Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 18 News List

The Earth is alive and ailing

James Lovelock revolutionized environmentalism with the Gaia hypothesis -- the belief that the Earth and its life forms together constitute a single life form

By Andrew Brown  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

"When I was young, chemistry had soul. Things went bang, and flash. There were wonderfully colored lights, and the most amazing assortment of smells, some of them wonderful, some of them absolutely disgusting. All that has gone now. The Health and Safety people won't allow it. No wonder children don't want to study science any more," said James Lovelock.

He sat in his study by a river in Devon, in the south west of England, watching the ruin of the world. In front of him, on a large flat panel monitor, there is a climate map of the northern hemisphere, updating constantly with evidence of climate change. All around Greenland there is unfrozen water; though it's early December the North West passage has only just closed.

The room is lined with books and instruments, some of which he has built himself. Behind the monitor, on a window ledge, is what appears to be a little aluminum model of some insect antenna. In fact, it is his most famous instrument, the electron capture detector, an extraordinarily sensitive device, which showed, in the 1960s, that the atmosphere was full of pesticide residues, and in the 1970s that it was full of CFCs.

Both discoveries were hugely important to the Green movement; still more important, perhaps, was his Gaia hypothesis -- the belief that the Earth and its life forms together constitute a single life form, which has maintained itself for more than 3 billion years.

Gaia seems to offer a rational basis for the religious feeling that inspires some environmentalists, but it is not a cuddly deity.

Most life forms -- for much of Gaia's life, all of them -- have been bacteria; and the history of mass extinctions suggests the life of anything larger than a bacterium will always be precarious.

"If there were a nuclear war, and humanity were wiped out, the Earth would breathe a sigh of relief. It doesn't mind radiation. From the planet's viewpoint, it could say `that was a rotten experiment. I'm glad it's over.' Gaia has a destructive side, like Kali," Lovelock said.

Planet's paramedics

His strong support of nuclear power, though, made him a heretic to many Greens. Nuclear power, he says, is much safer than the alternatives, and desperately needed to help us survive the effects of global warming.

"To save ourselves we need to have a proper nuclear program. The Greens don't seem to understand that without electricity, civilization would collapse. Just imagine London without electricity. Within three weeks it would be like Darfur," Lovelock said.

He has no time for the long-term arguments about waste and safety: in a crisis, you do what you need to survive.

"We are like paramedics to the planet. We just have to stabilize things," he said.

Lovelock thinks it is a ludicrous presumption to suppose that we can save the world. Serious climate change is now inevitable, whatever we do: by the middle of the century, he said, the Arctic icecap will have gone; by the end of it, the rain forests will have disappeared too, to be replaced by desolation. The Earth's temperature will have risen by 8℃, as it has before, and it will probably stay there for another 200,000 years.

"In a sense, since we are part of the whole system, you can say we are the consciousness of the planet. We are part of it, we can never consider ourselves as something separate," he said. "To think we could be its stewards is grotesque. We will be struggling against it. We've got to make peace while we're still strong enough to make terms, and not just a rabble. I see Kyoto as like Munich. It's an attempt to buy time before the real struggle starts."

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