James Lovelock is the author of more than 200 scientific papers and the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis (now Gaia Theory). He has written three books on the subject: Gaia: a new look at life on Earth; The Ages of Gaia; Gaia: the practical science of planetary medicine; and an autobiography, Homage to Gaia. He has received many honorary degrees as well as being made Companion of Honour by the Queen in 2003. He has held posts at numerous universities both in the UK and the US and since 1994 has been an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Green College, University of Oxford.
The legendary James Lovelock, originator of the idea of Gaia, makes a brilliantly argued plea that we must change our way of life – before it is too late.
Here James explains the Gaia Theory, his views on global warming and how global warming effects us.
Some of our readers won’t have heard of Gaia Theory. Could you explain what it is?
Just over forty years ago I introduced the hypothesis that supposed our planet had, since life appeared on it, kept the climate and atmospheric composition favourable for its inhabitants. The novelist William Golding, a friend and neighbour, suggested that I call it Gaia after the ancient Greek Goddess of the Earth.
As with most large and incomplete hypotheses it was fiercely challenged by Life and Earth scientists; its only supporters among scientists were a few climatologists and the distinguished biologist, Lynn Margulis. The hypothesis made a number of predictions, such as that life in the oceans would make volatile substances needed to complete the natural cycles of iodine and sulphur. Over the years most of the Gaia predictions have been found to be true, none have been falsified. This and the development of mathematical models of a self regulating Earth allowed the evolution of Gaia Theory which is now main stream in science. Gaia theory views the Earth as a self regulating system made up from all living things, and of the surface rocks, oceans and atmosphere. The goal of the self regulation is to sustain habitability. Most scientists, particularly in the USA, dislike the word Gaia because of its New Age associations and prefer to talk of the theory as part of Earth System Science.
You have been writing about Gaia for some years now and The Revenge of Gaia is your most trenchant book yet. Have your views changed, or is it that the world has changed?
My views on Gaia and on its importance for humanity have not changed; indeed they have been strengthened by confirmatory evidence. A glance at my 1979 first book, Gaia: A new look at Life on Earth will confirm the consistence of the Gaian view, very little that was written then has needed changing; but the world is changing fast because we are taking fossil fuels from Gaia’s bank seventy times faster than she can afford to deposit from her income. Our indebtedness is now beyond all possibility of repayment.
What do you think will happen to Britain if we continue to allow global warming at the same rate?
We have to realise that many if not most climate scientists are concerned that the Earth system, Gaia, is close to or beyond the point of no return and beyond that point will move of its own accord to a new and hotter stable state. When this happens nothing the people of the world do will alter the outcome other than slightly hasten or delay it. We of the UK are responsible for only 2 percent of global emissions and if we gave up all fossil fuel use tomorrow and stopped all abuse of natural ecosystems, it would have no effect on the course of events. This being so, I think that all our efforts should go towards sustaining civilization on these islands and to helping and advising other nations to do the same in their parts of the world.
We have to understand that it is far too late now to aim for sustainable development or to expect that renewable energy will be a solution. All of our resources and efforts should go towards protecting our cities against the consequences of rising sea levels and storms of unprecedented severity and we must start now to plan secure and reliable supplies of food and energy; as in the Second World War we may have to grow most of our food and we will need a robust program of new nuclear power stations. Even if they are perceived to be dangerous, which they are not, their dangers are trivial compared with those that will surely come from the changing Earth.
The time scale of change can only be predicted approximately but our children and grandchildren are likely to suffer the worst effects.
What about the rest of the world?
The world’s great centres of population, China, India and South East Asia are likely to suffer more from climate change than we do. Possibly the shores of the Arctic Ocean and Northern Europe will be the most habitable parts of the planet. Some parts of the African, Asian and American continents will remain habitable but a great deal of what is now rich with life, the Amazon forest and other tropical forests are likely to become scrub and desert. Supplies of food and fuel from overseas that we now take for granted are likely to be unavailable.
What should the Government be doing about the problems of Global warming?
Our government has to start listening to its scientific, engineering and climatologist advisers instead of acting on the out dated recommendations of some of its own members, who still seem to be marching to Aldermaston with the CND and hoping for a nuclear free Britain. They do not understand that we are in a new century where wholly different disasters loom. Most importantly, they must stop trying to meet the unrealistic and insufficient targets of Kyoto and start thinking of the needs of their citizens.
What should individuals be doing about it?
There is much that each of us can do personally to lessen the effects of global heating on our lives and those of our descendants but we can not now undo the harm already done. What we have to do is to prepare for a much diminished world with living standards not greatly different from those of the Second World War and then seize the chance of rebuilding a civilization that is truly in harmony with the rest of Earthly life.
We have to accept with all our heart and mind that Gaia, the great Earth system, exists to keep our planet always habitable for life. We have put the needs of people before those of the Earth and are about to reap the consequences. Until as individuals we realise the true nature of our plight we will be unable to respond appropriately. When we do understand we will have a chance of re-entering the community of Gaia.