James Lovelock has a wholly justified reputation as one of science’s most visionary, and controversial, thinkers. His important thesis that Earth is a holistic, self-regulating system was first postulated half century ago, but still has huge relevance to the debate surrounding many issues including climate change. Stephen Williams review his book, A Rough Ride to the Future
There are two reasons that Lovelock’s reputation goes before him. The first is that he is a wholly independent scientist, working from a ‘home lab’ on various projects for a wide variety of clients.
The second is the aforementioned theory of Gaia, that links the disciplines of biology and geology, physics and chemistry to construct an interlinked model of the way the Earth evolved and is continuing to do so.
His work has had a profound bearing on the way that ecologists view the Anthropocene (man-made) dangers to the environment – such as what harm chlorofluorocarbons (better known as CFCs and widely used as aerosol propellants) were doing to stratospheric ozone (and consequent climatic implications) that led to an international agreement to gradually ban their use.
Lovelock makes clear from the very beginning of the book, this is not a book about climate change – although climate change comes into it. He teases out is his theory of what he calls “accelerated evolution”, which began with the invention of the steam engine some 300 years ago.
But as Lovelock makes clear from the very beginning of the book, this is not a book about climate change – although climate change comes into it. Rather, what our author is seeking to tease out is his theory of what he calls “accelerated evolution”, which began with the invention of the steam engine some 300 years ago.
“This book attempts to explain the consequences of this extraordinary combination of events,” Lovelock writes, with the triumphant development of the industrial revolution and what he calls the “technological paradise” that it introduced, firmly in his sights.
“Not just the climate change, or even the explosion of human population and invention,” he adds. “Its theme is the effect of all of it on the great Earth system, Gaia, and our future.”
Delving into the Earth’s past, Lovelock contends that human beings’ contribution to the evolution of our planet is similar to that of the early photosynthesising plants some 3.4bn years ago – an evolutionary process that has been crucial for life on earth.
“We always seem to forget that it’s not just the fossil fuels and the wicked element carbon that is the cause of our distress,” the author wryly observes. “Fires and the energy that comes from them need oxygen as much as carbon.”
And elsewhere, Lovelock asks: “It is easy to accuse humanity of trashing the environment by treading on it with our black carbon feet, but would you accuse an oak tree of poisoning the atmosphere with oxygen – and indeed making it possible for us to now burn fossil fuels?”
For those that have read Lovelock over the years (he is the author of more than 200 scientific papers and numerous books) it may seem odd that the scientist who was issuing dire warnings about man’s impact on the environment and the strong possibility that the planet could, in the relatively near future, become virtually uninhabitable as a consequence, should be so relaxed about our survival prospects.