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

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?

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
Show Hide image

Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist