James Lovelock is now 94 years old and has been making predictions about climate change since the 1960s, most of which, alarmingly, have come true – he thinks we have twenty years before “global warming will hit the fan.” What’s his best advice? “Enjoy life while you can.” Not the most reassuring of verdicts for parents and grandparents concerned about the future generations, never mind their own brief strut and fret about the stage.
So is Lovelock to be taken seriously, or is he just another doomsday prophet? Let’s take a look at his track record.
Lovelock has been, above all, resolutely independent and is most often given the epithet of “maverick.” Freedom to explore his own ideas has been his guiding principle. He invented the instrument that could detect chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which led to the detection of the hole in the ozone layer. He worked at NASA on the earliest explorations of Mars. He also claims he invented the microwave oven.
Most famously, he came up with the Gaia Hypothesis. Once widely ridiculed by fellow scientists, this now is the theory at the base of all climate science. It is now broadly accepted that our planet is a self-regulating system, as he proposed therein. Gaia proposes that all the living and non-living components on the earth are integrated to form a single and self-regulating organism. It automatically controls itself and maintains its own survival.
Controversially, he has always championed nuclear power, a position that used to earn him scorn, but has swung around to be increasingly re-championed. He sees nuclear energy as the only possible alternative to the use of fossil fuels. Maintaining that he is a Green and an Environmentalist, he qualifies the belief in nuclear power by explaining that our forebears only evolved in the first place on a rock which was fallout from a nuclear explosion.
He predicted that extreme weather will become the norm. He said that by 2040 London would be underwater and parts of Europe would look like the Sahara.
Lovelock also says it is too late now to halt the decline. Recycle all we like; never ask for a plastic bag, invest in wind farms, plant more trees, consume ethically, don’t fly; take the train. None of it will make one iota of difference. One of his most terrifying assertions is that we should have acted back in 1967. Anything we’re doing now, is almost “certainly a waste of time and energy.” Its all re-arranging those proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.
His especial contempt is for renewable energy. Cover the entire country with windmills if you must, he postulates, they will never provide enough energy. He lives in the south of England. The source of the irreversible slide into catastrophe, according to Lovelock, is human’s capacity to stick their heads in the sand. They want to go on as they are. “They want business as usual.”
Of course it is nothing but “business as usual” in England this winter as large parts of the country lie submerged, and many homes and businesses face ruinous consequences. The problem that was “up ahead” is here, and now. The dead cannot even be buried as the graveyards are too awash. 51 percent of Brits in a poll conducted by the Sunday Times blame global warming for the UK floods and the leader of the opposition has said that climate change is now an issue of national security.
That current problem aside, mass migration, famine and epidemics are the forecast for the future. This is where Lovelock sees a role for nuclear power. Technology, he thinks, is the only salvation, and this probably will include synthesized foodstuffs. He also supports fracking, yet another issue that puts him at loggerheads with the green movement. He only sees it as a pragmatic measure, to buy some more time.
Oddly enough, Lovelock continues to be optimistic, and describes himself as “cheerful.” Those who have met him say he is wonderful company, full of zeal and love of life. In one interview he compared the state of things now with the world in 1938 on the brink of the Second World War. He remarked that the war was somehow liberating, as, once it got going, people “loved the things they could do,”it gave them a sense of purpose. He believes we are in a similar state today. Knowing something terrible is on the horizon, and having it actually happen, are two differing conditions, and people are better prepared to get on with it when they have to.
He says there have been seven disasters since humans evolved and the one that is about to happen, as before, will “separate the wheat from the chaff” but out of that, a person may emerge who “really does understand” and can “Live with it properly.” This is the bedrock of his optimism. At one of these catastrophic and violent junctures only 2,000 individuals were left. Evidently, they adapted and survived.
Quite recently, he did admit he had gone too far with his scare-mongering ideas and perhaps had “extrapolated too far.” This was when he wrote that only a few breeding pairs of humans would survive, and live a hunter-gatherer type existence in the Arctic. Billions of others would have been wiped out. At that point, the data did not correlate with his previous predictions, and there had been a slight slowing down in the temperature rise. He did admit he had made a mistake but insisted that it was only a deference. Lovelock made these comments in an interview on MSNBC, and added Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth had made the same mistake.
Lovelock has never fit the mould, and is an autodidact, he learned his science from library books. His parents were not well-off enough for him to go to university and so he got a job as a lab assistant. He believes if he had a conventional scientific education he would have been corralled into a speciality. He did eventually get to Manchester University, but he could only afford two out of the three years course in chemistry. Instead, he has remained a generalist, unique in these times. He does not believe he would ever have had the epiphany which led to the Gaia theory if he had been funneled into a narrow field of discipline.
That is not to say the Gaia theory was not rigorously tested. He tested it his own way, by creating a computer model of a planet he called Daisyworld,which could become self-regulating through natural selection. It was a simple model, and it irritated scientists at the time, but it has remained unfalsified. It was his close friend and neighbour, William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, who came up with the name of Gaia. She was the earth goddess in Greek mythology.
Perhaps it is this mythical, rather romantic, name that has led to some becoming almost Gaia worshippers. To Lovelock, Gaia is science not religion and he refuses to have “faith” in it. He prefers to keep it at “trust.” The most difficult aspect of the Gaia theory is that it is not invested in the future success of the human race. Gaia seeks only to renew itself.
Humans and all their plans are irrelevant to the rebalancing of the system if they get in the way. Writer John Gray, who interviewed Lovelock in 2013, goes to far as to conclude that “finally dislodging the human animal from primacy in the world” could be seen as “completing Darwin’s work.”
This is a very challenging idea for many, however much they care about other species. It has led to claims that Lovelock has an innate distaste for urban city-dwellers because they do not understand the natural world. It is not so much that he has a sentimental bias toward other living creatures, he simply refuses to accept that the primary function of the planet is to service the requirements of humans. Indeed he has called it “hubris” for humans to regard themselves as “God’s chosen race.”
This puts him at a great ideological remove from those who envisage a way forward with low-tech solutions for our post-industrial societies. Turning around the vast project of globalization and reverting to a simpler, localized way of living, with wind farms, solar energy and organic farms, is a solution that Lovelock rejects. Not only does he say it is too late, but the human population is unwilling to give up on its accustomed luxuries, and it continues to grow and grow. The impact of these numbers on the battle against climate change becomes unwinnable. Anthropogenic activity will continue to cause global warming. Later in the twenty-first century the ten billion mark is expected to be reached.
So is this man a prophet of doom and will be world inevitably decline into the catastrophe he described in The Revenge of Gaia, as a chaotic place “ruled by brutal warlords on a devastated earth?” It sounds like all the worst post-apocalyptic disaster movies rolled into one.
Not necessarily. Population growth could fall and then stabilize. He is a patron of Population Matters which campaigns for this deduction. Lovelock does not think that we are “clever enough” to come up with geo-engineering ideas that will tamper with the existing state of the oceans, the air and the land to avert climate change. Despite this skepticism he has worked on an ocean pumping plan himself, to bring the chilly waters below to the surface. He accepts that humans are resilient and inventive, and if Gaia gets on with her own recovery, perhaps they will “muddle through.” He is also hopeful that burying agricultural waste as charcoal, or dropping it at sea, could bring good results. Charcoal is completely non biodegradable. Now in his tenth decade, he says he is always open to new ideas and to responding to, and changing his mind on them, as the evidence permits.
He has also spoken of sustainable retreat as an alternative to sustainable development. This would entail, for example, admitting that places like New Orleans are “a goner” and moving everyone out.
Nicholas Stern, who wrote a report for the British government on climate change in 2006 now says that his predictions were too cautious, and that worldwide extreme weather events are key indicators of the need to act much faster. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now 95 percent certain that the rise in global temperature is the result of human activities. Like Lovelock, Stern foresees mass migrations and wars if we don’t get a grip on the crisis, but unlike him, he has faith in “new low-carbon industrial revolution.” Lovelock claims to be unbothered that the IPCC recognize his calculations and their own now come very close. He is busy writing a new book and wants to keep taking the next steps ahead.
James Ephraim Lovelock CBE is as full of ideas now as he ever was. However he does not claim to be a seer. He never wanted people to treat Gaia like a religion with himself as prophet. He says the one thing that a life in science has taught him, above all, is that “you can never be certain of anything.”
“You iterate towards the truth. You don’t know it,” said the man who is not a “willing Cassandra.” His next mission is to go on board the Virgin Galatic, a gift from Richard Branson, and see the world from space. It is the vision the astronauts had of the blue planet, that inspired him to Gaia. He is taking his own advice to “enjoy life while you can.”
If the world is headed towards inevitable catastrophe and Lovelock is indeed a seer, perhaps we should all follow suit.
On Friday February 21st, James Lovelock spoke to Channel 4’s Science Editor, Tom Clarke, on the effects of the recent UK flooding. Clarke visited him at his home on the edge of Chesil Beach in Dorset, where large parts of the south west coastpath have been swept away. The hurricane force gales had shaken the windows and Lovelock considered it to be a “direct warning” from Nature. His seaside home had been cut off by the torrential floods.
He felt that the destruction of the railway line further along the coast at Dawlish was a terrible shame, and that more should have been done to protect it. Instead, he ruefully said, too much money had been wasted on “pointless” windmills and solar cells, which will never work at Britain’s latitude.
The feisty and fearless Lovelock was sticking to his guns on his long-held opinions, and he iterated his support for fracking, as a “damn good idea” which will “help us get through” whilst remaining “appalled” at the mainstream environmentalist movement. Lovelock feels it is the worst hangover from Christianity, using guilt as a manipulating tool. He lamented once again that focus was ever switched away from nuclear power and said it was madness it was ever set aside.
As for the role of governments, they are none of them any better than the other in his opinion, and they are most often badly advised by civil servants.
As a scientist, he continues, as he has always done, to look at the evidence. There are no certainties, he says, only probabilities, but on the available evidence it does seem that something “pretty nasty is going on.” We need to prepare for a different world, a “hotter world, and not necessarily a worse one.” Its too late to keep argueing about the causes.
James Lovelock’s lifelong rigorous independence shows no sign of abating as he maintains his tough stance on these issues and insists we must adapt to survive.
By Kate Henderson