"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Never mind asking how we ought to live, it’s now about how we survive

"If we fail to take care of the Earth, it will surely take care of itself by making us no longer welcome."  James Lovelock

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What constitutes a meaningful life, what is the point of existence, how do we fulfil our potential in a single lifetime in such a way that contributes to humankind, to the planet? 

These are the questions that provide the subtext to virtually all human activity and thought.  The uncertainty of our state and the quest for knowledge that might counter the absurdity of it all, and the hubris of progress, is what drives us as a species, seeking as we do answers not just to life’s big questions but to how we should carve out our daily lives.

Only we no longer have the luxury of time in which to contemplate the possibilities, because, as the French foreign minister warned this week in the run up to the UN climate summit in Paris, this planet is rapidly dying.  The overriding challenge that we must now all address is how to sort out the mess we’ve made.

It seems an apt time to reassert James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and to reiterate the warnings he first began issuing in the 1970s, along with other scientists such as Hubert Lamb, echoed later with more ferocity since 1989 by the IPCC – that is; the self-sustaining system of the Earth is in grave danger.  As Lovelock points out, “if we fail to take care of the Earth, it will surely take care of itself by making us no longer welcome”. 

Lovelock’s 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, strikes the reader as unremittingly doom-laden, though necessarily so.  It is far more than the subjective analysis of one who abides by the ideology of Nature, though if it was, that would be no bad thing.  It’s a rigorous, confrontational attack on the lifestyle that we in the consumer-driven West have chosen to lead, through industrialisation, greed, hypocrisy, the geopolitics of fear and the pursuit of infinite happiness by whatever means we fancy.  Lovelock holds a mirror up to us so that we might see what we have become, and if there’s an ounce of decency left in us, so that it might awaken our sense of responsibility to do something about it.

Ecological overspending

Lovelock expertly dissects the path to “our wrongdoing” by examining the sources of energy that our “bloated, energy intensive” lifestyles have decimated.  This essentially amounts to us ploughing the Earth of resources at a rate faster than it can replenish – precisely 27,000 million tons of carbon a year, enough to create a mile-high mountain.  According to Lovelock, it would take 1,000 years for the Earth to recover if we immediately stopped rampaging and pillaging, and that was in 2006:

“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.  When that happens, there is little time to put out the fire before it consumed the house itself.”

As for sustainability and renewables, Lovelock suggests they are merely a sticking plaster for our conscience, at best.  At worst, they are the new means to satisfy our insatiable desires to propel the market economic forces which are the root cause of the plague we’ve unleashed – we still want everything, so we’ll find another way of getting it.   

Of course even in 2006, Lovelock was saying nothing new, simply reiterating the urgency of a vital point.  In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists warned that human beings and nature were on a collision course, calling for drastic change “if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated” by the damage to atmosphere, oceans, forests and the species that inhabit them, caused by a human population out of control.

An unpalatable truth

There are over seven billion of us on the planet today, with over 200,000 additional people born every day.  By 2025, an annual increase of 80 million will see us totalling an unsustainable 8 billion.  That’s millions more contributing to the combustion, in need of increasingly scarce resources, from food to energy to water.  We humans, the self-appointed stewards of the world, are also the most abhorrent ogres trampling all over it.

We need to slow down population growth, limit our impact by limiting our size and creating more space for the Earth to renew itself.  But the figures show no sign of that happening anytime soon as to make a difference.  Perhaps as Lovelock suggests, all we can do is leave a survival book for those unlucky enough to be around when the crisis reaches its peak, so that the legacy of science and understanding that has led us here might help any survivors navigate their way out of the wreckage. 

The human ecologist and economist William Rees called for the same thing in his proposal for a worldwide “Survival 2100” project, on the basis of the “tsunami of evidence [that] suggests that the global community is living beyond its ecological means”.  Rees proposed that we need a 90% reduction in every sphere of human activity if we are to find a way of co-existing within the planet’s ecological means.  We have the logic, the moral capacity, a tendency for compassion, and a concern for the future such that theoretically, we have the power to stem the crisis. 

The Paris talks and the UN summit in December will show whether theory can translate to practice in any significant measure, whether those with the power can set aside their own agendas to galvanise the collective for the greater good and impose the regulations and restrictions necessary to enforce change at a radical, global level.

"We all have but one lifeboat"

As Albert Einstein said: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us the universe, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

One can only hope that next week’s climate talks in Paris will bring about the “evidence-based, visionary, morally coherent policy responses” required, as called for by Rees and Lovelock before him, and the hundreds of others whose sense we’d be fools to go on ignoring.

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