Interview: Jasper Gerard meets James Lovelock
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The Sunday Times February 05, 2006
Interview: Jasper Gerard meets James Lovelock
We're all doomed, so to hell with wind farms
Off to a Greenpeace rally via the bottle bank in your eco-car,
converted to run on organic carrot juice? Don't bother. Instead, go
for a burn-up in a Ferrari, crank up the heating and wait for the end
of the world.
This seems to be the message of James Lovelock, celebrated scientist
and creator of the Gaia theory that taught us to think of the planet
as a living organism. He declares it is too late to save civilisation
as we know it, so save yourself. Find a mountain, perhaps on the
island of Cornwall, before the floods arrive � London, he tells me,
could be under the North Sea within 50 years.
Gulp. Is this some swivel-eyed old boy with a sandwich board assuring
us the end of the world is nigh? Nope. Lovelock is one of Britain's
most revered thinkers. Sure, his Gaia theory � named during a
Wiltshire walk by Lovelock's friend William Golding after the Greek
goddess of the earth � was considered cranky back in 1979. But it is
now the paradigm in which science is done.
It holds that the planet, far from being just a ball of lumpen matter
like Mars, is living and self-regulating: a series of connected
systems control conditions; crucially including climate. But so badly
has man treated his mistress, Gaia, that she can no longer heal
Lovelock says global warming is caused by industry belching out too
much carbon dioxide, farming that eats away at forests, and too many
damn people who, because of increased wealth, are pumping out more
emissions through everything from their cars to their fridges. The
great thaw is now so advanced that the sun's rays are no longer being
cooled by the whiteness of the icecaps, as they are melting away.
Lovelock is no eco-nut with personal hygiene issues: he supports
nuclear power and once worked for MI5 as "Q" � inventing whizzo
gadgets to spy on Ruskies.
So his warning about rising sea levels caused by global warming puts
into alarming relief sedate conferences on climate change and George
Bush's aspiration to cut back a teensy-weensy bit on Middle East oil.
Lovelock's intervention has been described as a "wake-up call", but
could be termed a "thank you and good-night call".
"It is much too late for insulating your house and all that," says
Lovelock. "Fifty years ago it would have helped. What we need now is
sustainable retreat." As he concedes, it is a "gloomy" prognosis from
an otherwise cheery man, born working-class in Brixton but now
pottering about a converted Devon mill.
Yet in 20 years he predicts fuel will grow so short it will be
rationed. "It will be like world war two," he says, eyes twinkling.
He remembers. He looks puckishly in the pink, chomping on fruit cake
baked by his much younger American wife Sandy, but Lovelock knows he
is also running out of time: he is 86.
As for London: "There was a three-year period the Thames barrier
wasn't used at all, but in a recent year it went up 24 times. Why
isn't government planning to rehouse people? London is sinking
anyway, so global warming is lethal."
Flooding, caused by the melting of the ice caps, will wipe out entire
countries, he contends. Only the more northerly countries will
survive. Luckily, this includes chunks of Britain. Then, he suggests,
we will have to form nothing less than a new civilisation based not
on the creation of wealth but the preservation of the earth. He ends
his latest book, The Revenge of Gaia (published by Allen Lane),
proposing a manual for human survivors of the coming apocalypse,
telling them how to start again, with fewer people leading simpler
lives. Meanwhile, as it would be "hubris" to imagine we can save the
planet, he reckons it is "natural to think `let's make hay while it
Unlike science-bores, Lovelock talks in the vivid lingo of the
science fictionalist: "The Arctic basin," he declares, "will be home
to the desirable real estate." You suspect he enjoys these little
bons mots. By then the Arctic will not quite be St Lucia, but it will
be pleasant in an austere sort of way; much of the Third World, by
contrast, will be too hot to support human life. So grave is the
crisis that he seeks radical solutions.
But his former friends, the greens, are horrified by his call to
renew our ageing nuclear reactors � although he insists a few big
turnips in the green lobby "privately agree but have told me they
couldn't possibly say it publicly". His reasoning? There is simply no
time to mess around developing alternative energy.
Nuclear opponents, he believes, deliberately confuse civil and
military nuclear programmes. "I know how scary it was. I was working
in Houston (for Nasa) during the Cuban missile crisis and we were a
As a socialist who grew to admire Margaret Thatcher, he is
exasperated by David Cameron's flirtation with Zac Goldsmith and his
trendy turquoise tendency. "What is happening to the Conservative
party?" he smiles. "I hope Zac Goldsmith looks at things a little
more open-mindedly." Pointedly he adds: "I will remain independent.
Once you become an adviser, I don't say you are corrupt, but you have
loyalties not just to your beliefs but to the group."
But Lovelock's own thesis is not without difficulties. He chirpily
predicts the earth is on a road to "hell", but still grumbles about
plans for a wind farm that might tarnish his view. "Why wreck the
countryside with wind turbines when they are not going to do any
good?" he argues. If we will be drowned in rising waters, does the
desecration of his view really matter? But his argument about the
uselessness of wind turbines is compelling: they only work 25% of the
time � when it is blowy � and cannot store energy.
He also has a good dig at bio-fuel � popular with Goldsmith and co �
arguing farmland, as much as emissions, causes global warming. Still,
there are graver apparent contradictions in Lovelock's Gaia theory.
Twenty-five years ago he warned that the world could be on the brink
of a new ice age, now he tells us it is burning up. Might he change
his mind again in another 25 years? "I won't be around in 25 years."
He justifies his U-turn on the ice age front by saying the world is
in an "unstable state" as Gaia's thermostat can't cope. "It is like
when one has a fever. It can cool off, or it can flip upwards so high
you die." The world has been pretty toasty before and supported life;
need heat be disastrous? "In Gaian terms, no, it is part of the
game." But a game in which the players � us � will be toast. "If you
look at it more deeply, it is terrible for the earth, too: if it
loses us, its first organised intelligence, well . . . It was through
our eyes that she was, for the first time, able to see her beauty."
This is the language that has scientists spluttering into their test
tubes � and has Lovelock's new age fans puffing on their joints. "All
scientists haven't accepted is the name. William Golding offers them
a beautiful word and they call it `earth system science'."
But Gaia, it transpires, should only be seen as a "metaphor". "The
world is not sentient except through us," Lovelock clarifies. If he
had made that clear, perhaps scientists would not have been so
outraged, though as he says: "Science always uses metaphor:
the `selfish gene' was a lovely metaphor." So does he feel
vindicated? "You can't help feeling that. Though I would have liked
it 20 years ago when I was in the centre of the battle."
Not that the battle to prove carbon dioxide emissions cause global
warming is won entirely. President Bush is equivocal on the causes of
global warming � he has not pledged to use less oil, just less Arab
"You never know with politicians what they are really saying. And I
don't say that in a negative way � they have an appalling job,"
Lovelock says of Bush's comments last week. Rather than blame the
president he puts it down to the culture of American science and
its "stifling cronyism" that holds back young scientists. "It takes
an awful lot to shift a paradigm there, whereas we," he laughs, "are
an argumentative lot."
As someone who has worked in America, he says the problem is their
sense of splendid isolation, but Hurricane Katrina could shake them
out of that. Lovelock says he is just waiting for President Bush or
his successor to say "We can get the technology, we can fix the
But by then it won't work. "Or if it does work, it will create even
more problems." He gives the example of the European Union's aerosol
ban which, he contends, actually increases global warming because
some aerosol particles provide protection from the sun. "Europe
criticises America, but its policy on sustainable development is lots
of greedy snouts in the subsidy trough. It's a scam." As for Tony
Blair: "He hints he wants to go nuclear but is he just making noises?
I fear he will decide opposition within his cabinet is too strong.
It's full of old CND marchers like Margaret Beckett."
If we must forget sustainable development and think sustainable
retreat, how can we tell that to the Third World, where people, far
from enjoying the last post- industrial fag, are still starving?
Lovelock concedes all governments are in a bind: "China will soon
emit more greenhouse gases than America, but its regime knows if it
caps aspirations there will be a revolution."
Lovelock seems blown in different directions: part extreme end-is-
nigh ecologist, part capitalist economist. He says he is a scientist
before he is a green, which makes his theology technology: mobiles
and computers, for instance, have been a green boon as they cut
Small and sprightly, he leaps from his chair, smile beaming, to show
me his gadgets. "This kicked off the environmental revolution," he
says, pointing to a small black box. "It found the first CFC
(chlorofluorocarbon) emission." He went freelance 40 years ago,
inventing whizzo kit for a living. "I knew if I worked for a
university they would have said, `Look here, Lovelock, you have to
drop this research. It is giving us a bad name '."
Gadgetry led him, via his friend Lord Rothschild, to design spy
gizmos for MI5. One of his inventions worked like a sniffer dog "only
better". He is distraught MI5 is, apparently, closing the lab. "Civil
servants just don't see the value." Sad, really, when MI6 seems to
have had such fun with that clever rock in Moscow.
"As you can see," he says, leaning back in his chair. "I have had a
wonderful life." The question that has me scratching my head all the
way back from Devon is: will we? Not if Lovelock's global prophecies
come to pass.
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