As valid and elegant as some of the elements of the Gaia hypothesis are – its intricate simplicity is fascinating – there are several points which leave me feeling very averse to James Lovelock himself. I accept that it was written at a time where writers and scientists were allowed to be shamelessly sexist and narrow-minded, but in the subsequent revisions of the text, I would have expected some kind of change. Despite emphasis on the female ‘Gaia’, Lovelock clarifies early on that even this pronoun is to be taken in the same way as that of a ship, i.e. that it is an unimportant idiosyncrasy. Lovelock’s continual male-centric writing is subtle but still abrasive – perhaps it is just me, and I am hypersensitive. I have never taken to Lovelock or many of his ideas, which probably pits me against him from the outset; the fact remains, however, that his masculine perspective annoys me. This feeds into the cocksure way he presents everything, as if there is a smug little grin on his face the whole time – it’s the same whenever I see him speak – as if he thinks there is no way he could be wrong. To be fair, there is an acceptance that there could be other ways of doing things, but it seems limited. His background also influences his politics somewhat – the number of references to warfare and ‘just’ war reveal a pro-war sensibility. I am always loathe to support or agree with anyone who believes there can ever be such a thing as a ‘just’ war; in Lovelock’s case it seems to stem from an early twentieth century upbringing and employment in a politically conservative industry. This American Liberal Republicanism appears to underlie the book, with Lovelock seemingly reluctant to accept any other perspectives other than his own. In discussing the “recent heresies of humanism and Marxism”, and “Anarchists” who would seek to destroy technology via “destructive action rather than constructive thought”, his conservative nature becomes abundantly clear. I find it difficult to reconcile the image of a scientist who believes in the ‘magic’ of nature, and this apparently blinkered individual. The notion of a self-regulatory at unconsciously intelligent system has become less radical in current science, as long as the distinction between conscious and Godlike regulation and pseudo-intelligent feedback loops, cycles and processes is made, it is now more accepted. It is one of those theories that have to be read if you are interested in environmental science or any related discipline, and I’m glad I finally did, even if it only serves as ammunition. I found the bulk of the ideas to be interesting, well-founded and thought-provoking, and mainly presented in a lucid and convincing manner. As ever, it was nuances that really irritated me, so on the whole it is worth a read.
This was the 2009 reprint of the latest edition of “Gaia: a new look at life on Earth” by James Lovelock, Oxford University Press, 2000.
I’ve been reading a book that I once read when I was about 13, given to me by my geography teacher at the time. I still fucking love that man for contributing to who I am now. Anyway, I digress.
Andrew Dobson continually (over)emphasises the distinction between ecologism and environmentalism – and then further subdivides Green politics into ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ sectors. I have problems with a great deal of what he says, primarily the premise of ecologism. I suppose perhaps maybe that’s just me disagreeing with certain aspects of the ideology, but I don’t see how having a biocentric perspective is necessarily realistic. If you run the idea of biocentricity to its fullest extent, then it would logically follow that all human development is an abusive destruction of the biosphere that could be considered morally ‘wrong’. The notion that there is no hierarchy of species, i.e. anti-anthropocentrism, is fair enough but I’ll acknowledge that it clashes with my own views. I think there is little merit in preserving the planet in its essential current form, considering it is so dynamic and ever-changing – the only detriment of processes like anthropogenic climate change is that they will ultimately destroy human life and the biosphere as it currently exists. Dobson takes a deeply moral and philosophical approach to the debate, which I find dense and theoretically dry.
The book as a vehicle of expression I think should seek to be accessible. Dry theory has a place – academia. It’s all very well and good using long words and elaborate concepts in dense prose when addressing it to fellow academics in journals (i.e. to people who can understand what you’re saying), but to follow the same approach in a book only alienates the things that are being said. By Dobson’s analysis, at least in my understanding of it, there appears to be a need for an innate and thorough understanding of scientific ecology in order to be able to participate in political debate. Knowledge of the “complexity, diversity and symbiosis” is a pre-requisite of deep ecologism by his rhetoric, which may be true. If it is true, it seems redundant. It is such a shame that people should be isolated from such an engaging and incredibly important debate purely because the expectation is that participants should be educated on the topic to what seems to me to be a ludicrous level. I think most people should understand at least a little bit about the world we live in because it is so relevant, but have the depth of understanding necessitated here is tragically cloistered.
The other thing I dislike is the idea he presents that the ‘Left’ seeks constantly to remake the world in the image of ‘man’ a) because I disagree, and think it is remotely insulting to lefties, one of whom I consider myself to be, and b) because it is inherently an anti-feminist point.
There are some worthy and interesting points made however. Dobson groups capitalism and communism both under the superideological umbrella of ‘industrialism’, something I think is a fascinating observation. The pursuit of consumption, regardless of who controls the means of production (capital or labour), is still destructive and anti-green. Consumerism is a part of capitalism, naturally,but also the need for ever-increasing production and expansion is something seen in communist ideologies too. The need for the inclusion of a class analysis in green politics is another thing I agree with – it is so often the case that green/environmental/ecological politics fails to consider the relevance of social politics and class in its remit; if we are to consider the biosphere and environment in a systemic way (as per the Gaia hypothesis, for instance), then not to include these human elements in our evaluation is to fall down. Integrating lots of aspects of life via a holistic and ‘holist’ approach has credibility. Mutual dependence, symbiosis, relationships; all are important, as are the relationships we as a species have with these systems.
In the same way that I don’t subscribe to ecologism as an ideology, I don’t subscribe to environmentalism as a managerial approach to green-ness that requires little or no behavioural change/ societal shifts. In my mind, reconstruction and destruction of hegemonic structures like capitalism needs to take place not purely out of a sense of ethical morality because we are ‘hurting the planet’ (bit hippy, if we’re honest..) but because by ‘hurting the planet’, we are only serving to hurt ourselves as a race in the long term. It is effectively like the worst kind of parasite – one that kills its host.
I must add that I am critiquing the 3rd edition, lacking as the library was in a readily available 4th ed.