It's the Environment, Stupid.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

"The Revenge of Gaia" - Too little too late?

Environmental scientist James Lovelock sees the big picture – literally. He studies the entire planet. Like a doctor examining the human body, Lovelock studies the earth, and his diagnosis isn’t good. Lovelock’s recent article in The Independent (which I learned about through an article posted on WBCSD) paints the ultimate doomsday scenario for life as we know it. He essentially says that the earth is one giant being and regulates its own temperature. It did this long before we came along and will continue to do so after we’re gone. Right now we’re making the planet sick with all of our pollution, and she’s, in a sense, running a fever, in order to remedy the situation (‘she’ referring to the earth or Gaia – which is how Lovelock fondly refers to the planet.) The only cure for her sickness is the very thing that is making her ill – us.

Lovelock writes: “We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate…We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. 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. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.”

It may, in fact, be too little too late. And although I’d like to think that there is hope, our track record in moving towards change doesn’t bode well for the future. Take the Kyoto Protocol for example the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was created in 1992. However, soon after, it was realized that voluntary mitigation efforts weren’t working, so in 1997, a more formal, binding agreement arrived: The Kyoto Protocol. But it wasn’t until late 2004 that Russia signed on, enabling the Protocol to take effect early 2005. That’s about 13 years of doing nothing but more of the same polluting as usual. What’s the hold up?

Business and governments say they need scientific proof before they can move forward in the fight against climate change, but even with a growing amount of scientific evidence proving its effects, there’s just as much scientific evidence suggesting otherwise, despite the fact that the UNFCCC specifically states: “lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures…” But that was one of the main reasons for lack of participation (that and the erroneous belief that mitigation would negatively impact economic growth).

We need a global adherence to the precautionary principle, which basically says its bad until you can prove its good - guilty until proven innocent. Right now we live in a world where polluters run free and it’s up to the pollutee to prove that a certain toxin or chemical or practice is bad. But what if chemical manufacturers for instance, before using a new chemical, must first prove that their new chemical isn’t harmful? They might try a little harder to make sure their products are safe - their profits would depend on it.

For too long we’ve been moving forward on a destructive path, under a “pollute now, clean up later” frame of mind. As much as I would like to be optimistic, we as a global society can’t just stick to this business as usual method because there may not be a “later” opportunity to clean up. Lovelock may be wrong, but he may also be right. How much longer are we going to wait to find out?

(The Independent article notes that The Revenge of Gaia is Lovelock's new book to be published in February.)


  • Are you supposed to comment on your own post? I found comments regarding the Lovelock article on

    By Blogger Amy Marpman, at 16:08  

  • You mention that we should apply the precautionary principle (PP), but you need to recognise that the PP is mere rhetorical and does not change anything substanitially.

    The main problem with PP is that it is not able to give a clear answer on when it should be applied. Therefore, what are acceptable and unacceptable environmental dangers, at what costs should it be applied, and what types of precautionary actions should be undertaken?

    For me this might provide just too much of an opportunity cost, and Environmental Bond Systems or Safe Minimum Standards do not help the PP that much.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 09:55  

  • A new specter is haunting the entire world, the specter of Gaia Nemesis. From whence this next uncanny visitor comes and what does it mean for the future of humankind?
    Every power of the world turns, like a herd of animals caught unawares by a predator, to face this new menace; the powers fail. They have come to face the very power of nature herself.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 14:08  

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