The Prophet of Gaia

Issue 288
January/February 2015
Power to the People


The Prophet of Gaia

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Cover: Painting by Sara Caracristi

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James Lovelock still has the power to irk and inspire. A Rough Ride to the Future by James Lovelock. Penguin Allen Lane, 2014. ISBN: 9780241004760

James Lovelock is widely known as the author of the Gaia theory, which suggests that for billions of years the Earth has actively regulated her surface temperature, acidity and the distribution of key elements within the narrow limits tolerable to living beings, thanks to tightly coupled feedbacks between our planet’s biosphere and her rocks, atmosphere and water. Lovelock deserves our gratitude for gifting us with this idea, which some consider to be a re-statement in modern scientific language of the ancient intuitive insight that the Earth is a vast living being within whom we humans exist (much as bacteria live inside our guts), and to whom we are ultimately accountable.

We must also be grateful for Lovelock’s wisdom and courage in continuing to name his idea after the ancient Greek divinity of the Earth in the face of intense scientific critics who initially declared Gaia to be an “evil religion”. Acceptance might have been easier had Lovelock chosen a dry technical epithet, although now, some 50 years later, Gaia theory has been largely incorporated into science, albeit under the suitably sanitised rubric of “Earth Systems Science”.

It seems to me that Lovelock was uniquely prepared by his background as a scientist/inventor to receive the momentous, paradigm-shifting insight of a living, self-regulating Earth in 1965 whilst working for NASA on the problem of detecting life on Mars. As a young boy, he spent hours in the Brixton public library devouring advanced books on chemistry and other scientific subjects. His father gave him a profound love of Nature during their frequent country rambles, and later, as a young man in the late 1930s, he followed his calling to learn the “craftsmanship of science” by becoming a laboratory assistant.

Then, having graduated in chemistry from Manchester University, he became a tenured staff member at the UK’s National Institute for Medical Research, where he worked for 20 years. After a brief spell as a research professor in the US, he became an independent scientist in 1961, consulting for the NASA Mars programme. His scientific independence has continued to this day. (He is now in his 95th year.) In 1974, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Many further honours have followed.

The key point about Lovelock’s background is that his ability as an inventor gave him the practical, hands-on understanding of feedback that would be essential for his conception of the Earth as a self-regulating entity.

His biographical details appear in A Rough Ride to the Future, his seventh book on Gaia, where we encounter a thought-provoking brew of ideas about the current and possible future states of our planet, some of which, in true Lovelockian style, will irk many readers of Resurgence & Ecologist. His support for nuclear power and disdain for wind turbines and other ‘zero-carbon’ solutions appear as expected, but many of his other ideas will surprise and delight.

He emphasises the limitations of the rational mind and places huge emphasis on intuition as perhaps being “the only way of developing a feeling about a system that is too complex for rational explanation”. Clearly, he has Gaia in mind.

He admits that the conventional cause-and-effect thinking incorporated into climate models, which he now regards as unreliable, prompted him to exaggerate the immediacy of climate change in his 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia. These models did not foresee the current decade-long stabilisation of global temperature, due possibly to increased aerosols in the atmosphere and uplift of cool water from the deep oceans. But make no mistake, says Lovelock: we should be concerned about global warming. We are now less sure about how and when it will happen, but there will be problems if CO2 and population continue to increase.

Thus Lovelock integrates his own intuition and reasoning in this well-balanced and richly detailed book, showing us his own particular style of Gaian consciousness. “Because we are alive,” he says, “in a rudimentary way the system has, through us, become sentient.” “Our intelligence is a property of the Earth – that is why it is important that we survive.” We might “give the Earth a chance to become an intelligent planet more capable of self-regulation with potentially a longer useful life span”. Let us hope that this book will help us all to develop our own Gaian consciousness. Anything less, and Gaia is in for deep trouble.

Stephan Harding is Head of Holistic Science at Schumacher College and is the author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia.

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