Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

Transition Culture has moved

After eight years of frenzied blogging at this site, Transition Culture has moved to its new home. Do come and join us, but feel free to also browse this now-archived site and use the shop. Thanks for all your support, comments and input so far, and see you soon.


21 Jun 2006

Lovelock’s Folly – A Book Review by Albert Bates.

Lovelock**Albert Bates**, still the presenter of the single most inspiring talk I ever attended (Findhorn 1995, GEN conference, for any speech nerds out there…), has written an excellent review of James Lovelock’s ‘Revenge of Gaia’. Having a background in permaculture, ecovillages and also in many years campaigning against nuclear power, he is in a unique position to deconstruct Lovelock’s thinking. His review is respectful where necessary, and shows a deep understanding of the subject matter. It is by far the best review of it I have so far read.

**The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back — and How We Can Still Save Humanity**
A Review by Albert Bates for The Permaculture Activist, Spring 2006

*It is much too late for sustainable development; what we need is a sustainable retreat*. – James Lovelock

James Lovelock turns 87 in 2006 and wants to take another turn around the book signing circuit before he bids adieu. After that he can leave his Devonshire cottage and go into the West as Middle Earth passes out of the age of elves and men.

Picture Lovelock, clad in sandwich board, standing on Hyde Park corner declaring that the end is nigh. Forecasting the future is not something many scientists attempt, and setting a firm date for say, a mass die-off of the human population, is hardly even scientific, but Lovelock does, and that date is 2056 to 2081 (in order to be witnessed by our children or grandchildren). The Revenge of Gaia is both a tour de force and a sad collection of the rantings of a crazy old man.

Too many variables stand between here and 2056 to make me comfortable with that prediction—the waning of 11, 80, and 200 year solar cycles, the slowing of the Atlantic conveyor, Peak Oil, and a plethora of permaculturists making soil and planting trees, to name a few.

At its low points, Lovelock‘s stridency in postulating arguments—on the side of fission, fusion and synthetic food, against organic farming, environmentalists, solar and wind energy—to his real and imagined critics, reveals a lack of deeply seated confidence in his own positions. By contrast, when he is in his element, he is a stolid font of higher wisdom and a gifted educator.

An example of the weaker Lovelock is his suggestion that wind power is impractical because it would take 39,900 three-mW turbines to power the UK (although Germany had 40,000 windmills in the 19th century); that so many windmills would change the climate (the wind dissipation is about 0.7% of the total actual dissipation caused by the land or water surface under the windmill); and that windmills kill birds (less, actually, than house cats, and only if poorly designed and operated).

The stronger, beatific Lovelock observes that the fact that animals dispose of excess nitrogen in a plant-available form as urine, rather than conserving water by exhaling it as nitrogen gas, cannot be explained by Darwinian evolution. Unless you tilt in the direction of intelligent design, you have to accept that we piss out our vital water and then have to go in search of more because Gaia prefers mammals to make the nitrogen available for plants, which in turn feed us and supply our oxygen. It’s symbiosis.

Lovelock is a master of the pithy analogy. Some examples:

*We are now approaching one of these tipping points, and our future is like that of the passengers of a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagra Falls…*

* * *

*It is almost as if we had lit a fire to keep warm and failed to notice, as we piled on fuel, that the fire was out of control and the furniture had ignited*.

* * *

*We are like the smoker who enjoys a cigarette and imagines giving up smoking when the harm becomes tangible*.

* * *

*We are already farming more than the Earth can afford, and if we attempt to farm the whole Earth to feed people, even with organic farming, it would make us like sailors who burnt the timbers and rigging of their ship to keep warm.*

* * *

*We are like passengers on a large aircraft crossing the Atlantic Ocean who suddenly realize just how much carbon dioxide their plane was adding to the already overburdened air. It would hardly help if they asked the captain to turn off the engines and let the plane travel like a glider by wind power alone. We cannot turn off our energy-intensive fossil-fuel powered-civilization without crashing; we need the soft landing of a powered descent.*

* * *

*The humanist concept of sustainable development and the Christian concept of stewardship are flawed by unconscious hubris. We have neither the knowledge nor the capacity to achieve them. We are no more qualified to be the stewards or developers of the Earth than are goats to be gardeners*.

* * *

*We are like a careless and thoughtless family member whose presence is destructive and who seems to think that an apology is enough*.

One of his few and well-chosen graphs takes a page of predictions from Stephen Schneider’s seminal 1989 book, Global Warming, and marks us somewhere between the middle and upper line of damage, or right on track to cross a point of irreversibility by the late 21st century.

albert1

Lovelock says that Gaia probably has at least two states of repose, one colder and one warmer. We have been in the colder realm for the past fifty-five million years and might have lingered in our cool world longer had we not broken into the storehouse where Gaia had been putting the excess carbon she had wrung from the air to keep the sky clean. The Eocene domain we are destined to revisit when we cross the magic point of a carbon-dominated atmosphere is much warmer than humans are accustomed to. For that matter, it is much warmer than trees are accustomed to. Lovelock says that in a 5-degree warmer world the Amazon rainforest, the Eastern boreal forests of North America, and the forests of Europe, Africa and Asia will be replaced with blowing dust.

If that were really true, we would expect to see wildfires in the Southeast and Southwest USA, claiming millions of acres. We would be seeing hurricanes of unprecedented strength, some coming in times of the year or visiting places they have never been seen before. There would be more frequent droughts, along with an increase of tornadoes and insects knocking down whole forests. Hmmm.

In certain ways the human world is re-enacting the tragedy of Napoleon’s advance on Moscow in 1812. … He was unaware that the forces of General Winter were siding with the Russians….

This profound alteration of the habitability of Earth leads Lovelock to conclude that we are at the end of any and all civilization. *“We are in a fool’s climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

13 Comments

Mark
21 Jun 12:36pm

i think the idea that humans can some how separate themselves from the global ecosystem (gaia) is pretty ridiculous. I presume he is thinking of a model where humans retreat to cities and are self-sustaining without any interaction from the outside world. I wonder where he thinks we are going to get uranium from, if not through mining the stuff out of the ground and therefore interacting in a big way with the earth. Such an idea has no practical place in todays infrastructure or as a solution to immediate problems. Humans are part of the system, surely he contradicts himself with our removal from the system and the example of our symbiosis with plants through urine.

At the end of the day this is another case of a bad distraction from getting on with the practical long twilight struggle towards a more sustainable symbiosis with the eco-system.

Myke's Weblog
21 Jun 2:48pm

Is Nuclear Energy Viable?

Albert Bates articulates why nuclear energy is a bad solution for our energy needs. Source: Transition Culture ? Lovelock’s Folly – A Book Review by Albert Bates.Economists would point to the serious lack of financial justification for nuclear energy…

Jason Cole
21 Jun 6:17pm

It is my understanding that Lovelock promotes nuclear energy as a “sticking plaster” to keep CO2 down.

What he doesn’t realise is that nuclear energy merely displaces CO2 emissions; from the power station to the mine.

You may be able to store the waste in a small bunker. The tailings from Uranium mines is a different order of magnitude.

When the ore ratios drop below 1 gram in 5000 (in hard rock), as much enregy is required to make the fuel as is released by the reactor. We are not too far off such “low grade” ores, and this point alone is all that’s needed to disprove Lovelock’s idea of nuclear energy being a significant CO2-reduction tool.

Andy
21 Jun 7:01pm

Rob,

Anywhere we can find that inspiring talk by Bates in 1995?

Cheers,
Andy

Albert Bates
22 Jun 12:39pm

I think you must be referring to the talk at the Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities conference at Findhorn. Sorry to say it was extemporaneous and hence no digital file here, but it was taped and a synopsis was published in Eco-Villages and Sustainable Communities. Ed. Jillian Conrad. Scotland: Findhorn Press, 1996. That used to be avail as a pdf on the findhorn.org site but I see they no longer have all those conference proceedings from 11 years ago so finding a library with a hard copy might be the best bet.

I seem to recall my general theme was eutopia with an “e,” about Eutopia (a good place) vs Utopia (nowhere).While not quite the same, you might have a look at: http://www.thefarm.org/lifestyle/albertbates/akbp18.html and http://www.thefarm.org/lifestyle/albertbates/akbp4.html.

Eric
23 Jun 1:59am

Excellent review. I remember being struck by Lovelock’s acceptance of nuclear power in his original Gaia book.

As for “nerdy solutions,” however, industrial-scale wind power is right up there. It represents more dependence on a vast grid and isn’t even a good source of energy, as anyone who lives with a small one off grid knows. And its own negative impacts are not insignificant.

Jason Cole
24 Jun 12:26am

You can’t seriously compare a small wind turbine against very large ones. The very large ones have access to a far better wind resource. Small ones have access to a relatively poor resource and thus don’t capture much at all.

Every RE technology has an appropriate scale. Small wind turbines are not the most appropriate scale for that technology. The right scale for wind energy is the community level.

Tom Gray
24 Jun 7:52pm

I don’t believe there is a “right scale” for wind. There are applications that work well for all sizes, from micro-turbines up to utility-scale wind farms. Concerns about wind’s variability in large-scale use are, pardon the pun, overblown. See Utility Wind Integration State of the Art, a brief report issued recently by the Utility Wind Integration Group (UWIG), in cooperation with the three major U.S. utility trade associations–the Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association, and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Regards,
Tom Gray
American Wind Energy Association
http://www.awea.org
http://www.ifnotwind.org

Eric
25 Jun 6:23pm

From the UWIG report: “The addition of a wind plant to a power system increases the amount of variability and uncertainty of the net load. This may introduce measurable changes in the amount of operating reserves required for regulation, ramping and load-following. Operating reserves may consist of both spinning and non-spinning reserves.”

They do insist the additional cost is small (ignoring the cost of adding the wind plant itself), but they do not appear to address the effect on “conventional” fuels. i.e., how much more inefficiently other sources have to be used, thus cancelling some, maybe most, of the possible benefit of having wind power on the system.

And though they point out that wind is a source of energy rather than capacity (meaning planners have to build other plants as if the wind plants aren’t there, since a third of the time they won’t be producing energy at all and another third of the time they will be producing at a rate well below their annual average), they also assert that the “capacity value of wind generation is typically up to 40% of nameplate rating.” That is remarkable indeed, since it exceeds the average capacity factor of 27% reported to the Energy Information Agency of the Dept. of Energy.

Most studies appear to assign a capacity value (or credit, or effective capacity) of about a third of the capacity factor, which is to say about 1/12 of the nameplate capacity in the U.S. Bigger turbines have not made that any better, since the generators are correspondingly bigger, too. The low level of effective output is highly variable, with no correlation with demand. Thus, as “penetration” approaches the capacity of the system to balance the extra load fluctuation, the capacity credit of wind approaches zero, as studies in Ireland and Germany have determined.

Albert Bates
28 Jun 4:24am

It is interesting to watch this discussion morph into a detailed look at wind potential. How galling it must be to Lovelock. I am really surprised he found no defenders here.

Some of the numbers given by Eric suggest that wind might compete favorably with nuclear as a base load, rather than peak load, which is more usual. Grid-based systems gain some advantage from the spread of sites, but big and small wind turbines are still ultimately dependant on weather, which remain highly variable, requiring some storage considerations for load leveling. There are many interesting ongoing developments in storage, from pumped hydro to compressed air, and this is an active edge for exploration.

But wind should not be looked at in isolation, rather it is one piece of the solution (to how you have a “powered descent”). I agree that community scale is optimal, and for some well-situated communities that might even mean the biggest turbines Vestas makes (4.5 MW). For others it might be an offshore tidal energy park, or, like Roosevelt Island NY, a small farm of submarine river current turbines. Tides are more predictable than winds, but it is not either-or. It is a mix of all. When the sun is not shining, the wind may be blowing and the sea chop up. It all works together.

Eric
28 Jun 8:06pm

What piece of the solution has wind proven to be in Denmark? How much less of other fuels do they use because of big wind turbines on the grid? The answer appears to be zero.

Alberto Eisenstein
17 Jan 5:38am

I realy don’t like what Albert Bates wrote. Neither the way he wrote. Is he realy concerned about our enviroment? Or is he just a stupid guy who don’t want to admit he has been wrong all his life? Mr Bates, you are not doing any good to the world writting so much bullshit.

Dan Culbertson
18 May 12:52am

Albert Bates does not agree with Lovelock’s statements about high tech solutions therefore he calls this book a “sad collection of the rantings of a crazy old man.” Well, I don’t agree with some of the proposed solutions either but I don’t think Lovelock is either ranting or crazy. Indeed, I think Bates is doing more ranting and is pretty much headed over the crazy hill if not already there. I think I could call this review the “sad rantings of a crazy old technophobic leftover hippie.” But I won’t. I don’t throw meaningless insults at people just because I disagree with them on issues.