James Lovelock, a British scientist, is the author of the Gaia Theory. For those unaware, this theory states that the Earth has the ability to auto regulation of its environmental conditions, including temperature and chemical composition, in much resembling a living being. According Lovelock, the earth behaves as a living being, except for the ability to reproduce. This theory caused much controversy in the 70’s and 80’s of the twentieth century, when this theory was known only as the Gaia Hypothesis, whose name was inspired by the Greek goddess representing the Earth. This personalization of Gaia earned much criticism from the scientific community against Lovelock, while it made the hypothesis gain support among environmental and esoteric groups. Thanks to various scientific evidence and support from many scientists, especially climatologists and glaciologists, the Gaia Hypothesis eventually won the status of a theory, being formally accepted by the scientific community. The Gaia Hypothesis predictions guide the actions of the IPCC, the United Nation's advisory body on climate change.
In one of his latest works, the book "The Revenge of Gaia", Lovelock discusses how human influence disturbed the delicate balance of Gaia, being the most notorious example of this disorder the current climate change. According to Lovelock, we have gone too far this disturbance and we are about to cause an irreversible environmental change, which Gaia will not be able to cope alone. According to him, sustainable development is unable to reverse the situation, and only a "sustainable retreat" would be able to minimize the effects of this environmental change. Furthermore, only proactive actions could reverse the damage already done. But what does he means by "sustainable retreat"?
We live today in a context in which development is directly linked to consumption. We consume food, clothing, hygiene and cleaning products, appliances, computers, phones, cars, etc. The more a nation consumes more is considered developed. Now consumption implies production of new items and disposal of used ones. Some goods we consume are considered durable. For example, we buy houses to last at least 30 or 40 years. Others goods are not so much durable. We buy cars to last 10 years, TVs to last 5 years, and cell phones to last six months. Not to mention the waste we generate and the emissions of various pollutants. The large cities are becoming increasingly unhealthy thanks to sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions, soot, etc. Most people consider carbon dioxide as the worst villain, due to its influence on called greenhouse effect, which is the ability of the atmosphere to retain solar heat. Excess carbon dioxide is supposedly increasing this effect and warming the planet. But this is only one of many aspects of climate change. We change the climate when we deforested woods for agriculture, livestock, mining, hydroelectricity, etc. We change the climate when we release pollutant materials into rivers and seas, changing its chemistry and upsetting the ecological balance. We change the climate when we burn our garbage or when we launched it into environment. We change the climate when we replace native forests by a pine or eucalyptus monoculture, which are darker and absorb more solar energy, heating the environment. We change the climate when we throw away our old car to buy a new one, because to build a new one, we need to extract more iron from the soil, forge more steel, distillate more oil, purify more aluminum and other activities that negatively impact the environmentally.
Some people may have the idea that, to not impact on the environment, we should live like the old days, when people extracted themselves the nourishment from the soil, made their own clothes and utensils, and lighted the night using oil lamps. But this is not possible anymore. Nowadays we are over 7 billion people. It is no longer possible to maintain such population without mechanized agriculture and industrialized production. If we abandon the cities and turn to the country, there would not be room enough for everyone to plant food, especially without using modern methods. If we would be forced by decree to abandon at once all technological resources that we have, chaos and barbarism would be established shortly. Millions would die without food and millions of other by diseases or wars that inevitably would happen as a result of disputes by the few resources available. Therefore, we cannot abandon science and technology. What we need is a way to better utilize the resources that we have. In order to give Gaia an opportunity to self-recovery, we need to reduce to almost zero the resources that we extract from the planet. It means that we should have to deal with the resources that we already extracted, with no more extraction. This is what constitutes sustainable retreat. Therefore, we need to radically change our consumption structure. We should manufacture cars to last at least 50 years, TVs sets to last 20 and phones to last 10. We should recycle 100% of our garbage, and our energy consumption should be minimal. We should have to improve energy efficiency for cars, appliances, industries, etc. Maybe we should ration food. However, we can avoid it by reducing losses in transportation and storage.
The first victim of a sustainable withdrawal would be the industrial capitalist production model based on consumption. In the early 90’s of the twentieth century, many people said that the fall of the Soviet Union represented the victory of capitalism. However, many people did not understand that both capitalism and communism are two aspects of the industrial production system, based on consumption of goods and market. The difference is, while capitalism preached about free market, communism preached state controlled market. Both systems are not sustainable because they are based on the false premise that wealth can be produced, when in fact it needs to be extracted from the environment. A sustainable economy must be based on a model that takes this principle into account. The concepts of wealth and property should be revised. It is a challenge for philosophers and economists, but they cannot take too long to provide a solution. It is essential that in-development countries become the first to adopt a new model, mainly because the planet simply does not have sufficient resources to provide to these countries a development standard like America or Europe. Unfortunately, this new economic model is not created yet. However, some actions should be taken immediately. Some of them are quoted below:
1. Collection of strategic information - Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by governments (or at least by serious ones) is reliable information based decision making. Historically, all governments have been engaged in collecting information about population and economy. Nowadays, a new type of information has become necessary: information about environmental resources and human activity’s impact over these resources. Science and technology information are also necessary to make strategic decisions. More than ever, we need to refine the information’s quality available to governments and public policy makers. More than ever, it is essential to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.
2. Energy and materials efficiency - Most of the resources available to a nation are finite and non-renewable. Water resources, mineral reserves, native forests and agricultural lands are examples of these features. It is essential to optimize the use of these resources. The fight against waste must be the focus. A good example is how vehicles use energy. A conventional combustion vehicle waste about 85% of the energy produced by burning fuel through tailpipe. In a context of sustainable retreat, the adoption of electric vehicles is not simply an interesting option, is mandatory. The same is valid about the adoption of thermal insulation building materials in order to minimize the energy spent by air conditioning in the summer or heaters in the winter. Selective waste collection is not an option, is mandatory. Recycling should not simply be a good deal, but the basis of a new economy.
3. Extinction of war - In our current situation, any war is completely nonsense. Iraq and Afghanistan wars have been cited as the main causes of world economic crisis. A possible World War III would totally ruin our economy and our civilization, even if nuclear weapons would not be used. In an environment-preserving context, any kind of war would not make any sense.
4. Extensive, general and unrestricted education. - Nothing that was mentioned above is possible without universal, good quality, free and accessible education. This is something that simply cannot be underestimated. Teachers should be the best-qualified and best-paid professionals. Schools should be the best equipped, valued, and admired institutions. Teaching should be a good and enjoyable experience, so that student’s absences should be rare. Companies should provide all kinds of educational incentives, including reduction of the working day in order to provide time for workers to study.
Some people may think that all this is nothing but a utopia. But only this utopia can save world in which we live.
“You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one”
(John Lennon, Imagine)