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Lovelock's Lit Review

Before you get to the substance of any argument, you typically need some eqiuvalent of the academic "lit review" -- a survey of the existing debate that allows you to position your own proposal in the context of what others have said about the issue. A poor lit review shows that -- whatever the intrinsic merits of your idea -- you have no clue who you're really arguing with. James Lovelock gives a good example (via Muck and Mystery) of a confused lit review on the question of how to deal with climate change.

Lovelock's substantive position is easy to pin down -- a technological fix centered on massive expansion of nuclear power*, plus other engineering projects like giant space mirrors to deflect sunlight. His understanding of how he relates to the rest of the environmentalist debate, however, is quite skewed.

"Our situation," Lovelock says, "is similar to that of a boat that suddenly loses engine power shortly before reaching Niagara Falls. What's the point of trying to repair the engine?" To save what it can, Lovelock believes, the world must embark on a completely different path. Most important, it must abandon the notion of "green romanticism."

"Green romanticism" may or may not be the dominaint strain of environmentalism -- but it is quite clearly not the current path of the world as a whole. All current proposals to deal with climate change that have any traction with the world's decisionmakers are far closer to (albeit more modest than) Lovelock's technocracy than to any romanticist back-to-the-land or "small is beautiful" proposal. I'm sorry, but if your preferred solution is advocated by George Bush and John Howard, you can't claim to be out of the mainstream.

Lovelock has nothing but ridicule for environmentalists' favorite issues, such as "sustainable development" and "renewable energy," calling them "well-meaning nonsense."

I found this put-down of sustainable development bizarre, because Lovelock's view of the term is exactly the opposite of the environmentalist view. To every environmentalist I've heard, "sustainable development" means the very kind of modestly-paradigm-changing, technology-based solution that Lovelock is pushing. Sustainable developers are his best allies, while anti-sustainable-development environmentalists charge that the concept provides cover for continuing the kind of high-tech capitalist managerialism that created our environmental problems in the first place.

Do-gooders, he adds, are concerned about pesticide residues in bananas and the link between mobile phones and cancer, all the while accepting CO2 poisoning as a necessary evil. "They strain out the mosquitoes while blithely swallowing camels," he says.

I challenge Lovelock to find me one environmentalist who thinks "CO2 poisoning" -- by which I assume he means the various negative effects of climate change, not that CO2 is itself becoming a significant toxin -- is a "necessary evil." He's free to say that the policies that other environmentalists advocate will not in fact solve the climate problem, or that paying attention to any other issue takes time and resources that are needed for action on climate. But only someone completely out of touch with the actual environmentalist debate could claim that anyone other than non-environmentalist apologists for the status quo (who, we should note, are also unconcerned about pesticides or mobile phones) think increasing CO2 is a "necessary evil."

* Even if I was a nuke enthusiast, I don't think I'd want Lovelock on my side -- his response to Chernobyl is not the usual "that was the Soviets' fault, and reactors are safer now," but rather "the death toll was only in the thousands, so why are you complaining?" (My opposition to nuclear power is less "radiation will kill us all," and more that nuclear power is incompatible with a restructuring and decentralization of our energy system, which I think is at least as important as changing the source of the power.)


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