Gaia’s Limits – Review

Rud Istvan. Gaia’s Limits: Earth’s Capacity for Mankind. Houston TX: Strategic Book Publishing, 2012. E-book.

Gaia’s Limits is a very thorough discussion of environmental sustainability. I also appreciated the introduction where the author actually explains what sustainability is or means. He writes there is a “fog around sustainability,” and I think that is because no one defines it. Or if they do, it means that the government needs to take over everything. About twenty years ago I recall reading some professor who said that now that the Soviet Union has fallen, Marxists will have to use the environmental movement to achieve their goals.

While Istvan is primarily a businessman and venture capitalist, it is easy to note his knowledge of geology and chemistry. Indeed, most of his business success has been due to his knowledge of chemical engineering. While Gaia’s Limits is somewhat technical, it is still clear and readable. For example, he uses a couple of humorous Mark Twain quotations to make some points. He also includes a great quotation from Richard Feynman, who could be called the Mark Twain of modern physics.

One thing that threw me were the references to Gaia. Istvan states in the introduction that he uses the term in the manner of James Lovelock. You can read Lovelock’s introduction to his Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth free from Amazon. Lovelock emphasizes that he is a scientist, not a new-age guru, and that he uses the term for convenience to speak of the entire earth as a biosphere. If you accept that premise, then Istvan’s approach is simply one of convenience. Lovelock explains it as a figure of speech not a revival of Greek religion. (Though I have to admit, I have since read the complete Lovelock book and I can perfectly understand why critics have slapped Lovelock with the guru label.) While Gaia’s Limits says it is using the term Gaia the way Lovelock does, in our culture today that is not the way most people would interpret it.

Overall, the book was balanced and effective. Certainly no Al Gore–If you listen to the 1992 United States Vice-Presidential debates, we should have been wiped out ten years ago. But neither is it as sanguine as Julian Simon. It has support that is hard to disprove. Istvan writes that by 2050 the world’s population of 9.2 billion will reach a point of unsustainability from lack of fresh water and landmass to grow enough food. His case appears reasonable without being alarmist.

Interestingly, about a week after I finish Gaia’ Limits, I received my September 2012 issue of Wired magazine. Its cover story, “Apocalypse Not,” was an attempt to calm down “doomsayers.” The Wired article uses basically the same statistics to hypothesize that the world’s population will level out at around 9 billion in 2050 and will be sustainable. Clearly, we will have to wait and see. (By the way, for what it is worth, Sir Isaac Newton applied his mathematical knowledge to Bible prophecy as well as gravitational attraction, and believed the Bible prophesied the end of the world around 2060. I just throw that in for a fun fact to feed on…)

This has nothing to do with the book’s premise, but I thought the UN population graph was interesting. (I did locate it on the Internet, too, as the author promised). It resembles a hyperbola, except population does not have zero asymptotes or fractional people. Looking more closely, in the historical period the graph is linear more or less till about 1800, as the text notes. Then either the slope becomes steeper or the growth becomes exponential. I suppose it is also possible that the earlier growth was exponential, too, but at a much smaller rate. Anyway, it looks like a sloping line, and then as you go back in time it changes to either a hyperbola or a line parallel to the base line. If you extend the line so that it keeps it downward slope, which seems far more likely according to a uniformitarian theory of a steady rate of growth, the line crosses the base line around 3000 B.C.—interesting point for zero population.

Istvan suggests people have to begin to consider new scientific paradigms when considering sustainability, and they may not be popular any more than the Copernican hypothesis was. Copernicus himself was a monk who was not concerned about “the self-ordained center of God’s universe.” There actually were some ancient Greeks who believed the earth went around the sun. Plato’s Timaeus suggested it as a possibility, though Plato did not appear to embrace the idea. But Aristotle ruled. Galileo’s problem with the academics was that his ideas opposed Aristotle’s. Luther correctly noted in his day that the church respected Aristotle more than the Bible.

Thinking of earth’s capacity to handle mankind’s depredations, perhaps China is the future. Compared to North America it is an environmental basket case: foul air, foul water, eroded land. And they go on building and building. The earth has definitely changed there. Even the hypothetical “world dictator,” as Gaia’s Limits states, mentions could do little. Like Canute or Xerxes punishing the sea…

But when I think of these things, I cannot help thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” which notes that “all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil” and yet

For all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

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