Lovelock at 101
Online Science Editor Vincent Plant discusses Lovelock’s Gaia theory, the Coronavirus pandemic, and the Paris agreement.
On the 26th of July of this year, the independent scientist James Lovelock celebrated his 101st birthday. The centenarian is still going strong, as a few weeks before his birthday he held an interview with the Guardian. He is currently working on a book about human evolution, following quickly on from Novacene which was published in July of last year.
These are the latest additions to a long and varied career; Lovelock’s debut in the scientific community came in 1945 when he wrote a letter to Nature concerning the labelling of Petri dishes. He has worked for NASA, helping determine if life can be detected on Mars, as well as working on the Moon landings, becoming in his own words the first British person to be asked to help with these projects. However, it wasn’t until 1979 that his most famous contribution was released – the Gaia hypothesis.
Lovelock hypothesised that the biosphere could be seen as a superorganism which regulates itself in order to create the conditions most suitable for life. In other words, life acts to prolong its own existence. An example given in his original book on the subject is that methanogens might have acted to create an effect similar to the ozone layer before this was formed, thereby protecting life below from the most adverse effects of ultraviolet radiation.
In other words, life acts to prolong its own existence.
This hypothesis proved controversial when it was released. One critic compared the reaction to Lovelock having created a bad smell at a vicar’s tea party. He was described in a 2019 Guardian article as a combination of a prophet from the Old Testament and the environmental version of Cassandra – the ancient Greek prophetess who Apollo supposedly cursed to be able to know the future, with the drawback that nobody would ever believe her. The Gaia hypothesis was derided as mystical and akin to faith-healing rather than a scientific theory. Despite this, the hypothesis has endured for almost fifty years.
But with advancing age seems to have come pessimism for humanity’s future. Over a decade ago, he predicted that over 80% of humanity would have perished by 2100 as a result of the climate crisis, with the last breeding pairs of our species clinging to survival in what he imagined would be the tolerable conditions of the future Arctic. In more recent days, his book Novacene imagines a world where the Anthropocene has ended and humanity is subject to an intelligence 10,000 times faster than our own, kept on only for the purpose of making sure the temperature remains bearable for the new masters of the ‘Novacene’. More recently, in the interview shortly before his 101st birthday, Lovelock estimated that both he and the biosphere were in the final 1% of their existence.
Over a decade ago, he predicted that over 80% of humanity would have perished by 2100 as a result of the climate crisis
Lovelock’s worry is that the negative feedback loops that have previously kept Gaia stable might turn into positive feedback loops – cycles which reinforce themselves – due to the artificial stress we place upon them. His pessimism seems to be based in a bleak reality, as Lovelock predicted the rise of extreme weather events and global disasters as far back as 2006. This was fourteen years before the first temperatures over 100°F (about 37.8°C) in the Arctic circle in Verkoyanskh were recorded, wildfires broke out in Australia and Siberia, and plagues of locusts swept the southern hemisphere. All of this occurred within the same year.
In the aforementioned 2019 interview, he dismissed people who believed that that the planet could still be saved. In many respects current evidence seems to support this cynicism. For example, although projections suggest the pandemic could mean a drop of 6% in global carbon emissions, Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency has cautioned that this drop will easily be wiped out again without the right policies in place – not to mention that the US will be pulling out of the Paris Accord on the 4th of November. There are small rays of hope though, with even simple lifestyle changes making a difference, like replacing beef with chicken in your diet which could cut your dietary carbon emissions by 50%.
Lovelock still believes that humanity’s future is doomed. Let’s set out to prove him wrong today.