Sunday, March 01, 2009

It's Too Late

James Lovelock, the British scientist who hypothesized that the earth can be conceived as a kind of single super organism, which he named Gaia after the Greek goddess, now believes we are doomed. Highly respected for his theory by the Green movement, if not his skeptical fellow scientists, the 89-year-old Lovelock, in his "final warning," now predicts catastrophe by the end of this century in his new book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia.

"It will be death on a grand scale from famine and lack of water," Lovelock told Reuters in an interview this week. "It could be a reduction to a billion (people) or less." He foresees planet-wide crop failures, drought and death. By 2040, temperatures in European cities will rise to an average of 110 Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) in summer, the same as Baghdad and parts of Europe in the 2003 heatwave. "The land will gradually revert to scrub and desert. You can look at it as if the Sahara were steadily moving into Europe. It's not just Europe; the whole world will be changing in that way."

This may be hard to fathom while Europe and parts of the U.S. continue to weather an unusually cold and snowy winter (the temperature stays static as usual in hot and humid Bangkok). But the excess of carbon dioxide and other noxious emissions pumped into the biosphere by modern civilization's dirty production methods will produce paradoxical consequences, according to scientific models of global warming. "I don't see the efforts of governments around the world succeeding in doing anything significant to cut back the emissions of carbon dioxide," Lovelock said. Even reducing emissions now to zero won't work; it's too late. "It is a bit like a supertanker. You can't make it stop by just turning the engines off."

"The book is powerful," writes Camilla Cavendish in the London Times, "not only because of the scary scale and speed of change that Lovelock foresees, making the first chapters as pacey as a Hollywood romp, but also because he is a serious, hands-on scientist." Lovelock is a maverick not only because of his scientific ideas but also for his dismissal of many environmental icons. "He loathes wind farms, is passionately pro-nuclear and is scathing about 'saving the planet.' The planet will look after itself, he says. It's humans we need to save, and soon," writes Cavendish. But that optimism has apparently run out. Since the Gaia hypothesis was first posed in a book published in 1979, Lovelock has written a series of books with Gaia in the title and increasingly dire subtitles. Three years ago his offering was The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back - and How We Can Still Save Humanity. His new book's subtitle is A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can.

Several years ago, under the spell of environmental activism as I worked on a dissertation about how a small group "saved" old-growth redwoods, I might have found Lovelock's pessimism empowering, an incentive to fight the bad guys. Now I "become a fan" of his on facebook, the social networking site that draws me into its virtual room almost every day. In the news recently because of the owner's attempt to claim rights over posted data, facebook has made it possible for me to reconnect with old friends, some I've not seen for 30 to 50 years. I can share news, opinions and photos with Barbara, Gary and Ernie from high school, reminisce about the music biz daze in the 1970's with Ellen, Michael, Bobbi, Larry Pete, Todd, Baron, Harvey, Joel, Ben and Ed; learn about the latest happenings in Santa Cruz from Nick, Laura, Michael, John and Kusum, Lyle and Daria, Virginia, Bella and others; trade stories about Bangkok with expat friends Lee, Cindy, Lance, Tony and Peter; and connect with three of my four children as well as cousin Barry. And that's not all of the 50 people in my reunion list. There's also Colin in Germany and Francois in France, Meath in Australia, Andy at UCSC and Judy from Ojai, the drummer I met five years ago in India. Not all think it's a good idea to hang out online with everyone they've ever met. When I asked Paul, my best friend from junior high school, if he'd joined facebook yet, his response was: "God, no! What do you mean 'yet?'"

I'd like to find some of my former co-workers and friends from the Pasadena Star-News. I was a copy boy, reporter and a columnist there in the 1960s. It used to be one of the stars of the Knight Ridder group, but now is owned by a conglomerate that took over Ridder papers in Long Beach and San Jose; Knight Ridder merged with McClatchy in 2006. The five-storey building in downtown Pasadena where I worked was sold and the Star-News now operates out of a storefront and online. But at least it survives, for now. On Friday Scripps terminated the Rocky Mountain News which has been published continuously in Denver since 1859. And now Hearst, which purchased the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000 from the DeYoung family that had operated it since 1865, is threatening to close the morning daily where I spent an exciting summer as a replacement reporter in 1963. Now there is a facebook group dedicated to saving the probably doomed newspaper.

Can progress be stopped? When I worked at the Star-News, type was set by huge noisy machines on the 4th floor using hot lead; photographs were printed from zink plates etched by poisonous chemicals. Now it can all be done on a laptop computer. I'm stoic about the end of newspapers, depependent as they are on paper from diminishing trees and surviving on income from ads for products few really need. I can ignore the online ads easier on the web sites I search for important and interesting news. My teenage students at UC Santa Cruz did not read newspapers. I find it odd, however, that newspapers are on the rise outside of the U.S. and Europe. Bangkok has dozens of daily papers for its residents who nonetheless are increasingly learning to access web sites by mobile phone. I can let newspapers go (thanks for the memories), since I believe the anarchic internet will serve the information needs of democracy, but I will not give up books for klunky reading devices like the Kindle.

While Thailand censors scenes in films and on television showing sex, drugs and violence, their newspapers are free to publish the most horrendous photographs (this was true of papers in Mexico and probably elsewhere outside of the "developed" world). The latest controversy surrounds the head found hanging from a rope under the Rama VIII bridge last week, and the body that was once attached floating below in the Chao Phraya River. It was plastered over all the newsstand publications for a few days (but I cannot find it online to share with you). After initially thought to involve foul play, the head was eventually identified as belonging to a 52-year-old Italian down on his luck. A note was found at the guest house where he had just been evicted, reading "Thank you very much for everything. I'm sorry for the inconvenience." Tourist suicides usually get very big play in the local press. A suspicious number of them involve jumping from a building where they had been last seen with a prostitute. My friend Lek told me that she'd heard about a young Irishman without enough money for a plane ticket home jumping to his death from a fourth floor at Suvarnabhumi Airport last week. When I said the story was not in the local papers, she said that was because it was hushed up, bad publicity for Thailand. Perhaps.

After their conference had been postponed several times by political disruptions in host nation Thailand, leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are finally meeting this weekend at a beach resort in Hua Hin, out of reach for various groups of protestors. At the top of their agenda (perhaps the only item) is the rapidly plunging economy of countries who survive (or not) on exports. Thomas Fuller, area correspondent for the New York Times, discovered that workers who lose their jobs in Bangkok are returning to their villages. " It won’t take them long to lose their bellies,” one village headman told Fuller. ASEAN leaders, according to the writer, "are expected to reaffirm their commitment to abolishing trade barriers by signing free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand. And finance ministers have committed in principle to back up each other’s currencies in case they come under strain or attack." But there is little they can do "to mitigate the dramatic drop in demand for computer parts, shirts, rubber and palm oil — all exports that helped Southeast Asian development in recent decades and sent millions of people from villages into swelling cities."

The Thai economy shrunk an unprecedented 6% in the last quarter of 2008 and an estimated 1 million could soon be unemployed in a country of 65 million. While government stimulus measures attempt to pump around $5 billion to $8 billion into the economy, the loss in exports, might be two to three times what the government can spend, Fuller was told. There is only a tiny amount available to the unemployed, and only if they had paid into the system. I noticed yesterday that the baht had dropped to 36 to the dollar (it was 31 when I arrived a year and a half ago), good news to me and perhaps to manufacturers whose goods will be cheaper. But if no one is buying, this won't help.

It's sprinkling outside this morning which might keep the thermometer confined to the 80's today, but will do nothing about the humidity. I'm trying to decide if I want to attend the final performance tonight of "The Vagina Monologues" at the Patravadi Theatre on the river not all that far from where I live. It's a bilingual version, in English and Thai, and I heard about it from one of the actresses who joined us for our pilgrimage a week ago to the cottage where Thomas Merton died. Tickets for $30 include drinks and dinner, very tempting. The two friends I've invited have declined. For those readers curious about my current personal life (which has lately remained shrouded in mystery), there is no lack of companions. An insatiable stream of Thai ladies comes online in search of elderly farang gentlemen like myself who might teach them English. My cup runneth over. I try to discourage the young applicants, hoping to help them avoid disappointment (as I learned to my sorrow), but some are insistent.

There is little time for romance at the moment, however, as I prepare for the arrival of my two youngest children in a week and a half, and for the final week of the school term when I will give my monks their last exam.

1 comment:

Janet Brown said...

You found the place where Thomas Merton died? Please tell me where...