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

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)

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.