Chapter Ten: GAIA And Other Global Stoppers

II. GAIA: The Planet Fights Back

It's impossible to open a newspaper nowadays without reading another warning that sea levels are going to rise by 10 metres, 30% of the earth's agriculture will disappear, and so on.

This chapter does not suggest that environmental damage is unimportant, or shouldn't be limited – quite the contrary. However, the only goal of the chapter is to look impartially at whether the consequences of global warming and environmental damage or depletion would hinder the globalization process that is so evidently taking place at present.

In fact, even the most pessimistic forecasts of environmental doom allow that action could be taken to limit or even reverse global warming (that's if it isn't a natural phenomenon, or even perhaps if it is) by making costly adjustments to our current techniques for producing and using energy.

Changes to energy production are needed, for sure, and a move away from the use of fossil fuels is overdue. Research into effective alternative energy production has been puny, simply because it has not been in anyone's economic interest to pursue it while it is so easy to dig a hole and pull out the coal and oil. Perhaps now real money will be put behind renewable alternative energy sources such as fuel cells and photovoltaic conversion. Many prominent scientists believe that nantechnology will have a major role to play in the onward development of such technologies. In a presentation to the US government in 2003, Rice University Professor R E Smalley1 listed many energy-related applications of nanotechnology including photovoltaics, photoconversion of water to produce hydrogen, materials to harvest sunlight in space, and improved electricity transmission cables.

It seems absurd that even economically advanced hot and sunny regions around the world import fuel oil to burn in power stations to turn into electricity to power domestic appliances when only a small fraction of the sunlight falling on the roofs of people's houses is captured. Why is it beyond the wit of man to devise the power-generating coatings for roofing materials which should be obligatory in all sunny countries? In fact, recent research has come up with such coatings which work almost as well in cloudy weather. And how long will it be before someone invents coatings or modified leaf biochemistry which will generate electricity as a by-product of photosynthesis?

If alternative energy is left to the market, perhaps with some governmental prodding in the shape of tax incentives, it will arrive eventually but at high cost in terms of remedial action against the consequences of global warming. It is commonly predicted by people who might know that such action would be likely to knock 1% or 2% off the value of global GNP over a period of decades. That's to say, it would continue to grow, but at perhaps only 3% or 4% instead of the current 5%.

Rising sea levels would cause mayhem in coastal tourist areas, and would demand massive investment from nations which have reclaimed large areas of land from the sea, such as the Netherlands; but it's difficult to see a major impact on the march of the global economy. Changes to agricultural production patterns are perhaps a more serious problem. If it's true that large swathes of Africa and Australia will become much less habitable, then there are serious economic as well as humanitarian consequences.

On the other hand, trite as it may be to say that Siberia, which is seriously under-populated, will be warmer and will grow more food, it is nonetheless true. In fact, the whole of the previous Soviet Empire, covering 16% of the world's land surface, is grotesquely under-farmed even now, before it gets warmer. Just the Ukraine, with its famous black earth, could produce enough grain to feed the whole of Africa and Australia four times over if it was farmed to modern Western standards. There isn't a resource problem, then, in absolute terms; it's more of a resource allocation or a distribution problem.

That's not to dismiss the horrors that may come out of poor, bloody Africa. It's to say that the world probably won't be able to continue to take the detached view it now has of the human disasters taking place there – pace Bill Gates – but will need to do something painful and expensive (and global) to ameliorate them and head off the extinction of large populations.

Given the head of steam that is building up internationally over global warming, it is likely that some form of concerted global action will indeed take place. Ironically for the anti-globalizers, this will itself be an intensification of the globalization process. Action will no doubt involve a re-invented Kyoto Protocol, this time with America on board and with real teeth, numerous Codes of Conduct to control polluters, the creation of global organizations charged with the support of pro-environmental technical change; and so on. All very global!

Actually there wouldn't be an environmental problem if there weren't . . .