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James Lovelock recants his alarmism

My review for The Times of James Lovelock’s new
book, A Rough Ride to the Future.


This book reveals that James Lovelock, at 94, has not lost his
sparkling intelligence, his lucid prose style, or his cheerful
humanity. May Gaia grant that we all have such talents in our tenth
decades, because the inventor of gadgets and eco-visionary has
lived long enough to recant some of the less sensible views he
espoused in his eighties.

Eight years ago, at the height of global warming alarmism,
Lovelock turned uncharacteristically pessimistic in his book The
Revenge of Gaia. He’d been got at by the greens. Despite all our
efforts, he thought, “we may be unable to prevent a global decline
into a chaotic world ruled by brutal warlords on a devastated
Earth”. Billions would die, he said, and the few breeding pairs of
human beings who survived would be in the Arctic.

In his new book, he now thinks he “tended to exaggerate the
immediacy of global warming”, that “we may muddle through into a
strange but still viable new world”, and that we can “keep our cool
as the Earth gently warms, and even enjoy it when we can”. He
admits that “the global average temperature has not risen as
expected”, having “hardly warmed at all since the millennium”, and
that he was “led astray” by the ice cores that seemed to imply
changes in carbon dioxide were the dominant cause of changes in
temperature. He thinks it is a mistake to take the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “projections almost as
if written in stone”; instead we “need to stay sceptical about the
projections of climate models”.

For those of us who have been saying such things for a while,
and who were told more than once (as I was by the head of the
Science Museum among others), that if Lovelock was very worried so
should I be, this is delicious to read. Welcome to the Lukewarmer
Society, Jim.

He regrets that huge sums have been “squandered on the renewable
energy sources”, many of which are “ugly and hopelessly
impractical” and threaten a “green satanic change” to Britain’s
landscape. Yup. He thinks that Greenpeace is “a great and powerful
negative feedback on all that enlightened technological progress
stands for”. Amen to all that.

He still thinks climate change will happen, of course, as I and
most people do, but he expects us to adapt to it, especially in the
design of our cities. Singapore, he points out, is a very habitable
city in a climate far warmer than expected for most of the world by
the end of the century. He expects us, by combining our biological
and our electronic brains, to “give Gaia to the wisdom to proceed
to the next step, whatever that may be, with or without us as the
lead species”.

Ah, Gaia. Lovelock famously borrowed this name from Greek
theology to label his idea that life alters the physics and
chemistry of the planet in ways that are self-regulating. If the
planet gets too hot, for instance, living things get whiter, which
cools it down. I have always had difficulty with Gaia, because I am
never sure how seriously Lovelock wants us to take her. If he means
by Gaia that the Earth has a tendency to self-correct, which has
kept it lukewarm for billions of years through changes in the
atmosphere unconsciously aided by evolution among life forms, I’m
with him. But I never quite feel he does enough to disavow the idea
that in some sense this tendency has become conscious or mystical.
The book does little to clear up my confusion, but there are some
fascinating ideas to enjoy along the way.

One of these is that he thinks Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric
steam engine, invented in 1712, marks a turning point in the
history of the planet — when we began to tap the almost limitless
energy of fossil fuels, accessing cheap and abundant energy.
Thereby we began to transform not only our population and our
prosperity, but the ecology of the planet itself. I agree, and
would go further, because I think Lovelock misses the fact that
this was in effect the first occasion on which we linked heat with

Till Newcomen we had heat energy, from wood and so on, and work
energy (motion mainly), from wind, oxen and so on, but the twain
did not meet — except instantaneously in the barrel of a gun. Today
nearly all the work done in the world starts out as heat. That is
what has enabled cultural evolution to change at a breakneck

Lovelock is a lone scientist, a species that he says is now “as
rare as ectoplasm”, and he values the independence to think that
comes with loner status. He comes up with plenty of thoughts that I
happen to think are bunk, but no matter: there’s lots of marvellous
ideas too. As the autobiographical snippets in this fine book
illustrate, he is at least as much an inventor as a scientist,
exemplifying in his career the fact that technology drives science
at least as much as vice versa.

Roll on Lovelock’s eleventh decade: he’s getting better all the

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times