Prophet Of Climate Change:
By Jeff Goodell
29 October, 2007
the age of eighty-eight, after four children and a long and respected
career as one of the twentieth century's most influential scientists,
James Lovelock has come to an unsettling conclusion: The human race
is doomed. "I wish I could be more hopeful," he tells me one
sunny morning as we walk through a park in Oslo, where he is giving
a talk at a university. Lovelock is a small man, unfailingly polite,
with white hair and round, owlish glasses. His step is jaunty, his mind
lively, his manner anything but gloomy. In fact, the coming of the Four
Horsemen -- war, famine, pestilence and death -- seems to perk him up.
"It will be a dark time," Lovelock admits. "But for those
who survive, I suspect it will be rather exciting."
In Lovelock's view, the scale
of the catastrophe that awaits us will soon become obvious. By 2020,
droughts and other extreme weather will be commonplace. By 2040, the
Sahara will be moving into Europe, and Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad.
Atlanta will end up a kudzu jungle. Phoenix will become uninhabitable,
as will parts of Beijing (desert), Miami (rising seas) and London (floods).
Food shortages will drive millions of people north, raising political
tensions. "The Chinese have nowhere to go but up into Siberia,"
Lovelock says. "How will the Russians feel about that? I fear that
war between Russia and China is probably inevitable." With hardship
and mass migrations will come epidemics, which are likely to kill millions.
By 2100, Lovelock believes, the Earth's population will be culled from
today's 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million, with most of the survivors
living in the far latitudes -- Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Arctic
By the end of the century,
according to Lovelock, global warming will cause temperate zones like
North America and Europe to heat up by fourteen degrees Fahrenheit,
nearly double the likeliest predictions of the latest report from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations-sanctioned
body that includes the world's top scientists. "Our future,"
Lovelock writes, "is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure
boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines
are about to fail." And switching to energy-efficient light bulbs
won't save us. To Lovelock, cutting greenhouse-gas pollution won't make
much difference at this point, and much of what passes for sustainable
development is little more than a scam to profit off disaster. "Green,"
he tells me, only half-joking, "is the color of mold and corruption."
If such predictions were
coming from anyone else, you would laugh them off as the ravings of
an old man projecting his own impending death onto the world around
him. But Lovelock is not so easily dismissed. As an inventor, he created
a device that helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer and
jump-start the environmental movement in the 1970s. And as a scientist,
he introduced the revolutionary theory known as Gaia -- the idea that
our entire planet is a kind of superorganism that is, in a sense, "alive."
Once dismissed as New Age quackery, Lovelock's vision of a self-regulating
Earth now underlies virtually all climate science. Lynn Margulis, a
pioneering biologist at the University of Massachusetts, calls him "one
of the most innovative and mischievous scientific minds of our time."
Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, credits Lovelock with inspiring
him to pledge billions of dollars to fight global warming. "Jim
is a brilliant scientist who has been right about many things in the
past," Branson says. "If he's feeling gloomy about the future,
it's important for mankind to pay attention."
Lovelock knows that predicting
the end of civilization is not an exact science. "I could be wrong
about all this," he admits as we stroll around the park in Norway.
"The trouble is, all those well-intentioned scientists who are
arguing that we're not in any imminent danger are basing their arguments
on computer models. I'm basing mine on what’s actually happening."
When you approach Lovelock's
house in Devon, a rural area in southwestern England, the sign on the
metal gate reads:
COOMBE MILL EXPERIMENTAL
SITE OF NEW NATURAL HABITAT
PLEASE DO NOT TRESPASS OR
A few hundred yards down
a narrow lane, beside the site of an old mill, is a white, slate-roofed
cottage where Lovelock lives with his second wife, Sandy, an American,
and his youngest son, John, who is fifty-one and mildly disabled. It's
a fairy-tale setting, surrounded by thirty-five wooded acres -- no vegetable
garden, no manicured rosebushes. "I detest all that," Lovelock
tells me. Partly hidden in the woods is a life-size statue of Gaia,
the Greek goddess of the Earth, whom Lovelock named his groundbreaking
Most scientists toil at the
margins of human knowledge, adding incrementally to our understanding
of the world. Lovelock is one of the few living scientists whose ideas
have touched off not only a scientific revolution but a spiritual one
as well. "Future historians of science will see Lovelock as a man
who inspired a Copernican shift in how we see ourselves in the world,"
says Tim Lenton, a climate researcher at the University of East Anglia,
in England. Before Lovelock came along, the Earth was seen as little
more than a cozy rock drifting around the sun. According to the accepted
wisdom, life evolved here because the conditions were right -- not too
hot, not too cold, plenty of water. Somehow bacteria grew into multicelled
organisms, fish crawled out of the sea, and before long, Britney Spears
In the 1970s, Lovelock upended
all this with a simple question: Why is the Earth different from Mars
and Venus, where the atmosphere is toxic to life? In a flash of insight,
Lovelock understood that our atmosphere was created not by random geological
events but by the cumulative effusion of everything that has ever breathed,
grown and decayed. Our air "is not merely a biological product,"
Lovelock wrote, "but more probably a biological construction: not
living, but like a cat's fur, a bird's feathers or the paper of a wasp's
nest, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen
environment." According to Gaia theory, life is not just a passenger
on Earth but an active participant, helping to create the very conditions
that sustain it. It's a beautiful idea --life begets life. It was also
right in tune with the post-flower-child mood of the Seventies. Lovelock
was quickly adopted as a spiritual guru, the man who killed God and
put the planet at the center of New Age religious experience.
Lovelock is not an alarmist
by nature. In his view, the dangers of nuclear power are grossly overstated.
Ditto mercury emissions in the atmosphere, genetic engineering of food
and the loss of biodiversity on the planet. The greatest mistake in
his career, in fact, was not claiming that the sky was falling but failing
to recognize that it was. In 1973, after being the first to discover
that industrial chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons had polluted the
atmosphere, Lovelock declared that the buildup of CFCs posed "no
conceivable hazard." As it turned out, CFCs weren't toxic to breathe,
but they were eating a hole in the ozone. Lovelock quickly revised his
view, calling it "one of my greatest blunders," but the mistake
may have cost him a share in a Nobel Prize.
At first, Lovelock didn't
view global warming as an urgent threat to the planet. "Gaia is
a tough bitch," he often said, borrowing a phrase coined by a colleague.
But a few years ago, alarmed by rapidly melting ice in the Arctic and
other climate-related changes, Lovelock became convinced that Gaia's
autopilot system -- the giant, inexpressibly subtle network of positive
and negative feedbacks that keeps the Earth’s climate in balance
-- is seriously out of whack, derailed by pollution and deforestation.
Lovelock believes the planet itself will eventually recover its equilibrium,
even if it takes millions of years. What's at stake, he says, is civilization.
"You could quite seriously
look at climate change as a response of the system intended to get rid
of an irritating species: us humans," Lovelock tells me in the
small office he has created in his cottage. "Or at least cut them
back to size."
Lovelock's cottage in the
woods is a world away from South London, where he grew up with coal
soot in his lungs, coughing and pale and working-class. His mother was
an early feminist; his father grew up so desperately hungry that he
spent six months in prison when he was fourteen for poaching a rabbit
from a local squire’s estate. Shortly after Lovelock was born,
his parents passed him off to his grandmother to raise. "They were
too poor and too busy to raise a child," he explains. In school,
he was a lousy student, mildly dyslexic, more interested in pranks than
homework. But he loved books, especially the science fiction of Jules
Verne and H.G. Wells.
To escape the grime of urban
life, Lovelock's father often took him on long walks in the countryside,
where he caught trout by hand from the streams and gorged on blueberries.
The freedom and romance Lovelock felt on these jaunts had a transformative
effect on him. "It's where I first saw the face of Gaia,"
he says now.
By the time Lovelock hit
puberty, he knew he wanted to be a scientist. His first love was physics.
But his dyslexia made complex math difficult, so he opted instead for
chemistry, enrolling at the University of London. A year later, when
the Nazis invaded Poland, Lovelock converted to Quakerism and soon became
a conscientious objector. In his written statement, he explained why
he refused to fight: "War is evil."
Lovelock took a job at the
National Institute for Medical Research in London, where one of his
first assignments was to develop new ways to stop the spread of infectious
diseases. He spent months in underground bomb shelters studying how
viruses are transmitted -- and shagging nurses in first-aid stations
while Nazi bombs fell overhead. "It was a hard, desperate time,"
he says. "But it was exciting! It's terribly ironic, but war does
make one feel alive."
As a result of his research
in the bomb shelters, Lovelock ended up inventing the first aerosol
disinfectant. A few years later, as a pioneer in the field of cryogenics,
he became the first to understand how cellular structures respond to
extreme cold, developing a means to freeze and thaw animal sperm --
a method still in use today. "Thanks to Lovelock," says biologist
Lynn Margulis, "they don't have to send the entire bull to Australia."
But Lovelock's most important
invention was the Electron Capture Detector, or ECD. In 1957, working
at his kitchen table, Lovelock hacked together a device to measure minute
concentrations of pesticides and other gases in the air. The instrument
fit into the palm of his hand and was so exquisitely sensitive that
if you dumped a bottle of some rare chemical on a blanket in Japan and
let it evaporate, the ECD would be able to detect it a week later in
England. The device was eventually redesigned by Hewlett-Packard: If
Lovelock had retained the patent, he would have been a rich man. "Jim
has never cared much for money," says Armand Neukermans, a Silicon
Valley entrepreneur and old friend of Lovelock, "except to buy
himself freedom as an independent scientist."
As it turned out, Lovelock's
invention roughly coincided with the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's
Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides
like DDT. By the time her book appeared, scientists were already using
the ECD to measure pesticide residue in the fat of Antarctic penguins
and in the milk of nursing mothers in Finland, giving hard evidence
to Carson's claims that chemicals were impacting the environment on
a global scale. "If it hadn't been for my ECD," Lovelock says,
"I think critics in the industry would have dismissed the whole
thing as wet chemistry -- 'Oh, you can't measure this stuff accurately,
can't extrapolate.' And they would have been right."
A decade later, Lovelock
made an even more important discovery. In the late 1960s, while staying
at an isolated vacation house in Ireland, he took a random sample of
the haze that drifted into the area and found it laced with chlorofluorocarbons.
CFCs are man-made compounds used as a refrigerant and as a propellant
in aerosol cans -- a sure sign of man-made pollution. If CFCs are in
remote Ireland, Lovelock wondered, where else might they be? Hitching
a ride on a research vessel for a six-month voyage to Antarctica, he
used a jury-rigged ECD to detect the buildup of CFCs in the atmosphere.
But Lovelock failed to grasp the danger that they posed; two other scientists
won the Nobel Prize for correctly hypothesizing that CFCs would burn
a hole in the stratosphere, allowing dangerous levels of ultraviolet
light to reach the Earth. As a result, CFCs were banned. "If Lovelock
hadn't detected those CFCs," says Stanford University biologist
Paul Ehrlich, "we'd all be living under the ocean in snorkels and
fins to escape that poisonous sun."
If you type "gaia"
and "religion" into Google, you'll get 2,360,000 hits -- Wiccans,
spiritual travelers, massage therapists and sexual healers, all inspired
by Lovelock's vision of the planet. Ask him about pagan cults, though,
and Lovelock grimaces -- he has no interest in soft-headed spirituality
or organized religion, especially when it puts human existence above
all else. At Oxford, he once stood up and admonished Mother Teresa for
urging an audience to take care of the poor and "leave God to take
care of the Earth." As Lovelock explained to her, "If we as
people do not respect and take care of the Earth, we can be sure that
the Earth, in the role of Gaia, will take care of us and, if necessary,
Lovelock came up with the
Gaia theory during a rough time in his life. In 1961, he was forty-one
and working at a research center in London. It was a good job, decent
pay, plenty of freedom, but he was bored. He had four kids at home,
including John, who was born with a birth defect that left him brain-damaged.
In addition, Lovelock’s mother -- cranky, demanding, aged -- was
driving him nuts. He smoked, he drank. Today, we'd call it a midlife
One day, a letter from NASA
arrived in Lovelock's mailbox, inviting him to join a group of scientists
who were about to explore the moon. He had never heard of the space
agency -- but within a few months he had dumped his job, packed up the
family and moved to America to join the space race. Before long, though,
he concluded that, scientifically speaking, the moon wasn't a very interesting
place. The real excitement was Mars. "With the moon, the question
was, is it safe for astronauts to walk on the surface?" Lovelock
recalls. "With Mars, the question was, is there life there?"
Lovelock's colleagues at
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, struggled to
design instruments to test for life on the Martian surface. Lovelock,
as usual, took a different approach. Instead of using a probe to dig
up soil and look for bacteria, he thought, why not analyze the chemical
composition of the Martian atmosphere? If life were present, he reasoned,
the organisms would be obliged to use up raw materials in the atmosphere
(such as oxygen) and dump waste products (like methane), just as life
on Earth does. Even if the materials consumed and discharged were different,
the chemical imbalance would be relatively simple to detect. Sure enough,
when Lovelock and his colleagues finally got an analysis of Mars, they
discovered that the atmosphere was close to chemical equilibrium --
suggesting that there had been no life on the planet.
But if life creates the atmosphere,
Lovelock reasoned, it must also, in some sense, be regulating it. He
knew, for example, that the sun is now about twenty-five percent hotter
than when life began. What was modulating the surface temperature of
the Earth, keeping it hospitable? Life itself, Lovelock concluded. When
the Earth heats up, plants draw down levels of carbon dioxide and other
heat-trapping gases; as it cools, the levels of those gases rise, warming
the planet. Thus, the idea of the Earth as superorganism was born.
The idea was not entirely
new: Leonardo da Vinci believed pretty much the same thing in the sixteenth
century. But Lovelock was the first to assemble all the existing thinking
into a new vision of the planet. He soon quit NASA and moved back to
England, where his neighbor William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies,
suggested that he name his theory after Gaia, to capture the popular
imagination. When established scientific journals refused to touch his
ideas, Lovelock put out a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
"The Gaia hypothesis," he wrote, "is for those who like
to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the
life it bears and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence
here." Gaia, he added, offers an alternative to the "depressing
picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever traveling driverless
and purposeless around an inner circle of the sun."
Hippies loved it. Darwinists
didn't. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, dismissed Lovelock's
book as "pop-ecology literature." British biologist John Maynard
Smith went further, calling Gaia "an evil religion." In their
view, Lovelock's concept flew in the face of evolutionary logic: If
the Earth is an organism, and organisms evolve by natural selection,
then that implies that somehow the Earth out-competed other planets.
How is that possible? They were also troubled by Lovelock's suggestion
that life creates the condition for life, which seems to suggest a predetermined
purpose. In the minds of many of his peers, Lovelock was dancing very
close to God.
But that was not what Lovelock
had in mind. Large systems, in his view, don't need a purpose. To prove
it, Lovelock and a colleague devised a simple, elegant computer model
called Daisyworld, which used competing fields of daisies to show how
organisms evolving under rules of natural selection are part of a self-regulating
system. As the model planet heats up, white daisies thrive, reflecting
more sunlight; that, in turn, lowers the temperature, which favors black
daisies. Working together, the flowers regulate the temperature of the
planet. The daisies are not altruistic or conscious -- they simply exist
and, by existing, alter their environment.
Daisyworld quieted some of
the critics, but the scientific debate over Gaia raged throughout the
1980s. Lovelock continued refining his thoughts despite troubles in
his personal life. His first wife, Helen, was in the midst of a slow
and painful decline from multiple sclerosis. Lovelock himself had several
major surgeries, including the removal of a kidney he damaged in a tractor
accident. He supported himself in part as a consultant for MI5, England's
top counterintelligence agency, where he developed a method to monitor
the movements of KGB spies in London by using an ECD to track their
vehicles. To Lovelock, working for the spy agency was the equivalent
of writing potboiler novels for a quick paycheck. "It was enjoyable
work, and it kept food on the table," he says now.
Among scientists, Lovelock
redeemed himself with a second book, The Ages of Gaia, which offered
a more rigorous exploration of the biological and geophysical feedback
mechanisms that keep the Earth's atmosphere suitable for life. Plankton
in the oceans, for example, help cool the planet by giving off dimethyl
sulfide, a chemical that seeds the formation of clouds, which in turn
reflect the sun's heat back into space. "In the 1970s, plenty of
us thought Gaia was nonsense," says Wally Broecker, a paleoclimatologist
at Columbia University. "But Lovelock got everyone thinking more
seriously about the dynamic nature of the planet." Of course, scientists
like Broecker rarely used the word "Gaia." They prefer the
phrase "Earth system science," which views the world, according
to one treatise, as "a single, self-regulating system comprised
of physical, chemical, biological and human components." In other
words, Gaia in a lab coat.
Gaia offers a hopeful vision
of how the world works. After all, if the Earth is more than just a
rock drifting around the sun, if it's a superorganism that can evolve,
that means -- to put it in a way that will piss off biology majors and
neo-Darwinists everywhere -- there is a certain amount of forgiveness
built into our world.
For Lovelock, this is a comforting
idea. Consider his little spread in Devon. When he bought the place
thirty years ago, it was surrounded by fields shorn by a thousand years
of sheep-grazing. But to Lovelock, open land reeks of human interference
with Gaia. So he set out to restore his thirty-five acres to its more
natural character. After consulting with a forester, he planted 20,000
trees -- alders, oaks, pines. Unfortunately, he planted many of them
too close together, and in rows. The trees are about forty feet tall
now, but rather than feeling "natural," parts of his land
have the look of a badly managed forestry project. "I botched it,"
Lovelock says with a grin as we hike through the woods. "But in
the long run, Gaia will take care of it."
Until recently, Lovelock
thought that global warming would be just like his half-assed forest
-- something the planet would correct for. Then, in 2004, Lovelock's
friend Richard Betts, a researcher at the Hadley Centre for Climate
Change -- England's top climate institute -- invited him to stop by
and talk with the scientists there. Lovelock went from meeting to meeting,
hearing the latest data about melting ice at the poles, shrinking rain
forests, the carbon cycle in the oceans. "It was terrifying,"
he recalls. "We were shown five separate scenes of positive feedback
in regional climates -- polar, glacial, boreal forest, tropical forest
and oceans -- but no one seemed to be working on whole-planet consequences."
Equally chilling, he says, was the tone in which the scientists talked
about the changes they were witnessing, "as if they were discussing
some distant planet or a model universe, instead of the place where
we all live."
As Lovelock was driving home
that evening, it hit him. The resiliency of the system was gone. The
forgiveness had been used up. "The whole system," he decided,
"is in failure mode." A few weeks later, he began work on
his latest and gloomiest book, The Revenge of Gaia, which was published
in the U.S. in 2006.
In Lovelock's view, the flaws
in computer climate models are painfully apparent. Take the uncertainty
around projected sea levels: The IPCC, the U.N. panel on climate change,
estimates that global warming will cause Earth's average temperature
to rise as much as 11.5 degrees by 2100. This will cause inland glaciers
to melt and seas to expand, triggering a maximum sea level rise of only
twenty-three inches. Greenland, according to the IPCC's models, will
take 1,000 years to melt.
But evidence from the real
world suggests that the IPCC is far too conservative. For one thing,
scientists know from the geological record that 3 million years ago,
when temperatures increased to five degrees above today's level, the
seas rose not by twenty-three inches but by more than eighty feet. What's
more, recent satellite measurements indicate that Arctic ice is melting
so rapidly that the region could be ice-free by 2030. "Modelers
don't have the foggiest idea about the dynamics of melting ice sheets,"
It's not just ice that throws
off the climate models. Cloud physics are notoriously difficult to get
right, and feedbacks from the biosphere, such as deforestation and melting
tundra, are rarely factored in. "Computer models are not crystal
balls," argues Ken Caldeira, a climate modeler at Stanford University
whose career has been deeply influenced by Lovelock's ideas. "By
observing the past, you make informed judgments about the future. Computer
models are just a way to codify that accumulated knowledge into automated
Here, in its oversimplified
essence, is Lovelock's doomsday scenario: Rising heat means more ice
melting at the poles, which means more open water and land. That, in
turn, increases the heat (ice reflects sunlight; open land and water
absorb it), causing more ice to melt. The seas rise. More heat leads
to more intense rainfall in some places, droughts in others. The Amazon
rain forests and the great northern boreal forests --the belt of pine
and spruce that covers Alaska, Canada and Siberia --undergo a growth
spurt, then wither away. The permafrost in northern latitudes thaws,
releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent
than CO2 -- and on and on it goes.
In a functioning Gaian world,
these positive feedbacks would be modulated by negative feedbacks, the
largest of which is the Earth's ability to radiate heat into space.
But at a certain point, the regulatory system breaks down and the planet's
climate makes the jump -- as it has many times in the past -- to a new,
hotter state. Not the end of the world, but certainly the end of the
world as we know it.
Lovelock's doomsday scenario
is dismissed by leading climate researchers, most of whom dispute the
idea that there is a single tipping point for the entire planet. "Individual
ecosystems may fail or the ice sheets may collapse," says Caldeira,
"but the larger system appears to be surprisingly resilient."
But let's assume for the moment that Lovelock is right and we are indeed
poised above Niagara Falls. Do we just wave as we go over the edge?
In Lovelock's view, modest cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions won't help
us -- it's too late to stop global warming by swapping our SUVs for
hybrids. What about capturing carbon-dioxide pollution from coal plants
and pumping it underground? "We can't possibly bury enough to make
any difference." Biofuels? "A monumentally stupid idea."
Renewables? "Nice, but won't make a dent." To Lovelock, the
whole idea of sustainable development is wrongheaded: "We should
be thinking about sustainable retreat."
Retreat, in his view, means
it's time to start talking about changing where we live and how we get
our food; about making plans for the migration of millions of people
from low-lying regions like Bangladesh into Europe; about admitting
that New Orleans is a goner and moving the people to cities better positioned
for the future. Most of all, he says, it's about everybody "absolutely
doing their utmost to sustain civilization, so that it doesn't degenerate
into Dark Ages, with warlords running things, which is a real danger.
We could lose everything that way."
Even Lovelock's friends cringe
when he talks like this. "I fear he's overdrawing our despair budget,"
says Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum in London, who has worked
hard to raise international awareness of global warming. Others are
justifiably concerned that Lovelock's views will distract from the rising
political momentum for tough restrictions on greenhouse-gas pollution.
Broecker, the Columbia paleoclimatologist, calls Lovelock's belief that
cutting pollution is futile "dangerous nonsense."
"I wish I could say
that wind turbines and solar panels will save us," Lovelock responds.
"But I can't. There isn't any kind of solution possible. There
are nearly 7 billion people on the planet now, not to mention livestock
and pets. If you just take the CO2 of everything breathing, it's twenty-five
percent of the total --four times as much CO2 as all the airlines in
the world. So if you want to improve your carbon footprint, just hold
your breath. It's terrifying. We have just exceeded all reasonable bounds
in numbers. And from a purely biological view, any species that does
that has a crash."
This is not to suggest, however,
that Lovelock believes we should just party while the world burns. Quite
the opposite. "We need bold action," Lovelock insists. "We
have a tremendous amount to do." In his view, we have two choices:
We can return to a more primitive lifestyle and live in equilibrium
with the planet as hunter-gatherers, or we can sequester ourselves in
a very sophisticated, high-tech civilization. "There's no question
which path I'd prefer," he says one morning in his cottage, grinning
broadly and tapping the keyboard of his computer. "It's really
a question of how we organize society -- where we will get our food,
water. How we will generate energy."
For water, the answer is
pretty straightforward: desalination plants, which can turn ocean water
into drinking water. Food supply is tougher: Heat and drought will devastate
many of today's food-growing regions. It will also push people north,
where they will cluster in cities. In these areas, there will be no
room for backyard gardens. As a result, Lovelock believes, we will have
to synthesize food -- to grow it in vats from tissue cultures of meats
and vegetables. It sounds far out and deeply unappetizing, but from
a technological standpoint, it wouldn't be hard to do.
A steady supply of electricity
will also be vital. Five days after his visit to the Hadley Centre,
Lovelock penned a fiery op-ed titled "Nuclear Power Is the Only
Green Solution." Lovelock argued that we should "use the small
input from renewables sensibly" but that "we have no time
to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent
danger and has to use nuclear -- the one safe, available energy source
-- now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet."
in protest, but for anyone who knew Lovelock's past, his embrace of
nukes is not surprising. At the age of fourteen, reading about how the
sun is powered by a nuclear reaction, he came to believe that nuclear
energy is one of the fundamental forces in the universe. Why not harness
it? As for the dangers -- radioactive waste, vulnerability to terrorism,
the possibility of a Chernobyl-like meltdown -- Lovelock says it's the
lesser of two evils: "Even if they're right about the dangers,
and they are not, it is still nothing compared to climate change."
As a last resort, to keep
the planet even marginally habitable, Lovelock believes that humans
may be forced to manipulate the Earth's climate by erecting solar shades
in space or building devices to strip huge quantities of CO2 out of
the atmosphere. Although he views large-scale geoengineering as an act
of profound hubris -- "I would sooner expect a goat to succeed
as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth"
-- he thinks it may be necessary as an emergency measure, much like
kidney dialysis is necessary to a person whose health is failing. In
fact, it was Lovelock who inspired his friend Richard Branson to put
up a $25 million prize for the Virgin Earth Challenge, which will be
awarded to the first person who can figure out a commercially viable
way of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. As a judge in
the contest, Lovelock is not eligible to win, but he's intrigued by
the challenge. His latest thought: suspend hundreds of thousands of
600-foot-long vertical pipes in the tropical oceans, put a valve at
the bottom of each pipe and allow deep, nutrient-rich water to be pumped
to the surface by wave action. Nutrients from the deep water would increase
algae bloom, which would suck up carbon dioxide and help cool the planet.
"It's a way of leveraging
the Earth's natural energy system against itself," Lovelock speculates.
"I think Gaia would approve."
Oslo is Lovelock's kind of
town. It's in the northern latitudes, which will grow more temperate
as the climate warms; it has plenty of water; thanks to its oil and
gas reserves, it's rich; and there's already lots of creative thinking
going on about energy, including, much to Lovelock's satisfaction, renewed
discussion about nuclear power. "The main issue they'll face here,"
Lovelock tells me as we walk along Karl Johans Gate, the city’s
main boulevard, "is how to manage the hordes of people that will
descend upon the city. In the next few decades, half the population
of southern Europe will try to move here."
We head down to the waterfront,
where we pass Akershus Castle, an imposing thirteenth-century fortress
that served as Nazi headquarters during their occupation of the city
during World War II. To Lovelock, the parallels between what the world
faced then and what the world faces now are clear. "In some ways,
it’s 1939 all over again," he says. "The threat is obvious,
but we've failed to grasp what's at stake. We're still talking about
Then, as now, the lack of
political leadership is what's most striking to Lovelock. Although he
respects Al Gore's efforts to raise people's consciousness, he believes
no politician has come close to preparing us for what's coming. "We'll
be living in a desperate world in no time," Lovelock says. He believes
the time is right for a global-warming version of Winston Churchill's
famous "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat"
speech he gave to prepare Great Britain for World War II. "People
are ready for this," Lovelock says as we pass under the shadow
of the castle. "They understand what's happening far better than
However the future turns
out, Lovelock is unlikely to be around to see it. "My goal is to
live a rectangular life: long, strong and steady, then a quick drop
at the end," he says. Lovelock shows no signs of hitting his own
personal tipping point. Although he's had forty operations, including
a heart bypass, he still zooms around the English countryside in his
white Honda like a Formula One driver. He and Sandy recently took a
monthlong trip through Australia, where they visited the Great Barrier
Reef. He's about to start another book about Gaia. Richard Branson has
invited him on the first flight on the Virgin Galactic space shuttle
late next year --"I want to give him a view of Gaia from space,"
says Branson. Lovelock is eager to go, and plans to take a test in a
centrifuge later this year to see if his body can withstand the G-forces
of spaceflight. He shuns talk of his legacy, although he jokes with
his kids that he wants his headstone to read, HE NEVER MEANT TO BE PROSCRIPTIVE.
Whatever his epitaph, Lovelock's
legacy as one of the most provocative scientists of our time is assured.
And for all his gloom and doom, his notion of the planet as a single
dynamic system remains a hopeful idea. It suggests that there are rules
the system operates by and mechanisms that drive it. These rules and
mechanisms can be studied and, possibly, tweaked. In many ways, Lovelock's
holistic vision is an antidote to the chaos of twentieth-century science,
which fragmented the world into quarks, quantum mechanics and untouchable
As for the doom that awaits
us, Lovelock may well be wrong. Not because he's misread the science
(although that’s certainly possible) but because he's misread
human beings. Few serious scientists doubt that we're on the verge of
a climate catastrophe. But for all Lovelock's sensitivity to the subtle
dynamics and feedback loops in the climate system, he is curiously tone-deaf
to the subtle dynamics and feedback loops in the human system. He believes
that, despite our iPhones and space shuttles, we are still tribal animals,
largely incapable of acting for the greater good or making long-term
decisions for our own welfare. "Our moral progress," says
Lovelock, "has not kept up with our technological progress."
But maybe that's exactly
what the coming apocalypse is all about. One of the questions that fascinates
Lovelock: Life has been evolving on Earth for more than 3 billion years
-- and to what purpose? "Like it or not, we are the brains and
nervous system of Gaia," he says. "We have now assumed responsibility
for the welfare of the planet. How will we manage it?"
As we weave our way through
the tourists heading up to the castle, it's easy to look at them and
feel sadness. It’s harder to look at them and feel hopeful. But
when I say this to Lovelock, he argues that the human race has gone
through many bottlenecks before --and perhaps we're the better for it.
Then he tells me the story of an airplane crash years ago at Manchester
Airport. "A fuel tank caught fire during takeoff," Lovelock
says. "There was plenty of time for everybody to get out, but many
of the passengers wouldn't move. They just stayed there in their seats
as they were told to, and the people who escaped had to climb over them
to get out. It was perfectly obvious how to get out, but they wouldn't
move. They died from the smoke or burned to death. And an awful lot
of people, I'm sad to say, are like that. And that's what will happen
this time, except on a much vaster scale."
Lovelock looks at me with
unflinching blue eyes. "Some people will sit in their seats and
do nothing, frozen in panic. Others will move. They'll see what's about
to happen, and they'll take action, and they'll survive. They're the
carriers of the civilization ahead."
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