Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Writing in the Independent Sir David Attenborough has come down off the fence today to announce that climate change is now the biggest single challenge that humanity faces.

He said he became convinced of the danger on viewing graphs connecting the increase of carbon dioxide in the environment and the rise in temperature with the growth of human population and industrialisation. "The coincidence of the curves made it perfectly clear we have left the period of natural climatic oscillation behind and have begun on a steep curve in terms of temperature rise, beyond anything in terms of increase that we have seen over many thousands of years."

On Monday night James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, was interviewed by Mark Lawson on BBC4. The 86-year-old is famed for his gloomy perspective, which he communicates with a distinctly un-gloomy demeanour.

All we Brits can do now is show willing, he insisted, all twinkly-eyed. Nothing we actually do will make a difference though. The big offenders are India, China and the US and he reckons it would take at least 30 years to turn them around and the planet no longer has that sort of time. One year, Indonesia alone contributed 40% of greenhouse gases just through bad agricultural practices.

It's also too late to cut back population levels voluntarily. Most of the world's population will starve, he prognosticates, leaving around 500m.

There are some possible treatments for the sick biosphere that Lovelock likens to being plugged into a dialysis machine: NASA could install an 8-mile-wide sunshade in space or commercial airliners could all run on unrefined kerosene, both of which would have a short-term cooling effect.

He calls himself a Green but the favour is not extended by the rest of the Green movement due to his persistent promotion of nuclear power. Our fear of all things nuclear has carried over from the Cold War, Lovelock told Lawson. In the past he has said that he would be willing to have the nuclear waste quite literally buried in his own back yard, arguing that radiation levels would be no worse than you experience living in St Ives (he already resides in Cornwall). Plus he would get free home-heating!

On the other hand he doesn't favour either wind farms or bio fuels as he suspects that the only sensible use of land from now on will be for what the supermarkets call produce. Using it to grow food for cars is utter madness, he exclaimed.

Lovelock is clearly another one of those contemporary scientists that senses a fundamental swing in the underlying approach of their discipline. For centuries Western science has been starkly rational and reductionist − it needed to adopt a bottom-up worldview in order to achieve the necessary distance from top-down religious thinking. But from the early part of the last century this kind of differentiation has been increasingly unsustainable. Indeed, Lovelock suggested to Lawson that the traditional scientific outlook is in the process of getting its "come-uppance" as the implications of Quantum theory are fully considered and disseminated across multiple disciplines.

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