3. When you first started to study ecology, there was not the same widespread interest in that subject as there is today. Can you comment further on this?
I did not fully grasp the importance of ecology until about 1980. I had formerly heard of this subject, but had not studied it in any depth. I did not actually do that until I had access to the shelves of Cambridge University Library (CUL), where I took up leads gained on the Club of Rome. That grouping was founded in 1968 by an eminent British scientist and an Italian industrialist, namely Dr. Alexander King (1909-2007) and Aurelio Peccei (1908-1984). Dr. King had the repute of an international civil servant. These two very notable collaborators grasped that if certain crucial matters continued to be ignored by governments, then the global situation would deteriorate markedly in the not too distant future. They have been proven decisively correct.
Peccei is noted for stating: “If the Club of Rome has any merit, it is that of having been the first to rebel against the suicidal ignorance of the human condition.” The Club started as an informal gathering in Peccei’s home. They developed the leitmotif of “limits to growth,” and assimilated cues associated with a project undertaken by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The early ecological themes which then evolved in this manner were population increase, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution.
A controversial book resulted, being commissioned by the Club of Rome. The Limits to Growth (1972) gained widespread acclaim and also some strong resistance from both academics and governments. The Club of Rome subsequently amplified their pioneering probe. During the 1970s, King and Peccei were very active in the ecological cause. King contributed summaries and books like The State of the Planet, and Peccei became a futurologist in One Hundred Pages for the Future (1981). Yet governments failed to act upon the Club’s message, despite the scientific concerns in more general evidence.
l to r: Alexander King, Aurelio Peccei
The Club was run on independent lines, with no employees or livelihood factors. Peccei was the President, and insisted that the Club should not handle money. He and King travelled continually to meet heads of state in almost every country on the globe. The problem was that when politicians listened to the ecological pleading, they knew that their own positions were at risk if they commenced the measures necessary for ecological rectification. It was, for instance, argued that the public would resist the transition and that unpopular measures could not be imposed in democracies.
More than most other ecologists, King and Peccei knew by 1980 that time was seriously running out. The opposition and prevalent lethargy were too great. They were aware that if this situation persisted for much longer, it would be too late to stop the consequences. That was nearly thirty years ago.
The death of Peccei was a further setback. King took over leadership for a few years until 1990, and later resigned from the Club in 1999 in the face of new internal bureaucratic measures. These included the Paris secretariat being abolished against his advice and the Club headquarters being newly accommodated in the UNESCO branch at Paris. Dr. King complained at all this, and it was felt by some that the originating inspiration had ceased. The significant autobiography of Alexander King is Let the Cat Turn Round: One Man’s Traverse of the Twentieth Century (2006).
I was keen to incorporate some pages on the Club of Rome in my first book Psychology in Science (1983). Yet at that time many people did not understand the extent of the ecological data and the problems incurred by technology. Some people dismissed the subject as being a marginal factor, or as being exaggerated. The Club of Rome were predicting the melting of the polar ice masses (ibid., p. 153), for instance, but this sounded incredibly far-fetched to a society reared upon complacent affluence and “increased standards of living,” a phrase that I came to dislike. It took twenty years and more for global warming to be recognised as a fact of life. Popular science columnists in Britain were disputing this phenomenon until the last minute (in the early years of the twenty-first century).
The irony is that the problem had set in far too strongly to eradicate. Some members of the scientific establishment adversely influenced the politicians [though many climate scientists have argued for gobal warming in the face of denialism]. The situation in America was practically unbelievable for the political evasions resorted to. The Club of Rome became demonised by factions in America obsessed by oil reserves that would apparently never deplete. See further my Pointed Observations (2005), chapters 38 and 39, for the Club of Rome and related matters. [See also Climate Change Complexities.]
A relatively small rectification occurred via the refrigerator problem that was highlighted in relation to the ozone layer. At last some sanity prevailed in the Montreal Protocol, which confronted ozone issues. The international treaty of 1987 banned the use of chemicals such as CFCs (chlorinated fluorocarbons) that were released by refrigerators and aerosols. People now knew that their fridges were a danger to the atmosphere, a theme which only a short while before had been regarded as “loony,” to use a common epithet. But then another problem started. The confused public were now led to assume, by politicians and others, that all drawbacks would get solved by wonderful scientific adaptations to refrigerators and aerosols. Ozone-friendly chemicals had now become a saviour [though the damaged ozone will not recover yet for decades]. Factories, motor cars, and aeroplanes were just some of the reasons why there was no common solution to a growing complex of very serious problems that were still being swept under the carpet by defensive oil companies and other agencies.
The problems involved in climate change got worse all the time, and a fatal blow to potential curb was the refusal of America to comply with crucially necessary reductions in carbon dioxide emission. That ominous event occurred ten years ago. More recent developments in America still leave environmentalists with deep misgivings. The situation of this planet, and of those who dilate about “increased standards of living,” is staggeringly critical and in jeopardy. Coal, gas, and oil are all big ecological headaches. The Greenland ice sheet is melting, and yet the standards of living are still a scenario resembling the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand.
Greenland glaciers now melting
Torrents of meltwater have been cascading in summertime from the glaciers of Greenland. This phenomenon has been attended by discrepant reports. The authority known as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has recently gained criticism in the context of their conservative assessment of ice melt. The actual rate of melting glaciers is occurring much faster than IPCC predictions have credited. Some Greenland glaciers are now flowing into the sea three times more rapidly than they were doing ten years ago. This is a very dramatic situation, still largely ignored, and the consequences are unpredictable.
There has been some confusion about what to expect. A recent IPCC report predicted a two feet maximum in the rise of sea level, whereas more realistic commentators speak in terms of two metres. The IPCC were already out of date. Experts say that even a two metre rise in worldwide sea level will amount to a catastrophe for European coastlines. Realistic assessments further state that if the Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely, worldwide sea levels will then rise by over 21 feet. The speed of current ice melt is a matter lending dire urgency to the unpredictability of this ecological crisis.
Some commentators say that melting ice sheets in both Greenland and Antarctica could produce far more water than is envisaged by conservative estimates. A widespread view amongst ecologists is that global warming will cause most or all mountain glaciers to disappear by 2100. The dateline for such dramatic eventualities is extremely fluid. Some scientists say that the Greenland ice melt started in the late nineteenth century. The process is occurring much faster now, and could break all predictions in the backlash from nature.
The future culmination of that process could involve a rise of sea level by seven metres or even more. This is being predicted in terms of making all low-lying coastal cities uninhabitable. That means New York, London, Tokyo, Calcutta, and other metropolitan sites. It is further said that even a two metre rise will have serious consequences for some areas, including Florida. The most stern predictions say that the floating ice of the Arctic Ocean could vanish in thirty years due to increasing temperatures, a process which will facilitate the related demise of the Greenland glaciers. Nobody knows exactly when this might occur.
Even very recently, some alert scientists accused the UN (United Nations) of diluting the vital eco-message to the consumer giants America, Russia, and China. America wants to continue the same standard of living, and China desires to copy that problematic achievement. Carbon dioxide emissions continue at an alarming rate, the Greenland ice sheet melts, and governments are unprepared for the crises that will ensue.
To ascertain the ecological problem is one thing, but to make firm chronological predictions about future events is quite another. It is here that some ecologists query certain of the views expressed by Dr. James Lovelock, an independent British scientist. Lovelock is rather more dramatic than the IPCC in his communications, and is not to be discounted.
Lovelock invented the electron capture detector in the late 1960s, and was the first to detect the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere. He also created the Gaia hypothesis, which views the planet in terms of a living and self-regulating organism whose balance has been disturbed by carbon dioxide emissions. See Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979). That hypothesis has not been accepted by all the scientific community, and criticisms have been expressed. Yet much credence has been given in recent years to the factor of global warming. However, Lovelock says that it is now too late to prevent the problems incurred. See his more recent book The Revenge of Gaia (2006).
The rather specific predictions of James Lovelock have been reported on the media. For instance, “by 2040, China will be uninhabitable” (Sarah Sands, “We’re All Doomed!,” Daily Mail, March 22nd 2008, p. 43 col. 1). That is a very strong statement, and other analysts are more cautious. Time scale is very difficult to anticipate. There are numerous complexities in train. The affliction and disappearance of plant life is certainly a pressing matter, and it is also obvious that the intensive industrial activity of the Chinese could meet with setbacks. Chinese industry is currently a matter of concern to environmentalists. Lovelock has nevertheless expressed the argument that global warming could get even worse if Chinese industry weakens, due to the removal of the side-effect dust and haze which screens out heat.
The theories of Lovelock about ethnic migration do not meet with universal agreement. He says that the Chinese will go to Africa, while Americans will move to Canada. We need not doubt that there will be some very climatically harassed regions in North America. Lovelock seems to agree with the George Bush idea of using technology rather than conservation to tackle climate change, though he does clearly recognise that adverse consequences could arise in this context. It is easy to agree with him that the current population of the planet at over six billion is too much to sustain equably. He says that a billion is the sustainable number. This verdict means a return to the level of global population in the eighteenth century.
The controversial dateline of 2040 is now associated with a culling of the global population induced by floods, drought, and famine. This version of natural selection is very grim in certain dimensions of the argument. We are told that flooding will wipe out entire countries. There will be almost no food grown in Europe, says Lovelock, and Saharan desert areas will encroach onto the European mainland. Paris and Berlin are both in jeopardy from this scenario. The inhabitants of southern Europe are here forecast as migrating in desperation to countries like Canada, Britain, and Australia. Opponents of the current immigration influx into Britain will evidently need stronger defences, especially as south-east Asian countries are also specified in the ecological migration.
Britain is viewed by Lovelock as having a more favourable position than many other countries, the reason being given that soaring temperatures will be offset by cooler water created by the cessation of the Gulf Stream. That could be correct, though there have been different theories about the Gulf Stream, including a more arctic prediction which has been under query. Furthermore, Britain will be subject to rising sea levels that will harass areas like central London. Parliament will have to move, though the exercise could conceivably make their outlook more realistic. However, there is mention of a sea wall and also a lagoon city, options which might appeal to the more resilient Members of Parliament. The City might get their suits wet, and so waterproofs could be advisable while these facilities are still in stock (many of them are currently manufactured in China).
According to the same forthright source, 80% of humans will perish by the year 2100. (Decca Aitkenhead, “Enjoy life while you can,” The Guardian, March 1st 2008). By that date, a global temperature increase of between two and six degrees Celsius has been forecast by the IPCC. The hostility of Lovelock to renewable energy is now well known. This is because he believes that such commitment is superfluous, being too late to alter the basic ecological situation. Wind, tide, and water power are here discounted. Fifty years grace would be needed for such alternatives, and there is no such time in hand. Even if all fossil fuel burning were to stop immediately, the consequences of that activity to date will last for a thousand years.
In 2004, Lovelock caused a stir when he pronounced that only nuclear power can now halt global warming. The reason for this adamance is that nuclear energy comprises the only available source that does not cause global warming. Lovelock argues that nuclear waste and radiation are not dangerous, and refers to “the minute statistical risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation.” (Lovelock, “Nuclear power is the only green solution,” The Independent, May 24th 2004). Other environmentalists are in strong disagreement. It is much easier to agree with Lovelock that wind turbines are a waste of time, as so many of these mechanisms would be needed for the purpose envisaged. The call to renew ageing nuclear reactors is a difficult one to concede.
The radical commentator has stressed that ignorance of the ecological situation was perpetuated by the American political attitude of denying climate change. This neglect has been a sore point with ecologists for many years. Lovelock emphasises that the highly rated oil reserves will substantially deplete in the not too remote future. Only a short while ago, the Club of Rome were misrepresented by the American oil economists, blocking due perspective on climate change (Shepherd, Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 313ff.).
The description of “climate science maverick” has been applied to James Lovelock on the media. That label is not justified; the media scarcely knows what the truth is, and relies upon an independent like Dr. Lovelock to get an idea of what is signified. It is not necessary to believe every claim he makes, but there is cogency in many of his arguments, however provisional these may transpire to be. See the websites at www.jameslovelock.org/ and www.ecolo.org/lovelock/. See also the autobiography Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist (2000).
The Gaia hypothesis became the most popular ecological format in Britain, and was pirated by the new age commercial ecology drive, which ignored various other sources, including Club of Rome surveys from the same period. “Pop ecology” of the 80s and 90s yoked Gaia to such themes as the new wave of spiritual enlightenment that was presumed to be spearheaded by commercial centres like Esalen and the Findhorn Foundation. Yet it is clear that there has been no such era of enlightenment, but instead extortion and narcissism in the new age sectors (see no. 10 and no. 12 below).
Ironically, the current scenario of Gaia strongly indicates in the more watery aspects an ecological version of Atlantis. The supposed lost continent has been fantasised for many years by occultism on the basis of abstruse passages in Plato. Now it could transpire that the new age is a superfluous creation destined for submergence in many zones. Atlantis apart, the new age lore of the past forty years or so may be regarded as largely bankrupt of significances other than commercial ploys, pirating, and related misconceptions.