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The loss of Lovelock

by gwcmag


As Stephan Harding, Lovelock’s scientific collaborator at Schumacher College, summarised: “He was the first to realise that our planet is a gigantic self-regulating complex system that has maintained its surface conditions within the narrow limits favourable for life over vast spans of time because of a multitude of feedbacks between living organisms, rocks, atmosphere and waters.”

Lovelock described himself as an intuitive scientist, thinking beyond the narrow confines of cause and effect, and with his remarkable inventiveness he achieved many extraordinary breakthroughs.

Legacy

He was also motivated by a deep concern that humanity was a profoundly destabilising force vis-à-vis life on earth, particularly regarding our reckless use of fossil fuels. He pointed to the ever-rising CO2 concentrations in the earth atmosphere which during his lifetime increased from 290 to 420 ppm.

So, in addition to being a scientist, he also became a campaigner on climate breakdown. Some of his views did not please mainstream environmentalists, particularly when he proposed that a rapid switch to nuclear reactor technology was essential for decarbonising the world’s energy system.

The fact that Lovelock was no technophobe became even more evident in his last book, Novacene: The coming age of hyperintelligence, 2019. He describes this as the epoch following on from the Anthropocene, defined by the emergence of super-advanced robots, or cyborgs.

He suggests that these largely autonomous, benevolent cyborgs would want to protect Gaia in their own self-interest because they would ultimately depend on its wellbeing for their own existence. This optimistic proposition, of an emerging ‘IT Gaia’, has left many people baffled.

So will Gaia be alive and kicking in the aftermath of the Anthropocene with its pervasive eco-toxic legacy? So far, human action shows little concern about assuring the earth’s  ecological stability, despite all the evidence we have gleaned via satellites and other sophisticated probes.   

Inventive

Lovelock’s work has triggered vigorous responses from people concerned about the future of life on earth, and some of these may be rather surprising.

When looking for images of Gaia on the internet – such as drawings, paintings and sculptures by many different artists – she (and it is almost always a she) appears primarily as a rather romantic, new-age ‘earth goddess’ rather than a high-tech ‘IT Gaia’.

As our relationship with nature is becoming ever more precarious, we seem to have a profound yearning to see nature whole and happy, even if we are doing little to assure this. Somewhere in these images may be the yearning that Lovelock himself felt when he chose the world ‘Gaia’, derived from Greek mythology, to describe his bold, new scientific theory.

Lovelock appealed to science as well as sentiment. And while he may have frowned upon some of the eco-cultish visual images that developed around his work, he may also have found some of them quite amusing.

The James I knew was a man with a great sense of humour and a big heart, as well as a truly remarkable, inventive brain. He may have passed on now, but the influence of his profound intuitions will be felt for a long time to come.   

This Author

Professor Herbert Girardet is a co-founder of the World Future Council, and a member of The Club of Rome. His most recent book is Creating Regenerative Cities (Routledge). Mr Girardet is also trustee at the Resurgence Trust, which owns and publishes The Ecologist.



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