Reflections on meeting James Lovelock

It was a balmy summer day when Ed, Jamie and John drove down in the Creel Mobile to interview Professor James Lovelock, or Jim as he prefers to be known, at his home-cum-nature-reserve on the Cornish boarder near Launceston. Jim has turned his abode and the land around it into a wonderful nature reserve, where the land has been allowed, as far as possible, to revert to its natural state. Through the meadows and woodlands, Jim maintains a series of paths, and at his suggestion we wandered around these talking for several hours on a range of pressing subjects. We were there to get a measure of this great man, and the full sprawling interview is outlined at this link. However, we also thought that it might be useful for those of you who are pressed for time (so little time, so little time, so little sense of what time really is? ) to summarise our impressions of the man.

Gaia debate at this link. Of course, the concept of the planet influencing the organisms that populated it was anathema to many who subscribed to the founding creed of contemporary biology, Darwinism. As Jim explained to us, to this day he still encounters hostility from some Darwinists to his ideas: after all, as those who adhere to that theory most strictly observe, the evolution of life is triggered by natural competition amongst species (in the phrase incorrectly attributed to Darwin, ?the survival of the fittest?). Gaia theory was seen as teleological (giving things a predetermined purpose), and it was claimed that there was 'no way for evolution by natural selection to lead to altruism on a Global scale' (Richard Dawkins, 1982).

So can the two theories find a common ground? Lovelock explicity rejects claims that planetary self-regulation is purposeful, or involves foresight or planning by the biota. He seems to agree that perhaps now the time has come for a reconciliation between the Darwinian perspective (that of the individual species, evolving slowly over millions of years through natural competition) and the more holistic perspective offered by Gaia theory (the biosphere, self-regulating through her forests and oceans; again over millions of years). As so often in life it seems that ones perspective may be very different depending on where you stand. Dogma? Pah! As Lovelock himself would be the first to point out, being too dogmatic has never done humanity any good, and he urges us not to ?take what I say as gospel, because no one can second-guess the future.?

Gaia theory seems every more prescient in these days of global warming. During our interview, Lovelock points out to us plants (purple lupines) that should appear at the very end of summer that now appear in early August, we discuss some of the increasing number of out-of-season weather events (this is before Katrina), and we agree that climate change must indeed be upon us in a very real way if we humans (so blind to nature?s perspective of time) can see these physical changes in nature year upon year, let alone decade upon decade. Jim points out that the Thames barrier, when first built, was used at most once a year. Last year it was used twenty-four times. We later check these claims, and given the artistic licence of a rambling conversation, they are indeed broadly accurate. He believes that within as little as five years time climate change will have forced its way on to the agenda, simply because ?we?ll be up against it.?

We mention our interview with his friend John Gray, and ask Lovelock what his prognosis is for humanity. His answer is blunt: ?civilization in its present form hasn?t got long and I think what will happen is ? well, all the climatologists are now centred at Exeter at the Hadley centre, they?re all agreed, the whole damned lot of them, that we?d be very lucky to see the end of this century with out the world being a totally different place, and being anything like 8 or 9 degrees hotter on average?? Elsewhere he elaborates: ?Geological change usually takes thousands of years to happen but we are seeing the climate changing not just in our life times but also year by year. All the modelling we do shows that the climate is poised on the jump up to a new hot state. When that jump takes place who knows? But it is accelerating so fast that you could say that we are already in it.?

It is within the context of the very real threat of climate change that Lovelock?s well-know support for nuclear energy must be understood. It is for this that he has come in for strong criticism from some in the Green movement. But he tells an amusing story of a German Green politician that well illustrates his broad-belief that people have confused nuclear weapons with nuclear power. He points out that the threats from global warming, and CO2 release into the atmosphere, are unquestionably dire. Recent research has pointed to several of the previous mass-exinction events being triggered not as previously thought by meteorites from outer-space, but from (naturally occurring) global warming, in its scale something that man-kind is close to matching within the short space of a few hundred years. By contrast, as Lovelock points out, nuclear power is relatively safe. When it does go wrong, as in Chernobyl, it will kill. But global warming threatens our species and many others on the planet. Nuclear power, he believes does not. Not that he regards this as anything other than a temporary solution to get us out of a very real problem.

We ask Jim if Gaia theory has anything to say about re-addressing the natural balance that man has helped to put so out of kilter. His answer is unambiguous: ?What Gaia has to say about it is fairly grim really. The way to look at it is that any species that harms the environment to a point where it threatens its own progeny is doomed and will become extinct ? and that?s us. And it works by the environment being changed by what we have been doing so that it is no longer favourable to us.? He agrees with us that the behaviour of mankind is akin to that of an in-efficient virus. Lovelock's work has demonstrated that increased biodiversity helps to better regulate the biosphere (see the Daisyworld debate), so humanity's decmination of the species around us, and rapid consumption of unprecedented resources does not bode well. In fact, Jim tells us that he finds the current predicament so dire that he has decided to write a book upon the subject, entitled ?Gaia?s Revenge?. There's a very interesting article about this which can be found at this link.

The thing with Lovelock though is that - despite the catastrophe unfolding around us - all is not doom. The man is 85 years old, and yet his mind is still-razor sharp. He has no inhibitions at laughing at himself, and at laughing at the scientific establishment (?a bunch of stuffy old cronies? as he refers to some of them). He has always been a maverick, never afraid to speak his old mind. He is particularly proud of being cited as someone who has irritated more scientists than virtually anyone else; proud one feels because he has challenged the establishment and taken on the orthodox. Not an egotistical or self-congratulatory pride, but the pride of someone who knows that he?s shaken things up in a necessary way. Some of his suggested actions to lessen the impact of climate change are really out-there (he talks of a sun-shade, shielding the planet), and anyway, as he says, ?I?m not a pessimist? even though I do think that awful things are going to happen.?

Lovelock elaborates: ?humans are a real tough species and one of the toughest on the planet, and there?s no way its going to wipe out all breeding pairs of humans, and human civilization will have to re-start, and it will re-start all around the Arctic basin because that will be an area rich in resources and fish and is fairly sizeable and the climate will be okay, it?ll be hot, but not unbearable, the rest of the earth will be either desert or so torrid it won?t be habitable.? He compares the current situation with that faced by his generation in the face of the Nazi threat, and he undoubtedly believes in the common sense of the majority of people when faced by a real threat to our civilization. In short, citizens will awake to the very real threat of climate change and will act upon it, and in turn society?s politicians will be forced to act.

Did we come away with a measure of the man? We?d like to think that we did. A true maverick, not afraid to challenge, always pushing the boundaries, profoundly perceptive, profoundly insightful of man?s weaknesses, yet not tainted by scepticism and not lacking in practical drive. A man whose mind remains fiercely inquisitive. In short, a man with many of the properties associated with those of a mystic: compassionate, wise and full of life. We hope you enjoy the full text of the interview which can be found at this link.

Interview added 26-08-2005: