Tuesday, January 31, 2006

James Lovelock: Man of the Moment

The Terra satellite's orbit around the earth
See the wonders of the Blue Marble from space
at Visible Earth: A catalog of images and
animations of our home planet

Like some Old Testament prophet, James Lovelock of Gaia fame currently bestrides the headlines and the talk shows with two big messages: we will soon be facing planetary conditions of lethal heat due to our mistreatment of the earth and the atmosphere, and that our only viable option at this stage of the impending crisis is to go for nuclear power.

This is set out in his new book 'The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back' [Allen Lane] in which he also claims that fasionable causes like organic farming and renewable energy may be just as damaging as the systems they replace, as they put short-term human interests before the health of the planet.

Now something has been bothering me. I remember very well The Independent running a front-page story on Lovelock, the gist of it being that this ultimate green had almost committed blasphemy by arguing that we had to go back to nuclear power.

The article: 'Only nuclear power can now halt global warming: Leading environmentalist urges radical rethink on climate change' by Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor was published on 24 May 2004. It read in part:

'Global warming is now advancing so swiftly that only a massive expansion of nuclear power as the world's main energy source can prevent it overwhelming civilisation, the scientist and celebrated Green guru, James Lovelock, says. You can buy the full article here

(The full text of a background profile on Lovelock by McCarthy, which appeared the same day, is available for free: 'Guru who tuned into Gaia was one of the first to warn of climate threat')

In the ensuing months, opinion pieces began to spring up in all manner of papers and magazines arguing the case for nuclear and developed such a head of pr steam, that the government felt strong enough to begin pushing for the revival of the nuclear power programme.

On 3rd December 2005, The Independent published 'James Lovelock: The green man' by Ian Irvine, which began:

'James Lovelock has complained before about the lack of urgency with which governments have reacted to his warnings about the future of the planet, but he must be pleased with last week's news. The strong indication that the Prime Minister supports the building of a new generation of nuclear power plants in order to cut our greenhouse gas emissions comes only 18 months after Lovelock's bombshell of an article in The Independent, which launched a fierce debate among scientists and green activists. It was the breaking of the great green taboo. In it he declared that there was no viable alternative to nuclear energy if we were to alleviate the already dire consequences of climate change which will become obvious within a few decades. Lovelock believes that the widespread fear of nuclear energy is ignorant and irrational: "What at first was proper concern for safety has become a near-pathological anxiety.'

The highlighted sentence is the one that gives me pause for thought - mainly due to the fact that Lovelock has aways been advocate for nuclear power, or at least he was an enthusiast for it when I went to interview him on 1 May 1984 to conduct a taped interview (which has yet to be published).

Being an organised soul, I dug out the Lovelock folder from the HQINFO archives and found not only the tape but also contemporary notes about the day. They begin as follows:

'We drove in a powerful car out of Plymouth. Talked about university and encyclopaedias'; the latter he considers 'a tool for marketing men'. (He tells me he was 'conned into buying the Encyclopaedia Britannica when he was a student and that he sold it again - for half-price - through an advert in The Times'.)

'Stopped off to visit the church of Saint Michael of the Rock' (a tiny chapel perched atop a steep granite outcrop). I note: 'L. bounds up the rocks. I'm out of breath. He never breaks his stride. Has great respect for the master masons.'

Then comes the key paragraph: 'We start talking about nuclear energy. Surprisingly he is an advocate. He likens his passion to that of being a heretic. Chances of accident equivalent of airliner landing on his house. Willing to store suitcase-sized chunk of nuclear waste produced by large power station for a year, in a shed in his garden, use the heat it gives off. Happy to have his grandchildren stand by it. Happy to live near Windscale.' Says of Hiroshima that 'death rates of survivors from cancer lower than comparable populations. Deaths from radiation exposure need to be put in proportion compared with tobacoo etc. Far greater threat from CO2 build-up.'

The point I am rather long-windedly making is that Lovelock's views have been consistent and well-known to environmentalists for at least a decade before The Independent's story.

I have consistently remained a great admirer of James Lovelock's and a staunch opponent of the further development of nuclear power.

See also: Paramedic to the Planet [The Guardian]

Rad Decision is a techno-thriller about a looming disaster at a nuclear power plant, written by James Asch an engineer with over twenty years of experience in the American nuclear industry. It tells the story of the people and machinery that make up a nuclear power plant, and the dark tale of a man who believes it is his destiny to destroy it. The novel includes an overview of how electricity is made and a step-by-step, inside look at how a nuclear plant operates - - from its equipment to its people to the politics and money behind it. Chernobyl, TMI and the wonderful world of radiation are also discussed. Armed with this background, the reader plunges into a nuclear accident in the making.
The whole novel is available for reading and download on the this site which is, in itself, an extremely interesting model of how to publish on the web.

It carries an endorsement from Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog: "I'd like to see 'Rad Decision' widely read." Stewart Brand’s controversial article 'Environmental Heresies' discussing nuclear power, amongst other issues like GM, is available on-line in the May 2005 issue of Technology Review. An extremely interesting piece.

There are, incidentally, some fascinating other articles in this magazine including 'The Internet Is Broken' and
Hack: The iPOD Nano

1 comment:

James Aach said...

While you may not care for the future development of nuclear power, you still might find the following interesting - it was endorsed by another environmentalist who's calling for a second look at nuclear - Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog. See RadDecision.blogspot.com.