James Lovelock: Visionary scientist, maverick, prophet of doom

James Lovelock, co-founder of the Gaia theory, passed away last week. He was so widely multi-talented that many of his descriptions seem equally accurate – from visionary realm to maverick and prophet of doom.

While Lovelock will be remembered for many of his groundbreaking discoveries and ideas, his death alerts us to the importance of independent investigation. Most of his important ideas resulted from pursuing questions without precluding the pursuit of company, state, or academic approval. However, during his long life of 103 years, he worked in three areas – including inventing instruments for MI5.

To some extent, Lovelock’s Gaia theory argued that traditional knowledge systems in many cultures have been in place for thousands of years: that life has a longing for life, and thus all of nature, from microorganisms to rocks, is interconnected.

This was largely the reason why Lovelock’s formulation for Gaia appealed to “back to nature” environmentalists around the world. However, Lovelock seemed to have little patience with the poetic and romantic dimensions of contemporary environmentalists. In an interview published in New Scientist, Lovelock attributed the choice of the word “Gaya” to author William Golding. Gaia, or Gaea in Greek, is the name of the primordial earth or mother goddess. Gaia’s thesis arose from the work Lovelock did for NASA, about the possibility of life on Mars. This led him and biologist Lynn Margulies to delve deeper into the origins of life on Earth. Together they put together a formula that the Earth is a self-regulating organism and that when early life forms began extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, it gave birth to a biological system that kept transforming to continually recalibrate itself in order to sustain life.

This in turn led to Lovelock being among the first scientists to identify man-made climate change as a serious existential threat to our species. The idea that nature would strike at humans to destroy the balance of planetary flows resonated with the environmental movement.

Although he was a visionary, Lovelock was not locked into the environmental movement. He disappointed environmental doctrine by making a strong case for nuclear power, which he insisted could be safer. Lovelock argued that renewable energy is important, but our time is running out. Lovelock insisted that a rapid survival response now required a massive shift to nuclear power, in order to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and better manage climate change.

By 2006, Lovelock declared that humans now had little or no chance of averting climate catastrophe and called for a focus on adaptation. That year, he published The Revenge of Gaia, a book described by one reviewer as powerful but “disablingly frustrating.”

The doomsday scenario that Lovelock envisioned is that in the near future a large part of the planet could become too hot to live in and the remaining humans, who are rich enough to do so, would retreat to the poles, which would then become a temperate climate.

His recent musings, though intended to be optimistic, may seem more depressing to many. In a book called Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, Lovelock envisioned the planet being saved by Cyborgs. In an interview with New Scientist in 2019, he said, “The chemical-physical kind of humanity has had its time. We’ve dealt with the planet and we’re moving toward a systems type of thing, (future organisms) that works on cybernetics. The great thing is that if you Running your systems on electronic or optical devices, they are up to 10,000 times faster than what we have at the moment, and this opens up huge possibilities.”

But is the intelligence of the human brain, or even machines designed by humans, really similar to or equal to the “intelligence” of life on Earth? This is the central question moving forward and will require investigation truly independent of the orthodoxy rooted in “science” and the profit motive.

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Lovelock’s predictions and extrapolations about the future of our species may or may not be true. But the large-scale, independent way in which he pursued questions about our world and the role of humans will continue to inspire curious minds for a long time.

As Stephen Harding of Schumacher College wrote in a tribute to Lovelock: “Doing Gaia with him was like taking him to the summit of Mount Everest on the purest of days and looking out at a vast panorama of undulating snowy peaks majestically away in the extreme blue distance.”

Bakshi is the author and founder of the online chat platform Ahimsa

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