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Science News

Forecasting Doomsday 854

Boccaccio writes "James Lovelock, the planetary scientist famous for his Gaia Theory, writes in today's Independent of his belief that it is already too late to divert an environmental catastrophe which will see much of human civilisation destroyed. Fearing it too late to be green, he instead suggests communities plan for survival in a Mad Max type world with limited resources ruled by violent warlords. "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act, and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can." He suggests we should be writing a practical guidebook printed on long lasting paper containing "the basic accumulated scientific knowledge of humanity.""
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Forecasting Doomsday

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  • by alicenextdoor ( 910558 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @01:24PM (#14482940)
    Lovelock has always been a drama que^H^H fearlessly outspoken scientific maverick. The Gaia hypothesis was considered pretty outrageous when he proposed it in the mid 1960s, and it dodn't become mainstream(ish) until Weak Gaia was introduced. Most people would agree that the world is a complex, interlocking, dynamic system, but some of us draw the line at a loving (or vengeful) Mother Goddess. And with a new book coming out, what does he have to lose by cranking up the hysteria? It's just like the good old days.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 16, 2006 @01:26PM (#14482962)
    I really don't follow you there. Did you ever take history class in High school? What about all those wars under a guy named Caesar. Rome was pretty big back then, and that was an imperial state. Don't forget the Vikings. And, the mongols are a pretty good example of raiders with no real home just wreaking havoc on random people. I think it's very plausible that if our government breaks down, we will see roving bands of motorcycle gangs shooting up many towns just for shits and giggles. There will be nothing to stop them, and they have nothing to live for because they lost everything.

    Our country really is balanced on a delicate edge. Since we have recently completely lost any semblance of morals (witness the implicit approval of torture in Gitmo and Iraq, as well as the use of nuclear weapons against other countries; have you heard anyone on the news saying nukes are definitely never going to be used? look back a decade or two and the tone is completely different). I feel that many people in our country have become so demonic that if they were given the opportunity they would run wild.

    Another thing: war and combat does not require projectile weapons. Baseball bats and knives are just as effective against defenseless targets. Sure, maybe you have a handgun or two, but what good is that going to do against 50 armed hoodlums?

  • by c0y ( 169660 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @01:48PM (#14483179) Homepage
    You wrote: The world is ending on one end while the U.S. government isn't too concerned with it at the time.

    The pentagon commissioned this study entitled An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security [gbn.com]

  • by ChrisDolan ( 24101 ) <chris+slashdotNO@SPAMchrisdolan.net> on Monday January 16, 2006 @02:11PM (#14483407) Homepage
    Nitpick: You're thinking of Asimov's [wikipedia.org] Foundation Series [wikipedia.org].
  • Re:Film at Eleven (Score:4, Informative)

    by TheNarrator ( 200498 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @02:40PM (#14483739)
    Don't forget Thomas Malthus [wikipedia.org] and his Malthusian Catastrophe [wikipedia.org] that in the late 18th century began the whole legacy of predictions of an overpopulation/environmental castastrophe leading to diaster. Thankfully, most of these predictions have not come to pass, but they still keep getting made on a regular basis.

  • No records? (Score:5, Informative)

    by raygundan ( 16760 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @02:43PM (#14483759) Homepage
    And yet....no records were set....uh..

    Yep. No records. Now, I'm not advocating one side or the other here, but 2005 seems to have been a year of extremes, not one that didn't set any records. There will *always* be records in a given year, particularly local ones. It's the worldwide records like "highest average temp on record, despite the absence of El Nino" and "lowest arctic ice recorded" that matter. Not "Hottest July 3rd ever in Tempe, AZ."

    Worst hurricane season on record. [cnn.com]

    200 Western US cities set heat records. [cnn.com]

    Hottest year ever, least arctic ice ever, most intense single hurricane ever, worst drought in decades. [www.cbc.ca]

    Third worst year on record for extreme weather, hottest year on record despite the fact that the previous record had El Nino to drive it. (and in a contrast, very few tornados). [about.com]
  • by Celandro ( 595953 ) <celandro@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Monday January 16, 2006 @03:20PM (#14484181)
    People in urban areas thinking the weather is changing?

    Oh no! They are correct! It IS hotter in cities, especially as city size increases!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urban_heat_island [wikipedia.org]

    Sorry, the world isn't going to end if cities get 10 degrees hotter. Even with a massive increase in city size, 99% of the world's surface area is not even close to urbanized and won't be any time soon if ever.

    Your anecdotal evidence about local weather in cities means next to nothing for world climate.

    The belief that the most adaptable of all animals will be unable to cope with climate change over hundreds of years with plenty of time to devote technical solutions if needed is a sure sign of hysteria. You can take comfort that humans have been predicting the end of the world for thousands of years though. You are in good company.

  • by c0y ( 169660 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @03:30PM (#14484284) Homepage
    I agree that the mere presence of the pentagon study by itself isn't cause for concern.

    What is cause for concern are the number of critical tipping points we seem to be hitting. Specifically:

    It's not that things might get a bit warmer (or colder), or that a "few people" in low-lying areas might have to move (actually, it's 53% of the U.S. population according to the census [census.gov]). What's really scary is that we are changing the atmosphere on a scale that may not recover for thousands of years if ever, and which has no guarantees of being suitable for higher life.

  • by cheetah ( 9485 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @05:56PM (#14485657)
    In order for extracting oil from, say, the tar sands to be profitable the price has to climb above a threshold, be it $100 or $200+.

    Actually the real cost for extraction is about ~$23 a barrel. http://www.eenews.net/specialreports/tarsands/sr_t arsands1.htm [eenews.net] I know some people that live up in that area. The whole area has been in a boom for the last 7-10 years... Canada will soon be an oil economy. Of course they will have to drop the Kyoto treaty do to the fact that getting at this oil requires burning some of it (to heat the sand and mineing the sand). Then again, afaik none of the Kyoto signatories are even close to stopping increased C02 emissions much less getting back to 1990 levels.
  • Re:Gaia (Score:3, Informative)

    by Thomas Miconi ( 85282 ) on Monday January 16, 2006 @07:36PM (#14486580)
    The starting point of the Gaia hypothesis is Lovelock's observation that Life can profoundly alter the environment in which it exists, which provides a "signature" for Life. On a lifeless planet, such as Mars or Venus, the atmosphere will be roughly at chemical equilibrium (i.e. chemically stable), because any reaction that could take place will do so and nothing will replenish the consumed elements. So you only end up with inert, equilibrium atmospheres. But on planets with a biosphere, the living organisms (which are self-maintaining, energy-absorbing, far-from-equilibrium chemical reactions and constantly produce new chemicals which would not be expected to appear spontaneously) will alter their environment to the point that the atmosphere will be far from equilibrium itself.

    Look at the Earth: its atmosphere is packed with oxygen. Now this is clearly not a stable situation. If all life disappeared from Earth, the oxygen would quickly react with any component it could find (by oxydizing them !) and after a few million years the atmosphere would lose virtually all of its O2. The massive presence of oxygen in the atmosphere is the signature of a similarly massive non-equilibrium process at work, which is likely to be (and indeed turns out to be) Life.

    This insight in itself was novel and interesting. The problems started when Lovelock began to talk about Gaia as follows :

    a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.

    This is utter BS. Evolving biospheres do not "seek" any "optimal environment for life on this planet". Any newly evolved species will gladly poison the entire planet if it can enhance its own chances of survival by doing so (the fact that it may itself fall victim to it later on being no obstacle).

    And you know how we know that ? We know that because it has actually happened, at least twice. It happened once with the invention of photosynthesis, through which some bacterial algae enhanced their own fitness by pumping out massive amounts of a deadly poison (oxygen) into the atmosphere. Look up for "Oxygen holocaust" (a term coined by Lovelock's friend Lynn Margulis, IIRC). It turned out that life was so flexible that it managed to adapt to the poison and exploit its properties - but there was no fundamental necessity that it would manage to do so. Had the poison been too violent, blue algae (which ironically cannot stand oxygen themselves, and nowadays only exist in secluded, anaerobic environments) could well have killed off the majority of the biosphere.

    And now it is happening again: a certain species is releasing massive amounts of toxic chemicals in the environment to enhance its short-term well-being. And who is saying so ? Well, surprise, Sir Lovelock himself. How ironic !

    Evolution is not guided by any well-meaning, optimum-seeking principle. It is perfectly possible for an evolutionarily stable strategy to drive a species (and, why not, the entire biosphere) straight into extinction. The reasonm wh the current environment seems eerily well-suited for Life is that modern living creature evolved specifically in adaptation to this environment ! The original Gaia theory was essentially a classic example of final-causes reasoning: noses are remarably suited to the bearing of glasses, therefore we have noses so that we can put glasses on them. Aristotle could be forgiven for thinking like this, but not a 20th century scientist.

    Lovelock later toned down his claims and came back to more realistic rethorics, but there's a reason why he's still viewed with suspicion by much of the scientific establishment.

  • by NickFortune ( 613926 ) on Tuesday January 17, 2006 @05:34AM (#14489032) Homepage Journal
    mmm... how would you legislate the electoral process? All electoral procedures would sunset after the standard period. What's the default? Secret ballot? better be good, because it's unlikely to be changed.

    A few other things to consider: you can count on the local thug to oppose laws against violence and the local thief to block laws against petty theft. You can certainly count on the neighbourhood crime boss to block laws against extotion robbery and arson. Count on teenagers to block the creation of a local police force. You can count on the local industry reps to block laws prohibiting dumping toxic waste into the local ecosystem, and to block any and all laws for a minimum wage.

    And with a secret ballot, you can probably count on the wife beaters to block laws against domestic violence and paedophiles to block laws against molesting five year olds. Rape would probably be legal most places as well. That means that protective fathers are going to block laws against assault and murder, too.

    And the sad thing is that, as each community has its misfits, we could expect to see this pattern broadly replicated from town to town, with a few variants. You'd get corporate towns where the local big employer kept the law, and others where the local landowner kept enough hired guns to maintain order. Essentially, there'd still be laws, and the laws would still be less than unanimous - they'd just be informal unwritten laws, enforced by violence. I can't see that as being a step forward.

Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty. -- Plato