Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Is Lovelock a Seer and World Catastrophe Inevitable

James Lovelock is now 94 years old and has been making predictions about climate change since the 1960s, most of which, alarmingly, have come true – he thinks we have twenty years before “global warming will hit the fan.”

James Lovelock

What’s his best advice? “Enjoy life while you can.” Not the most reassuring of verdicts for parents and grandparents concerned about the future generations, never mind their own brief strut and fret about the stage.

So is Lovelock to be taken seriously, or is he just another doomsday prophet? Let’s take a look at his track record.

Lovelock has been, above all, resolutely independent and is most often given the epithet of “maverick.” Freedom to explore his own ideas has been his guiding principle. He invented the instrument that could detect chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which led to the detection of the hole in the ozone layer. He worked at NASA on the earliest explorations of Mars. He also claims he invented the microwave oven.

Most famously, he came up with the Gaia Hypothesis. Once widely ridiculed by fellow scientists, this now is the theory at the base of all climate science. It is now broadly accepted that our planet is a self-regulating system, as he proposed therein. Gaia proposes that all the living and non-living components on the earth are integrated to form a single and self-regulating organism. It automatically controls itself and maintains its own survival.

Controversially, he has always championed nuclear power, a position that used to earn him scorn, but has swung around to be increasingly re-championed. He sees nuclear energy as the only possible alternative to the use of fossil fuels. Maintaining that he is a Green and an Environmentalist, he qualifies the belief in nuclear power by explaining that our forebears only evolved in the first place on a rock which was fallout from a nuclear explosion.

He predicted that extreme weather will become the norm. He said that by 2040 London would be underwater and parts of Europe would look like the Sahara.

Lovelock also says it is too late now to halt the decline. Recycle all we like; never ask for a plastic bag, invest in wind farms, plant more trees, consume ethically, don’t fly; take the train. None of it will make one iota of difference. One of his most terrifying assertions is that we should have acted back in 1967. Anything we’re doing now, is almost “certainly a waste of time and energy.” Its all re-arranging those proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.

His especial contempt is for renewable energy. Cover the entire country with windmills if you must, he postulates, they will never provide enough energy. He lives in the south of England. The source of the irreversible slide into catastrophe, according to Lovelock, is human’s capacity to stick their heads in the sand. They want to go on as they are. “They want business as usual.”

Of course it is nothing but “business as usual” in England this winter as large parts of the country lie submerged, and many homes and businesses face ruinous consequences. The problem that was “up ahead” is here, and now. The dead cannot even be buried as the graveyards are too awash.

51 percent of Brits in a poll conducted by the Sunday Times blame global warming for the UK floods and the leader of the opposition has said that climate change is now an issue of national security.

That current problem aside, mass migration, famine and epidemics are the forecast for the future. This is where Lovelock sees a role for nuclear power. Technology, he thinks, is the only salvation, and this probably will include synthesized foodstuffs. He also supports fracking, yet another issue that puts him at loggerheads with the green movement. He only sees it as a pragmatic measure, to buy some more time.

Oddly enough, Lovelock remains an optimist, and describes himself as “cheerful.” Those who have met him say he is wonderful company, full of zeal and love of life. In one interview he compared the state of things now with the world in 1938 on the brink of the Second World War. He remarked that the war was somehow liberating, as, once it got going, people “loved the things they could do,”it gave them a sense of purpose. He believes we are in a similar state today. Knowing something terrible is on the horizon, and having it actually happen, are two differing conditions, and people are better prepared to get on with it when they have to.

He says there have been seven disasters since humans evolved and the one that is about to happen, as before, will “separate the wheat from the chaff” but out of that, a person may emerge who “really does understand” and can “Live with it properly.” This is the bedrock of his optimism. At one of these catastrophic and violent junctures only 2,000 individuals were left. Evidently, they adapted and survived.

Quite recently, he did admit he had gone too far with his scare-mongering ideas and perhaps had “extrapolated too far.” This was when he wrote that only a few breeding pairs of humans would survive, and live a hunter-gatherer type existence in the Arctic. Billions of others would have been wiped out. At that point, the data did not correlate with his previous predictions, and there had been a slight slowing down in the temperature rise. He did admit he had made a mistake but insisted that it was only a deference. He gave these comments in an interview on MSNBC, adding Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth had made the same mistake.

Lovelock has never fit the mould, and is an autodidact, he learned his science from library books. His parents were not well-off enough for him to go to university and so he got a job as a lab assistant. He believes if he had a conventional scientific education he would have been corralled into a speciality. He did eventually get to Manchester University, but he could only afford two out of the three years course in chemistry. Instead, he has remained a generalist, unique in these times. He does not believe he would ever have had the epiphany which led to the Gaia theory if he had been funneled into a narrow field of discipline.

That is not to say the Gaia theory was not rigorously tested. He tested it his own way, by creating a computer model of a planet he called Daisyworld,which could become self-regulating through natural selection. It was a simple model, and it irritated scientists at the time, but it has remained unfalsified. It was his close friend and neighbour, William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, who came up with the name of Gaia. She was the earth goddess in Greek mythology.

Perhaps it is this mythical, rather romantic, name that has led to some becoming almost Gaia worshippers. To Lovelock, Gaia is science not religion and he refuses to have “faith” in it. He prefers to keep it at “trust.” The most difficult aspect of the Gaia theory is that it is not invested in the future success of the human race. Gaia seeks only to renew itself.

Humans and all their plans are irrelevant to the rebalancing of the system if they get in the way. Writer John Gray, who interviewed Lovelock in 2013, goes to far as to conclude that “finally dislodging the human animal from primacy in the world” could be seen as “completing Darwin’s work.” More

James Lovelock is best known as the father of Gaia theory; the idea that all parts of our planet form a complex interacting system, like a single organism. His new book depicts Gaia in trouble. In this interview Lovelock sounds a final warning for planet earth and enthuses about his upcoming space trip.