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The vanishing face of Gaia

the vanishing face of gaia

By James Lovelock
Published by Allen Lane
Website: www.penguin.com
2009, 178pp, ISBN 978-1-846-14185-0(Hb), £20

"Business as usual" is the default position for most of us; it provides the comfort zone of familiar routine. To adopt a different lifestyle is difficult. Yet a starkly different world is likely to confront us within a mere 20 years, and the changes that are transforming our familiar and comfortable planet are already beyond recall. Global warming and human survival are what James Lovelock writes of in The vanishing face of Gaia - a final warning and his message is simply stated: to continue discussing how to slow or reverse global warming is a waste of time and a distraction; the urgent need is to develop new ways of living to survive a much changed world.

For readers of New Agriculturist, the key challenges are how food production will have to be adapted in the face of heat, drought and increasingly unpredictable weather. With the climate changes predicted, Lovelock believes that there will be massive shifts in population, as the remaining habitable regions are required to house and feed more from less.

Clearing forest for food production and, even worse, devoting land to biofuels, will be counter-productive, as it is biodiversity and not monoculture that can help mitigate the worst effects of climate dynamics. As much land as possible must be preserved in its natural or wild state, Lovelock believes, both for leisure and the beneficial buffering that vegetation provides in the water cycle and in temperature regulation.

Much of our food will have to be synthesised, using systems already available, to produce carbohydrates and proteins. Pigs and poultry may remain as converters of waste products, but the grazers - cattle and sheep - will not: they are inefficient converters of fodder into flesh, and their ruminant digestion is a source of methane. Arable production will continue where rainfall or irrigation are sufficient, and horticulture under glass and plastic sheeting will provide controlled environments for fruit and vegetable production.

How seriously should we take this very pessimistic view of the near future? Lovelock is not alone: Professor John Beddington, UK government chief scientific adviser, said in March, "Growing populations, falling energy sources and food shortages will create the 'perfect storm' by 2030. Climate change will exacerbate matters in unpredictable ways." Oxfam predicts that climate disasters will affect 400 million within six years.

"We do not seem to have the slightest understanding of the seriousness of our plight," writes Lovelock. Yet the author proclaims himself an optimist and believes that with prompt response and preparation the human race can survive to adapt, and even to learn how better to live harmoniously and much less demandingly with the organisms, soils, oceans and atmosphere that comprise Gaia, the interactive whole of our planet Earth. Alternatively, he says, "If we fail to take our planet seriously we will be like children who take their homes for granted and never doubt that breakfast starts the day; we will not notice as we enjoy our daily lives that the cost of our neglect could soon cause the greatest tragedy in the memory of mankind."

Date published: July 2009


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