James Lovelock, or Living Earth

James Lovelock ‘We are going to go through an extremely difficult period. But if we withstand these tests, we will be better beings’. © Bruno Comby – Association des écologistes pour le nucléaire – www.ecolo.org
James Lovelock ‘We are going to go through an extremely difficult period. But if we withstand these tests, we will be better beings’.
© Bruno Comby – Association des écologistes pour le nucléaire – www.ecolo.org

As a chemist, physicist, engineer, medical doctor and specialist in earth sciences, James Lovelock has more than one string to his bow and it is his highly interdisciplinary profile that makes this climate expert so valuable.

In 2001, in Amsterdam, a group of 1 500 scientists involved in climate research projects formalised the notion of the earth system, a unique and self-regulated system of physical, chemical and biological components. This was an accolade to James Lovelock, whose insistence that we should understand the blue planet systemically had fallen on deaf ears for almost 20 years. For him, the earth is a vast organism, made up of elements that react symbiotically to one another, maintaining conditions conducive to life. This symbiosis is threatened by man, whose activities push this fragile equilibrium towards another climatic era.

A man with several hats

Lovelock started his career in London at the Medical Research Council (UK) where he researched the ways in which colds are transmitted. During the Second World War, he developed new forms of fire protection and elaborated a technique with which thermal rays could be detected. After the war, he worked on the cryogenics of living tissue.

The man is an unrivalled handyman, the creator of numerous inventions, of which the most famous is the electron capture detector (ECD), a device developed in 1957, which has the capacity to detect minute traces of chemical products in the air. It was the main tool used to support the theses of Rachel Carson, the biologist who, in the 1960s, was a vocal critic of the negative impact of certain pesticides, such as DDT, on the environment. The ECD also made it possible to evidence the proliferation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), compounds responsible for destroying the ozone layer.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Lovelock became involved in space exploration, an old childhood dream. NASA called upon his talents as an engineer for a mission that aimed to establish whether there was life on Mars. ‘It was this period at NASA which really tipped me towards the earth sciences,’ he explains. ‘The instruments developed by the researchers participating in this research project were all conceived to detect a life form similar to those we know, which did not make sense to me. As my criticisms offended my biologist colleagues, the head of the mission threatened to dismiss me if I didn’t perfect my own detection device.’

The engineer thus suggested that spectrographic analysis be carried out using an infrared telescope in order to determine whether gas exchanges take place in the Martian atmosphere. A chemical signature was thus detected in the atmosphere and it was possible to establish whether it was chemically balanced, a technique widely used by astronomers today. ‘The unique characteristic of this life is that it uses compounds present in the environment to produce energy and thereby throw the chemical composition of the atmosphere off balance.’ This relationship between the biological, physical and chemical elements of the planet stirred Lovelock’s curiosity. After his departure from NASA in 1965, he established himself as an independent researcher and began working on this issue.

From darkness to light

The fruits of his labours became the ‘Gaia’ theory, which was outlined in a book published in 1979, in which Lovelock makes the analogy between the earth and living organisms. Like our body, which remains at a constant temperature because our organs collaborate with one another, a system is maintained in homeostasis thanks to the activity of its component parts. Lovelock goes as far as to say that our planet is alive, self-regulated by complex positive and negative feedback mechanisms, involving the living as much as the non-living. ‘In the 19th century our world was perceived as a relatively frozen system in which the living fought to adapt. It is only in the 20th century that scientists have gradually become aware of the role of organisms and of their interaction in the configuration of the atmosphere, the oceans and the rocks above ground. Our environment is not an inert structure, but rather a vestigial remnant of our ancestors’ evolution.’

Gaia immediately aroused enthusiasm from the emerging ecological movement, which perceived Lovelock as a valuable scientific supporter. Their enthusiasm quickly curbed: the man was a fervent defender of nuclear power, which did not sit well with the green movement at the time. From the perspective of the scientific community, the theory was regarded with scepticism and the reference to Gaia, the earth goddess in Greek mythology, added to Lovelock’s disrepute. ‘Gaia interested climatologists, but profoundly displeased the rest of the scientific community, particularly the biologists who, most notably, accused me of casting doubt on Darwin’s theories.’

For biologists, it is impossible that any type of collaboration could be established between organisms in permanent competition with one another. Lovelock replied by developing Daisyworld, a computer model conceived to illustrate the earth’s feedback mechanisms. It uses a basic biotope, black and white daisies, to regulate temperature alone. During the first simulation phase, the temperature is low and the black flowers grow rapidly, because they channel the sunlight better. This warms up the planet, which allows the white flowers to grow. At the end of the day, the two types of daisies survive and the fact that they are in competition with one another actually helps maintain the optimal temperature of the entire biotope. It was a perfect example of the positive and negative feedback mechanisms that form the basis of the Gaia theory.

A new planetary balance

Since 1979, Lovelock has not stopped publishing books and articles to support his theory. He has now become a respected guest at climate change conferences and a precursor to the researchers trying to understand how our environment reacts to greenhouse gas emissions. ‘What was a mere crazy theory at the end of the 1970s has gradually become a respected theory. New research has emphasised the role of the ocean and marine life in regulating the climate, as well as the importance of the sulphur cycle for all life forms and for the formation of clouds… There is now no question of the existence of stabilising feedback mechanisms conditioned by physical, chemical and biological phenomena.’

The extent to which Man interferes with Gaia, a system of inextricable components, remains to be seen. Since the 1970s, Lovelock has not ceased to emphasise the harmful role of CO2 emissions on the planet’s equilibrium. Hence his favourable take on nuclear power. ‘The development of renewable energy is a good thing, but there will never be enough to meet our needs.’

For Lovelock, the gradual global warming described in the last report by the Inter- Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a staggering underestimate of the power and violence of climate change. The past disruptions of the climate and the provisional models conceived in accordance with the Gaia theory instead foresee sudden, unpredictable changes, he asserts in his latest book, published in 2009. ‘Politicians asked scientists for predictions, which scientists are not, in fact, in a position to provide. Several research studies indicate that the impacts of global warming will be much more serious. Let’s take the 2007 study carried out by James Hansen on rising water levels. The results foresee a 100 % greater increase than the IPCC predictions. The IPCC brings together excellent researchers, but knowledge of the planet’s regulatory mechanisms is currently too limited for us to hope to understand exactly what to expect.’

There is no point investing in reforestation projects, establishing CO2 stock exchanges or promoting the use of green energy. It would be better, according to Lovelock, to immediately prepare for a terrible shock, which will cause millions of deaths and may eradicate current civilisations. Pessimistic? Not entirely. In his late 90s, the man still has faith in our capacity to adapt. ‘I think that we are going to go through an extremely difficult period. But if we withstand these tests, we will be better beings. We will know our planet better and will know better how to manage it, something we are entirely incapable of doing today.’

Julie Van Rossom