The other day someone — actually it was my MP, the member for Henley-on-Thames and former editor of this magazine — asked me if I ‘believed’ in global warming. The question was put in such a way as to suggest it was a matter of faith rather than commonsense. I replied that only half-wits and conspiracy nuts refused to accept that it was real and largely our doing. The question is no longer whether or not it is happening, but where it will take us and how quickly.
If James Lovelock’s analysis of the condition of our planet is sound, the answer is: into the flames of Armaged- don, fast. He suspects we are already past the point of no return; that even if we abandoned our tribal differences and foolish ways now, it would probably be too late. Lovelock’s consolation is that, while it may be the end of us, or most of us, it is not the end of Gaia, the metaphor he conceived of the earth and its biosphere as a self-regulating planet system. Civilisation will burn. Gaia will slip into a state akin to fever, and then recover.
In many respects his vision differs little from that of the mainstream brigade of apocalyptists. Polar icecaps melt, deserts spread, hurricanes multiply, forests shrink, cities vanish beneath the rising seas, methane bursts uncontrollably into an overheating atmosphere, the sun gets hotter and hotter. We sink into what Lovelock pictures as ‘a chaotic world ruled by brutal warlords on a devastated world’. All very jolly and familiar.
Where he parts company with his old chums, the Greens, is in his prescription for the crisis. He argues that if civilisation is to be saved — which seems a considerable if, since everything else he says suggests it isn’t — the paramount priority is to secure the energy source on which civilisation is founded, namely electricity. For Lovelock there is but one way, and that is nuclear. Forget wind turbines, dump worries about nuclear waste. With emission-free energy and a range of emergency measures — such as stretching a giant sunshade across space and generating clouds to reflect back the heat of the sun — we might just squeak through.
Quite how this survival strategy is going to be implemented and by whom the professor does not reveal. In this country, emissions of greenhouse gases have risen and are rising inexorably, under the leadership of a prime minister addicted to spouting empty pieties about the legacy we bequeath to ‘our kids’. If Lovelock sees hope in the posturings of Blair and other world leaders, he must be a bigger optimist than he lets on.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a great deal of wisdom in this book, and a great deal to admire. To a science numbskull like myself, the Gaia metaphor — for all its New Age, teepee, back-to-earth connotations — does help to make sense of the otherwise inexplicable, and counters the absurd assumption that the planet is our property, to do with as we wish. His defence of nuclear power and assault on the wasteful preoccupation with renewables are compelling. He is right to mock the way we work ourselves into frenzy over the imagined dangers of nuclear waste, power lines, mobile phones, carcinogens and so forth, and ignore the perils staring us in the face. Above all, his prose has an elegance and clarity that put the standard eco-rant to shame.
All the same, there is something chilling about the calm certitude with which this old man presents his alternative visions of doom and survival, a touch of the Mad Scientist, Professor Brane- stawm. At one point he muses about the desirability of abandoning agriculture and going over to synthetic foods. At another he states calmly, ‘We would be wise to aim at a stabilised population of a half to one billion’, thereby disposing of five-sixths plus of the world’s current numbers. You may wonder whether, in the absence of wine and sausages, there would be many attractions in belonging to this new Lovelock order.
He gives us 30 years or so before we get going in earnest down the slippery slope. I haven’t the faintest idea if he’s right, but my inclination — derived from ignorance, scepticism of all prophets and prophecies, and innate sunny optimism — is to think he’s talking hogwash. Amid all the uncertainties, one thing is sure: that Lovelock himself, pin-sharp still at 86, will not be around to find out.
Tom Fort’s Under the Weather is published by Century, £12.99.