The climate science maverick believes catastrophe is inevitable, carbon offsetting is a joke and ethical living a scam. So what would he do? By Decca Aitkenhead of The Guardian.
In 1965 executives at Shell wanted to know what the world would look like in the year 2000. They consulted a range of experts, who speculated about fusion-powered hovercrafts and "all sorts of fanciful technological stuff". When the oil company asked the scientist James Lovelock, he predicted that the main problem in 2000 would be the environment. "It will be worsening then to such an extent that it will seriously affect their business," he said. "And of course," Lovelock says, with a smile 43 years later, "that's almost exactly what's happened." Lovelock has been dispensing predictions from his one-man laboratory in an old mill in Cornwall since the mid-1960s, the consistent accuracy of which have earned him a reputation as one of Britain's most respected - if maverick - independent scientists. Working alone since the age of 40, he invented a device that detected CFCs, which helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer, and introduced the Gaia hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all climate science. For decades, his advocacy of nuclear power appalled fellow environmentalists - but recently increasing numbers of them have come around to his way of thinking. His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report deploys less dramatic language - but its calculations aren't a million miles away from his. As with most people, my panic about climate change is equalled only by my confusion over what I ought to do about it. A meeting with Lovelock therefore feels a little like an audience with a prophet. Buried down a winding track through wild woodland, in an office full of books and papers and contraptions involving dials and wires, the 88-year-old presents his thoughts with a quiet, unshakable conviction that can be unnerving. More alarming even than his apocalyptic climate predictions is his utter certainty that almost everything we're trying to do about it is wrong. On the day we meet, the Daily Mail has launched a campaign to rid Britain of plastic shopping bags. The initiative sits comfortably within the current canon of eco ideas, next to ethical consumption, carbon offsetting, recycling and so on - all of which are premised on the calculation that individual lifestyle adjustments can still save the planet. This is, Lovelock says, a deluded fantasy. Most of the things we have been told to do might make us feel better, but they won't make any difference. Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable. "It's just too late for it," he says. "Perhaps if we'd gone along routes like that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don't have time. All these standard green things, like sustainable development, I think these are just words that mean nothing. I get an awful lot of people coming to me saying you can't say that, because it gives us nothing to do. I say on the contrary, it gives us an immense amount to do. Just not the kinds of things you want to do." He dismisses eco ideas briskly, one by one. "Carbon offsetting? I wouldn't dream of it. It's just a joke. To pay money to plant trees, to think you're offsetting the carbon? You're probably making matters worse. You're far better off giving to the charity Cool Earth, which gives the money to the native peoples to not take down their forests." Do he and his wife try to limit the number of flights they take? "No we don't. Because we can't." And recycling, he adds, is "almost certainly a waste of time and energy", while having a "green lifestyle" amounts to little more than "ostentatious grand gestures". He distrusts the notion of ethical consumption. "Because always, in the end, it turns out to be a scam ... or if it wasn't one in the beginning, it becomes one." Somewhat unexpectedly, Lovelock concedes that the Mail's plastic bag campaign seems, "on the face of it, a good thing". But it transpires that this is largely a tactical response; he regards it as merely more rearrangement of Titanic deckchairs, "but I've learnt there's no point in causing a quarrel over everything". He saves his thunder for what he considers the emptiest false promise of all - renewable energy. "You're never going to get enough energy from wind to run a society such as ours," he says. "Windmills! Oh no. No way of doing it. You can cover the whole country with the blasted things, millions of them. Waste of time." This is all delivered with an air of benign wonder at the intractable stupidity of people. "I see it with everybody. People just want to go on doing what they're doing. They want business as usual. They say, 'Oh yes, there's going to be a problem up ahead,' but they don't want to change anything." Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more. Nuclear power, he argues, can solve our energy problem - the bigger challenge will be food. "Maybe they'll synthesise food. I don't know. Synthesising food is not some mad visionary idea; you can buy it in Tesco's, in the form of Quorn. It's not that good, but people buy it. You can live on it." But he fears we won't invent the necessary technologies in time, and expects "about 80%" of the world's population to be wiped out by 2100. Prophets have been foretelling Armageddon since time began, he says. "But this is the real thing." Faced with two versions of the future - Kyoto's preventative action and Lovelock's apocalypse - who are we to believe? Some critics have suggested Lovelock's readiness to concede the fight against climate change owes more to old age than science: "People who say that about me haven't reached my age," he says laughing. But when I ask if he attributes the conflicting predictions to differences in scientific understanding or personality, he says: "Personality." There's more than a hint of the controversialist in his work, and it seems an unlikely coincidence that Lovelock became convinced of the irreversibility of climate change in 2004, at the very point when the international consensus was coming round to the need for urgent action. Aren't his theories at least partly driven by a fondness for heresy? "Not a bit! Not a bit! All I want is a quiet life! But I can't help noticing when things happen, when you go out and find something. People don't like it because it upsets their ideas." But the suspicion seems confirmed when I ask if he's found it rewarding to see many of his climate change warnings endorsed by the IPCC. "Oh no! In fact, I'm writing another book now, I'm about a third of the way into it, to try and take the next steps ahead." Interviewers often remark upon the discrepancy between Lovelock's predictions of doom, and his good humour. "Well I'm cheerful!" he says, smiling. "I'm an optimist. It's going to happen." Humanity is in a period exactly like 1938-9, he explains, when "we all knew something terrible was going to happen, but didn't know what to do about it". But once the second world war was under way, "everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday ... so when I think of the impending crisis now, I think in those terms. A sense of purpose - that's what people want." At moments I wonder about Lovelock's credentials as a prophet. Sometimes he seems less clear-eyed with scientific vision than disposed to see the version of the future his prejudices are looking for. A socialist as a young man, he now favours market forces, and it's not clear whether his politics are the child or the father of his science. His hostility to renewable energy, for example, gets expressed in strikingly Eurosceptic terms of irritation with subsidies and bureaucrats. But then, when he talks about the Earth - or Gaia - it is in the purest scientific terms all. "There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that's just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That's the source of my optimism." What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."
Based on events of the past couple of decades, it's hard for me to think Lovelock is not correct.
WHen he said "Humanity is in a period exactly like 1938-9, he explains, when "we all knew something terrible was going to happen, but didn't know what to do about it". But once the second world war was under way, "everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday" well, if a holiday is war, death, destruction, genocide, massive slaughter and suffering.
In a world where massive forces - governments, corporations, religions - control almost all meaningful change, it's hard not to be nihilistic.
Responsible governments would massively incent negative population growth, re-design infrastructures - civic, transportation, manufacturing, materials management - and propagandize the populations into better habits. But it's not going to happen.
Humanity is stating, across cultures, religions, ethnicities, political philosophies - Après moi, le déluge. I wish that wasn't the case, and I hope it isn't going to be as bad as Lovelock predicts. Then again, current climatic events suggest we've just begun a treacherous journey on a very rocky road.
Daniel, this is a time for the elders to remember their stories and the ways our families came out of the Great Depression and WW II, and all those pesky little wars that continue to this day. We have a story to tell, and we have a wisdom to impart. Your little grove of trees, your garden and experiments, all will play a part in The Splendid Evolution that is taking place right now.
Two years ago my granddaughter and her partner, with their five children struggle financially so mightily. They live on a wonderful piece of ground that would be perfect for a garden. They didn't start a garden and so Laura took the tractor and tilled it for me, and I planted a garden. My granddaughter hauled manure from the horse barn, my greatgrandchildren helped make furrows and plant seeds. I came back home and wasn't back the rest of the summer, and they failed to water. The garden failed.
Last year, I didn't even garden in my own garden. This year we are going to plant another garden at their home and they know they have to tend to the details of caring for a garden. They didn't know that, and I failed to make it clear that a garden had to be tended and watered. Evidence of the lost art of gardening between my generation and theirs.
That's true. Gardening literacy is achieved from generation to generation, person to person, family to family, neighbor to neighbor.
I know so few people who garden. It's up to those who do to pass on a million nuances, a billion seeds, a trillion bits of genetic code that carry tomorrow's adaptations.
Your granddaughter will discover the joy of growing her own, and that will get the process rolling. It's not learned in one season. There are always failures. But that is just learning.
In May, 1994, I attended an International Transpersonal Association's conference in Killarney, Co Kerry, Ireland, "Toward Earth Community: Ecology, Native Wisdom and Spirituality. It was here I met James Lovelock and heard his lecture.
This was a time and place of native cultures coming together to recover their vigor and spirit.
"It is said that the close study of stone will reveal traces of fires suffered thousands of years ago.... I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed our lives are made suddenly clearer to us.... Perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world is embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung."
~ Susan Griffin, a Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War
It is here I sought out faerie circles throughout southern Ireland with Padraigin McGillicuddy as my guide. I heard the stories of the struggles of Ireland against England, the politically caused Irish famine and migration. I also heard the voices of people who had been defeated, rendered helpless and hopeless and found their voice and their new vigor. What brought them out of their malaise? How did they recover their spirit?
"Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."
~ James Lovelock
So climate change will soon cause catastrophic change in the world and I agree with Sentient Biped that it is hard not to think that Lovelock is correct, for in addition to climatic factors we must bear in mind the depletion and loss of finite resources, spiralling human populations, the inevitable dominance of Islam in Europe as well as the general influence of religion in the third world. All of these factors will contribute to a downfall of our species, at the most, by 2050. These problems will be compounded by famine, disease and warfare.
I also agree with Sentient Biped that there is general ignorance and denial of these factors and Joan's grandchildren will have to face these problems in later life. The disaster facing humanity is inevitable and some regions will survive longer than others, perhaps Australia, Russia, North America and wherever there is controlled population, plentiful recourses, military power and strong government by consensus.
It is only 60,000 years ago that our species left Africa. We are so new on the Earth and I wouldn't think we are going to last hundreds of millions of years like the crocodiles and turtles. It is clear to me that our control of the Earth will be brief and there is a probability of human extinction before all primates and mammals generally are gone.
"Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan." says James Lovelock and I will take his advice.
I've been thinking, I want to leave a time capsule. Maybe many of them, to be discovered by future generations. Would English be the language to use? Mandarin? Spanish? Some translation dictionaries in multiple languages?
I want it to say-
"I'm sorry. People of the 20th and 21st centuries were selfish, narcissistic asses. They didn't care about you. So now, as a result of their selfishness and carelessness, your world is much more difficult. You should defile the graves of past leaders."
"Do not believe any corporate leader, politician, or religious leader. They all lie".
"If people say they are acting in the name of any god, they lie. They act for themselves, and at that, stupidly".
"There is one life. Be happy. Be good to others. Expect them to be good to you. If they are not, then demand they be good to you. If they can't be good to you, remove them from your life."
"There are always wars, large and small. There always have been. There always will be. The sad thing about your world, is the generations before you, declared war on you. You lost, and so did they."
"Read. Read. Read more. Read even more. Re-read. Read again. Never stop reading".
Probably a bunch of other things. That's a start.
Then I would include some works by Ingersoll at the top of the pile, and Christopher Hitchens. Books on paper, not electronic.
And maybe some seeds. With instructions. Plants that tolerate desert, or cold, or heat, or dry. Flowers, fruits or vegetables. They might need to start over, regenerating genetic diversity.
Maybe I should get busy.
But then, where would I leave the time capsule?
My time capsule---along with pre-selected artefacts----will be in my grave with me; and that will be six feet down into the Wiltshire chalk rock where my bones should last for tens of thousands of years too. Such a place will be better than any urban cemetery grave because of the risk that nuclear wars may otherwise efface many or most or all major cities . . . I could go on, but I'll raise this as a topic on another occasion when I have the time.
It's a topic I haven't seen before. Might make for some interesting exchange of ideas.
A beautiful idea, Sentient!
I like your idea. It would be something future generations could possibly read and be forewarned, as Ozymandias' message "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818.
Lovelock's overview of Climate Destabilization has a sickness at its core, from the prespective of Chris Hedge's War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.
Humanity is in a period exactly like 1938-9, he explains, when "we all knew something terrible was going to happen, but didn't know what to do about it". But once the second world war was under way, "everyone got excited, they loved the things they could do, it was one long holiday ... so when I think of the impending crisis now, I think in those terms. A sense of purpose - that's what people want.”
"There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that's just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly. That's the source of my optimism." [emphasis mine]
Only the psychopaths loved World War II, loved the things they could do in that arena. It wasn't one long holiday for anyone else.
Events such as WWII separate the wheat from the chaff in the sense that, according to Hedges, even victim survivors were guilty. People too noble to steal food died off. The most debased rise to the top, "sew their seed" and kill nice guys with glee. In my opinion this selective pressure of war and disaster is why humanity is saddled with such so many psychopaths.
"Between 3 and 5 percent of the population are sociopaths or psychopaths, with the majority of that number occupied by men."source
While they make successful CEOs, corporations under their control are literally threatening the survival of humanity.
I don't see those who rise to the top in war as most capable of understanding the planet and living sustainably, since war appears to select for the Dark Tetrad (Psychopathy, Narcissism, Sadism and Machiavellianism).
The kind of purpose Lovelock thinks we want is brutally exposed by Hedges as humanity at our most debased, incapable of love and exhilarated by killing sprees.
War is a Force that Gives us Meaning with Chris Hedges