We have lost a unique and truly independent mind. The father of the Gaia thesis grew to mistrust modish greenery
The death of James Lovelock on his 103rd birthday brings to an end one of the most original lives this planet has seen. He filled his century on Earth with ingenuity and never wasted a moment on conventional thinking. His secret? I suspect it was that he worked for himself almost all his life, lending his brilliance to organisations as diverse as Shell, Nasa and MI6, but avoiding being an employee. Though a fellow of the Royal Society and a Companion of Honour, he was never part of the establishment.
In 2010, responding to leaked emails that showed scientists scheming to conceal inconvenient evidence on climate change, he expressed this independence with characteristic verve: “Science, not so very long ago, pre-1960s, was largely vocational. Back when I was young, I didn’t want to do anything else other than be a scientist. They’re not like that nowadays. They don’t give a damn. They go to these massive, mass-produced universities and churn them out. They say: ‘Science is a good career. You can get a job for life doing government work.’ That’s no way to do science.”
As a result he never made much money despite inventing a machine of global importance, the electron capture device, which allowed people to detect the faintest traces of rare chemicals, vital in the fight against pollution. He ended his life quietly in a small cottage on Chesil Beach, cared for by his wife Sandy. A heart attack in his fifties could not stop him, nor could an adder bite when he was 100, but his life faded out this week.
It was in 1972, fifty years ago, that he put forward his Gaia theory, that the earth is like an organism, its living creatures adjusting its physical conditions to suit themselves in an almost mystical way. Taken literally this was clearly not true: the earth does not have a parent or children let alone a brain. But Lovelock gradually won over sceptics like me to the less mystical notion that ecology is not just a reaction to the physical world but does also influence it in ways that moderate the effects.
Here’s my favourite example of a Gaian idea. At the height of ice ages, carbon dioxide levels drop very low, we now know – cold seas absorb it from the air. This means plants disappear from dry or high areas of continents, unable to feed off the air. Huge deserts generate huge dust storms. These darken the ice caps of the Northern hemisphere and when a burst of warming is caused by orbital changes, the darkening accelerates as the ice melts and brings together years of dust. This leads to a collapse of the ice caps, a warming of the world and an increase in carbon dioxide released from the ocean, causing a flourishing of plants again.
Lovelock’s goddess Gaia is a hero to extreme greens to this day. So it was with shock and embarrassment that they learned that he disagreed with a lot of green stuff. He told the Guardian in 2016 that fracking for shale gas made sense, that nuclear power was essential, that trying to heat your home with biomass was expensive and dirty, that computer models of the climate were not reliable. And the green movement: “Well, it’s a religion, really, you see. It’s totally unscientific.”
He went on: “I’m not anti-green in the sense that I’m in favour of polluting the world with every damn thing we make. I think we’ve got to be careful. But I’m afraid, human nature being what it is, the thing gets exaggerated out of all proportion, and the greens have behaved deplorably instead of being reasonably sensible.”
He then went on to tell his startled interviewer that by the end of this century, robots will have taken over and they will have a rather different view of planetary affairs. He gave a splendid answer to a question about what the robots will think about climate change: “They won’t give a fourpenny fuck about the temperature, because to them the change will be slow, and they can stand quite a big change without any fuss. They could accommodate infinitely greater change through climate change than we can, before things get tricky for them. It’s what the world can stand that is the important thing. They’re going to have a safe platform to live in, so they don’t want Gaia messed about too much.”
Now that is what an independent mind looks like.