Thursday, September 14, 2006
James Lovelock is a serene, dignified and cheerful man of science—not, it would seem, a bomb-throwing seeker of controversy. And yet he was responsible, 40 years ago, for a revolution that changed the way science and the rest of us view the world we live in. And now, at 88, he is throwing bombs again.
Lovelock, who will be at CSUMB on Monday, has entered the global warming debate with an explosive new book, The Revenge of Gaia, which argues that the situation is worse than we imagined. In his view, the living planet (which he calls Gaia, after the Greek Earth-goddess) is sick with fever, and nothing we do can halt a process that dooms us.
“Before this century is over, billions of us will die.”
“I think it’s quite terrifying,” he told me in a telephone interview this week, speaking in the calm tones of a British country gentleman. “And I’m not saying anything that isn’t predicted by the world’s leading climatologists.”
When Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis while working at NASA in the late 1960s, no scientist was thinking about the Earth as a living organism. His first paper on the topic, published in 1975 in the journal New Scientist, defined Gaia as “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil; the totality constituting a feedback system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life.” In plain language: The planet is alive, and it has a purpose: to regulate the environment, including the temperature and chemistry of the atmosphere, so that life goes on.
Following the publication in 1979 of the book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (written with the now-esteemed microbiologist Lynn Margulis), Lovelock’s radical idea caught the popular imagination. It was embraced by environmentalists, readers who appreciated its somewhat spiritual overtones, and even many in the scientific community.
The idea was also attacked—not only by those who saw it as pagan heresy, but by Darwinists who read it as an assault on the fundamental principle of random natural selection.
Forty years later, the idea seems less than radical. It’s my sense that many people today—at least here in California—seem to believe the Earth is a living thing, whether or not they think of it as a “super-organism” (Margulis’ term). Meanwhile, an entire branch of the science of ecology, confronting the notion that the Earth is a self-regulating system, has yielded evidence to prove it. The Gaia Hypothesis is now the Gaia Theory, and helps scientists understand phenomena from the cellular level to the evolutionary.
Still, Lovelock’s theory has hardly been universally accepted. And that, he says, is a problem.
“Until this change of heart and mind happens, we will not instinctively sense that we live on a live planet that can respond to the changes we make,” he writes in The Revenge of Gaia. “Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive…we will lack the will to change our way of life.”
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“By the end of the century, the temperature on Earth will have warmed by three degrees to five degrees Celsius.” As Lovelock tells me this, he sounds not like a doomsayer but like an avuncular weatherman predicting a warm front. “Most people think, ‘Five degrees, that’s not so bad.’ They don’t realize that this is a geologic event. This is bigger than the change that brought about the last glacial age. And it will have appalling consequences.
“By the middle of the century—2050—Europe will be so hot that the summer of 2003, in which hundreds of people died, will be the norm.
“Well, people can survive that kind of heat; they can turn on their air conditioning. But plants can’t do that. And so virtually all agricultural production in Europe will become impossible.”
In the book, his predictions are more dire: “The Earth is now returning to the hot state that it was in millions of years ago, and as it warms, most living things will die,” he writes. “Before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic region where the climate remains tolerable.”
In reviews of The Revenge of Gaia, which London’s Independent called “the most important book ever to be published about the environmental crisis,” much is being made of the fact that Lovelock now endorses nuclear power as a solution to global warming. I hate that idea, but I’m not hung up on it. Overall, this man presents a deeply alarming vision, and I welcome his challenge.
JAMES LOVELOCK will lecture on “Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity” at CSUMB’s University Center Ballroom on Monday, Sept. 18, at 4pm. Admission is free.