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Thursday 28 August 2014

Lovelock's new idea is another big one – and it may yet save us

Robert Colville

Published 10/04/2014 | 02:30

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AS the inventor of Gaia theory, James Lovelock is used to thinking big. Ever since he came up with the idea that the planet and its inhabitants form one vast, self-regulating system – initially scoffed at, but now taken seriously across a variety of disciplines – his focus has been wider than that of his more hidebound colleagues.

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In 'A Rough Ride to the Future', Lovelock outlines a new theory. He argues that since 1712, the year in which the Newcomen steam engine was created, we have moved into a new age, the Anthropocene, in which humanity's ability to liberate energy and information from the Earth has rapidly outpaced both Darwinian evolution and the planet's ability to cope.

Lovelock does not blame humanity for doing what comes naturally: exploiting the wonders available to it. And he is happy to outline the gaps in our understanding of climate science, not least the role of living beings in helping to regulate the system.

This clarity extends to his conclusions. Ultimately, he suggests, climate change is down to ignorance, not negligence – but while we do not yet know its exact contours, the process is both extremely serious and probably unfixable.

Unlike the situation with CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, a generation ago, there are too many actors – countries, companies and individual humans – that would need to be cudgelled into self-denial if the status quo were to be retained.

Where he differs from the consensus, however, is in suggesting that this might not be such a bad thing. What we are seeing around us, Lovelock argues, may be the large-scale destruction of the planet's ecosystem by rapacious humanity. But it may also be "no more than the constructive chaos that always attends the installation of a new infrastructure".

Humanity is already concentrating itself in bigger and bigger cities, so rather than trying to "save the Earth", or restore some artificial version of a normal climate, why not live comfortable lives in clustered, air-conditioned mega-cities? This serves ants and termites perfectly well, he argues – as well as the inhabitants of Singapore.

The problem is that while many of Lovelock's ideas are fascinating, the book as a whole fails to match their clarity. There are disconnected sections on the virtues of the lone scientist; on why invention is better than pure research; on the reaction to Gaia theory; and so on.

Whether you enjoy this book, then, will depend on your tolerance for big ideas and awkward constructions. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of it is that Lovelock extends his lack of cant to the role of humanity as a whole.

Just as it is ludicrous to think that the world was precision-engineered for our benefit, so it is arrogant and short-sighted to imagine that the coming centuries must be devoted to the preservation of humanity in its current form.

Perhaps, he suggests, we are not the end point of civilisation but its John the Baptists – the species that either gave birth to, or merged with, a species of electronic life that can supervise and preserve Gaia for centuries to come. That, Lovelock believes, would truly be an achievement. And if it sounds far-fetched – well, they laughed at the Gaia hypothesis too.

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