Books: can James Lovelock save the world?

One man’s decades of warnings about our living (but ill) planet are looking increasingly prophetic. Peter Forbes scrutinises the pioneer environmentalist’s latest work, as well as a Lovelock biography.

The Vanishing Face of Gaia
James Lovelock
Allen Lane, 2009

He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia
John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin
Allen Lane, 2009

For two decades, James Lovelock was seen by many of his scientific peers as an eccentric loner who had ruined his otherwise solid reputation as an inventor and pioneering environmental chemist by insisting that the earth was “alive”, not very well, and living under the name of Gaia. But as global warming has moved up the agenda, he has increasingly appeared to be a prophet who deserves every honour the human race can bestow.

Lovelock was an awkward figure from an early age: at school he refused to do homework, and somehow got away with it. A south London boy from a socially ambiguous background, Lovelock resembles in some ways a character out of HG Wells, whose scientific fiction and broad prophetic sweep have guided him from an early age. The adult Lovelock is a blend of sturdy individualist inventor, nature rhapsodist and hard-headed Malthusian prophet of human destiny.

The story of Gaia has been told many times, but it bears repetition and frequent updating because the urgency of Lovelock’s warnings is increasing. He has written seven Gaia books since the first in 1979, as well as an autobiography, Homage to Gaia, in 2000. Now we have John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin’s biography – He Knew He Was Right — which also talks about Gaia before Gaia: Lovelock’s forebears and their tentative stabs at the theory Lovelock has made
his own.

With Charles Darwin’s name ringing in our ears from his 200th anniversary celebrations, it is impossible, reading Lovelock’s The Vanishing Face of Gaia, to resist comparison. Lovelock is an independent scientist who works from home, as was Darwin. Both were patient observers of nature before they were theorists. The theories of evolution by natural selection and Gaia were each proposed at a time when they were far ahead of the evidence necessary to confirm them, but they suggested innumerable ways in which they could be tested. The two theories are related, of course.

The best way to understand Gaia is that it proposes a new context for evolution. Lovelock is an interdisciplinary scientist and he challenges the orthodoxy that the physical earth — the rocks, the oceans and the atmosphere — evolved by purely physical and chemical principles, with life then evolving as icing on the cake, having to cope with whatever the planet threw up in the form of ice ages, meteorite strikes and huge volcanic eruptions, but never itself being a player in the geological drama.

That this was wrong became clear to Lovelock in the 1960s, when he was working for the US space agency Nasa’s project to determine whether there is life on Mars. He realised that sampling Mars’ atmosphere would show life’s presence or absence. The atmosphere on earth may seem to us like the most natural thing, but its composition — 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen — is very odd. These gases were generated, and are maintained at an equable level for life’s processes, by living organisms themselves; if the biosphere died, oxygen and nitrogen would disappear with it, leaving a greenhouse atmosphere similar to that of Mars and Venus (around 95% carbon dioxide and hundreds of degrees hot).

The Gaia theory proposes that the atmosphere, oceans, rocks, soil and all living things constitute a self-regulating system that maintains favourable conditions for life — but not necessarily the life that is comfortable for human beings.

One of Lovelock’s most beautiful pieces of hard science — which tipped the balance in favour of Gaia — is his discovery of a great cycle in which algae in the oceans produce volatile sulphur compounds that act as seeds to form the oceanic clouds. Without these dimethyl sulphide “seeds”, the cooling oceanic clouds would be lost.

Lovelock is not a doom-monger but a practical problem-solving man, with suggestions for alleviating the climate crisis at many levels. In the short term, as far as energy is concerned, his answer is nuclear power, followed soon after by thermal solar power, produced by huge arrays of mirrors in the prime deserts of the word, such as in Arizona and the Sahara. His own proposal for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide is an ingenious spin-off from his algal-cloud theory. Large plastic cylinders thrust vertically into the ocean could bring nutrient-rich lower waters to the surface, producing an algal bloom that would increase the cloud cover.

But even with the best efforts, Lovelock fears that the earth’s move to a new warm state, 5º to 6º Celsius hotter than now, is probably inevitable, and that we should be planning to meet that challenge. His starkest warning is that the earth is overpopulated by a factor of about seven. It cannot maintain both its ecosystem and the supply of food, energy and materials to such a large population for much longer. He fears that, whatever we do, climatic catastrophes are going to reduce that population, leaving the rump of humanity living on what he calls “lifeboats” — favourably situated regions in the northern hemisphere. One such is the British Isles.

Lovelock speaks with a unique authority, but he is unlikely to be right about everything. He holds a string of heterodox views — dismissing all fears about nuclear power; believing wind farms and biofuel to be inefficient and counterproductive; having a lot of time for big multinational companies such as Shell. He claims that all this does not make him a contrarian, but it is hard for a lone prophet to avoid a certain over-assertiveness. He pushes his love of nuclear power a little too far, telling us often how he’d love to have a cube of nuclear waste in his garden to heat the house. But these are minor caveats.

In the big important things, the Gribbins’ title is justified. Lovelock was and is right and we must listen to him. This year, his 90th, he hopes to travel into space, courtesy of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactica, to see his beloved Gaia in the round. And if the worst happens, he says: “What a way to go!”

Peter Forbes’s Dazzled and Deceived will be published by Yale later this year.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009