Thursday, 3 September 2009

Save the World? I don't think so!


Apologies again for the break in service to my dear blog, but such is life these days! Anyone who has read a few of my blogs this year will realise how 'challenging' things have been for my family since the turn of the year. It's been a little crazy, but there's light at the end of that tunnel at last. Maybe time to start enjoying life again at a more sensible pace? Throughout the turmoil I have at least managed to find a few minutes to read a few interesting books to build on my OU science course and keep the grey matter functional. I've read 'Life after Us' by Jan Zalasiewicz and most recently 'The Revenge of Gaia' by James Lovelock. I'm now onto 'Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau', by a guy who has had way too many mentions from 'Holey Schist' already, but more of that excellent book soon!
So to get back into the swing of things, I'll start with a brief look at Lovelock's 'Revenge of Gaia'. Finding this book (ironically via a reference in 'Life After Us') was particularly interesting as the author takes the view that planet Earth is like a living organism, self-regulating and capable of looking after itself on a constant basis, which is a view I share.

Barely a day goes by without someone teling us what steps we need to take to 'help save the Earth'. Well meaning suggestions I'm sure, but are we not being a little arrogant to suggest that we humans can indeed 'save the Earth'? Dr Iain Stewart of Plymouth University stated in his excellent book and television series 'Earth: The Power of the Planet', that the Earth is quite able to look after itself and is indeed already doing so! A multitude of extremely clever feedback mechanisms help restore the Earth's natural balance.

Lovelock however strikes a cautionary note, warning that if human activity tips the balance too far, we may reach a point where the Earth's natural feedbacks are unable to cope, leaving our planet heading for excessive warming to the point where life will no longer be possible. The thought of Earth becoming like some of our neighboiurs in the solar system is a sobering one and one not to be ignored.

Lovelock also argues the case for nuclear energy in a very persuasive way. Indeed, sitting on a bench in Skegness last weekend, looking out to sea and being confronted by the sight of 54 wind turbines just off the coast, I couldn't help but wonder at the futility of it all! Is this a genuine alternative source of energy to replace fossil fuels, or is it merely to achieve european community goals for carbon dioxide emission reduction? If we surround our coast and cover our hillsides with these huge turbines (which we surely must if we are to replace coal and oil fired electricity generation), can we be sure that their very presence is not going to adversely affect our climate themselves?

Unlike Lovelock, I don't believe that his nightmare scenario will come to fruition. Earth will find a way and restore its natural balance, but the downside I believe will almost certainly mean the extinction of us homo sapiens. How soon this happens will be largely down to how bold we can be to take the necessary steps to slow our and the Earth's decline. Can we voluntarily slow our population growth to achieve a more sustainable global level? A population of 8 billion cannot be sustained based on fossil fuel consumption or any other fuel for that matter, so something has got to give. Throw into the mix the small matters of water supply and food supply and things start to lookvery serious. And the alarming thing is that it may well come to a head in my lifetime - and I'm nearly 50! Scary!

Iain Stewart ended his book with the optimistic view that the Earth will be okay. It will take care of itself very nicely thankyou, but just how long the human being will play a part is very much open to debate.

This all leads very nicely onto the other book I mentioned earlier, 'The Earth After Us' by Jan Zalasiewicz, which looks at Earth 100 million years from now, long after the human being has become extinct. What evidence will there be for the presence of homo sapiens? How will we be judged? Intriguing stuff and more on that next time!

Cheers, Alyn.

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