Books

The Vanishing Face of Gaia - a "modern day Book of Revelations, predicting the downfall of civilisation in graphic and frightening prose."  If that hasn't wet your whistle, how about A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian?

With their wide expanses of flat-roofed buildings and temperatures often much higher than surrounding open spaces, airport buildings are an attractive site for the high-rise horticulture that is an increasingly popular aspect of sustainable design. The 8,500 square metre development above the main terminal at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport is one of the green spaces featured in 'Green Roofs' (WW Norton, £40.00), a colourful review of around 70 buildings by landscape architect Steven L Cantor. Despite their popularity with designers, high-tech roof gardens often go unseen. When it was established in 1994 the Schiphol roof was intended for use by the public, but security issues mean that few ever get to enjoy it.

The Vanishing Face of Gaia

By James Lovelock
Allen Lane, £20

It is usual for prophesies of the end of the world to be the fervent utterances of religious fanatics, but let us get one thing clear: James Lovelock is the furthest from a pious zealot that you could get. With degrees in medicine and biophysics he is endowed with the key skills to traipse through the minefield of the science of climate change.

In every lifetime we come across a few books that are really important. Many would count Lovelock's original unveiling of his Gaia theory (in his 1979 work 'Gaia - a new look at life on Earth') as one of those must-read books.

For those among you who have not come across Lovelock's beliefs, the short explanation goes thus: the Gaia hypothesis is an ecological supposition proposing that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions of the planet in a preferred homeostasis. Named after the Greek supreme goddess of Earth, the hypothesis is frequently described as viewing the Earth as a single organism.

Since his original opus, Lovelock has returned to the subject on several occasions but I have never read a more depressing book than this one. The tone has moved on from scientific enlightenment to a modern day Book of Revelations, predicting the downfall of civilisation in graphic and frightening prose.

One of the main tenets is that the planet is too heavily overpopulated for humanity to survive. If six billion inhabitants are unsustainable and one billion would be more appropriate to the Gaia theory, then please explain how, in 30 years, do we lose five billion people?

But at the heart of Lovelock's theory is his belief that the Earth will look after itself and survive, whether we are here or have been consigned to the long list of past inhabitants of this sphere. Nature is simply indifferent to our fate: it is neither malicious nor benevolent. If humanity's time is up, it's up. We won't be the first species to die, nor the last.

If Gaia must have her revenge on us, then so be it. Lovelock just makes sure we are aware that we are wholeheartedly to blame for her wrath.

This is a book that will probably inform and infuriate in equal measure, but I have found the views espoused to be both controversial and enlightening.

There is not much that escapes the wrath of Lovelock - population growth, climate change, nitrates and the green movement all come under his withering attention.

The counsels in the book are counterintuitive and, as a result, expose the folly of most of the political and media commentary adopted on this very important issue.

But it is a clear and accessible explanation of the potentially catastrophic implications of climate change. His terrifying vision of what is likely to happen if nothing is done to reduce CO2 emissions is not the view of a misinformed alarmist, but that of an exceptional scientist who has spent a lifetime at the highest level of planetary research.

Whether you agree with the content of this book or not, it is a fantastic read and extremely thought-provoking.

Reviewed by Mark Venables, E&T's power editor

Power Markets and Economics

By Barrie Murray
Wiley, £60

Almost 20 years after the UK took its first steps down the path toward liberalising its energy markets by introducing competition in the electricity sector, its experience has been repeated all over the world.

Now, with a new renewable energy strategy due to be published shortly, Barrie Murray's overview of the link between engineering and economics in the energy sector provides a timely look at the big challenge for the global power industry - how to achieve carbon emission targets within a competitive market. And how to do it in a climate of rising prices and escalating demand from countries such as China.

Murray was a key figure in the development of the UK regime at the National Grid and now trades as a consultant, advising government agencies, banks and investors as well as the engineers responsible for running the systems. Through a combination of basic theory, case studies and worked examples, he sums up what he believes to be the basis on which future policy should be based.

As well as reviewing how effective some of the implemented regimes have been at achieving their objectives, Murray tries to come up with a conclusive summary of the costs of competing technologies and the impact of renewables and emission restrictions. This isn't an analysis of whether or not climate change is a reality; it accepts that a belief in global warming is the main driver of energy policy and looks at how markets can be created that achieve those objectives.

With two decades of data to draw on, there are plenty of solid facts. A section on the economics of alternative energy draws together an authoritative summary of the relative costs of hydro, nuclear, wind and other options in a series of tables and graphs. For those concerned about security of supply and network stability, the chapter on ancillary service markets works through the often neglected costs of maintaining balance and keeping the lights on.

Power companies facing a future in which they will have to meet targets such as Europe's objective of sourcing 20 per cent of energy from renewables by 2020 have difficult decisions to make, not least how to finance their plans. This book's subtitle - 'Energy costs, trading, emissions' - sums up just three of the factors they need to consider.

Whatever system does evolve, engineers will have to cope with managing emissions, coping with variable energy sources such as wind and solar. 'Power Markets and Economics' provides a sound basis for anyone involved in the wider debate on how the market should be shaped.

Reviewed by Dominic Lenton, E&T's managing editor

Engineers in modern fiction

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian

A tragicomedy may seem an unlikely place to learn about eastern European agricultural machinery, but Marina Lewycka's lovable piece of fiction centres on the misfortunes of Nikolai Mayevskyj, an 84-year-old Ukranian immigrant, who happens to be a retired engineer.

During a tale that brings a dysfunctional family back together - unearthing long-buried secrets along the way, Nikolai's coping mechanism is to throw himself into writing a history of tractors.

Throughout the story he shares snippets of his book with his family, detailing the early days of the tractor and how, over time, the features the engineers designed to help farmers ended up being used to create military tanks.

The story begins when Nikolai tells his youngest daughter Nadezhda that he's in love and will remarry. The object of his affection is Valentina, a 36-year-old Ukrainian with an expiring visa and an all-consuming goal to achieve the Western lifestyle she's assured she, and her son, deserves.

Worried about her father, Nadezhda contacts her sister Vera, with whom she's spent a lifetime squabbling to the point that they haven't spoken for two years. They band together to unhook Valentina's claws from their father as they discover she'll go to amazing lengths to achieve Western wealth.

The gold-digger turns the lives of anyone near her upside down, as she consistently verbally abuses the sisters, and both verbally and physically abuses Nikolai. The poor old man, petrified but still clinging onto the concept of love (or the chance to get close to Valentina's "superior Botticellian breasts"), continually gives into her demands for money, to the point where he is penniless and on the verge of losing his home to the vixen.

A true battle of wills takes place, and all the while the sisters work towards outing Valentina they learn more about each other, their father and the pasts that have shaped them. Nadezhda pieces together titbits of history that she believed Vera hid from her, when in truth she'd been trying to protect her. This discovery brings them together as they understand the differences that being a 'war baby' and a 'peace baby' have played on shaping their lives.

You come to love Nikolai and the excitement he has for engineering. It's been his career and his life-long passion and, in the end, his lifeline to survive the Valentina-shaped tornado that rocks his world.

A touching tale, the dark subjects of war, immigration and old age are handled in a gentle yet comedic manner. The reader becomes emotionally attached to the characters as they follow Nadezhda's journey to uncover the awful experiences the family has had to overcome.

Reviewed by Keri Allan

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