Sunday 25 August 2019

Father of Gaia, prophet of doom

Country Matters

Expert: Dr James Lovelock. Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
Expert: Dr James Lovelock. Photo: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Kennedy

Last Monday, the world sat up at breakfast as the most important assessment of the health of nature was published.

It warned that the wiping out of insects, birds, mammals and plants is eroding the foundations of civilisation. Insect abundance is declining rapidly - an estimated 10pc of 5.5m species is threatened with extinction - the biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82pc; natural eco systems have lost half their area and one million species face wipe-out.

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Nature is being destroyed at a rate hundreds of times higher than any time in the past 10 years, all as a result of human activity.

More than 400 scientists revealed this in a damning UN report. And Dr James Lovelock, climate science maverick who warned of this over many years, may well have marked his 100th birthday at his lab in Cornwall enjoining well-wishers to "enjoy life while you can" before the inevitable hits the fan.

There are just too many people on Earth, as Sir David Attenborough has frequently pointed out. When he began, more than 50 years ago, to bring wildlife into living rooms via TV, there were around two billion people in the world; now there are 7.6bn.

Dr Lovelock has long been predicting a roll-out of earthly disasters: the end is nigh, says the Father of Gaia, and there is little we can do about it.

He adopted the ancient Greek mother of the gods as a name for his hypothesis formulated in the 1960s (as a consequence of his work for Nasa) that living and non-living parts of the Earth are a complex interacting system involving the biosphere, atmosphere, rocks, oceans and soil, a system which brings stabilisation.

We have truly screwed it all up, as he has illustrated in spreadsheets on melting glaciers, water scarcity, natural disasters, extreme weather and a prophecy of most of Europe becoming like the Sahara with Britain and Ireland as "lifeboats in the Atlantic" overrun by fleeing people trying to scramble on board.

He can be seriously pessimistic. He does not see lifestyle adjustments saving the planet.

Global warming has passed the tipping point, various so-called green activities to help the environment are a waste of time. We cannot save ourselves by "going back to nature". We must go forward with technology to solve energy problems - he is an advocate of nuclear power - and not be wasting our time with windmills.

The big challenge will be food and its synthesising, but it will be a race. But humans are strong and adaptable and can make new lives in much-reduced inhabitable land, perhaps evolving to colonies like ants, losing freedom but hanging on in air-conditioned high-rises.

Lovelock says in 100 years' time, 80pc of the population will be gone but those remaining will understand the Earth and how to live with it. That's the source of his optimism now, he says, adding "enjoy life while you can".

Dr James Lovelock is author of: 'The Revenge of Gaia'; 'The Vanishing Face of Gaia'; 'A Rough Ride to the Future' - all published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.

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