it more justified.  If you disagree with any of this, please let me know why!