The loss of Lovelock

 James Lovelock, scientist and author best known for the Gaia hypothesis. Photograph taken in 2005 by Bruno Comby.

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James Lovelock will be for ever known for his Gaia theory - a huge contribution to how we as humans understand and relate to the biosphere.

The Gaian view is that cooperation between living organisms and their environment is the organising principle that created favourable conditions for life on earth to thrive.

The news that James Lovelock has died has reverberated around the media. This is no surprise since the importance of his life’s work has been compared to that of Charles Darwin’s.

He was an inventor of a number of important scientific instruments, well summarised in his Wikipedia entry. But his most widely acknowledged contribution, of course, was revealed in his book Gaia, A new look at life on earth, published in 1979: he boldly stated that life on earth is a ‘superorganism’ that creates the very conditions for its own well-being.  

The Gaian view is that cooperation between living organisms and their environment is the organising principle that created favourable conditions for life on earth to thrive. Whilst Darwinian competition is acknowledged in the Gaia hypothesis, it is not the dominant principle.

Heresy

How did Lovelock’s intellectual journey start? In 1961, he was engaged by NASA to work with its Viking space program to try and develop instruments that could determine whether other planets in our solar system, such as Mars, could support life.

He concentrated on analysing the composition of the gases in its atmosphere, and he soon found that they were in a chemically stable equilibrium, with an abundance of carbon dioxide, but with very little oxygen or methane. He soon concluded that this hinted at an absence of life on Mars.  

He then started looking at our home planet. By contrast, the mixture of the gases in the earth's atmosphere, with a substantial proportion of oxygen, was strongly indicative of the presence of life.

Lovelock then came up with a bold hypothesis: Life on earth itself, in all its vast diversity, may have created appropriate conditions for its own well-being.

Did this hint at the possibility that some so far undiscovered ‘lifeforce’ might be in action here? Lovelock hit a raw nerve: any suggestion of a lifeforce at work in nature is categorically denied in modern science.

Like with all unorthodox scientific propositions, there was no shortage of opponents. Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins, author of the highly publicised book, The Selfish Gene, swiped at Lovelock, writing that "the Gaia hypothesis is at base teleological, as it sets out with the premise that the biosphere and life contained within it, works collaboratively to maintain optimal conditions for itself".

Surely this was scientific heresy. What force could possibly be at work to achieve such outcomes?

Breakthroughs

But Lovelock was not deflated by this sort of criticism. Instead, he wrote a further book, The Ages of Gaia, 1988, in which he subtly refined his definition of Gaia, toning down the suggestion that life alone regulates the earth system for itself.

He broadened his thesis, coupling together atmosphere, biosphere and geosphere, which includes the rocks and minerals on earth, proposing that they jointly comprise the dynamic, self-regulatory earth system.

The Gaian view is that cooperation between living organisms and their environment is the organising principle that created favourable conditions for life on earth to thrive.

This modified Gaia theory was formally agreed at a conference attended by a thousand scientists, resulting in the Amsterdam Declaration, 2001, which states: "The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components." This statement has become the basis the new discipline of Earth Systems Science.

As Stephan Harding, Lovelock’s scientific collaborator at Schumacher College, summarised: "He was the first to realise that our planet is a gigantic self-regulating complex system that has maintained its surface conditions within the narrow limits favourable for life over vast spans of time because of a multitude of feedbacks between living organisms, rocks, atmosphere and waters."

Lovelock described himself as an intuitive scientist, thinking beyond the narrow confines of cause and effect, and with his remarkable inventiveness he achieved many extraordinary breakthroughs.

Legacy

He was also motivated by a deep concern that humanity was a profoundly destabilising force vis-à-vis life on earth, particularly regarding our reckless use of fossil fuels. He pointed to the ever-rising CO2 concentrations in the earth atmosphere which during his lifetime increased from 290 to 420 ppm.

So, in addition to being a scientist, he also became a campaigner on climate breakdown. Some of his views did not please mainstream environmentalists, particularly when he proposed that a rapid switch to nuclear reactor technology was essential for decarbonising the world’s energy system.

The fact that Lovelock was no technophobe became even more evident in his last book, Novacene: The coming age of hyperintelligence, 2019. He describes this as the epoch following on from the Anthropocene, defined by the emergence of super-advanced robots, or cyborgs.

He suggests that these largely autonomous, benevolent cyborgs would want to protect Gaia in their own self-interest because they would ultimately depend on its wellbeing for their own existence. This optimistic proposition, of an emerging ‘IT Gaia’, has left many people intrigued, if not baffled.

So will Gaia be alive and kicking in the aftermath of the Anthropocene with its pervasive eco-toxic legacy? So far, human action shows little concern about assuring the earth’s  ecological stability, despite all the evidence we have gleaned via satellites and other sophisticated probes.   

Inventive

Lovelock’s work has triggered vigorous responses from people concerned about the future of life on earth, and some of these may be rather surprising.

When looking for images of Gaia on the internet – such as drawings, paintings and sculptures by many different artists – she (and it is almost always a she) appears primarily as a rather romantic, new-age ‘earth goddess’ rather than a high-tech ‘IT Gaia’.

As our relationship with nature is becoming ever more precarious, we seem to have a profound yearning to see nature whole and happy, even if we are doing little to assure this. Somewhere in these images may be the yearning that Lovelock himself felt when he chose the world ‘Gaia’, derived from Greek mythology, to describe his bold, new scientific theory.

Lovelock appealed to science as well as sentiment. And while he may have frowned upon some of the eco-cultish visual images that developed around his work, he may also have found some of them quite amusing.

The James I knew in the 1980s was a man with a great sense of humour and a big heart, as well as a truly remarkable, inventive mind. He may have passed on now, but the influence of his profound intuitions will be felt for a long time to come.   

This Author

Professor Herbert Girardet is a co-founder of the World Future Council, and a member of The Club of Rome. His most recent book is Creating Regenerative Cities (Routledge). Mr Girardet is also trustee at the Resurgence Trust, which owns and publishes The Ecologist.

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