In his new book "The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning," (Basic Books, April 2009) James Lovelock says humanity is "Earth's infection."
Nice. We are the viruses.
While in theory it would be extremely difficult to truly destroy this planet, it's not such a stretch for some scientists to imagine us making it a place that doesn't support humans. The planet would go on, the thinking goes, but it'd get rid of us much like we shake the flu.
Lovelock's thinking is that our increasing presence is getting things so out of whack that, in the manner of a human immune system, the planet has no choice but to respond.
"Individuals occasionally suffer a disease called polycythaemia, an overpopulation of red blood cells," writes Lovelock, environmentalist, futurologist and creator of the Gaia hypothesis. "By analogy, Gaia's illness could be called polyanthroponemia, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good."
In his blog, MSNBC's Alan Boyle writes that University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward has an alternate new theory: Earth is set up to kill off life, including us, when it spreads too widely.
So, let's just fix things, yes? Good luck, Lovelock would reply: "There is nothing humans can do to reverse the process; the planet is simply too overpopulated to halt its own destruction by greenhouse gases. In order to survive, mankind must start preparing now for life on a radically changed planet."
Ward is more optimistic, Boyle reports. If we change habits, we can engineer our continued existence.
Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he looks at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.