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The Gaia guy: how James Lovelock struggled to be taken seriously

Nowadays, the area of study called “earth systems science” uses many ideas originally championed by Lovelock, though people are still allergic to the name Gaia.

Illuminating idea: volunteers light 5,000 candles in the shape of planet earth, during Earth Hour 2012, Berlin. Photo: Getty
Illuminating idea: volunteers light 5,000 candles in the shape of planet earth, during Earth Hour 2012, Berlin. Photo: Getty

A Rough Ride to the Future
James Lovelock
Allen Lane, 185pp, £16.99

Homage to Gaia: the Life of an Independent Scientist
James Lovelock
Souvenir Press, 428pp, £18

It’s all William Golding’s fault. It was the author of Lord of the Flies who long ago suggested to James Lovelock, one evening in the pub, that the scientist use the name “Gaia” for his new vision of our planet. A nice literary idea, to borrow the name of the Greek goddess of the earth. The problem was that, to other scientists, “Gaia theory” sounded immediately like hippie earth-mother nonsense. And so began Lovelock’s decades-long struggle to be taken seriously.

In his revised and reissued autobiography, Homage to Gaia, Lovelock recounts with joy and wit an extraordinary life as an entrepreneurial scientist, inventor and gadfly. He claims to be not quite sure why “Gaia” got everyone’s back up so much, yet he gives sufficient reason later on, when he mentions that his American publishers retitled one of his books Healing Gaia, thus ensuring it would go on shelves in the New Age section of bookstores. I suspect that if Lovelock had deployed his alternative term, “geophysiology”, from the start, he wouldn’t have had so much trouble getting his ideas accepted.

For accepted many of them now are. And “geophysiology” is a clearer umbrella term to describe what Lovelock means by Gaia. The guiding concept is that the earth and all the life on it constitute a self-regulating system, which keeps itself in homoeostasis like a human body does. (Lovelock’s own training was in medicine and chemistry.) He first had the idea while working at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s. Thinking about how the first Mars landers might test that planet for life, Lovelock realised that the presence of life changes the atmosphere of a planet to one of chemical disequilibrium. “If there were life on Mars,” he explained, “it would be obliged to use the atmosphere as a source of its raw materials and a place to deposit its waste products, just as we do.” (Our “waste products” in this sense include the carbon dioxide we exhale.) Lovelock’s experiment was used in the Viking landers, and his kind of atmospheric analysis is now a basic tool of astronomers.

This was the seed of the fundamental Gaian idea: that life and the planet exist in a feedback relationship that keeps the whole system at optimal levels for the continuation of life. Lovelock does not think the earth is actually alive like a goddess, but he will defend it as a metaphor. (Arguably it’s less iniquitous than the metaphor of the “selfish gene”.) “The deepest error of modern biology,” he writes, “is the entrenched belief that organisms interact only with other organisms and merely adapt to their material environment. This is as wrong as believing that the people of a village interact with their neighbours but merely adapt to the material conditions of their cottages.”

Nowadays, the area of study called “earth systems science” uses many ideas originally championed by Lovelock, though people are still allergic to the name Gaia, and so he doesn’t get as much credit as he should. But this splendid iconoclast is no friend to the green movement, either. Environmentalism – he says in his fascinatingly provocative new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, which shows, among other things, that even as a nonagenarian (he turns 95 in July), he hasn’t lost any of his appetite for a fight – has become as dogmatic as religion.

Lovelock particularly despises the species guilt some greens force on us for allegedly “trashing” the planet; it does, when you think about it, sound rather original sin-ish, with the steam engine as the new forbidden fruit. He calls Greenpeace a “great and powerful negative feedback on all that enlightened technical progress stands for”, and despairs of the popular fear of radiation. He makes the strong point, for instance, that the global media obsession with the story of the Fukushima plant flooding (which killed no one) in effect ignored the 27,000 people who had actually died because of the Japanese tsunami. That Germany and Italy subsequently shut down all their nuclear reactors he describes with simple outrage as “a wicked act”.

One of the main questions A Rough Ride addresses is what to do about global warming. Lovelock is no stranger to atmospheric threat (it was he who detected the atmospheric build-up of CFCs that were tearing a hole in the ozone layer) or simplified mathematical models (his Daisyworld model is a beautiful demonstration of how organisms can keep their environment at conditions ideal for life, with no planning or interplanetary competition required). He accepts that uncomfortable warming is probably inevitable, especially given that even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases tomorrow there would already be decades of warming to come because of the lag in the global climate system. The question, then, is what to do about it.

Lovelock finds the prospect of covering England with wind turbines as “satanic” as Blake found their ancestors. Geo-engineering he reckons beyond our capability and stupid anyway. Why try to control the whole climate artificially when we could accelerate the movement of the world’s population into cities and just regulate the city climates? (Perhaps, he suggests intriguingly, we are evolving into “superorganisms”: just as some biologists suppose that an ant’s nest is an aggregate organism unto itself, so a city full of human beings is one superorganism, too.) Gaia – who is under no such existential threat from global warming: she is, as one of Lovelock’s collaborators once put it vividly, “a tough bitch” – will take care of the rest of the world outside.

That essentially is his message: we can’t stop global warming (just look at energy politics since the Kyoto Protocol), so we’d better adapt to it with nuclear power and
urban air-conditioning. Would it be so bad, he wonders, if more cities were like Singapore, which is 12° Celsius hotter than the global average but still a highly desirable place to live?

The other future threat Lovelock considers is the rise of the machines, as in the Terminator films. He argues that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have, by human selection, inflated the speed of evolution of our technical artefacts by a factor of about a million compared to the lackadaisical pace of natural selection. Should we be worried that intelligent computers will take over? No, he says breezily. Either we’ll merge with them in a kind of cyborg utopia, or they will be so amazing as the next stage of planetary evolution that we should feel happy to have ushered them into existence.

It’s unfair to accuse Gaia-style thinking of being misanthropic, yet it does imply a benignly disinterested view of humanity – maybe, after all, something like a goddess’s-eye view. We are interesting, like ants, but just one component of what is most important: the whole system. Among the best things one can then say for humanity is that we are the crucial organisms that will construct the electronic creatures that succeed us, and that will be able to survive for longer and so keep Gaia going as the sun grows inexorably hotter. In other words, rejoice! We are nothing less than the John the Baptist species for the glorious robot future.

Steven Poole’s “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” is published by Sceptre (£9.99)