Updated: August 6, 2022 8:37:05 am
James Lovelock, the co-founder of the Gaia theory, passed away last week. He was so wide-ranging a polymath that many descriptions of him seemed equally accurate — from visionary scientist to maverick and prophet of doom.
While Lovelock will be remembered for several discoveries and path-breaking ideas, his passing alerts us to the importance of independent inquiry. Most of his important ideas resulted from pursuing questions without the inhibition of seeking either corporate, state or academic approval. And yet, through his long life of 103 years, he did work in three domains — including inventing gadgets for MI5.
To some extent, Lovelock’s Gaia theory said what traditional knowledge systems in many cultures have been based on for millennia: That life has a longing for life and thus all of nature, from microscopic living organisms to rocks, are interlinked.
This was largely why Lovelock’s formulation of Gaia appealed to “back to nature” environmentalists across the world. However, Lovelock appeared to have little patience with the more poetic and romantic dimensions of modern environmentalists. In an interview published in New Scientist, Lovelock attributed the choice of the word “Gaia” to the author William Golding. Gaia, or Gaea in Greek, is the name for the primordial earth or mother goddess. The Gaia thesis emerged out of the work Lovelock did for NASA, on whether there might be life on Mars. This led him and biologist Lynn Margulis to delve deeper into the origins of life on earth. Together they put forth the formulation that the earth is a self-regulating organism and that when early lifeforms began extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, this gave birth to a biological system which kept morphing to constantly recalibrate itself in order to sustain life.
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This, in turn, led Lovelock to be among the first scientists to identify human-made climate change as a serious existential threat to our species. The idea that nature will hit back at humans for destroying the balance of planetary flows resonated with the environmental movement.
Though he was one of its visionaries, Lovelock was not locked into the environmental movement. He disappointed the environmental orthodoxy by making a strong case for nuclear power, which he insisted could be made safer. Renewable energy is important, Lovelock argued, but our species has run out of time. A sufficiently rapid survival response now demands a massive shift to nuclear power, Lovelock insisted, in order to significantly reduce carbon emissions and manage climate change better.
By 2006, Lovelock declared that humans have now little or no chance of warding off the climate catastrophe and called for attention to be focused on adaptation. That year he published The Revenge of Gaia, a book which one reviewer aptly called powerful but “disablingly depressing”.
The doomsday scenario envisioned by Lovelock is that in the near future, much of the planet could become too hot to inhabit and the remaining humans, who are rich enough to do so, will retreat to the poles, which will then have a temperate climate.
His more recent musings, though intended to be optimistic, may seem still more depressing to many. In a book titled Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, Lovelock visualised the planet being saved by cyborgs. In an interview with New Scientist in 2019, he said that “the chemical-physical type of humanity has had its time. We’ve mucked about with the planet and we’re moving towards a systems type of thing, (a future species) running on cybernetics. The great thing is that if you run your systems on electronics or optical devices, they’re up to 10,000 times faster than what we’ve got at the moment, and this opens up enormous possibilities.”
But is the intelligence of the human brain, or even of machines designed by humans, really similar to, or to be equated with, the “intelligence” of life on earth? This is the central question going forward and it will require an inquiry that is truly independent of entrenched orthodoxies of “science” and the profit motive.
Lovelock’s predictions and extrapolations about the future of our species may or may not prove to be valid. But the wide-ranging and independent manner in which he pursued questions about our world and the role of humans will continue to inspire curious minds for a long time.
As Stephen Harding of Schumacher College wrote in a tribute to Lovelock: “Doing Gaia science with him was like being taken to the top of Mount Everest on the clearest of days and looking out on a vast panorama of snowy peaks undulating away majestically into the far blue distance.”
Bakshi is an author and founder of the online platform Ahimsa Conversation
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