Wednesday, March 12, 2008

James Lovelock lays the smack down: the Earth is running a morbid fever and there's not much we can do about it. It's a perfectly appalling vision of the human future that elicits either nervous laughter or curt dismissals. Lovelock points in a direction we dare not acknowledge; he prophecies nothing less than the imminent end of the human race.

Alas, he's probably right.

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.

[. . .]

What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."


Justin said...

You know, I read the somewhat thin Revenge of Gaia last year, and I can't for the life of me remember much of it other than Lovelock's advocacy of nuclear power (that and his admonishment to green types that we have to stop worrying about things like cancer, and start thinking about how to fix the bigger picture).

Between that and Kunstler's heavily depressing The Long Emergency, where he poo-poo's all alternative energy sources, I'm starting to wonder what the problem with alternative energy really is (I guess biofuels already seem like a ridiculous waste). I've seen two cranky old white guys' (somewhat brief) views, but that's about it. And frankly that just doesn't satisfy me.

There was one part in the Lovelock interview that really hit home:

"The initiative (to get rid of plastic bags) sits comfortably within the current canon of eco ideas, next to ethical consumption, carbon offsetting, recycling and so on - all of which are premised on the calculation that individual lifestyle adjustments can still save the planet. This is, Lovelock says, a deluded fantasy. Most of the things we have been told to do might make us feel better, but they won't make any difference. Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable."

I'm reminded of a local information session I went to, where some environmental NGO people and some city people were debating a new transportation plan. I was surprised that the city's long term planner gave lip service to both climate change, and peak oil, but I was very disappointed that she didn't seem to have any clear understanding of the event horizons we're dealing with ("I don't know when it's going to occur..."). And furthermore, it was her assumption that people wouldn't change their gas guzzling tendencies, so her computer modeling was based on a growing population of car and truck users, even though the city's own plan, which was selected by residents, was supposed to be a Kunstlerian vision of 'neighbourhood centers', based around increasing downtown density, walkways, bike paths and transit routes. The plan seemed to be going in two ways at once.

She got into a some verbal fisticuffs with a doctor from one of the NGOs, when he said time's too short, we have to work together all at once now, make lots of personal sacrifices, and make the leap to a new way of life together. She said "I take exception to that, I believe we can make change by making personal choices."

Well yeah, to put it lightly lady, "change" can certainly happen that way...

Too spoiled and set in our ways to let go of the modern illusion of independence, and too jaded to put ourselves behind mass movements, it seems like we're damned if we do, damned if we don't.

Of course, that's a mental trap too. Remember what Bruce Sterling said: Become the change you want to see.

And I guess on top of that you could add, "... but don't expect it to be an easy road".

Justin said...

Oh yeah, and because you have the depression filters on, you seem to have missed what Lovelock said in the second last paragraph:

"There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that's just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That's the source of my optimism."

Doesn't sound like he said anything about the 'imminent end of the human race' there.

Mac said...

Doesn't sound like he said anything about the 'imminent end of the human race' there.

Yeah, I caught that. And no, I don't have "depression filters" on -- although I concede that what I should have written instead of "imminent end of the human race" was "imminent end of human civilization as we know it."

I personally think we've passed an oft-neglected *psychological* "tipping point": collectively, we just don't seem to want change bad enough. We've become terminally complacent, unable to think in the long-term. I fear that, more than environmental catastrophe itself, will be our undoing.

Justin said...

Fair enough - due to a few recent posts (including one announcing the unwelcome return of your depression), I thought that the filters might be switched to On.

I think the distinction between extinction and bottle neck is very important though. It's apocalyptic, self-defeating thinking that won't do us any good as we try-try-try to move forward.

Do you follow your local environmental issues closely? I've been doing so lately, and found that there are a lot of intelligent, well-informed, passionate people out there, with similar concerns, but at a local level. It gets me more fired up than depressed. Despite the prophecies of the Lovelocks of the world, I definitely recommend getting involved locally.

But the real problem is, as you point out, the mass of people. They are seemingly terminally complacent, and refuse to really pay attention to what's going on, outside of that gnawing subconscious fear they get from watching CNN, Fox, or whatever (leering CGI Fnords).

My city recently conducted an important public survey on the current transit plan - which includes a highly publicized fight over a so-called 'bypass' that the city wants to punch through an environmentally sensitive area - and in a town of 35,000+ people, only 600 or so people filled out the surveys.

I walk or bike down the street in the early evening, and I see a truck parked in every driveway, and a TV glowing in every living room.

I'd say an environmental 9/11 might shock people out of their armchairs, but then I remember Katrina.