"Just as in 1939 we had to give up on a massive scale the comfortable lifestyle of peacetime, so soon we may feel rich with only a quarter of what we consume now. If we do it right and with enthusiasm, it will not seem a depressing phase of denial but instead, as in 1940, a chance to redeem ourselves. For the young, life will be full of opportunities to serve, to create, and they will have a purpose for living."
- James Lovelock from The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning.
If people know anything about the British scientist James Lovelock, it is his theory of a living Earth, known as Gaia. Lovelock began formulating this revolutionary vision in the late 1960s while working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It was there, not far from the ground zero of West Coast counterculture, that he began to wonder: Might the Earth possess a sophisticated planetary intelligence, one that regulates the countless interactions of plants, animals, minerals, gases and the sun’s heat (all of the ingredients and products of ever-evolving life) in such a way as to maintain a climate homeostasis amenable to a lush, living planet? In short, does Mother Earth like life, and does she do her best to make us comfortable?
Once regarded as a quasi-mystical expression of longing more than a science-based insight, Lovelock’s theory has overcome the skepticism of his peers. Over the course of four decades of research and experiment, Gaia has officially graduated from a hypothesis to a theory. It is now widely accepted that the biosphere’s elements are no passive collection of independent actors responding to conditions but together form a living web that actively creates and maintains those conditions, including temperature. Lovelock has been compared to Copernicus and Darwin for fathering and nurturing the Gaia paradigm.
In recent years, however, Lovelock has been more frequently compared to a trumpeter of doom. Over the course of three books and dozens of articles and interviews, Lovelock has emerged since the mid-2000s as the world’s leading climate pessimist and stoic. By his estimation it is not only too late for climate legislation as currently proposed; it is too late for any legislation, however radical. Cataclysmic climate change will hit in the coming century, he believes. Any efforts to pretend otherwise only delay the necessary work of preparing for the climate apocalypse.
“Most of the ‘green’ stuff is verging on a gigantic scam,” Lovelock told the New Scientist shortly before the release of his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. “Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It’s not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it’ll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning.”
Lovelock’s steep descent into morbidity – he would call it clarity – began with his controversial 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, in which the 90-year-old scientist put hope junkies on notice. That contrarian work sought to demolish the terms of the climate debate as childlike and based on wishful thinking. Angering his erstwhile environmentalist allies, it also mocked our response to the crisis at the personal, national and species level.
Lovelock’s dark certainty about looming climate collapse results from his viewing current climate data through the lens of Gaia Theory. This lens, he maintains, allows for a more comprehensive, intuitive and ultimately more accurately predictive approach. Much of his last book is devoted to explaining why attempts to accurately model climate change with cold computers is akin to the blind efforts of a 19th-century doctor trying to treat diabetes. He notes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its many mainframes have successfully undershot all indicator trends so far. Most notably, sea-level rise has outpaced IPCC predictions at a rate of 2 to 1.
Of all the trends to watch, Lovelock maintains sea level rise is the most important. Given the complexity of the millions of interactions within the Gaia system, Lovelock argues it is best to ignore year-to-year temperature fluctuations and instead watch the oceans. The seas, he says, are the lone trustworthy indicator of the earth’s heat balance. “Sea level rise is the best available measure of the heat absorbed by the earth because it comes from only two things,” he writes. “[These are] the melting of glaciers and the expansion of water as it warms. Sea level is the thermometer that indicates true global heating.”
Lovelock believes the oceans will expand and rise ever faster, fueled by the dreaded positive feedback loops now under way, which will soon become ferocious amplifiers of global heating. (He finds “warming” too soft a word for the process.) The most important of these feedback loops are the loss of reflective ice cover, replaced by heat absorbent dark water; the death of carbon-eating algae as oceans warm and acidify; and the release of vast stores of methane as the Siberian permafrost thaws. These self-feeding cycles, already in motion, will explode in the coming decades, Lovelock maintains, leading to sudden and dramatic shifts in global climate. “The Earth’s history and simple climate models based on the notion of a live and responsive Earth suggest that sudden change and surprise are more likely than the smooth rising curve of temperature that modelers predict for the next 90 years,” he writes.
The end result of this surge of change will be a drastic reduction of Earth’s carrying capacity. And we need to start preparing now.
“There is no tipping point, just a slope that gets ever steeper,” writes Lovelock. “Because of the rapidity of the Earth’s change, we will need to respond more like the inhabitants of a city threatened by a flood. When they see the unstoppable rise of water, their only option is to escape to higher ground. We have to make our lifeboats seaworthy now [and] stop pretending there is any way back to that lush, comfortable and beautiful Earth we left behind sometime in the 20th century.”
Given this future, delusional politics is a waste of precious time. Indeed, Lovelock’s impatience with feel-good “Yes, we can” liberal environmentalism borders on contempt. He writes that fashionable rhetoric about sustainable development just shows that we “weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.” In one of the book’s many memorable passages on the green politics of hope, Lovelock compares alternative energy to deathbed snake oil peddled by an alt-medicine quack.
“Just as we as individuals try alternative medicine,” writes Lovelock, “our governments have many offers from alternative businesses and their lobbies of sustainable ways to ‘save the planet,’ and from some green hospice there may come the anodyne of hope.”
Lovelock brightens up considerably once he gets past the mechanics of the coming die-off. He is cautiously hopeful that as many as several hundred million humans will survive the century and carve pockets of civilization into the coming hot state. Our current global civilization is about to end, but there is every reason to “take hope from the fact that our species is unusually tough and is unlikely to go extinct in the coming climate catastrophe.”
Here enters Lovelock the playful futurist. Those who survive will be responsible for maintaining a high-tech, low-impact, low-energy society advanced enough to keep the flame of progress alive but small and smart enough to carefully husband what arable land remains. Lovelock guesses the rump human race will cluster around a few temperate islands in the far northern hemisphere, including his native UK. He believes that if emergency preparations are made in time – he compares the present moment to 1939 – and if the worst-case scenarios of geopolitical conflict are avoided – namely resource scrambles leading to global thermonuclear war – then something resembling a modern and even urban lifestyle could await the survivors. There may even be food critics in this future, which need not resemble a Soylent Green scenario of cannibalism and state-rationed crackers. This future civilization will synthesize food from CO2, nitrogen, water and a few minerals. Simple amino acids and sugars, Lovelock cheerfully explains, can be used as feedstock for bulk animal and vegetable tissue created in chemical vats from biopsies. Yum!
A quarter century ago Carl Sagan issued a strange and compelling plea for nuclear disarmament. He urged the superpowers to abolish their thermonuclear arsenals for the sake of mankind’s future evolution and eventual colonization of the galaxy. Echoing Sagan, Lovelock believes it is our duty as an intelligent race, the only one in the cosmic neighborhood, to survive. Only by carrying the flame of civilization into the next century will we have a chance to evolve beyond our current tribal-carnivore brains, which are dominated by short-term thinking and thus responsible for our current predicament.
Whereas Sagan dreamed of alien contact, Lovelock’s promised land is more humble: an evolved species capable of living in balance with Gaia. In the meantime the Earth will grow and change as it always has. Life will continue, human life included, even though billions will suffer and die. Gaia, an aging planet, will roll into the new climate as best she can. In her wise generosity, she will even leave some hospitable land for us, the offending species, “to survive and to live in a way that gives evolution beyond us, into a wiser and more intelligent animal, a chance.”
Whether this distant outcome should be enough to sustain our spirits during whatever’s coming, no one can say. It is for each of us to decide.
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist and contributing writer at AlterNet.org. His work has appeared in the Nation, the Believer, Wired and the New Republic.