The Magazine

Going Nuclear

One cure for global climate change may surprise you.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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The Revenge of Gaia

Earth's Climate Crisis and the

Fate of Humanity

by James Lovelock

Basic, 176 pp., $25

James Lovelock is a strange duck. A British biologist who has made some extraordinary discoveries, such as the presence of chlorofluorocarbons in the Antarctic atmosphere, he is also the originator of the "Gaia hypothesis," the theory that the Earth is actually a living organism.

On the surface, the Gaia hypothesis seems little more than a return to paganism. As a scientific theory it offers only one intriguing proposition: The neo-Darwinistic suggestion that species which improve the environment for other species have a stronger chance of survival. Richard Dawkins and the disciples of the selfish gene have savaged Lovelock in debate over the last decade, but the idea does have some interesting possibilities. Building symbiotic relationships has survival value. An individual that can cooperate with other individuals probably does better in the long run, be it a species or a civilization.

What Dawkins is arguing against, of course, is the old notion that plants and animals can be purely altruistic. But there's an intriguing core to Lovelock's mythology that bears consideration.

All this has been argued in other forums, however. In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock is playing the Delphic oracle. He has access to Gaia while others don't, and is bringing back the word from the mountaintop. The message these days is simple: "Boy, is she mad!" Gaia has had it up to here with humanity and its polluting ways. In particular, global warming threatens to send temperatures off the charts and mankind to the brink of extinction. Those who survive may be living in caves.

All this would just be standard Al Gore agitprop, except for one thing. At 87, Lovelock has been around the block more than a few times and is not willing to entertain what he calls the "romantic idealism" of contemporary environmentalism. The Revenge of Gaia is foursquare for nuclear power and contemptuously dismissive of windmills, solar collectors, "renewables," and all the other "alternate-energy" strategies. Al Gore beware.

Here, for example, is Lovelock on the supposedly intractable problem of nuclear waste:

An outstanding advantage of nuclear over fossil fuel energy is how easy it is to deal with the waste it produces. Burning fossil fuels produces 27,000 millon tons of carbon dioxide yearly, enough . . . to make, if solidified, a mountain nearly one mile high and with a base twelve miles in circumference. The same quantity of energy produced from nuclear fission reactions would generate two million times less waste, and it would occupy a sixteen-metre cube. . . . I have offered in public to accept all of the high-level waste produced in a year from a nuclear power station for deposit on my small plot of land; it would occupy a space about a cubic metre in size and fit safely in a concrete pit, and I would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat my home. It would be a waste not to use it.

By contrast, here is his assessment of wind energy:

To supply the UK's present electricity needs would require 276,000 wind generators, about three per square mile, if national parks, urban, suburban and industrial areas are excluded. . . . [T]he intermittency of wind means that, at best, energy is available from wind turbines only 25 percent of the time. During the remaining 75 percent, electricity has to be made in standby fossil fuel power stations; worse still, the power stations have to be kept idling when wind energy is available . . . The most recent report from Germany put wind energy as available only 16 percent of the time.

But nothing arouses his wrath--or is it the wrath of Gaia?--as does "biofuels," producing fuels from crops.

Lovelock is being branded as a curmudgeon whose arguments are self-serving. (In fact, he admits, his opposition to wind power went into high gear when a neighbor signed a contract to install one of those 40-story monstrosities on land just next to his farm in West Devon.) But Lovelock is hitting at environmentalism's soft underbelly. Many an urban romantic may fool himself that solar and renewables are going to be able to do the job, but Lovelock is not taking the bait.

I believe nuclear power is the only source of energy that will satisfy our demands and yet not be a hazard to Gaia and interfere with its capacity to sustain a comfortable climate and atmospheric composition.