James Lovelock

James Lovelock has long been a hero of mine.  He is a scientist and inventor with hundreds of patents to his name. That alone would be remarkable but his great mark is as the originator of the Ghia Theory which conceives the earth as not just the sum of innumerable chemical reactions but as a living and self-regulating organism. It is a poetic concept that he came to at the same time as we as a species saw our planet for the first time in the 1960s as an island of beauty and life in the dark, cold void of space. Ghia, Mother Earth, seemed a perfect description of that blue, shining earth-rise that the Apollo 8 astronauts saw for the first time above the grey corpse of the Moon. Lovelock became the patron saint and evangelist of the Green movement which arose in the 60s, a movement that has taken environmental issues to the forefront of politics – in the developed world anyway.

Not any more.

In the last twenty years the environmental focus as moved on to carbon emissions and climate change as the urgent and defining issue of the age. Insidiously and slowly, like the metaphorical frog in the bath, we are heating our planet by our use of fossil fuels. This may, by the way, be a good thing for us as a species as the alternative might well by now, without anthropogenic heating, have been another ice age: an ice sheet reaching London would not be good for anything. The Green Movement’s reaction to man-made climate change is to demand a winding down of human activity and energy use – crudely summarised as bicycles, renewables and lentils. It is viscerally opposed to nuclear, GM and technological fixes.

James Lovelock, as a practical scientist with a skeptical view of human nature, rightly in my view, sees nuclear as the only practical and sensible option to get us through to a genuinely low carbon future – probably mid century and probably based on fission. Far from being a Frankenstein’s monster, nuclear is the fundamental power source of the universe and is extraordinarily safe. What about Chernobyl? He points out that during the forties, fifties and sixties there was a Chernobyl sized event happening every other week with nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere. Its detritus was taken into the upper atmosphere and scattered uniformly around the world and we have all absorbed it into our bodies over that time – and never been healthier. Apart from the movingly brave firemen who doused that reactor fire at Chernobyl there were no other casualties. Compare this to the hundreds who die every year on oil-rigs and the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who have died as a consequence of working in the coal industry. Nuclear waste? It can now be used as fuel in the latest generation of nuclear reactors. Storing it? Lovelock has offered to have it buried under his house (where he would sink a borehole to harvest the waste’s latent heat to provide his central heating). These views have made him a heretic and apostate to the Green movement – a movement that is now sadly becoming a cause of, and not a cure for, climate damage. Look at the cant and foolishness involved in the German abandonment of nuclear energy (which they now get from France).

Lovelock is now ninety-four and I saw him last night in conversation with the philosopher John Gray.  He has new book out called Rough Ride to the Future. He is whip sharp, funny and charming and the interview was beautifully handled by Gray, of whom I am also a big fan.  I had the chance to speak to them both afterwards and Lovelock is a delight. For someone with such bad news he is a professed optimist – which I found rather amusing as Gray (his friend) is such a deep-seated pessimist. He laughed at this and said that he is Gray’s therapist….

His source of optimism is the exploding information age that we are currently living through. Whether or not you believe in the singularity (the point at which artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence) the speed of progress helped by Moore’s Law is fast and accelerating. There is an interesting point here about Moore’s law (which holds that computing power doubles roughly every two years). As transistors get ever smaller they will soon be getting down to only a few atoms wide – when Quantum Mechanics take over and it all goes weird. This is going to happen quite soon (15 years or so) and without Moore’s Law future leaps might become more pedestrian.

That aside, Lovelock’s view is that starting with the first steam engine when humans began to harness energy we have become a unique species who have accelerated evolution a thousand fold over the last three hundred years or so.  Darwinian evolution takes millions of years. With genetic engineering and the replacement of biological by electronic life we are on the cusp of a different age where hopefully we can mitigate and adapt to climate change. We are living, as Lovelock reminds us in the Anthropocine – an age where one species is changing Ghia. The last species to do this were plants - a couple of billion years ago.

Also at the same event, I met Sir Crispin Tickell – another great figure in the environmental movement, but not as well known. He was a diplomat and over a long period took an amateur interest in climate matters. His great practical contribution was to persuade Margaret Thatcher (a scientist by training and education) that humans were altering the climate. It was she that was the drive behind the creation of the IPCC and the Hadley Centre for Climate Change which provide the science and research heft that is the backbone of worldwide government efforts to control carbon emissions.

It was a privilege to meet these great people and to be reminded that we are living through genuinely epochal times where the world and we are changing faster than any humans, let alone any other species, ever have. And to be reminded of the privilege of living in London where it is possible to hear and meet men like James Lovelock.

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