Updated 27 Oct 2014
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Why is overpopulation so rarely mentioned as the root cause of
calamities discussed all the time? The media is full of global warming,
migration, wars, houses on floodplains, the price of
oil, food, gas and food?
See Population controls 'will not solve environment issues' - BBC News 27oct2014
FIRST get the FACTS.
World Population Prospects 1950-2050
SEE a PREDICTION for 2100.
SEE the BMJ's OPINION.
Links to articles about overpopulation.
The Prophet of Climate Change:James Lovelock by Jeff Goodell
OUR POPULATION IS GROWING AT A terrifying rate. That's what makes the doomsayers unhappy. The human population of the Earth is believed to have reached one billion around 1804, and then it was over 120 years before it doubled to two billion.
That number was reached in 1927, well within the lifetime of millions alive today. During their lives the population has grown dramatically. It doubled again by the time they were 50, and when they celebrated their 80th birthdays last year our world had 6.5 billion people.
Some argue that this population explosion has peaked, and that the annual increase has been slowing; others believe it will continue to grow even faster.
Does it matter? It clearly does for half the people already. In rough figures, over one billion now live in abject poverty, and over three billion are near starvation. Of these, over two billion are reduced to using water unfit for human consumption, and so suffer from the water diseases of typhoid, cholera and dysentery.
And for the rest of us, in the rich lands of North America and Europe, does it matter? The answer is again yes. We may have enough clean water and food to see us through another decade but we are destroying the natural resources so fast that 2028 looks like being a very different world for our children.
At least that's what a lot of very sensible scientists are saying. Most of them do not believe in the politicians' global warning scares, but, like Compass, they accept the evidence that clearly shows a climate change, and they argue that overpopulation is the key problem.
Their argument goes something like this. For every person on Earth some six tons of carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere every year. We don't know if that is the cause of climate change in the last 20 years, but it has to be a contributing part.
Reduce the population and you reduce the amount of resources destroyed. You reduce the amount of water used. You reduce the need to destroy agricultural soil with chemicals. You reduce the need to pave over the fields with asphalt, to accommodate millions more into megalopolis living.
To keep the billions alive we have changed the pattern of the earth that kept it going for millennia. We use so much water that even in some of the richest parts of the world, like California, water is already rationed. Florida's underground water basin is believed to have only 15 rear's water left. Southern Spain and Italy are already importing water, as are the Middle east countries.
We've industrialized agriculture until it has begun to produce less and cost more. Some 30 per cent of the world's topsoil has been lost in the last 60 years. We're overfishing the oceans, to the extent that the potential catch has fallen 20 per cent in the same period.
Most countries, even in the rich west, are no longer self-sufficient, but have to import food. In the UK, for example, we can produce food for some 30 million people, just half of those on this island
The US is, as usual, blamed as the most serious threat to future human life systems. It has the third largest population in the world: they are superconsumers and demand a standard of life that is far above even that of Europe.
They use an excessive amount of energy, 11 kw, twice as much per head as the Japanese, three times as much as us, and 101 times as much as the average Bangladeshi. They use oil as if there is always another oil well just around the corner, ignoring the fact that oil production peaked 20 years ago.
We in Europe are criticised for picking up the American tradition of throwing away half the food we produce, making packaging more important than the contents, spending seven days a week shopping, and thinking the good days will go on forever.
We have, in summary, less and less food and water to supply to more and more billions of people. We have less oil and gas, and resources are not infinite but finite. Therefore, say the scientists, all governments must launch campaigns immediately to discourage large families.
They argue that our government, for example, should offer walk-in vasectomy clinics, remove fertility treatment from the NHS, and encourage sterilization of women.
It is at this point that I begin to draw away from their argument. It seems to me that they are confusing two worlds.
In the West we have already reduced the size of the average family. Nowhere in Europe or America is the nuclear family any longer than 2+2. Even in Italy and Spain it is, on average, less than 1.5 children a family.
But populations are continuing to grow in the West, because of two major changes in the 20th century. Children have a greater chance of surviving the first five years of their life than at any time since records began. A century ago a fifth of children never reached six years old; medical science now makes it possible for any child to be injected against those early diseases.
Then, having survived, we go on living longer. Not by as much as is sometimes shouted in the media, but certainly by an average of eight years. Together, these tow factors alone have dramatically increased the populations of Western countries.
We could, arguably, cease to subsidize children, and even offer incentives for parents to have only one child, but I doubt if the lowering of the population would be large.
Anyway, on a world scale, what we do in the West is surely not very relevant. Just two countries make up nearly 40 per cent of the world population: China and India. China has 1.4 billion: India 1.15 billion. Compared to them, even America, with 310 million, is a minor state.
Both have become powerhouses of the world economy, both are becoming wealthy nations, so they will soon benefit from the medical advances from the West. At the moment the average life expectancy in India is 69, and in China 66; when that climbs into the mid-70s the planet will have to feed another two billion, whatever any western government does to reduce its population.
As for that carbon dioxide destroying the planet, there is, equally, little that we can do to compare with these two countries. It is now accepted that coal is the greater polluter of all the fossil fuels, and that what China is using for its future power plants.
Coal currently provides 25 per cent of the world's energy needs and generates 40 per cent of our electricity. The obvious reason is that coal can be mined in some 70 countries, reducing their dependency on oil, and coal reserves should still be there when the oil reserves run out.
China has understood this and has a programme of two new coal-fired power stations every year; India is following the same policy.
I have left to last the third great barrier to reducing world population. Religion. A fifth of the world is Catholic and a quarter is Muslim. Neither religion encourages its followers to use any form of artificial contraception. With such a powerful religious influence, how could any individual government's attempts to control the population conceivably work?
Perhaps the only way to reduce our global population problem is to call a global conference on world population. The leading delegates should be the Pope and his cardinals, the great mullahs of Islam, and the mandarins of Beijing and Shanghai.
None of the usual politicians should be present to trivialize the discussions, but the conference might benefit from listening to the political leaders of India, who already have a national programme to introduce contraceptive culture, as part of which millions of Indian men have proudly accepted the need for a vasectomy.
Between the new great powers the problem might be solved, but, without their acceptance that overpopulation is the major challenge to our children's world, no major reduction can ever be made.
Unless, of course, we have a third world war, but that is now less likely with Dubya leaving office next January.
It is a tragic measure of how far the world has changed — and the infinite capacity of modern man for taking offence — that there are no two subjects that can get you more swiftly into political trouble than motherhood and apple pie.
The last time I tentatively suggested that there was something to be said in favour of apple pie, I caused a frenzy of hatred in the healthy-eating lobby. It reached such a pitch that journalists were actually pelting me with pies, and demanding a retraction, and an apology, and a formal denunciation of the role of apple pie in causing obesity.
As for motherhood — the fertility of the human race — we are getting to the point where you simply can't discuss it, and we are thereby refusing to say anything sensible about the biggest single challenge facing the Earth; and no, whatever it may now be conventional to say, that single biggest challenge is not global warming. That is a secondary challenge. The primary challenge facing our species is the reproduction of our species itself.
Depending on how fast you read, the population of the planet is growing with every word that skitters beneath your eyeball. There are more than 211,000 people being added every day, and a population the size of Germany every year.
As someone who has now been travelling around the world for decades, I see this change, and I feel it. You can smell it in the traffic jams of the Middle East. You can see it as you fly over Africa at night, and you see mile after mile of fires burning red in the dark, as the scrub is removed to make way for human beings.
You can see it in the satellite pictures of nocturnal Europe, with the whole place lit up like a fairground. You can see it in the crazy dentition of the Shanghai skyline, where new skyscrapers are going up round the clock.
You can see it as you fly over Mexico City, a vast checkerboard of smog-bound, low-rise dwellings stretching from one horizon to the other; and when you look down on what we are doing to the planet, you have a horrifying vision of habitations multiplying and replicating like bacilli in a Petri dish.
The world's population is now 6.7 billion, roughly double what it was when I was born. If I live to be in my mid-eighties, then it will have trebled in my lifetime.
The UN last year revised its forecasts upwards, predicting that there will be 9.2 billion people by 2050, and I simply cannot understand why no one discusses this impending calamity, and why no world statesmen have the guts to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
How the hell can we witter on about tackling global warming, and reducing consumption, when we are continuing to add so relentlessly to the number of consumers? The answer is politics, and political cowardice.
There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when people such as my father, Stanley, were becoming interested in demography, and the UN would hold giant conferences on the subject, and it was perfectly respectable to talk about saving the planet by reducing the growth in the number of human beings.
But over the years, the argument changed, and certain words became taboo, and certain concepts became forbidden, and we have reached the stage where the very discussion of overall human fertility — global motherhood — has become more or less banned.
We seem to have given up on population control, and all sorts of explanations are offered for the surrender. Some say Indira Gandhi gave it all a bad name, by her demented plan to sterilise Indian men with the lure of a transistor radio.
Some attribute our complacency to the Green Revolution, which seemed to prove Malthus wrong. It became the received wisdom that the world's population could rise to umpteen billions, as mankind learnt to make several ears of corn grow where one had grown before.
And then, in recent years, the idea of global population control has been more or less stifled by a pincer movement from the Right and the Left. American Right-wingers disapprove of anything that sounds like birth control, and so George W. Bush withholds the tiny contribution America makes to the UN Fund for Population Activities, regardless of the impact on the health of women in developing countries.
As for the Left, they dislike suggestions of population control because they seem to smack of colonialism and imperialism and telling the Third World what to do; and so we have reached the absurd position in which humanity bleats about the destruction of the environment, and yet there is not a peep in any communiqué from any summit of the EU, G8 or UN about the population growth that is causing that destruction.
The debate is surely now unavoidable. Look at food prices, driven ever higher by population growth in India and China. Look at the insatiable Chinese desire for meat, which has pushed the cost of feed so high that Vladimir Putin has been obliged to institute price controls in the doomed fashion of Diocletian or Edward Heath.
Even in Britain, chicken farmers are finding that the cost of chickenfeed is no longer exactly chickenfeed, and, though the food crisis may once again be solved by the wit of man, the damage to the environment may be irreversible.
It is time we had a grown-up discussion about the optimum quantity of human beings in this country and on this planet. Do we want the south-east of Britain, already the most densely populated major country in Europe, to resemble a giant suburbia?
This is not, repeat not, an argument about immigration per se, since in a sense it does not matter where people come from, and with their skill and their industry, immigrants add hugely to the economy.
This is a straightforward question of population, and the eventual size of the human race.
All the evidence shows that we can help reduce population growth, and world poverty, by promoting literacy and female emancipation and access to birth control. Isn't it time politicians stopped being so timid, and started talking about the real number one issue?
Boris Johnson is MP for Henley
At the age of eighty-eight, after four children and a long and respected career as one of the twentieth century's most influential scientists, James Lovelock has come to an unsettling conclusion: The human race is doomed. "I wish I could be more hopeful," he tells me one sunny morning as we walk through a park in Oslo, where he is giving a talk at a university. Lovelock is a small man, unfailingly polite, with white hair and round, owlish glasses. His step is jaunty, his mind lively, his manner anything but gloomy. In fact, the coming of the Four Horsemen -- war, famine, pestilence and death -- seems to perk him up. "It will be a dark time," Lovelock admits. "But for those who survive, I suspect it will be rather exciting."
By the end of the century, according to Lovelock, global warming will cause temperate zones like North America and Europe to heat up by fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, nearly double the likeliest predictions of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations-sanctioned body that includes the world's top scientists. "Our future," Lovelock writes, "is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail." And switching to energy-efficient light bulbs won't save us. To Lovelock, cutting greenhouse-gas pollution won't make much difference at this point, and much of what passes for sustainable development is little more than a scam to profit off disaster. "Green," he tells me, only half-joking, "is the color of mold and corruption."
If such predictions were coming from anyone else, you would laugh them off as the ravings of an old man projecting his own impending death onto the world around him. But Lovelock is not so easily dismissed. As an inventor, he created a device that helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer and jump-start the environmental movement in the 1970s. And as a scientist, he introduced the revolutionary theory known as Gaia -- the idea that our entire planet is a kind of superorganism that is, in a sense, "alive." Once dismissed as New Age quackery, Lovelock's vision of a self-regulating Earth now underlies virtually all climate science. Lynn Margulis, a pioneering biologist at the University of Massachusetts, calls him "one of the most innovative and mischievous scientific minds of our time." Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, credits Lovelock with inspiring him to pledge billions of dollars to fight global warming. "Jim is a brilliant scientist who has been right about many things in the past," Branson says. "If he's feeling gloomy about the future, it's important for mankind to pay attention."
Lovelock knows that predicting the end of civilization is not an exact science. "I could be wrong about all this," he admits as we stroll around the park in Norway. "The trouble is, all those well-intentioned scientists who are arguing that we're not in any imminent danger are basing their arguments on computer models. I'm basing mine on what?s actually happening."
When you approach Lovelock's house in Devon, a rural area in southwestern England, the sign on the metal gate reads:
COOMBE MILL EXPERIMENTAL STATION
SITE OF NEW NATURAL HABITAT
PLEASE DO NOT TRESPASS OR DISTURB
A few hundred yards down a narrow lane, beside the site of an old mill, is a white, slate-roofed cottage where Lovelock lives with his second wife, Sandy, an American, and his youngest son, John, who is fifty-one and mildly disabled. It's a fairy-tale setting, surrounded by thirty-five wooded acres -- no vegetable garden, no manicured rosebushes. "I detest all that," Lovelock tells me. Partly hidden in the woods is a life-size statue of Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth, whom Lovelock named his groundbreaking theory after.
Most scientists toil at the margins of human knowledge, adding incrementally to our understanding of the world. Lovelock is one of the few living scientists whose ideas have touched off not only a scientific revolution but a spiritual one as well. "Future historians of science will see Lovelock as a man who inspired a Copernican shift in how we see ourselves in the world," says Tim Lenton, a climate researcher at the University of East Anglia, in England. Before Lovelock came along, the Earth was seen as little more than a cozy rock drifting around the sun. According to the accepted wisdom, life evolved here because the conditions were right -- not too hot, not too cold, plenty of water. Somehow bacteria grew into multicelled organisms, fish crawled out of the sea, and before long, Britney Spears arrived.
In the 1970s, Lovelock upended all this with a simple question: Why is the Earth different from Mars and Venus, where the atmosphere is toxic to life? In a flash of insight, Lovelock understood that our atmosphere was created not by random geological events but by the cumulative effusion of everything that has ever breathed, grown and decayed. Our air "is not merely a biological product," Lovelock wrote, "but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat's fur, a bird's feathers or the paper of a wasp's nest, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment." According to Gaia theory, life is not just a passenger on Earth but an active participant, helping to create the very conditions that sustain it. It's a beautiful idea --life begets life. It was also right in tune with the post-flower-child mood of the Seventies. Lovelock was quickly adopted as a spiritual guru, the man who killed God and put the planet at the center of New Age religious experience.
Lovelock is not an alarmist by nature. In his view, the dangers of nuclear power are grossly overstated. Ditto mercury emissions in the atmosphere, genetic engineering of food and the loss of biodiversity on the planet. The greatest mistake in his career, in fact, was not claiming that the sky was falling but failing to recognize that it was. In 1973, after being the first to discover that industrial chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons had polluted the atmosphere, Lovelock declared that the buildup of CFCs posed "no conceivable hazard." As it turned out, CFCs weren't toxic to breathe, but they were eating a hole in the ozone. Lovelock quickly revised his view, calling it "one of my greatest blunders," but the mistake may have cost him a share in a Nobel Prize.
At first, Lovelock didn't view global warming as an urgent threat to the planet. "Gaia is a tough bitch," he often said, borrowing a phrase coined by a colleague. But a few years ago, alarmed by rapidly melting ice in the Arctic and other climate-related changes, Lovelock became convinced that Gaia's autopilot system -- the giant, inexpressibly subtle network of positive and negative feedbacks that keeps the Earth?s climate in balance -- is seriously out of whack, derailed by pollution and deforestation. Lovelock believes the planet itself will eventually recover its equilibrium, even if it takes millions of years. What's at stake, he says, is civilization.
"You could quite seriously look at climate change as a response of the system intended to get rid of an irritating species: us humans," Lovelock tells me in the small office he has created in his cottage. "Or at least cut them back to size."
Lovelock's cottage in the woods is a world away from South London, where he grew up with coal soot in his lungs, coughing and pale and working-class. His mother was an early feminist; his father grew up so desperately hungry that he spent six months in prison when he was fourteen for poaching a rabbit from a local squire?s estate. Shortly after Lovelock was born, his parents passed him off to his grandmother to raise. "They were too poor and too busy to raise a child," he explains. In school, he was a lousy student, mildly dyslexic, more interested in pranks than homework. But he loved books, especially the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
To escape the grime of urban life, Lovelock's father often took him on long walks in the countryside, where he caught trout by hand from the streams and gorged on blueberries. The freedom and romance Lovelock felt on these jaunts had a transformative effect on him. "It's where I first saw the face of Gaia," he says now.
By the time Lovelock hit puberty, he knew he wanted to be a scientist. His first love was physics. But his dyslexia made complex math difficult, so he opted instead for chemistry, enrolling at the University of London. A year later, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Lovelock converted to Quakerism and soon became a conscientious objector. In his written statement, he explained why he refused to fight: "War is evil."
Lovelock took a job at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, where one of his first assignments was to develop new ways to stop the spread of infectious diseases. He spent months in underground bomb shelters studying how viruses are transmitted -- and shagging nurses in first-aid stations while Nazi bombs fell overhead. "It was a hard, desperate time," he says. "But it was exciting! It's terribly ironic, but war does make one feel alive."
As a result of his research in the bomb shelters, Lovelock ended up inventing the first aerosol disinfectant. A few years later, as a pioneer in the field of cryogenics, he became the first to understand how cellular structures respond to extreme cold, developing a means to freeze and thaw animal sperm -- a method still in use today. "Thanks to Lovelock," says biologist Lynn Margulis, "they don't have to send the entire bull to Australia."
But Lovelock's most important invention was the Electron Capture Detector, or ECD. In 1957, working at his kitchen table, Lovelock hacked together a device to measure minute concentrations of pesticides and other gases in the air. The instrument fit into the palm of his hand and was so exquisitely sensitive that if you dumped a bottle of some rare chemical on a blanket in Japan and let it evaporate, the ECD would be able to detect it a week later in England. The device was eventually redesigned by Hewlett-Packard: If Lovelock had retained the patent, he would have been a rich man. "Jim has never cared much for money," says Armand Neukermans, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and old friend of Lovelock, "except to buy himself freedom as an independent scientist."
As it turned out, Lovelock's invention roughly coincided with the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides like DDT. By the time her book appeared, scientists were already using the ECD to measure pesticide residue in the fat of Antarctic penguins and in the milk of nursing mothers in Finland, giving hard evidence to Carson's claims that chemicals were impacting the environment on a global scale. "If it hadn't been for my ECD," Lovelock says, "I think critics in the industry would have dismissed the whole thing as wet chemistry -- 'Oh, you can't measure this stuff accurately, can't extrapolate.' And they would have been right."
A decade later, Lovelock made an even more important discovery. In the late 1960s, while staying at an isolated vacation house in Ireland, he took a random sample of the haze that drifted into the area and found it laced with chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs are man-made compounds used as a refrigerant and as a propellant in aerosol cans -- a sure sign of man-made pollution. If CFCs are in remote Ireland, Lovelock wondered, where else might they be? Hitching a ride on a research vessel for a six-month voyage to Antarctica, he used a jury-rigged ECD to detect the buildup of CFCs in the atmosphere. But Lovelock failed to grasp the danger that they posed; two other scientists won the Nobel Prize for correctly hypothesizing that CFCs would burn a hole in the stratosphere, allowing dangerous levels of ultraviolet light to reach the Earth. As a result, CFCs were banned. "If Lovelock hadn't detected those CFCs," says Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, "we'd all be living under the ocean in snorkels and fins to escape that poisonous sun."
If you type "gaia" and "religion" into Google, you'll get 2,360,000 hits -- Wiccans, spiritual travelers, massage therapists and sexual healers, all inspired by Lovelock's vision of the planet. Ask him about pagan cults, though, and Lovelock grimaces -- he has no interest in soft-headed spirituality or organized religion, especially when it puts human existence above all else. At Oxford, he once stood up and admonished Mother Teresa for urging an audience to take care of the poor and "leave God to take care of the Earth." As Lovelock explained to her, "If we as people do not respect and take care of the Earth, we can be sure that the Earth, in the role of Gaia, will take care of us and, if necessary, eliminate us."
Lovelock came up with the Gaia theory during a rough time in his life. In 1961, he was forty-one and working at a research center in London. It was a good job, decent pay, plenty of freedom, but he was bored. He had four kids at home, including John, who was born with a birth defect that left him brain-damaged. In addition, Lovelock's mother -- cranky, demanding, aged -- was driving him nuts. He smoked, he drank. Today, we'd call it a midlife crisis.
One day, a letter from NASA arrived in Lovelock's mailbox, inviting him to join a group of scientists who were about to explore the moon. He had never heard of the space agency -- but within a few months he had dumped his job, packed up the family and moved to America to join the space race. Before long, though, he concluded that, scientifically speaking, the moon wasn't a very interesting place. The real excitement was Mars. "With the moon, the question was, is it safe for astronauts to walk on the surface?" Lovelock recalls. "With Mars, the question was, is there life there?"
Lovelock's colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, struggled to design instruments to test for life on the Martian surface. Lovelock, as usual, took a different approach. Instead of using a probe to dig up soil and look for bacteria, he thought, why not analyze the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere? If life were present, he reasoned, the organisms would be obliged to use up raw materials in the atmosphere (such as oxygen) and dump waste products (like methane), just as life on Earth does. Even if the materials consumed and discharged were different, the chemical imbalance would be relatively simple to detect. Sure enough, when Lovelock and his colleagues finally got an analysis of Mars, they discovered that the atmosphere was close to chemical equilibrium -- suggesting that there had been no life on the planet.
But if life creates the atmosphere, Lovelock reasoned, it must also, in some sense, be regulating it. He knew, for example, that the sun is now about twenty-five percent hotter than when life began. What was modulating the surface temperature of the Earth, keeping it hospitable? Life itself, Lovelock concluded. When the Earth heats up, plants draw down levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases; as it cools, the levels of those gases rise, warming the planet. Thus, the idea of the Earth as superorganism was born.
The idea was not entirely new: Leonardo da Vinci believed pretty much the same thing in the sixteenth century. But Lovelock was the first to assemble all the existing thinking into a new vision of the planet. He soon quit NASA and moved back to England, where his neighbor William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, suggested that he name his theory after Gaia, to capture the popular imagination. When established scientific journals refused to touch his ideas, Lovelock put out a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. "The Gaia hypothesis," he wrote, "is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here." Gaia, he added, offers an alternative to the "depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever traveling driverless and purposeless around an inner circle of the sun."
Hippies loved it. Darwinists didn't. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, dismissed Lovelock's book as "pop-ecology literature." British biologist John Maynard Smith went further, calling Gaia "an evil religion." In their view, Lovelock's concept flew in the face of evolutionary logic: If the Earth is an organism, and organisms evolve by natural selection, then that implies that somehow the Earth out-competed other planets. How is that possible? They were also troubled by Lovelock's suggestion that life creates the condition for life, which seems to suggest a predetermined purpose. In the minds of many of his peers, Lovelock was dancing very close to God.
But that was not what Lovelock had in mind. Large systems, in his view, don't need a purpose. To prove it, Lovelock and a colleague devised a simple, elegant computer model called Daisyworld, which used competing fields of daisies to show how organisms evolving under rules of natural selection are part of a self-regulating system. As the model planet heats up, white daisies thrive, reflecting more sunlight; that, in turn, lowers the temperature, which favors black daisies. Working together, the flowers regulate the temperature of the planet. The daisies are not altruistic or conscious -- they simply exist and, by existing, alter their environment.
Daisyworld quieted some of the critics, but the scientific debate over Gaia raged throughout the 1980s. Lovelock continued refining his thoughts despite troubles in his personal life. His first wife, Helen, was in the midst of a slow and painful decline from multiple sclerosis. Lovelock himself had several major surgeries, including the removal of a kidney he damaged in a tractor accident. He supported himself in part as a consultant for MI5, England's top counterintelligence agency, where he developed a method to monitor the movements of KGB spies in London by using an ECD to track their vehicles. To Lovelock, working for the spy agency was the equivalent of writing potboiler novels for a quick paycheck. "It was enjoyable work, and it kept food on the table," he says now.
Among scientists, Lovelock redeemed himself with a second book, The Ages of Gaia, which offered a more rigorous exploration of the biological and geophysical feedback mechanisms that keep the Earth's atmosphere suitable for life. Plankton in the oceans, for example, help cool the planet by giving off dimethyl sulfide, a chemical that seeds the formation of clouds, which in turn reflect the sun's heat back into space. "In the 1970s, plenty of us thought Gaia was nonsense," says Wally Broecker, a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University. "But Lovelock got everyone thinking more seriously about the dynamic nature of the planet." Of course, scientists like Broecker rarely used the word "Gaia." They prefer the phrase "Earth system science," which views the world, according to one treatise, as "a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components." In other words, Gaia in a lab coat.
Gaia offers a hopeful vision of how the world works. After all, if the Earth is more than just a rock drifting around the sun, if it's a superorganism that can evolve, that means -- to put it in a way that will piss off biology majors and neo-Darwinists everywhere -- there is a certain amount of forgiveness built into our world.
For Lovelock, this is a comforting idea. Consider his little spread in Devon. When he bought the place thirty years ago, it was surrounded by fields shorn by a thousand years of sheep-grazing. But to Lovelock, open land reeks of human interference with Gaia. So he set out to restore his thirty-five acres to its more natural character. After consulting with a forester, he planted 20,000 trees -- alders, oaks, pines. Unfortunately, he planted many of them too close together, and in rows. The trees are about forty feet tall now, but rather than feeling "natural," parts of his land have the look of a badly managed forestry project. "I botched it," Lovelock says with a grin as we hike through the woods. "But in the long run, Gaia will take care of it."
Until recently, Lovelock thought that global warming would be just like his half-assed forest -- something the planet would correct for. Then, in 2004, Lovelock's friend Richard Betts, a researcher at the Hadley Centre for Climate Change -- England's top climate institute -- invited him to stop by and talk with the scientists there. Lovelock went from meeting to meeting, hearing the latest data about melting ice at the poles, shrinking rain forests, the carbon cycle in the oceans. "It was terrifying," he recalls. "We were shown five separate scenes of positive feedback in regional climates -- polar, glacial, boreal forest, tropical forest and oceans -- but no one seemed to be working on whole-planet consequences." Equally chilling, he says, was the tone in which the scientists talked about the changes they were witnessing, "as if they were discussing some distant planet or a model universe, instead of the place where we all live."
As Lovelock was driving home that evening, it hit him. The resiliency of the system was gone. The forgiveness had been used up. "The whole system," he decided, "is in failure mode." A few weeks later, he began work on his latest and gloomiest book, The Revenge of Gaia, which was published in the U.S. in 2006.
In Lovelock's view, the flaws in computer climate models are painfully apparent. Take the uncertainty around projected sea levels: The IPCC, the U.N. panel on climate change, estimates that global warming will cause Earth's average temperature to rise as much as 11.5 degrees by 2100. This will cause inland glaciers to melt and seas to expand, triggering a maximum sea level rise of only twenty-three inches. Greenland, according to the IPCC's models, will take 1,000 years to melt.
But evidence from the real world suggests that the IPCC is far too conservative. For one thing, scientists know from the geological record that 3 million years ago, when temperatures increased to five degrees above today's level, the seas rose not by twenty-three inches but by more than eighty feet. What's more, recent satellite measurements indicate that Arctic ice is melting so rapidly that the region could be ice-free by 2030. "Modelers don't have the foggiest idea about the dynamics of melting ice sheets," scoffs Lovelock.
It's not just ice that throws off the climate models. Cloud physics are notoriously difficult to get right, and feedbacks from the biosphere, such as deforestation and melting tundra, are rarely factored in. "Computer models are not crystal balls," argues Ken Caldeira, a climate modeler at Stanford University whose career has been deeply influenced by Lovelock's ideas. "By observing the past, you make informed judgments about the future. Computer models are just a way to codify that accumulated knowledge into automated educated bets."
Here, in its oversimplified essence, is Lovelock's doomsday scenario: Rising heat means more ice melting at the poles, which means more open water and land. That, in turn, increases the heat (ice reflects sunlight; open land and water absorb it), causing more ice to melt. The seas rise. More heat leads to more intense rainfall in some places, droughts in others. The Amazon rain forests and the great northern boreal forests --the belt of pine and spruce that covers Alaska, Canada and Siberia --undergo a growth spurt, then wither away. The permafrost in northern latitudes thaws, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent than CO2 -- and on and on it goes.
In a functioning Gaian world, these positive feedbacks would be modulated by negative feedbacks, the largest of which is the Earth's ability to radiate heat into space. But at a certain point, the regulatory system breaks down and the planet's climate makes the jump -- as it has many times in the past -- to a new, hotter state. Not the end of the world, but certainly the end of the world as we know it.
Lovelock's doomsday scenario is dismissed by leading climate researchers, most of whom dispute the idea that there is a single tipping point for the entire planet. "Individual ecosystems may fail or the ice sheets may collapse," says Caldeira, "but the larger system appears to be surprisingly resilient." But let's assume for the moment that Lovelock is right and we are indeed poised above Niagara Falls. Do we just wave as we go over the edge? In Lovelock's view, modest cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions won't help us -- it's too late to stop global warming by swapping our SUVs for hybrids. What about capturing carbon-dioxide pollution from coal plants and pumping it underground? "We can't possibly bury enough to make any difference." Biofuels? "A monumentally stupid idea." Renewables? "Nice, but won't make a dent." To Lovelock, the whole idea of sustainable development is wrongheaded: "We should be thinking about sustainable retreat."
Retreat, in his view, means it's time to start talking about changing where we live and how we get our food; about making plans for the migration of millions of people from low-lying regions like Bangladesh into Europe; about admitting that New Orleans is a goner and moving the people to cities better positioned for the future. Most of all, he says, it's about everybody "absolutely doing their utmost to sustain civilization, so that it doesn't degenerate into Dark Ages, with warlords running things, which is a real danger. We could lose everything that way."
Even Lovelock's friends cringe when he talks like this. "I fear he's overdrawing our despair budget," says Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum in London, who has worked hard to raise international awareness of global warming. Others are justifiably concerned that Lovelock's views will distract from the rising political momentum for tough restrictions on greenhouse-gas pollution. Broecker, the Columbia paleoclimatologist, calls Lovelock's belief that cutting pollution is futile "dangerous nonsense."
"I wish I could say that wind turbines and solar panels will save us," Lovelock responds. "But I can't. There isn't any kind of solution possible. There are nearly 7 billion people on the planet now, not to mention livestock and pets. If you just take the CO2 of everything breathing, it's twenty-five percent of the total --four times as much CO2 as all the airlines in the world. So if you want to improve your carbon footprint, just hold your breath. It's terrifying. We have just exceeded all reasonable bounds in numbers. And from a purely biological view, any species that does that has a crash."
This is not to suggest, however, that Lovelock believes we should just party while the world burns. Quite the opposite. "We need bold action," Lovelock insists. "We have a tremendous amount to do." In his view, we have two choices: We can return to a more primitive lifestyle and live in equilibrium with the planet as hunter-gatherers, or we can sequester ourselves in a very sophisticated, high-tech civilization. "There's no question which path I'd prefer," he says one morning in his cottage, grinning broadly and tapping the keyboard of his computer. "It's really a question of how we organize society -- where we will get our food, water. How we will generate energy."
For water, the answer is pretty straightforward: desalination plants, which can turn ocean water into drinking water. Food supply is tougher: Heat and drought will devastate many of today's food-growing regions. It will also push people north, where they will cluster in cities. In these areas, there will be no room for backyard gardens. As a result, Lovelock believes, we will have to synthesize food -- to grow it in vats from tissue cultures of meats and vegetables. It sounds far out and deeply unappetizing, but from a technological standpoint, it wouldn't be hard to do.
A steady supply of electricity will also be vital. Five days after his visit to the Hadley Centre, Lovelock penned a fiery op-ed titled "Nuclear Power Is the Only Green Solution." Lovelock argued that we should "use the small input from renewables sensibly" but that "we have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear -- the one safe, available energy source -- now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet."
Environmentalists howled in protest, but for anyone who knew Lovelock's past, his embrace of nukes is not surprising. At the age of fourteen, reading about how the sun is powered by a nuclear reaction, he came to believe that nuclear energy is one of the fundamental forces in the universe. Why not harness it? As for the dangers -- radioactive waste, vulnerability to terrorism, the possibility of a Chernobyl-like meltdown -- Lovelock says it's the lesser of two evils: "Even if they're right about the dangers, and they are not, it is still nothing compared to climate change."
As a last resort, to keep the planet even marginally habitable, Lovelock believes that humans may be forced to manipulate the Earth's climate by erecting solar shades in space or building devices to strip huge quantities of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Although he views large-scale geoengineering as an act of profound hubris -- "I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth" -- he thinks it may be necessary as an emergency measure, much like kidney dialysis is necessary to a person whose health is failing. In fact, it was Lovelock who inspired his friend Richard Branson to put up a $25 million prize for the Virgin Earth Challenge, which will be awarded to the first person who can figure out a commercially viable way of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. As a judge in the contest, Lovelock is not eligible to win, but he's intrigued by the challenge. His latest thought: suspend hundreds of thousands of 600-foot-long vertical pipes in the tropical oceans, put a valve at the bottom of each pipe and allow deep, nutrient-rich water to be pumped to the surface by wave action. Nutrients from the deep water would increase algae bloom, which would suck up carbon dioxide and help cool the planet.
"It's a way of leveraging the Earth's natural energy system against itself," Lovelock speculates. "I think Gaia would approve."
Oslo is Lovelock's kind of town. It's in the northern latitudes, which will grow more temperate as the climate warms; it has plenty of water; thanks to its oil and gas reserves, it's rich; and there's already lots of creative thinking going on about energy, including, much to Lovelock's satisfaction, renewed discussion about nuclear power. "The main issue they'll face here," Lovelock tells me as we walk along Karl Johans Gate, the city's main boulevard, "is how to manage the hordes of people that will descend upon the city. In the next few decades, half the population of southern Europe will try to move here."
We head down to the waterfront, where we pass Akershus Castle, an imposing thirteenth-century fortress that served as Nazi headquarters during their occupation of the city during World War II. To Lovelock, the parallels between what the world faced then and what the world faces now are clear. "In some ways, it's 1939 all over again," he says. "The threat is obvious, but we've failed to grasp what's at stake. We're still talking about appeasement."
Then, as now, the lack of political leadership is what's most striking to Lovelock. Although he respects Al Gore's efforts to raise people's consciousness, he believes no politician has come close to preparing us for what's coming. "We'll be living in a desperate world in no time," Lovelock says. He believes the time is right for a global-warming version of Winston Churchill's famous "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech he gave to prepare Great Britain for World War II. "People are ready for this," Lovelock says as we pass under the shadow of the castle. "They understand what's happening far better than most politicians."
However the future turns out, Lovelock is unlikely to be around to see it. "My goal is to live a rectangular life: long, strong and steady, then a quick drop at the end," he says. Lovelock shows no signs of hitting his own personal tipping point. Although he's had forty operations, including a heart bypass, he still zooms around the English countryside in his white Honda like a Formula One driver. He and Sandy recently took a monthlong trip through Australia, where they visited the Great Barrier Reef. He's about to start another book about Gaia. Richard Branson has invited him on the first flight on the Virgin Galactic space shuttle late next year --"I want to give him a view of Gaia from space," says Branson. Lovelock is eager to go, and plans to take a test in a centrifuge later this year to see if his body can withstand the G-forces of spaceflight. He shuns talk of his legacy, although he jokes with his kids that he wants his headstone to read, HE NEVER MEANT TO BE PROSCRIPTIVE.
Whatever his epitaph, Lovelock's legacy as one of the most provocative scientists of our time is assured. And for all his gloom and doom, his notion of the planet as a single dynamic system remains a hopeful idea. It suggests that there are rules the system operates by and mechanisms that drive it. These rules and mechanisms can be studied and, possibly, tweaked. In many ways, Lovelock's holistic vision is an antidote to the chaos of twentieth-century science, which fragmented the world into quarks, quantum mechanics and untouchable mystery.
As for the doom that awaits us, Lovelock may well be wrong. Not because he's misread the science (although that's certainly possible) but because he's misread human beings. Few serious scientists doubt that we're on the verge of a climate catastrophe. But for all Lovelock's sensitivity to the subtle dynamics and feedback loops in the climate system, he is curiously tone-deaf to the subtle dynamics and feedback loops in the human system. He believes that, despite our iPhones and space shuttles, we are still tribal animals, largely incapable of acting for the greater good or making long-term decisions for our own welfare. "Our moral progress," says Lovelock, "has not kept up with our technological progress."
But maybe that's exactly what the coming apocalypse is all about. One of the questions that fascinates Lovelock: Life has been evolving on Earth for more than 3 billion years -- and to what purpose? "Like it or not, we are the brains and nervous system of Gaia," he says. "We have now assumed responsibility for the welfare of the planet. How will we manage it?"
As we weave our way through the tourists heading up to the castle, it's easy to look at them and feel sadness. It's harder to look at them and feel hopeful. But when I say this to Lovelock, he argues that the human race has gone through many bottlenecks before --and perhaps we're the better for it. Then he tells me the story of an airplane crash years ago at Manchester Airport. "A fuel tank caught fire during takeoff," Lovelock says. "There was plenty of time for everybody to get out, but many of the passengers wouldn't move. They just stayed there in their seats as they were told to, and the people who escaped had to climb over them to get out. It was perfectly obvious how to get out, but they wouldn't move. They died from the smoke or burned to death. And an awful lot of people, I'm sad to say, are like that. And that's what will happen this time, except on a much vaster scale."
Lovelock looks at me with unflinching blue eyes. "Some people will sit in their seats and do nothing, frozen in panic. Others will move. They'll see what's about to happen, and they'll take action, and they'll survive. They're the carriers of the civilization ahead."
Since multi-celled life first appeared 540 million years ago mass extinction events generally related to climate change have eliminated 40 to 92 % of species on the planet.
70,000 years ago a catastrophic climate change associated with the Sumatran eruption of Toba left just 5,000 breeding human females alive from whom we are all descended.
5,000 years ago there were 5 million humans worldwide, their small groupings able to move with the weather. There are now 7 billion.
Scientists predict the sea level will rise 91 cms by the year 2100. This would flood 17.5% of Bangladesh. Perhaps for these reasons the Indian government is completing a 4,500 km fence along its entire border with Bangladesh.
Scientists predict that by 2050 over 1 billion people will face water shortages. Food availability will also suffer.
Temperatures might be expected to rise dramatically after 2020. All the above from article in May 2008 edition of RCA Bulletin by Dr H. Montgomery, Consultant Intensivist, University College, London.
The melting of the arctic ice cap and the warming of Siberia are predicted to release large quantities of methane gas which will accelerate the global warming already taking place due to increased carbon dioxide emissions.
Unless we can grasp the nettle of overpopulation of the planet and help and empower all women, especially those in the developing world, to limit their family size, then the four horsemen of the apocalypse will do it for us.
I am a UK consultant anaesthetist. I read with interest
the short article in the Telegraph this morning advocating
doctors recommending couples in this country to not have
more than two children. For some time now I have become
increasingly concerned about the global warming issue. It
now seems generally accepted that humans are the cause of
global warming. When I was born in 1944 there were 3
billion people in the world. There are now nearly 7
billion and by the time I die there will be a projected 9
billion. This is clearly unsustainable and yet it is a
topic that it seems noone dare speak about, particularly
the politicians. I fear that unless we act now there will
be an armageddon, quite possibly in my grandchildren's
lifetime or even earlier. I understand that the Chinese
one child per family policy instituted 25 years ago has
resulted in between 250 and 400 million children not being
born. I think to advocate a one child per family policy
worldwide (including the UK and my 3 daughters
regrettably) and to pour financial resources into
worldwide family planning and perhaps rewarding monetarily
those that have only one child funded by richer nations,
is not draconian but simply a policy of necessity for the
survival of the species. I do not consider this attitude
extreme, simply the application of logic. Sadly it will
not happen and I fear greatly for our future. I would be
interested to hear your opinion and can I be of any
This map shows predictions of how the world might look when
global warming reaches +4°C.
This graph shows population growth in the last 162,000 years, its explosive growth in living memory, and what the doctor's role should be in the face of this problem.
Population control and uncertainty—a doctor’s role
"A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get
subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the
society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest
portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At
nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him
to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work
upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and
make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same
favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with
numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the
plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness
of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in
every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who
are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught
to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counter-acting
those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of
the feast, who, wishing that all guests should have plenty, and knowing
she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit
fresh comers when her table was already full."
Compiled, hand coded and copyright © 2008, John Palmer, All Rights Reserved.