catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

The carbon tax and dreams of community

with 24 comments

This review of a set of environmentalist tomes by Bill McKibben is interesting enough for articles in that genre. It discusses James Lovelock’s famous work on Gaia as well as a number of other lesser known works. Here is the description of Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis:

    James Lovelock is among the planet’s most interesting and productive scientists. His invention of an electron capture device that was able to detect tiny amounts of chemicals enabled other scientists both to understand the dangers of DDT to the eggshells of birds and to figure out the ways in which chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were eroding the ozone layer. He’s best known, though, not for a gadget but for a metaphor: the idea that the earth might usefully be considered as a single organism (for which he used the name of the Greek earth goddess Gaia) struggling to keep itself stable.

    his so-called Gaia hypothesis was at first less clear than that— “hardly anyone, and that included me for the first ten years after the concept was born, seems to know what Gaia is,” he has written. But the hypothesis has turned into a theory, still not fully accepted by other scientists but not scorned either. It holds that the earth is “a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system” and striving to “regulate surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life …
    This homeostasis is now being disrupted by our brief binge of fossil fuel consumption, which has released a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indeed, at one point Lovelock predicts—more gloomily than any other competent observer I am aware of—that we have already pushed the planet over the brink, and that we will soon see remarkably rapid rises in temperature, well beyond those envisioned in most of the computer models now in use—themselves quite dire. He argues that because the earth is already struggling to keep itself cool, our extra increment of heat is particularly dangerous, and he predicts that we will soon see the confluence of several phenomena: the death of ocean algae in ever-warmer ocean waters, reducing the rate at which these small plants can remove carbon from the atmosphere; the death of tropical forests as a result of higher temperatures and the higher rates of evaporation they cause; sharp changes in the earth’s “albedo,” or reflectivity, as white ice that reflects sunlight back out into space is replaced with the absorptive blue of seawater or the dark green of high-latitude boreal forests; and the release of large amounts of methane, itself a greenhouse gas, held in ice crystals in the frozen north or beneath the sea.

I have to admit this sounds like potentially fascinating stuff and I’m not in a position to judge the plausibility of these claims. It is certainly a far cry from how I have read New Age popularisers describe the Gaia hypothesis and its implications. So this essay is well worth the full read for its discussion of the Gaia hypothesis alone.

But then it ends on this weird note where fossil fuels are blamed for our ‘hyper-individualisation’:

Our sense of community is in disrepair at least in part because the prosperity that flowed from cheap fossil fuel has allowed us all to become extremely individualized, even hyperindividualized, in ways that, as we only now begin to understand, represent a truly Faustian bargain. We Americans haven’t needed our neighbors for anything important, and hence neighborliness—local solidarity—has disappeared. Our problem now is that there is no way forward, at least if we’re serious about preventing the worst ecological nightmares, that doesn’t involve working together politically to make changes deep enough and rapid enough to matter. A carbon tax would be a very good place to start.


Written by Admin

November 14, 2006 at 8:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

24 Responses

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  1. Does this guy live in New York?


    November 14, 2006 at 9:08 pm

  2. There was an interesting interview with Lovelock on Lateline earlier this year. (Transcript here). He was, amongst other things, backing nuclear power stations – to the great consternation of many enviro-luddites.

    TONY JONES: I have heard it said that you think nuclear waste is so containable you actually wouldn’t mind having it buried safely in your own backyard. Is that so?

    PROFESSOR JAMES LOVELOCK: It is, indeed. I would be very glad to have it because when it is freshly produced, it stays hot for about 10 or 20 years and I’d use it for free home heating. I’d be glad to use it. It would be a waste not to.


    November 14, 2006 at 9:13 pm

  3. so we get to hear just how rooted we are. how even our skin is going to melt….. and then… the solution is a carbon tax…. Ummmmm


    November 14, 2006 at 9:15 pm

  4. Well I’ll leave the science and econometrics arguments to others more expert than myself but I liked Lovelock on Lateline – a good old man, I thought. I don’t know about his Gaia hypothesis – it doesn’t seem to say anything about all the massive changes, temperature increases/decreases and cataclysms of geological time that had nothing to do with humans.


    November 14, 2006 at 9:26 pm

  5. I read one of his books about 15 years ago, and I must say the ideas were certainly influential on me at the time.

    It unfortunate that the crystals and insense set have taken it as some sort of scientific justification of their beliefs.

    Steve Edney

    November 14, 2006 at 10:14 pm

  6. In a former life I graduated with a major in Life Sciences.

    Lovelock’s Gaia theory is the only scientifically sound one for comprehending the planet’s biosphere and ecology. This notion has pervaded life sciences for more than a generation.

    Hopefully now more people are coming to understand the long term implications of our growth at any cost economies. You can argue the toss over the details, but It’s common sense.

    I was unaware of Lovelock’s notion of sacrificing the neigbourhood to oil fueled individualisation, but it sits fine with me.

    And a carbon tax would be most direct and effective way of signaling markets as to the ‘real’ cost of producing greenhouse gases. What better impetus to move toward carbon neutrality? The easy way to beat a carbon tax is not to produce or consume carbon.

    Carbon trading my soften the blow but it should only be a temporary sop. Carbon trading increases demand for tree plantations. And the most ‘profitable way’ for government to do that is by clear-felling old growth state forests, creating further imbalances in the water systems.


    November 14, 2006 at 10:22 pm

  7. Slim
    To clarify the bits that were excepted were not by Lovelock but by the guy who is reviewing Lovelock along with other writers. This includes the last para reproduced.

    Jason Soon

    November 14, 2006 at 10:24 pm

  8. Oh yeah…guess I was reading a bit too quickly trying to get to bed after a rattling off a post on my soapbox about the Paul Bremmer story The Lost Year in Iraq on SBS tonight. Truly scarifying.


    November 14, 2006 at 10:34 pm

  9. Couldn’t it be argued that cheap fossil fuels have done just as much to connect people and, moreover, expand our notion of society from the local to the global? If fossil fuels have created the problem of global warming, haven’t they also created the globalised consciousness without which there can be no solution? (If indeed there is a problem to solve). Sure, the corner stores are mostly gone – people can drive to the supermarket – but I can visit Massachusetts with an ease that was impossible for my great great grandfather – who came here in the early nineteenth century and never saw his old family again. Something socially good may have been lost but something good has indubitably been gained.


    November 14, 2006 at 10:44 pm

  10. The problem is that these guys don’t have the evidence for it.

    In Lovelocks case the analogy has taken over both the evidence AND any sort of way the joules might even theoretically be accumulated in such a short time.

    You have your models and they work for you. But one ought not push them too far.

    Here’s someone who shows his reasoning better:


    November 15, 2006 at 1:46 am

  11. Its all mumbo-jumbo Gaia-fearing madness.


    November 15, 2006 at 3:25 pm

  12. Slim. You are simply going to have to come up with some evidence for your rolling thunder assertions here.


    November 15, 2006 at 3:55 pm

  13. Look, lovelock can’t be dismissed out of hand. he is a good scientist. His assertions have to be argued and shown to be wrong. Attacking Lovelock is the wrong way to go. That’s just Quigginizing the issue if you go down that road.


    November 15, 2006 at 4:16 pm

  14. My goodness. JC sticks up for Greenie.
    What next?
    GMB declares he doesn’t know everything?

    Jason Soon

    November 15, 2006 at 4:18 pm

  15. No Jase.

    i stick up for people who have possess the knowledge in their fields. Lovelock is a respectable scientist and I can believe he is sincere in his efforts to get to the truth. I think he is worried and sincerely so. I respect that. I respect that because he seems to be a man of conviction.. at least from what I have understood of him.

    I think he is wrong, but deserves to be listened to on the chance that he is right.

    What i don’t respect is the drama queens who are using this issue to further political ends. Those are the people who I despise because it stops us from getting to the truth. In ohter words they have politicised this to no end.

    Big difference.

    Lovelock has enough nouse that he could be right and it is important to prove his theory wrong from an honest perspective. Even he, I’m sure would appreciate this.

    As in anything there are tails on a probability chart and Lovlock is sitting on the tail. it doesn’t mean he should be shouted down. We need people like him in science.


    November 15, 2006 at 7:29 pm

  16. He came up with the Gaia thesis while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He’s the real deal, intellectually speaking. He isn’t some Anthony Albanese ignoramus.


    November 15, 2006 at 7:57 pm

  17. Right.

    But thats why he’s catapulted up to where he is in this debate.

    I mean he cannot show a tipping point as he alledges.

    Or if he can I’ve not seen it. And its just hard to see how it would even be POSSIBLE that his fears could be realised.

    Actually I think its total bullshit. I think its a model thats served him well and he doesn’t know where its limits lie.

    But its because he has decades of runs on the board…. So he becomes this bloke that the left catapults up……

    I mean there are other guys who have done good work in the past too. But they are likely just pottering around the garden and living pension-to-pension since they haven’t made a big splash with a pro-alarmist theory.

    Look at Hansen. Just one climate-scientist. But you have leftists taking everything he says as holy writ.

    When all is said and done there are very few of the older climate-scientists going in for this stuff.

    With the older guys its all Hansen and Lovelock. Lovelock and Hansen.

    But one thing with Lovelock I respect is you know he’s well-meaning.

    And you know this from his extreme pro-nuclear-energy attitude.

    Whereas you will get these leftists who are against nuclear energy AND Coal.

    What sort of a hateful attitude is THAT?


    November 17, 2006 at 4:27 pm

  18. Actually I think what I’m trying to say is this.

    Don’t hide behind Lovelock.

    The alarmists were always going to find at least one good guy who agrees with them.

    But no-one here has evidence for catastrophic warming and its really not good enough to say or to think “Ho Ho GMB….. Does the name LOVELOCK mean anything to you? Ho HO”

    I don’t want to direct any reaction to this dumb smugness onto the old guy.

    If anyone here has evidence for catastrophic global warming you will have argue for it yourself.


    November 17, 2006 at 4:34 pm

  19. But who cares if it is right or wrong Graeme?

    The economic policies which maximise growth (i.e lower taxes and deregulation, strong property rights) also minimise pollution and create incentives to properly manage forests (i.e carbon sinks).

    If we were to eliminate or slash tariffs, taxes on dividends and planning regulation, along with privatising resources, higher economic growth and lower pollution would go hand in hand.

    At present, we subsisdise old technology and inefficient production, tax future technology, prohibit the building of new infrastructure of clean energy sources and create perverse incentives to mismanage and neglect forests and catchment areas.

    Let’s say Gore is right about climate change. He is dead wrong about the solution.

    Mark Hill

    November 17, 2006 at 5:00 pm

  20. Dude.

    You cannot fucking snap your fingers and win the endless fight against the growth of compulsion with that weak sort of talk.

    And it does make a difference. Because if indeed CO2 was bad….. whatever amount of tax we thought we couldn’t do without…. well it WOULD be the right thing to do to get some of that from carbon-tax.

    But me and you do not get to wave a magic wand and convince people of the rightness of free enterprise where looming disaster is not concerned…….

    They are so fucking far ahead of us these guys they’ve pulled a looming disaster right out of Uranus or Thereanus and they’ve pre-empted that sort of talk by having a ready-made disaster in their back pocket.

    These guys are serious about this. They are going to lock us in to yet another international agreement.

    Next thing they’ll be transferring those taxes to a fucking international body.

    This is Humphreys line as well.

    Oh the science is right but the policy is the same anyway.

    Thats fucking weak man. As a political/social message thats not getting out of the starting-blocks.

    We’ve got to tell the truth and stick up for the latest victims of blood-sucker-central.

    Which is the Coal industry for starters. And all of us after that.


    November 17, 2006 at 5:50 pm

  21. Hey You-Tube has got these lectures:

    Global Warming Myth 1-18 or something like this.

    The first one started slow. But its getting really good.

    Just a bloke talking about how full of shit the alarmists are.

    Just a small audience and a projector.


    November 17, 2006 at 6:05 pm

  22. Hey Jason.

    Can you make a thread of this?

    Make it easy for the average punter to download all these short lectures?

    I’m up to number 4 and its getting pretty good.

    Well anyway. At least watch it yourself hey?


    November 17, 2006 at 6:28 pm

  23. where’s the link?

    Jason Soon

    November 17, 2006 at 6:29 pm

  24. Well there is 20 of them.

    So you just look up Global Warming Myth 1, 2,3,4,5, and so forth.

    You got to watch them all. But it starts off slow. I’m up to 4 and its really revving up.

    Dude can you just watch them yourself first.

    You’ll be amazed.


    November 17, 2006 at 6:35 pm

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