If I look back on the many moments of challenge and disturbance in my life it’s clear that a critical question at such moments has always been “How much truth am I willing to expose myself to?” I think it’s fair to say that the only reason I’ve been able to come through some of those challenges and move on has been because I’ve opened myself to a fresh degree of truth, usually truth about my character, assumptions or behaviour.
This is always uncomfortable as it involves having to acknowledge that some aspects of my self with which I was perfectly content have in fact been causing problems for others and if I want the benefit of good relations with those others the old behaviours will have to change. And giving up on a view of myself that used to work just fine (at least, so I thought) is a hard wrench.
Of course there is always the option of denial, to which I am no stranger. I simply discount the new, challenging information and re-affirm that I am fine just as I am and it is the others who have misunderstood the situation. It is usually possible to find evidence that validates this ‘status quo’ and allows me to carry on in my groove. That is, until the next time, when the challenge tends to arrive with much greater force.
A breath of fresh truth
If you are wondering why this bout of psychological introspection, it is because I have just read The Vanishing Face of Gaia – A Final Warning (Allen Lane 2009), written by one of the greatest living earth scientists, James Lovelock. At the age of 90 Lovelock is a master with no need to prove anything to anyone. An independent scientist and inventor for the past 45 years, reliant not on government grants but what he could make from his own inventions and advisory work, he speaks about the future of human civilization on Earth with a breadth of knowledge and a freedom of perspective that comes like a breath of fresh air…and fresh truth. I cannot remember when I was so challenged by a single, short book.
Lovelock is widely known as the creator of Gaia theory, named after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth. Gaia theory states that, rather than life taking place on an inert planet made up of rocks, gases and other lifeless elements, living organisms (including us) form an interactive system with these elements in order to create the conditions for further life to emerge and flourish. For example living organisms will use all their evolutionary ingenuity to, for example, create and maintain an atmosphere that favours their own survival and growth.
The idea that plants, microbes and animals could influence the atmosphere has been a hard one for most physicists, geologists, chemists and others to accept, maintaining as they do that the atmosphere is made up of a mixture of inert gases and particles driven primarily by the power of the sun. Indeed it has taken all of 40 years for the wider scientific community to allow the validity of this theory and even now its full implications are far from being grasped by both mainstream scientists and certainly the wider public.
Earth’s temperature regulating system is being destroyed
So why is Gaia theory important, and especially now? Any scientific theory is only as important as its ability to predict how the system that it refers to will behave in future. Look at how successful the theory of Gravity has been in predicting how and where objects will fall, even though nobody fully understands why gravity operates in the way it does.
Gaia theory is critically important now because it has been pointing all along to a strong link between the health of the Earth’s living systems and the state of the climate. Nobody doubts that a hotter climate will have big impacts on living systems like agriculture, forests, water and indeed us humans, but Lovelock has for years been saying the opposite as well – that the more we interfere with (i.e. destroy, pollute or build over) nature’s complex eco-systems, the less able they are to do their work of regulating atmospheric temperature.
One of the predictions he made using Gaia theory was that tropical and boreal forests play an important role in regulating global temperature. This has been proven and is now generally accepted, hence the growing focus on preserving what we have left of these forest systems.
But as a student of the field of sustainability for the past twelve years all of this on its own would not have been enough to surprise or shock me. What has stopped me in my tracks is Lovelock’s argument that we humans have done so much damage to eco-systems and have put so much CO2 up into the atmosphere at such an extraordinary speed during the past 200 years that we have overwhelmed nature’s ability to regulate the atmospheric temperature at an optimal level and he believes that we are very close to witnessing a swift rise of 5°C in global average temperature, from which it will take thousands of years to retreat back to our current ‘normal’.
A state too hot for human settlement
Such a ‘hot state’ will make it impossible for human settlement to continue in many parts of the world as agriculture will fail. This will almost certainly result in mass migration, conflict over shrinking resources and much premature death. By the second half of this century Lovelock sees the Earth carrying only about 100 million people instead of the current load of about 6,3 billion, a culling of 62 out of every 63 people now alive.
Those who survive will, he suggests, be clustered in the few areas still blessed with an ability to grow food. His hope is that, from this new, stable ‘hot state’ human civilization will be able – if all goes well – to partner with Gaia much more consciously and help ‘her’ to become a more fully intelligent planet with a much longer life span than she might otherwise manage.
He reminds us that since humans first emerged on earth about 1 million years ago there have been seven extreme climatic shifts, from cool to warm and from warm to cool. Each of them was devastating to the humans alive at the time and some geneticists believe that one of the incidents caused the human population to sink as low as around 2,000 people, a period known as “the genetic bottleneck”. Lovelock believes our enormous population growth and burning of fossil fuels have made it likely that the coming transition will be more violent than any before, requiring all our best qualities of leadership and collective compassion and ingenuity to avoid it becoming the end of human civilization altogether.
Large-scale destruction is imminent
When one of the finest scientific minds our species has produced makes an assessment like this after 90 years of life and still in full possession of his brilliant faculties (see his fascinating interview about the book below) one must take notice. Though he would be the last to say he had discovered “the truth” about our future, his arguments for predicting a very rough time ahead are based on rigorous scientific method and a lifetime of experiment and engagement with the great scientific minds of his age. Though he comes across as a cheerful man, Lovelock has clearly thought deeply about the consequences of what he is seeing. Being responsible, he shares what he sees with us.
What we do with his unpalatable information is, of course, up to us. I’ve taken the decision to hold his analysis in the front of my mind from now on (until it is superseded by something even more convincing) and not do what I’m strongly tempted to do, which is to sweep it under the rug and go on believing that we are merely facing a set of severe problems to which we may, if we work hard and swiftly at it, soon find the solutions.
I am now working on the assumption that we have passed that point. There is nothing we can currently conceive of doing that will preserve a remotely decent life – indeed any life at all – for between 6 and 7 billion people on earth. How soon will the large-scale destruction of life-supporting systems begin? Interestingly, Lovelock sees this coming not next year or even necessarily within the next 5-10 years, but he believes that once it begins “it will be very rapid indeed”.
Past 200 years we have failed comprehensively
So where has this left me? Two thoughts predominate for me as I write this – one looks backward, the other looks forward. First, I am profoundly struck by the realization that we humans, in what has been our ‘grand project’ of the past seven millennia, to settle the earth and achieve the comfortable living of our dreams, have failed comprehensively. For just as that dream appears within our grasp (look at the extraordinary levels of comfort in which about 1 billion people now live all over the world) it is revealed to us as being built on illusory foundations.
Before we embarked on agriculture we barely disturbed Gaia, in fact probably contributed to the evolution of her self-regulatory systems. Once we learned how to create food surpluses and started altering large landscapes we began to weaken other aspects of the Gaia system. With the Industrial Revolution we slammed our foot to the floor and have not lifted it since.
As Lovelock puts it, “If there were only 100 million of us on the Earth we could do almost anything we liked without harm. At 7 billion I doubt anything sustainable is possible or will significantly reduce fossil fuel combustion; by significantly I mean enough to reduce global heating. Seven billion living as we do, and aspire to do, is too many for a planet that tries to self-regulate its climate.”
How to move forward knowing this?
This being the case, I look around me at so many examples of human success (technological, institutional, cultural, etc.) and ask “How can we judge anything a success if the whole project of human civilization is basically a failure?” Something in me refuses to take this in fully. I still find pleasure and joy in small things human and man-made – I am still terribly attached to my tribe and its achievements. But in the harsh reckoning of the likely near future so many of my tribe’s successes are going to look so very hollow.
The second thought that arises for me is about what is worth doing now. For despite feeling a disabling sense of grief and near despair, I also feel moved to respond by taking action. Each of us has a different gift to bring to the world and mine, I think, is to do with bringing diverse people together to think beyond their normal boundaries. So I am thinking about how to draw together people of influence from all corners of South African society to start thinking through the practical implications of what Lovelock and other systems scientists are telling us.
I have no illusions that this will be easy – my own attempts to imagine what it might be like to plan for mass migration away from low-lying coastal areas, to take just one example, show me that this is no picnic, and as the great early 19th century philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “The average man would rather face death or torture than think.” But I believe that once any group of intelligent, responsible people is given the chance to engage with the science and start their own personal journey of grasping what may lie ahead, they will become available for creative, humane leadership, of which we will need plenty.
I am not sorry to have been shaken out of my comfort. I fully expect to seek out fresh comfort in different forms for the rest of my life – I think it’s part of my nature – but I also acknowledge that comfort can bring great danger and to be shaken out of it by an exposure to new truths is a necessary part of being fully alive and enables me to play my own modest, ephemeral part in this much greater story of Life.
By Peter Willis
Peter has been the South African Director of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership since 2002. He also chairs the Prince of Wales Business & Sustainability Programme in South Africa – an annual seminar for senior executives that now counts more than 400 alumni in the region.