What we have discovered is that as our planet, the Earth, evolves it
keeps its climate and its chemistry always fit for life, and the
invisible hand that regulates the Earth System operates through
feedbacks, negative and positive, between its living and non-living
parts. But this knowledge, Gaia theory, is still in the domain of
specialist science and is not yet understood or applied in the public
world. As in politics, it took a long time before we recognised that
feedback from market forces can not be ignored, so I suspect that we
face a similar slow learning process about our relationship with the
Earth. We are still trying to shape it to our ends and needs and we
ignore, even disable, its own powerful guiding hand; in our hubris we
believe that we can be stewards of the Earth long before we understand
it. Perhaps Earth science and economics have more in common than we
used to think.

It seems probable – even likely – that we will face huge
environmental disturbances as this century evolves. But there are no
certainties about the future, only probabilities, and there may be
little or no global warming; we might even undo some of the harm we
have done; or we might be rescued by a natural event, such as the
eruption in sequence of large volcanoes each the size of Tambora. This
would put the Earth back on course towards the next glaciation and
leave us free to continue burning fossil fuel. But we would be unwise
to continue with business as usual and expect something or other,
natural or man made, to save us from the revenge of our outraged
planet. It would be as inept as for a heavy smoker to assume that good
genes or good luck will save him from its consequences.

European politicians appear to accept the near inevitability of
global warming but, oddly, turn to the Green Movement and its lobbies
for guidance, more than to their scientists. I see myself as a Green
but I speak this afternoon as a scientist and I want to show that in
spite of their good intentions, the majority of the Greens are unaware
how serious are the global changes that soon may come; consequently,
their advice to governments may be flawed. Indeed nea rly all of us see
the world in humanist, not scientific, terms and it is too easy to be
mistaken.

So how did it all begin? Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, is
said to have started the Green movement; it was a book concerned with
the natural world and the threat to bird life from pesticides. As the
movement evolved it became politically active and soon it was people
not birds that were seen to be threatened by the products of industry;
it reflected the fears and prejudices of its mainly urban membership
and showed less concern for the natural world. Two centuries ago, in
Adam Smith’s time, it was natural and traditional to be concerned about
people; there were less than a billion of us then and nothing we did
significantly harmed the Earth. At that time we believed that the Earth
was given to us and that we were in charge of it as its stewards. As
population and industry grew we did not notice, until recently, that we
were changing the atmosphere and the surface of the Earth. We ignored
the fact that we depended on the other life forms not only for food but
for the air we breathe and the climate we enjoy. Because we are by
nature self-interested we took it all for granted and rarely ever
noticed how much we depended on the Earth and were part of it. The all
pervading error of the modern Green movement is its self indulgence,
which has led to a near hypochondriac obsession with personal hazards
to health such as: pesticide residues and other unwanted chemicals in
foodstuff, nuclear radiation, and genetic manipulation. To judge from
the supermarket shelves we seem to have the illusion that if the whole
planet were farmed organically all would be well. We so ignore the
Earth that we fail to see that the regulatory functions of natural
ecosystems cannot be simply replaced by farmland.

With more than six billion hungry mouths to feed, and a burgeoning
accumulation of greenhouse gases from our heavy industrial past and
present, there is no returning to the romantic illusion of a
pre-industrial Earth. We are like the driver of a car going down a
steep hill who finds the brakes have failed. We could take our foot
from the accelerator pedal but instead we chant the mantras of
renewable energy or sustainable development. These will not undo the
harm done, and we would have to stop what we call development
altogether; there are just too many of us living the way we do now.
What we need is damage limitation.

Renewable energy might be a good idea in the long term, and is a
showy way for politicians to prove they are doing something, but it is
already too late to expect it significantly to ameliorate the present
crisis; global warming is already happening and is likely to intensify.
To supplement the feeble energy supplies from renewables by lashings of
natural gas is a risky option, particularly for the UK. The European
encouragement of subsidized renewable energy might be justified were
there no alternative tried and tested energy source but we do have
clean and safe nuclear energy and it is immediately available. The
Green objection to it is unscientific and perverse, but they have
preached against it until some European governments have been forced by
fear of disapproval to go against the public good and allow it to be
phased out.

In January this year a conference was held in Cambridge organised
by the Eart scientists, John Shepherd and Harry Elderfield, to discuss
other ways that might serve to ameliorate global warming. The delegates
presented a set of ingenious and well considered remedies. These
included: space mounted sunshades, a method for increasing cloudiness
over the oceans, and the removal of carbon dioxide from smoke stacks or
even from the air. Unfortunately, none was free of disadvantages or
available now. We left the meeting realising that it is easy to make
mistakes when knowledge about the whole system is lacking and we are
still amazingly ignorant about the Earth system. The economist, Shimon
Awerbach, reminded us that the magical appearance of a completely
clean, safe and economic source of energy would do little to stop the
burning of fossil fuels; such is the human tendency to over consume.
Indeed, the widespread use of wind turbines in Germany has been
accompanied by an increase in coal combustion, the dirtiest of all
fuels. The Earth system, Gaia, functions because within it are powerful
restraints to growth, as we will soon discover. We have to make our own
restraints if we are to avoid those the Earth will surely apply.
Perhaps the unreasoning fear of nuclear energy is an advantage for it
implies a built in restraint.

So what will happen and what should we do? I have heard of three
alternatives but there may be more. The first is laissez faire: just
continue to enjoy a warmer 21st century while it lasts, and make
cosmetic attempts to hide global warming. I suspect that this is what
will happen in much of the world. Second, is the deep Green way: eat
nothing but organic food, use nothing but renewable energy and raw
materials; and use alternative not scientific medicine. Either of these
policies might restore the Earth to health but at the cost of a massive
reduction in the numbers of people and possibly the loss of some
civilizations as well. There may be a less unpleasant way: the high
tech road. It would require us to take global change seriously and do
our best to lessen the footprint of humans on the Earth. It would
involve these things: first and most important, no more natural habitat
destruction anywhere. To attempt to farm the whole Earth to feed people
would make us like sailors who burnt the timbers and rigging of their
ship to keep warm.

We must embrace science and engineering, not reject them; we need
their skills and inventions to lessen our impact on the Earth. If more
food comes from less land by genetic engineering then use it; better
still, if food can be synthesised by the chemical and biochemical
industries from carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen, then let’s make it
and give the Earth a rest. We need a portfolio of energy sources, with
nuclear playing a major part, at least until fusion power becomes a
practical option; and we must stop fretting over the minute statistical
risks of cancer from chemicals or radiation. One quarter of us will die
of cancer anyway, mainly because we breathe air laden with that all
pervasive carcinogen, oxygen. If we fail to concentrate our minds on
the real danger, which is global warming, we may die even sooner, as
did more than 20,000 unfortunates from overheating in Europe last
summer.

We are like passengers on a large aircraft crossing the Pacific
Ocean who suddenly realise just how much carbon dioxide their plane is
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. The Kyoto agreement and the Government
White Paper on energy use are like this, small changes in the right
direction but insufficient to alter the course of events and inadequate
for stirring the altruism needed to curb emissions and our pressures on
the land. My hope lies in that powerful force that takes over our lives
when we sense that our tribe or nation is threatened from outside. In
wartime we accept without question the severest of rationing and will
readily offer our lives. Perhaps when the catastrophes of the
intensifying greenhouse become frequent enough we will pull together as
a global unit with the self restraint to stop burning fossil fuel and
abusing the natural world. Astronauts who have had the chance to look
back at the Earth from space and see what a stunningly beautiful planet
it is often talk of the Earth as home. Greens, let us put aside our
baseless fears and be brave enough to see that the real threat is to
the living Earth, which is our nation and our home.

Talk at the Adam Smith Institute, 15th March 2004

Old Teaser
We remember Adam Smith for his stunning intuition of the invisible
guiding hand that somehow enables rampant self interest to evolve for
the common good. Two hundred years later we face a similar paradox. We
know that the Earth is a benign and comfortable place for life and has
been so for most of its history, so how have selfish genes allowed the
evolution of so altruistic a planet? It is easy now to see how
Darwinian natural selection leads to the evolution of fit organisms but
how can the common good for all life also evolve by natural selection?
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