How Close to Catastrophe?

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity

by James Lovelock
Basic Books, 177 pp., $25.00

China Shifts Gears: Automakers, Oil, Pollution, and Development

by Kelly Sims Gallagher
MIT Press, 219 pp., $52.00;$21.00 (paper)

Solar Revolution: The Economic Transformation of the Global Energy Industry

by Travis Bradford
MIT Press, 238 pp., $24.95

James Lovelock
James Lovelock; drawing by David Levine

James Lovelock is among the planet’s most interesting and productive scientists. His invention of an electron capture device that was able to detect tiny amounts of chemicals enabled other scientists both to understand the dangers of DDT to the eggshells of birds and to figure out the ways in which chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were eroding the ozone layer. He’s best known, though, not for a gadget but for a metaphor: the idea that the earth might usefully be considered as a single organism (for which he used the name of the Greek earth goddess Gaia) struggling to keep itself stable.

In fact, his so-called Gaia hypothesis was at first less clear than that—“hardly anyone, and that included me for the first ten years after the concept was born, seems to know what Gaia is,” he has written. But the hypothesis has turned into a theory, still not fully accepted by other scientists but not scorned either. It holds that the earth is “a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system” and striving to “regulate surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life.”

Putting aside questions of planetary consciousness and will (beloved as they were by an early wave of New Age Gaia acolytes), the theory may help us understand how the earth has managed to remain hospitable for life over billions of years even as the sun, because of its own stellar evolution, has become significantly hotter. Through a series of processes involving, among others, ice ages, ocean algae, and weathering rock, the earth has managed to keep the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and hence the temperature, at a relatively stable level.

This homeostasis is now being disrupted by our brief binge of fossil fuel consumption, which has released a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indeed, at one point Lovelock predicts—more gloomily than any other competent observer I am aware of—that we have already pushed the planet over the brink, and that we will soon see remarkably rapid rises in temperature, well beyond those envisioned in most of the computer models now in use—themselves quite dire. He argues that because the earth is already struggling to keep itself cool, our extra increment of heat is particularly dangerous, and he predicts that we will soon see the confluence of several phenomena: the death of ocean algae in ever-warmer ocean waters, reducing the rate at which these small plants can remove carbon from the atmosphere; the death of tropical forests as a result of higher temperatures and the higher rates of evaporation they cause; sharp changes in the earth’s “albedo,” or reflectivity, as white ice that reflects sunlight back out into space is replaced with the absorptive blue of seawater or the dark green of high-latitude…


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