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Lovelock at 100

Forty years ago James Lovelock published his book ‘Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth’, setting forth his hypothesis that all life on Earth is part of a co-evolved system that maintains the planet as an environment hospitable to abundant life. Today his approach is known as ‘Earth System Science’, and is central to our understanding of how the planet works. But back in 1979, he already had a warning for us.

“If…man encroaches upon Gaia’s functional powers to such an extent that he disables her, he would then wake up one day to find that he had the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer….

“Then at last we should be riding that strange contraption, ‘the spaceship Earth’, and whatever tamed and domesticated biosphere remained would indeed be our ‘life support system’. [We would face] the final choice of permanent enslavement on the prison hulk of the spaceship Earth, or gigadeaths to enable the survivors to restore a Gaian world.”

For the past thirty years I have travelled down to Devon every four or five years to interview Jim, but essentially to ask him ‘Are we there yet?’ The last time I went, he said ‘Almost’. But he seemed remarkably cheerful about it, even though ‘there’, he believed, would imply the death of around 80 percent of the global population (‘gigadeaths’) before the end of the century.

There’s nothing harsh or cold about Jim, but it would be fair to say that his manner is impish. He’s a dedicated contrarian who delights in challenging the accepted wisdom – and is generally proved right in the end. And although he was one of the first scientists to sound the alarm about global warming, he never bangs on about our folly, he never raises his voice, and he never despairs.

Once I asked him if he thought things would ever get so bad that human beings would go extinct. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he said. “Human beings are tough. There’ll always be a few breeding pairs.” But, he added, they’d have trouble trying to rebuild a high-energy civilisation, because we have used up all the easily accessible sources of energy building this one.

It is a rather god-like perspective, but that probably comes naturally if you have spent your whole life trying to stand back far enough to see the system as a whole. The Gaian system, that is, which he defines as “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.”

In other words, it’s all connected. The Earth’s temperature, the oxygen content of the atmosphere, all the qualities that make it a welcoming home for abundant life are maintained by the actions and inter-actions of the myriad species of living things. They are the creators as well as the beneficiaries of this remarkably stable status quo.

It sounds a bit New Age – he and American evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who collaborated with him in the earliest thinking on the proposition, took some flak for that from their scientific colleagues – but he wasn’t really suggesting that the super-organism he proposed had consciousness or intention. Gaia was from the start a serious scientific hypothesis that could be subjected to rigorous testing.

It has now been elevated into an entirely respectable and widely accepted theory. Indeed, Gaia provides the broader context in which most research in the life sciences, and much chemical, geological, atmospheric and oceanographic research as well, is now done.

Jim Lovelock has changed our contemporary perspectives on life on this planet as much as Charles Darwin did for the 19th century, and like Darwin he has done it as an independent scientist, mostly working on his own and with relatively modest resources. Even more remarkably, he published his first book, and his Gaia hypothesis, when he was already 60.

That was forty years ago, and on Friday he turns 100. But he hardly seems to have aged at all, and to celebrate his birthday he has published a new book (his 10th). It’s called ‘Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence’, and it’s just as much off the beaten track as his first book, ‘Gaia’.

He’s being cheerful again. Yes, we are approaching the ‘Singularity’, the artificial-intelligence takeover when our robots/computers become autonomous. Yes, after that it is AI, not us, that will lead the dance. But don’t panic, because the AI will be fully aware that its platform needs to be a more or less recognisably Gaian planet, and will cooperate with us to preserve it.

In that case, we will no longer be in the driver’s seat, but we will probably still be in the vehicle. “Whatever harm we have done to the Earth, we have, just in time, redeemed ourselves by acting simultaneously as parents and midwives to the cyborgs,” he writes, and he may be right. He’s certainly right a lot more often than he’s wrong. Happy birthday, Jim.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“There’s…one”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The 100,000-Year Fever

18 January 2006

The 100,000-Year Fever

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are in a fool’s climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” If anybody but James Lovelock had said that, you’d dismiss him as an attention-seeking panic-monger. But it was Lovelock himself.

A couple of centuries from now, Lovelock’s reputation as an original and influential thinker in the life sciences may rival Charles Darwin’s. On the other hand, it’s possible that nobody will remember either him or Darwin two centuries from now, because there may be no civilisation left. It is already too late to stop drastic global warming, he says, and the catastrophes that follow may sweep it all away.

Lovelock’s great scientific insight began with a question: why are the Earth’s climate, and even the very composition of the atmosphere itself, so radically different from what they would be on a dead planet? Earth’s two neighbours, Venus and Mars, have atmospheres that are almost entirely carbon dioxide, whereas the CO2 in our own atmosphere is only one-third of one percent. That makes all the difference, because it keeps Earth cool

At our planet’s distance from the Sun, a carbon dioxide atmosphere would give the Earth an average surface temperature of 290 degrees Celsius (554 degrees Fahrenheit), far too hot for life. Venus, only one-third closer to the Sun than us but blanketed with CO2, has a temperature of 465 degrees C (869 degrees F). So what removed the carbon dioxide here, gave us this lovely, thin, oxygen-and-nitrogen atmosphere, and maintained the Earth’s average surface temperature at between 10 and 20 degrees C (50 and 68 degrees F) for the past 3.5 billion years? Life, of course.

The Earth’s early atmosphere was almost all carbon dioxide. On a lifeless world, the CO2 would gradually have got thicker (it comes from volcanos and accumulates over time), and the planet would have got hotter and hotter. But here early life-forms incorporated the carbon from the CO2 into their bodies and released the oxygen into the atmosphere as a waste product. New forms then evolved that could use the oxygen to run a far more efficient metabolism, and the whole biosphere took off.

Earth teems with life because the temperature is livable, and that is so because the atmosphere stays largely free of CO2. In fact, the average surface temperature on this planet has varied only within a narrow range of 10 degrees C (18 degrees F) over the past three-and-a-half billion years, despite all the ice ages and warming spells that seem to bring such dramatic changes. The Sun’s heat output has increased by about 20-30 percent during that time, and still the climate hasn’t changed. Something is actually KEEPING it stable.

There is only one plausible candidate: life itself. Lovelock made the intellectual leap in the 1970s and hypothesised that as living things evolved on this planet, they actually shaped their environment through complex chemical feedback loops that maintain the average temperature, the salinity of the oceans and various other key variables at the levels best suited to life. He was going to call this complex mechanism the “biocybernetic universal system tendency,” but a neighbour of his, Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Golding, persuaded him to call it “Gaia” instead.

It was a mistake. New Age romantics embraced the concept, but their enthusiasm actually slowed down scientific acceptance of the concept. Only in the past decade has Lovelock’s theory, now renamed “earth system science”, been widely accepted among mainstream scientists.

Lovelock has worried aloud about global warning for thirty years, because the living feedback mechanisms that keep the atmospheric CO2 down are good at dealing with gradual changes, but unable to cope with the speed at which the level has been rising since the industrial revolution. Indeed, after a certain point these feedback mechanisms will tend to MAGNIFY temperature change. “The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years,” he warns, with temperatures rising 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) worldwide and as much as 8 degrees C (14 degrees F) near the poles by 2100.

We are living in a “fool’s climate,” Lovelock says, that seems normal only because atmospheric pollution in the northern hemisphere is reflecting much sunlight back into space and keeping global temperatures low. At some point, however, something will cause a major industrial downturn — a war that doubles the price of oil, a global bird flu pandemic, whatever — and within weeks the smoke will thin out dramatically. Then we will find out how hot it really is already.

There will be repeated episodes of this sort as the CO2 builds up during this century, he predicts, and in the long run civilisation will collapse in most places. Much of the densely populated tropics would become desert and scrub, massive population movements would overwhelm borders, billions would die of hunger, and war would take care of most of the rest.

Now Lovelock is saying that it’s already too late to avert that outcome: “We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen….”

I don’t know if Lovelock is right, but I take him very seriously. He is, as he says, a “cheerful sod,” and he didn’t used to talk like this. It’s very worrisome.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“At our…took off”; and “It was…scientists”)