Four Bad Ideas, and Some Alternatives

The British futurist and scientist James Lovelock, of Gaia hypothesis fame, just turned 100 on July 26th. He’s also out with a slender new book (Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence) on how to handle the climate crisis and global warming.

His four principal ideas, unfortunately, turn out to be deeply impractical. Because I don’t like to criticize without pointing out alternatives, you can find these here as well. As wiser heads have pointed out, our problems have swollen into a predicament, with no quick or painless fix.

If you have a subscription to the Economist, you can read the whole article there (non-subscribers get just a taste), or else watch this 7:46 Youtube video, with substantially the same material:

Lovelock’s four ideas are these, with the approximate point in the video where they are introduced in parentheses:

1–Retreat to megacities (2:02) before the collapse of already endangered ecosystems.

Where and how food production and transport will take place is rather vague. Won’t many have to remain on farms outside the cities in order to feed the rest of us?

Financially, too, this just isn’t feasible for the vast majority of people not already living in cities. Who will fund the enormous housing projects needed? And given that many of our largest cities are substantially overburdened already, even a well-planned expansion doesn’t augur well for livable conditions. And what of the large numbers who like rural life and would balk at relocation?

Yes, millions will be forced inland from coastal and low-lying regions as the oceans continue their rise. As many have already perceived, the great majority of people who will suffer the most are poor and lack political clout.

Better than a retreat to megacities (though some may certainly opt for inland urban destinations), a planned series of evacuations and relocations are starting to happen, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. This most likely will continue haphazardly, and mostly under duress. We’re just beginning to realize the costs, and we’re most reluctant to pay where we have played so heedlessly.

[You can download a free PDF of The Limits to Growth, the 1970 publication of the Club of Rome, which continues to prove largely accurate in its projection of consequences we’ve known for decades but dawdled in acting on. The publication also ends on a note of hope (with identifiably 1970s pronouns), which we’ve also long known: “Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and his production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance”.]

Already taxpayers — at least in the U.S. — partially subsidize rebuilding costs for many who choose to live in dangerous coastal areas, ignoring for now the increasingly violent weather and the inevitable storms and flooding which will ultimately make rebuilding (at still further taxpayer expense) no longer feasible. I include my father- and sister- and brother-in-law in this category: all of them live on Ft. Myers Beach, Florida, and they already pay more each year in flood insurance that I ever did in annual rent for an apartment.

Changing such uneven tax structures would free up needed resources and allow some of the coastal regions to be returned to original conditions that minimized both flooding and coastal erosion, thereby also providing needed habitat for wildlife, and parks for human visitors within limits. The political will to make this happen, however, hasn’t yet appeared.

2—Use nuclear energy along with renewables, eliminating fossil fuel use (3:02).

Nuclear power has never solved its original issues of how to handle spent fuel – or managed a work-around for the massive subsidies it requires simply to start generating power.

Nor will the powerful petroleum industry calmly yield its immensely profitable enterprise without either enforced governmental intervention, or massive subsidies beyond what it already receives.

The immense fossil fuel transportation system, even with worldwide support, would take at least a couple of decades to change over, and at vast expense. Who will pay for that, and for the retrofitting of the millions of households that burn fossil fuels and would need conversion to electricity?

Carbon taxes, continued investment in renewables, and a gradual reduction in fossil fuel dependency and consumption, are somewhat more likely to actually happen and make a difference. They won’t happen quickly enough to stave off widespread problems. The oceans will rise and coastal regions will flood. More species will be lost. Climates will keep changing. Still, late is better than never.

3—Artificially control the earth’s temperature (4:08).

Lovelock proposes artificially shading the earth’s atmosphere with particulates to block solar gain and help cool the earth a few degrees — similar to what happened geologically when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991. While we may have the technology already to accomplish this, does anyone think Russia or the U.S. would trust each other to proceed with such a plan, given current tensions?

And how much darkening is enough? Who will underwrite such a large space program? And where will we acquire sufficient non-toxic materials to disperse? Pinatubo discharged vast quantity of harmful ejecta into the air and onto the earth. Do we know how to compensate for the nearly inevitable human error and miscalculation here? Who will be in charge, and oversee such a vast plan from start to finish? And who will pay for any follow-up rebalancing if and when the plan is less than wholly successful?

The planet’s climate will worsen. That’s nearly a given. Whatever we do to ease the worst of the consequences won’t be fairly distributed around the globe. The chances are again very high that the poor will suffer the most. And in turn, political unrest and international conflict will abound. Anticipating problems — planning for this in concrete and doable terms — will go a long way to easing it. Again, however, the political will may well be lacking until we reach crisis point. The expenses of prevention have all too rarely been a governmental priority. That’s why individual action will begin to make a difference.

4—Let AI take over (5:28)

Whose artificial intelligence? If Equifax data breaches and Facebook and Google snooping and data collection have taught us anything, we don’t want ever more anonymous programmers “running everything”. The world of speculative fiction has also long ago addressed this issue: AI could quite justifiably write off humans as an evolutionary dead-end, and take matters into their own hands with an AI-backed Final Solution: the planet would in many ways be much better off without homo non sapiens.

Even Lovelock doesn’t sound particularly hopeful about the future. As he remarks at the end of the Youtube video, “Do I think humans can be saved from the numerous threats that exist in the cosmos? I don’t know. I hope so”.

Fortunately, many tools already currently available, including a range of spiritualities, along with the resilience human beings have long shown in the worst situations, mean that it is not “The End”. It IS, of course, the beginning of Interesting Times, a real-time, up-close-and-personal illustration of that famous Chinese curse.

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Metaphysical addendum and caveat: if you’re not a fan of belief in reincarnation, or if you’re still in denial that what goes around comes around, stop reading and return to your regularly scheduled program.

Since you’re still here, it’s worth noting that according to certain occult beliefs, the planet as a whole has already refused the causal initiation once — you know, the one where we accept responsibility for actions and their consequences, and attempt to learn from our mistakes. Like most forms of tough love, the lesson hasn’t gone away simply because we didn’t care for it, and the consequences will still come due, and in even harsher forms, because of that first refusal.

What to do in one of our coming futures, “when the rubble stops bouncing”, as J. M. Greer likes to put it, is the subject of a growing number of blogs, books and teachings. [If you valued Greer’s Archdruid Report and its unblinking look at our present ecological and political realities, along with many subtle but invaluable tips for actually flourishing through it all, you might appreciate and find merit in his new site Ecosophia and his current article there, with over 400 insightful reader comments, and Greer’s sane and wise responses to them: “The Next Twilight of Environmentalism“.]

Blessedly, marvelously, hearteningly, most of the readers of this blog are actually already practicing life-ways that will serve us all well in the days ahead. After all, we need lived examples of alternatives to the madness around us from people who haven’t yielded to despair, who know that our ancestors weathered personal hardships, climate change, plague, famine and war to give birth to us, just as we will to future generations. Some of us, and some of our descendants, will survive to be teachers and preservers of the best of our contemporary wisdom.

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