A Rough Ride to the Future, by James Lovelock, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 208 pages
People have two reasons to revere James Lovelock. For 50 years he has been Britain’s most prominent independent scientist, working in his home lab for a wide variety of organisations, without owing allegiance to any of them. And his idea of Gaia – Earth as a self-regulating system in which biology and geology, physics and chemistry maintain conditions suitable for life – has had a huge influence on the way we see our planet.
Lovelock’s latest book, A Rough Ride to the Future, enhances our view of both from the perspective of his 95th year. The early chapters contain new autobiographical material and views about independent scientific discovery. “There were a few other lone scientists when I started to practise in 1964,” he writes, “but before long the numbers declined until now they are as rare as ectoplasm”. The roll call of his clients, from Shell Oil to Nasa’s early Mars missions, shows how highly his inventiveness and expertise are regarded.
The main part of the book updates his thinking about Gaia. According to Lovelock, Gaia entered a phase of accelerated evolution in the 18th century, as the industrial revolution took off, which has been speeding up exponentially ever since. He even gives a date for the transition: 1712, when Thomas Newcomen, a Devon blacksmith, invented the first steam engine reliable and powerful enough to pump water out of flooded mines. (Others might prefer 1769 as a starting point, with the introduction of James Watt’s much more efficient steam engine.)
Lovelock happily adopts the name already coined for this new epoch in Earth science, in which mankind begins to make a significant impact on the global environment: the Anthropocene. But he pushes it harder than anyone else. For Lovelock the dawn of the Anthropocene has started a new evolutionary process, fuelled by human exploitation of information, energy and other raw materials, which he says is proceeding a million times faster than Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
A Rough Ride to the Future does, indeed, look far into the Anthropocene future. Without making any firm predictions, Lovelock is sympathetic to the ideas of futurists such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, who foresee artificial intelligence becoming vastly superior to human intelligence – and either living in some form of symbiosis with us or taking over the Earth.
The laws of astrophysics dictate that, hundreds of millions of years from now, the sun’s heat output will have increased to the point where life forms such as today’s humans, based on wet organic chemistry, can no longer survive on Earth. Then, Lovelock writes, “electronic life forms, based on semiconducting elements or compounds, might ... take over from us the task of sustaining a self-regulating planet with an environment that would be sustained always at a habitable state for them”.
Although Lovelock portrays Gaia as a scientific concept, there are many points in the book where it seems like a divine presence. “The real and present Gaia has been my mental companion for nearly fifty years, and naturally I am reluctant to see her eliminated by a form of cosmic global warming,” he writes. “But she is most unlikely to reciprocate these sentiments. Gaia’s goal is to keep the Earth always habitable, but nothing in the rules says that carbon-based organic life is the only form allowed.”
One weakness of Lovelock’s writing is that he does not distinguish sufficiently between the current phase of climate change, taking place over decades or centuries and caused by human activities adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and global warming in the far future, induced by solar heating.
Lovelock has oscillated in his views of man-made climate change. A few years ago he was issuing warnings about Gaia taking its revenge and making the planet virtually uninhabitable for people in the fairly near future. Now he is more sanguine about our survival prospects, at least for the 21st century, though he remains angry about the strategies adopted by the industrialised countries to fight climate change.
Lovelock’s enthusiasm for nuclear power is undiminished and so is his loathing for most alternative energy sources, wind turbines in particular. He rails against what he sees as an anti-nuclear conspiracy in politics and the media, which he believes is undermining the only practical way to produce energy from non-carbon sources on the scale needed by modern civilisation. And his attack on the “green satanic change” to wind power goes beyond rational criticism.
For instance, he claims that, “were we mad enough” to cover the whole of England with wind farms, “we would still be emitting far too much CO2 from the carbon fuel we would burn during the 75 per cent of the time the wind was not set fair for the turbines”. In fact, modern turbines generate electricity for much more than 25 per cent of the time and, when they are not turning, energy storage or other generating facilities could take up the slack.
Even so, fans of Lovelock will find much to admire in A Rough Ride to the Future. Others will enjoy interesting nuggets of argument and information, for instance about his role in the campaign to ban ozone-eating CFCs. Lovelock’s humanity, wisdom and a certain vulnerability at the age of 94 are most appealing.
Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor. James Lovelock will be speaking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on March 29