Published on Monday, January 16, 2006 by the Independent / UK
by Michael McCarthy
With anyone else, you would not really take it seriously: the proposition that because of climate change, human society as we know it on this planet may already be condemned, whatever we do. It would seem not just radical, but outlandish, mere hyperbole. And we react against it instinctively: it seems simply too sombre to be countenanced.
James Lovelock, the celebrated environmental scientist, has a
unique perspective on the fate of the Earth. Thirty years ago
he conceived the idea that the planet was special in a way no
one had ever considered before: that it regulated itself,
chemically and atmospherically, to keep itself fit for life,
as if it were a great super-organism; as if, in fact, it were
The complex mechanism he put forward for this might have
remained in the pages of arcane geophysical journals had he
continued to refer to it as "the biocybernetic universal
But his neighbour in the village of Bowerchalke, Wiltshire,
the Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Golding (who wrote
Lord of The Flies), suggested he christen it after the Greek
goddess of the Earth; and Gaia was born.
Gaia has made Professor Lovelock world famous, but at first
his fame was in an entirely unexpected quarter. Research
scientists, who were his original target audience, virtually
ignored his theory.
To his surprise, it was the burgeoning New Age and
environmental movements who took it up - the generation who
had just seen the first pictures of the Earth taken by the
Apollo astronauts, the shimmering pastel-blue sphere hanging
in infinite black space, fragile and vulnerable, but our only
home. They seized on his metaphor of a reinvented Mother
Earth, who needed to be revered and respected - or else.
It has been only gradually that the scientific
establishment has become convinced of the essential truth of
the theory, that the Earth possesses a planetary control
system, founded on the interaction of living organisms with
their environment, which has operated for billions of years to
allow life to exist, by regulating the temperature, the
chemical composition of the atmosphere, even the salinity of
But accepted it is, and now (under the term Earth System
Science) it has been subsumed into the scientific mainstream;
two years ago, for example, Nature, the world's premier
scientific journal, gave Professor Lovelock two pages to sum
up recent developments in it.
Yet now too, by a savage irony, it is Gaia that lies behind
his profound pessimism about how climate change will affect us
all. For the planetary control system, he believes, which has
always worked in our favour, will now work against us. It has
been made up of a host of positive feedback mechanisms; now,
as the temperature starts to rise abnormally because of human
activity, these will turn harmful in their effect, and put the
situation beyond our control.
To give just a single example out of very many: the ice of
the Arctic Ocean is now melting so fast it is likely to be
gone in a few decades at most. Concerns are already acute
about, for example, what that will mean for polar bears, who
need the ice to live and hunt.
But there is more. For when the ice has vanished, there
will be a dark ocean that absorbs the sun's heat, instead of
an icy surface that reflects 90 per cent of it back into
space; and so the planet will get even hotter still.
Professor Lovelock visualises it all in the title of his
new book, The Revenge of Gaia. Now 86, but looking and
sounding 20 years younger, he is by nature an optimistic man
with a ready grin, and it felt somewhat unreal to talk calmly
to him in his Cornish mill house last week, with a coffee cup
to hand and birds on the feeder outside the study window,
about such a dark future. You had to pinch yourself.
He too saw the strangeness of it. "I'm usually a cheerful
sod, so I'm not happy about writing doom books," he said. "But
I don't see any easy way out."
His predictions are simply based on the inevitable nature
of the Gaian system.
"If on Mars, which is a dead planet, you doubled the CO2,
you could predict accurately what the temperature would rise
to," he said.
"On the Earth, you can't do it, because the biota [the
ensemble of life forms] reacts. As soon as you pump up the
temperature, everything changes. And at the moment the system
is amplifying change. "So our problem is that anything we do,
like increasing the carbon dioxide, mucking about with the
land, destroying forests, farming too much, things like that -
they don't just produce a linear increase in temperature, they
produce an amplified increase in temperature.
"And it's worse than that. Because as you approach one of
the tipping points, the thresholds, the extent of
amplification rapidly increases and tends towards
"The analogy I use is, it's as if we were in a pleasure
boat above the Niagara Falls. You're all right as long as the
engines are going, and you can get out of it. But if the
engines fail, you're drawn towards the edge faster and faster,
and there's no hope of getting back once you've gone over -
then you're going down.
"And the uprise is just like that, the steep jump of
temperature on Earth. It is exactly like the drop in the
Professor Lovelock's unique viewpoint is that he is just
not looking at this or that aspect of the Earth's climate, as
are other scientists; he is looking at the whole planet in
terms of a different discipline, control theory.
"Most scientists are not trained in control theory. They
follow Descartes, and they think that everything can be
explained if you take it down to its atoms, and then build it
"Control theory looks at it in a very different way. You
look at whole systems and how do they work. Gaia is very much
about control theory. And that's why I spot all these positive
I asked him how he would sum up the message of his new
book. He said simply: "It's a wake-up call.''