Sunday, June 1, 2014

Earth will survive, but humans?

At an age when human mind stops thinking, James Lovelock is brimming with ideas to make others ‘think’. Now 95, the founder of Gaia theory has come out with some outrageous but thoughtful ideas on the future of mankind and the planet in his new book A Rough Ride to the Future. Though he proclaims himself to be an optimist amidst the climate change doomsayers, Lovelock nonetheless suggests that our oxygen-rich world may not be permanent. But Gaia, the Earth system, will always remain habitable. 

The free ranging maverick that he is, Lovelock postulates more heat resistant forms of life to evolve as the planet gets warmer. An electronic life form based on silicon semiconductors, evolved through endosymbiosis, may be the next form of life on earth. This may sound futuristic fantasy but the hypothesis is based on the premise that our present wet carbon-based form of life may find this planet utterly inhospitable in a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere. An electronic life form will be far less temperature-limited, contends Lovelock. 

Spread into ten chapters, the book indeed offers a ‘rough ride’ through the history of science and the sociology of evolution. Each of the chapters offers fresh insights ranging from the practice of science to the future of mankind on account of accelerated evolution. If his past views are any indication, Lovelock has mellowed down his catastrophic views on climate change arguing instead that the global average temperature has not tracked the rise of carbon dioxide. So intricate are the connections between the factors affecting climate change that we need to stay skeptical about the projections of climate models. If life on our planet is able to change the climate, it can as well respond to it, contends Lovelock.

Even if one doesn’t agree with Lovelock, it is not possible to ignore him. His much debated Gaia hypothesis was finally adopted as Gaia theory by the scientific fraternity; his invention made it possible to detect CFCs in the atmosphere; and his tools alone helped NASA robots to walk on Mars. His love for science is impeccable, earning him wider recognition as an independent scientist and a maverick inventor. But he finds mankind highly scared and confused, like a colony of red ants exposed when the garden slab is lifted from above their nest. 

Climate change has only added to the existing confusion. Lovelock chides the mistaken idea of scientists and administrators who think that stabilizing the abundance of carbon dioxide will lead to a stabilized climate. Instead, the idea should be to strengthen our defenses than trying to ‘save the planet’. Like the nests of bees and ants, the task should be to create self-regulating and self-sustaining cities to house humans. Sounds logical, because when we are in a hot desert we try to keep things cool for ourselves without bothering to make the desert a cool place.

Lovelock considers nuclear energy as safe but decries wind turbines as satanic; Lovelock contends that climate scientists’ are largely saying what their governments want to hear; and Lovelock tells us to remain cool about climate change and yet cautions us to create cool compact cities. Such contradictions aptly justify the title of the book; there is no smooth ride to the future. For those who are not ideological entrenched, this book offers nuggets of ideas to think through. Easy to read, the book is packed with things nobody else is saying.  

A Rough Ride to the Future
by James Lovelock
Allen Lane, UK
Extent: 184, Price: £16.99 

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