Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth to humans...come in, humans...

Every day is Earth Day for Mother Earth. But she has good days and bad days, and more bad days than good at the moment.

This sort of reactive nonsense should give people a clue about what's going wrong. Note particularly this nugget:

The process of our destruction is termed sustainable development, a destructive scheme that is in direct opposition to Christianity, which holds that man is to have dominion over nature, which is given to us for our use.

There it is, in a nutshell, no pun intended: the invidious religious underpinnings of the anti-Earth movement, the false, destructive notion that we are somehow outside nature. The religious anti-Earth folks think that we can do whatever we like to the environment, because it appears to say so in a book of dubious provenance that was cobbled together when the entire planetary population was 200 million, give or take.

The non-religious anti-Earth people, for all their political conspiracy talk, are trapped in the same meme. It's all about dominion--exploiting, taming, plundering, consuming. These are the folks who think it's clever to turn on bright lights during Earth Hour; the people who glory in producing waste and pollution, the people who have about as much foresight as a newt. And if that pollution becomes a problem, if the smells are getting unpleasant in your gated backyards, if your garden gnomes are starting to glow in the dark, you can always pitch the bad stuff over the fence where the poorer neighbours live: it can be buried on an Indian reserve, or made Mexico or Africa or China's problem. But what happens when they start bursting at the seams?

It's time, I think, to rehabilitate in the popular mind James Lovelock's notion of Gaia, which is anything but mystical and New Agey, contrary to what otherwise intelligent people like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould rather too quickly claimed. The dynamic processes of the earth, including the biosphere, are profoundly interconnected. You can't mess with one without affecting a lot of others. Gaia--not a sentient organism, but a complex natural system--is
in a dynamic equilibrium, and it is homeorhetic, meaning that it is self-stabilizing.

This is good, old-fashioned, non-teleological science, and with this insight, corroborated in any number of ways (the salinity of the oceans, the composition of the atmosphere and the surface temperature of the earth are remarkably constant over time, for example) Lovelock was, for example, able to predict the dimethylsulfide cycle, now a scientific commonplace.

But in his most recent book, The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock points out that the earth's homeorhesis is not immune to sudden changes brought about by alterations in the environment that produce cascading effects, such as massive deforestation, greenhouse gas production and other human activities. Already the planet is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. Life itself, due to the negative feedback loops that structure the Gaia system, will likely persist, he says, but humans will be "culled." I cannot accept his current deep pessimism: at least, I don't want to. I hope that it is not in fact too late to do anything, as he now claims. We progressives are optimistic by nature, and sometimes wildly so, even if we are staring death in the face.

But judging from the know-nothing commentary of reactionaries, kooks and fundies, and, more important, from paranoid political leaders who think that Kyoto is a socialist plot, we may indeed lack the critical mass required to turn things around.

We have strayed far back into the past, it seems. Dinosaurs are once again ruling the earth, and this time they're busily manufacturing their own asteroid. Will rational argument and good science be enough to stop them?

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