John Amarilios found the following article on James Lovelock's
calculations on global warming and sent it to David Bedell. David sent
it to me. I'm sending it to you with John's introduction. I think it
is essential reading for the 2008 election.
Date: Sun, 28 Oct 2007 16:19:54 -0400
Subject: Billions Will Perish ? -
What impresses me most is when you talk to most Americans over the age
of 60, they scoff at the idea that any form of intervention (political
or climatalogical or otherwise) might affect their materialistic
lifestyles. When confronted with discussion, their usual retort are
words to the effect that" it doen't affect me as I'll be dead by then"
so they continue to party hardy and slumber on in their hubristic self
confidence. Their confidence in Technology and War as a means to
solve all ills in the world and the economy is truly as stunning a
spectacle in the annals of Western Civilization as none other. A true
bell ringing signifying a top of a civilization -
This article is from the latest RS Magazine - It is amazing that
beacons of light can still be found on the planet. Read - and take
notice and govern yourselves accordingly - Those who gloat in Hubris,
and their progeny are not going to make it - J
The Prophet of Climate Change: James Lovelock
One of the most eminent scientists of our time says that global
warming is irreversible — and that more than 6 billion people will
perish by the end of the century
Jeff GoodellPosted Oct 17, 2007 2:20 PM
At 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 Basin.
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
When you approach Lovelock's house in Devon, a rural area in
southwestern England, the sign on the metal gate reads:
COOMBE MILL EXPERIMENTAL STATION
SITE OF NEW NATURAL HABITAT
PLEASE DO NOT TRESPASS OR DISTURB
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 theory after.
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
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
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
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, eliminate us."
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 crisis.
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
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," scoffs Lovelock.
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 educated
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."
Environmentalists howled 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 appeasement."
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 most politicians."
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 mystery.
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."