Sunday, July 15, 2007

Digesting Lovelock left and right

James Lovelock is about as famous as a scientist can get and still be a serious scientist. He is known most widely for proposing the Gaia Theory which states that the Earth acts as if it were a single organism regulating conditions in ways that are favorable to life. But more recently he has been in the news for two positions that have infuriated environmentalists. He supports nuclear power as a way to address humankind's energy needs without worsening global warming and he opposes wind turbines which he claims are merely an attempt to shore up unsustainable cities at the expense of the countryside.

In his most recent book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock also downplays the chemical contaminants in food and criticizes organic agriculture as unable to feed the world. This comes from the man who invented the electron capture device that made it possible to detect miniscule quantities of pesticides and other pollutants in places like Antarctica. The device thus opened a new chapter in toxicology about the ubiquitousness and persistence of pesticides in the environment.

Lovelock is brilliant, and as an independent scientist he is beholden to no corporation or government. He can't be accused of special pleading on their behalf. His independence and broad view of the planet's workings have made it possible for him to see things that others could not see.

Given the way the news media covers Lovelock and the man's talent for a colorful turn of phrase, it's easy to see how his main message gets obscured. I think this is because his main message is far more disturbing than anything he has said about nuclear energy, wind turbines or pesticides. That message is that we must put Gaia, the great climate and physical system of the Earth which sustains life, first before any other concern. Logically, this makes sense. The well-being of every human on Earth depends on a healthy planet. But surprisingly, this logical necessity is lost on the political classes, both left and right.

How can this be? Aren't those on the left more concerned about the environment? Yes, those on the left are generally more sympathetic to environmental concerns. But, the main agenda on the left is social and economic justice, and this runs head on into Lovelock's dictum that Gaia must be put first before any other concern.

The watchword among those focused on alleviating worldwide poverty is so-called sustainable development. Here I agree with Lovelock. Perhaps when the world had 1 billion people and the ecological footprint of each person was a tiny fraction of what it is now, we could speak of such a thing. But, today the world is full, beyond full. We are in overshoot. This doesn't mean that progressives should abandon their quest for social and economic justice. It means that they will have to pursue it under different circumstances.

The unfortunate truth is that ideologies of both left and right share one crucial assumption: a belief in unlimited economic growth. For the right the fruits of that growth should go to the individual whether due to hard work or inheritance. For the left the fruits of that growth should be redistributed so as to insure at least a minimum of education, health care and nutrition for all.

But as the twin pressures of climate change and energy depletion begin to weigh on world societies, the left will have to come to terms with a possibly shrinking or at least stagnant economy. It has been fairly easy to make the case for redistribution of wealth so long as the wealthy kept getting wealthier. But it will be considerably more difficult to make the case for greater sharing in a world of diminishing prospects. As for the right, its focus on individual achievement within free markets has arguably created considerable vigor in economic life so long as economies were growing, but at the cost of great inequality. However, the hyperindividualism which this focus has spawned will likely only amount to every man or woman for him/herself in a constricted economic environment.

And so, the case for sharing the burdens of a diminished world will need to be made since the only alternative will be intense conflict over declining resources. The results of that approach are already on display in Iraq. Those concerned about building a sustainable world instead of fighting over the scraps of our unsustainable one already know the drill: conservation and efficiency; low-input, small-scale agriculture; public transportation; electrification of transport; relocalization of most economic tasks; alternative energy that is truly renewable and which addresses global warming without displacing critical food crops. The focus must be on increasing the fertility of the soil and reducing the human impact on the ecosystem.

All of this implies that the great concentrations of wealth made possible by a hypercaffeinated, networked world provisioned by colossal extractive technologies will end up dissipating. Wealth, after all, depends on the availability of energy and raw materials. When the energy needed to extract and refine those raw materials declines, so does wealth.

To lead in such a world will require a different kind of thinking. It will require building hope and solidarity around the notions of survival and simplicity. It will mean restoring dignity to manual labor. It will mean re-thinking what we mean by wealth and security. It will mean focusing on reducing population rather than growing it.

This is what flows from putting Gaia first. We can put Gaia first or we can watch it move into a new state that will be inhospitable to human civilization. Despite the scope of changes needed to move toward sustainability, we won't be ending civilization; we will be enabling its continuity.

Lovelock sees himself as a planetary physician who has made a diagnosis and suggested that the patient has a fever so severe that she needs drastic remedies. We must all now become planetary physicians and do our part to apply the necessary remedies.


Jan Steinman said...

Kurt, I would like to disagree with you on a couple points of what is otherwise an excellent posting.

First off, you characterize attitudes as "left and right." This is a part of the problem in the US, which lacks a multi-party system. (Many would say it lacks even a second party.)

There is a party that puts Gaia first: the Green party. In countries with multiple party systems, Greens have formed coalition governments and made great strides in healing Gaia.

The particularly US view of everything as "left vs. right" is dysfunctional. I'd like to call on you to: 1) try to stop thinking of it and writing about it that way, and 2) to work towards having more diversity in politics. The first step is necessary in order to do the second.

I also disagree that wealth will go away in the coming energy decline. Indeed, I expect the situation to worsen. The moneyed interests are not stupid (for the most part). They see the writing on the wall. Their "solution" to the coming energy decline is to grab as much of it as they can. I expect feudalism and indentured servitude to return with a vengeance, and possibly even slavery, as well.

What hopeful path lies before the common person? Emulate the rich, and we should be able to use the laws they will use to protect themselves. You don't have to be rich to be debt-free and to live within your means. You don't have to be rich to be frugal.

Certainly, we agree that the meaning of "wealth" will change. Those who own, free of debt, the means for their subsistence, will be the merchant class in a future feudal society. Those who are deep in debt and working for wages will become -- indeed, already are -- slaves of one sort or another.

Kurt Cobb said...

Jan makes a good point about the rise of the Green Party to actual seats of power in countries other than the United States. I think we need, however, to distinguish between at least two kinds of "green" politics which are in evidence here in the United States as well as elsewhere across the world. There are what I will call the Techno-Greens who believe in the vision of a "bright green future" in which green technology solves most of our serious problems and life pretty much goes on as it has before. Then, there are what I will call the Powerdown Greens who believe that only a radical change in lifestyles can avert a civilization-wide crisis. Technology can help, but it will play a much more marginal role than in the future envisioned by the Techno-Greens. In the United States one can easily determine that the Techno-Greens are a much larger group than the Powerdown Greens. I cannot assess the relative sizes of each group in other countries, but I would be very much surprised if they differed greatly from the proportions found in the United States. Having said this, I favor rapid deployment of appropriate green technology. But I do not believe it is sufficient to avert a crisis. So, I would place the Techno-Greens with the rest of the left who believe we can keep on growing and address inequality and other critical problems with what amounts to business as usual with a green twist. If someone can point to a major green party in the world that has as part of its platform the introduction of a steady-state economy, please do so. But all that I am familiar with take the Techno-Green position, that is, they favor continued economic growth.

Anonymous said...

Well, the Scottish Green Party does advocate a steady-state economy... But we don't exactly shout it from the rooftops. ;)

Anonymous said...

Well, the Scottish Green Party does advocate a steady-state economy - but we don't exactly shout it from the rooftops. ;)