A head of his time: James Lovelock on radical hope
His theories have contended the human race is doomed, but scientist and futurist James Lovelock tells suzanne harrington why all might not be lost
It's not uncommon whenever you read about climate change for your brain to glaze over. It's a subject too huge, and its consequences too terrifying, to contemplate; it makes you feel like an ant: tiny, powerless, inconsequential. And probably a bit guilty as well, because it is generally accepted it is us humans who have brought it all about. Oh dear. We're doomed. Brain glaze.
Independent scientist and futurist James Lovelock, in his new book 'A Rough Ride to the Future', dispels such gloom with radical hope and two big new ideas, more of which later.
"This is not a book about climate change and what we should be doing to improve our carbon footprints," he writes in the book's very first line. It is, he says, about the future of humanity.
Dr Lovelock is the originator of Gaia Theory, his hypothesis named after the Greek goddess of the Earth, which suggests all living organisms interact with their surroundings on Earth to provide a self-regulating environment in which life can be supported – in other words, our planet has a life of its own as well as supporting the life which lives upon it.
The godfather of Green science, his theory is embraced by many ecologists and biologists, although not all scientists are convinced. In a Princeton University Press blog last July, Toby Tyrell, professor of Earth system science at the University of Southampton wrote: "It is suggested that belief in the Gaia hypothesis can lead to excessive complacency about the robustness and resilience of the natural system."
Such robustness was questioned by Dr Lovelock himself in his last two books, which proposed that we, as a species, have had it. 'Revenge of Gaia', published in 2006, followed by 'The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning – Enjoy It While You Can' in 2009, were as stark as their titles suggest. We are doomed, said Dr Lovelock. Finished. Abandon all hope. As a species, we have finished ourselves off. Gaia – the Earth – will not die, but will shrug us off like a dog shrugs off fleas, and shrug off global warming as nothing more than a bit of a fever.
Dr Lovelock calculated that with the continuation of current carbon emissions, life on earth for humans would not be sustainable for more than about a billion of us. That in coming decades, five out of six of us would not survive.
Brain glaze? Keep reading – turns out he thinks he was wrong. We know this because he admits it. Dr Lovelock works independently and answers to no-one, thereby enjoying great intellectual freedom; he can retract without losing funding, and turning 95 next Saturday – is unlikely to be concerned about losing face.
Described by the 'Literary Review' as "the most profound scientific thinker of our time", Dr Lovelock has been contributing to science, invention and futurology for more than half a century.
The joy of being an independent scientist, he says, is that you can acknowledge when you think you are wrong, without worrying about losing corporate sponsorship or academic grants. "I'm free of all that," he says. "I'm a good, solid scientist, but you cannot be certain about anything. It's all about belief and probability."
And so Dr Lovelock cheerfully says he was wrong. "'The Revenge of Gaia' was over the top," he told 'Nature' magazine. Instead of doom, his latest book proposes eco-pragmatism. "I think the final outcome for humanity may be better than we fear," he writes in his new book. "The best course of action may not be sustainable development but sustainable retreat." He believes "we may muddle through into a strange but still viable world". It is not about saving the planet, but about saving humanity.
"It is hubris to talk about saving the planet," he says firmly. "It's the planet's own job to look after itself. It's been doing so for the past three and a half billion years."
But first, the two big ideas contained in 'A Rough Ride to the Future' – these are "accelerated evolution", and "how humanity has the capacity to become the intelligent part of Gaia".
Dr Lovelock suggests humanity entered a new era of accelerated evolution – the Anthropocene – in 1712, when "an ordinary man crossed its threshold". The engine was invented. Everything speeded up. "Life has flourished on earth for billions of years because it discovered how to harvest the energy of sunlight and use it to reproduce and evolve," he writes. "A mere million or so years ago, we emerged ... as the first animal to harvest information; then, in less than a blink of the eye, 300 years ago we found ourselves at the beginning of a massive inflation of information harvesting."
This, as we know, led to all kinds of progress and chaos. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen, a Devon blacksmith, devised and built a 4 kilowatt steam engine to pump flood water from a coal mine; to power this machine, which speeded up a deadly slow manual process, required coal. "Neither Newcomen nor anyone else at the time realised the significance of what had happened, but it was, nevertheless, the cause of our glory and our predicament," writes Dr Lovelock.
The term Anthropocene was coined in the early 1980s by ecologist Eugene F Stoermer to describe "the recent period of the Earth's history when mankind began to exert a noticeable effect on the living environment". Dr Lovelock says it is not another name for the Industrial Revolution, but "as the start of a new evolutionary process that soon became one million times faster than Darwinian evolution by natural selection".
Prior to the engine, "we had man, horse, water and wind power but none of these provided a source of energy of sufficient power economically for continuous use over long periods". This machine hurtled us and our planet into a new era. "Our ancestors 10,000 years ago would have regarded our daily activities now as magic," he writes.
Dr Lovelock's second new idea is that as part of this accelerated process, humanity has the capacity to become the intelligent part – the brain, if you like – of Gaia, the self-regulating Earth system. Because of our domination, we are changing the Earth's atmosphere; Dr Lovelock thinks that instead of feeling guilty about this change, we need to get very pragmatic very quickly, and become the Earth's brain. He quotes American philosopher and cognitive scientist, Professor Daniel C Dennett: "The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us."
And here's the science fiction bit – a process called endosymbiosis, "a co-operative life form of wet organic chemical life and dry electronic life evolved in synchrony," could become more prevalent. In other words, we could become half human, half machine – which sounds like pure Asimov, until Dr Lovelock mildly reminds us that we are already at it.
"Around 1pc of your readers will have pace makers," he says. "I have one myself. It controls my heart beat and keeps me going. It is a piece of machinery integrated into my body. It helps me stay alive."
Meanwhile, the Bill Gates Foundation has developed a remote-controlled drug-dispensing contraceptive implant that sits just under the skin.
On a somewhat larger scale, when it comes to the overheating planet, Dr Lovelock believes we need to take our lead from ants and termites. "What is a city but a nest?" he asks. "It's easier to protect yourself in a city than if you are in the middle of nowhere."
Rather than attempt to cool the entire planet, he says, we may find it easier to air condition cities; like his old friend and peer, the American ecologist Stewart Brand, who writes in 'Whole Earth Discipline' of cities being the most efficient way for humans to exist, Dr Lovelock also advocates high density living. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2050 it is estimated that 70pc of us will be city dwellers (compared with 20pc in 1910).
"So if things do get bad with climate change, why not air condition a whole city?" he asks. We should replace our inefficient sprawling cities with "compact cities designed to sustain an optimal internal climate, and leave the land and ocean to the Earth system to regulate as it has always done ... If we move to cities efficient as termite nests, there will be a much better outcome."
Like several other prominent Green scientists, ecologists and thinkers, Dr Lovelock is pro-nuclear. "Nuclear power is a gift from the universe, which we spoilt by using it as a weapon," he says. Unlike many Green colleagues, Dr Lovelock has always been pro-nuclear
Neither does fracking overly concern Dr Lovelock. As the UK's only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, is found not guilty of obstruction at a recent anti-fracking protest in Sussex, Dr Lovelock remains pragmatic. "The problem is, we can't go on burning coal and oil. Methane is not as bad. Fracking may be something we just have to put up with."
What is refreshing about speaking with James Lovelock is his clarity, pragmatism and optimism. "Progress never stops," he says. "We are a wonderful change in the planet's life. My philosophy in life is to enjoy it when you can, because you never know how much time you have."
And with that, he says goodbye, because he has work to do.
James Lovelock - A life scientific
Lovelock was born in 1919 to working-class parents, and grew up in London. He described school as "a kind of prison you were sent to for being young" and wanted to be a scientist from the age of six when his parents first took him to London's Science Museum.
His parents couldn't afford to send their son to university, so Lovelock attended part-time, and worked, while evolving his Gaia Theory – he studied at Manchester University but could only pay for two years out of three.
He began work as a medical researcher during the Second World War, where the importance of his work was noted, and received his PhD in 1948. Gaia Theory was first formulated in the 1960s when he was working for NASA, trying to discover if there was life on Mars.
As well as science and futurology, Lovelock was an inventor, and created the electron capture detector, which ultimately led to the detection of the persistence of CFCs in the Earth's atmosphere. In the 1960s he lived in west Cork ("I loved it!") in a monitoring station on the Beara Peninsula – where he made the CFC discovery – before moving to Galway.
He now lives in Dorset with his "beloved" wife Sandy. He has written over 200 scientific papers, was named by 'Prospect' magazine in 2005 as one of the world's top 100 public intellectuals.
His archives are currently the subject of a year-long exhibition at London's Science Museum – 'Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick'. It runs until March 2015. Admission is free.