I am about to plant two apple trees in my front garden. It’s an act of faith and may be doomed. Apple trees need the cold but the prophets are warning warming!

James Lovelock’s latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning (Allen Lane, 192pp; $29.95), has an important message. In a few years, or a few decades at most, abrupt changes in Earth’s climate will begin, which will end up killing almost all of us and cause the extinction of almost all life on Earth. The tropics and subtropics will be rendered uninhabitable by this shift, and the few survivors will cling to favoured regions such as Britain and New Zealand. Lovelock believes there is little we can do to avert our fate, for the causes of the climatic shift are now so entrenched that they are in all likelihood irreversible. In his view the best we can hope for is personal survival in a world of warring nations or, if we are particularly unfortunate, a world ruled by warlords.

Apocalyptic visions such as this are usually the province of doomsday cults or writers of science fiction. It’s unusual to find a scientist advancing one. Yet James Lovelock’s scientific credentials are impeccable. Over a long career he’s made many discoveries of global significance, including the fact that cold and flu viruses are transmitted by physical contact rather than through the air, and that small mammals such as hamsters can be frozen solid for hours or days, then defrosted and returned to life. As a maker of scientific instruments, he is without peer. One of his instruments used to measure air pollution is still in widespread use today; indeed it made detection of the hole in the ozone layer possible. Lovelock’s reputation as one of the world’s most respected scientists was reinforced in 2006, when he received the Royal Geological Society’s Wollaston medal. It’s the highest commendation given in geology, and its previous recipients include Louis Agassiz (the discoverer of the ice age) and Charles Darwin.

Goodbye to All That,James Lovelock’s “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” by Tim Flannery in The Monthly, June 2009, No. 46

What are we to make of Lovelock’s prophesy? Could this 90-year-old have become delusional?

Two things, I think.

1. A won’t cut it – in all aspects of production and consumption.

2. Investing in infrastucture that promotes justice, peace and goodwill in the face of conditions that are more likely to bring war, are as much a priority.

Did you notice how once economics into the debate about global warming and climate change (“it would be more costly if we don’t act now”), the former government got mildly interested? It showed where their values lay.

Otherwise, if Lovelock is right, it really will be a return to the “Law of the Jungle”, but without much jungle!

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