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The End of Eden

Posted: 18 Dec 2006

by Michael Powell

James Lovelock, eminent scientist, inventor, author and originator of the Gaia hypothesis that the earth is in effect a living, self-regulating organism, was the subject of a recent revealing interview by Washington Post staff writer Michael Powell. In this he explains just why he believes this time, that we have pushed the earth too far. The interview is reproduced here in full with the author's permission.

St. Giles-on-the Heath, England

Through a deep and tangled wood lies a glade so lovely and wet and lush as to call to mind a hobbit's sanctuary. A lichen-covered statue rises in a garden of native grasses, and a misting rain drips off a slate roof. At the yard's edge a plump muskrat waddles into the brush.

James Lovelock

A lean, white-haired gentleman in a blue wool sweater and khakis beckons you inside his whitewashed cottage. We sit beside a stone hearth as his wife, Sandy, an elegant blonde, sets out scones and tea. James Lovelock fixes his mind's eye on what's to come.

"It's going too fast," he says softly. "We will burn."

Why is that?

"Our global furnace is out of control. By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon will become a desert, and the forests of Siberia will burn and release more methane and plagues will return."

A taste for controversy

Sulfurous musings are not Lovelock's characteristic style; he's no Book of Revelation apocalyptic. In his 88th year, he remains one of the world's most inventive scientists, an Englishman of humour and erudition, with an oenophile's taste for delicious controversy. Four decades ago, his discovery that ozone-destroying chemicals were piling up in the atmosphere started the world's governments down a path toward repair. Not long after that, Lovelock proposed the theory known as Gaia, which holds that Earth acts like a living organism, a self-regulating system balanced to allow life to flourish.

Biologists dismissed this as heresy, running counter to Darwin's theory of evolution. Today one could reasonably argue that Gaia theory has transformed scientific understanding of the Earth.

Now Lovelock has turned his attention to global warming, writing The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. Lovelock's conclusion [in the book, now out in the UK and the US] is straightforward.

To wit, we are poached.

He measured atmospheric gases and ocean temperatures, and examined forests tropical and arboreal (last year a forest the size of Italy burned in rapidly heating Siberia, releasing from the permafrost a vast sink of methane, which contributes to global warming). He found Gaia trapped in a vicious cycle of positive-feedback loops - from air to water, everything is getting warmer at once. The nature of Earth's biosphere is that, under pressure from industrialization, it resists such heating, and then it resists some more.

Then, he says, it adjusts.

Within the next decade or two, Lovelock forecasts, Gaia will hike her thermostat by at least 10 degrees. Earth, he predicts, will be hotter than at any time since the Eocene Age 55 million years ago, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean.

"1000 years to recover"

"There's no realisation of how quickly and irreversibly the planet is changing," Lovelock says. "Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this. Even if we took extraordinary steps, it would take the world 1,000 years to recover."

Such dire talk no doubt occasions much rolling of eyes in polite circles, particularly among scientists in the United States, that last redoubt of global-warming sceptics. Lovelock's so intemperate, and more than a few of his peers distrust his preference for elegant nouns and verbs served with no crusting of jargon. His grim predictions tend to be twinned in the press with those of the sceptics, each treated as a radical diversion - purveyors of "climate porn," an English think-tank called them recently - from a moderate mean.

Lovelock's radical view of global warming doesn't sit well with David Archer, a scientist at the University of Chicago and a frequent contributor to the Web site RealClimate, which accepts the reality of global warning.

"No one, not Lovelock or anyone else, has proposed a specific quantitative scenario for a climate-driven, blow the doors off, civilization ending catastrophe," writes Archer.

The headline on Archer's essay, which is in fact respectful of Lovelock's science, calls the Englishman a "renegade earth scientist." It's a curious description.

Lovelock works independently on various biochemistry projects, in a lab in an old barn behind his farmhouse in Devon. He often quarrels with the scientific establishment, which he sees as crippled by clubby orthodoxy. (Nor does he hesitate to tweak environmentalists - Lovelock is a passionate backer of nuclear power as a carbon-clean palliative for global warming.) But it's difficult to see Lovelock, an inventor with 50 patents to his name, a fellow in the Royal Society - England's scientific society - as a Gaian bandito.

Top level supporters

What's perhaps as intriguing are the top scientists who decline to dismiss Lovelock's warning. Lovelock may be an outlier, but he's not drifting far from shore. Sir David King, science adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, saluted Lovelock's book and proclaimed global warming a far more serious threat than terrorism. Sir Brian Heap, a Cambridge University biologist and past foreign secretary of the Royal Society, says Lovelock's views are tightly argued, if perhaps too gloomy.

Then you dial up Paul Ehrlich, the eminent Stanford University biologist, at his cottage in the mountains of Colorado, where he's been meeting with other scientists. Three decades ago Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, a best-selling jeremiad in which he warned that the Earth's population was expanding much too fast.

Disaster did not arrive precisely as Ehrlich foretold, and he was treated as a doomsayer debunked. Maybe Ehrlich just was too early to the party.

Today Ehrlich sees global warming and population growth, with its attendant pressures on natural resources and demand for oil and gas, as menaces dancing in tango step. "Technically speaking, most scientists I know are scared [expletive]," Ehrlich says. "Lovelock and I are doomsayers because I'm afraid we see doom."

"Like the Norns in Wagner's Der Ring des Niebelungen, we are at the end of our tether, and the rope, whose weave defines our fate, is about to break."

You read such lines in "The Revenge of Gaia" and ask this wiry Jeremiah: Why so gloomy? Lovelock grins, his face a web of smile lines, and demurs: No, no, no. You have him all wrong. He started a family in the darkness of the London Blitz - he has nine grandchildren, whom he loves, and a country of which he's very proud.

"I'm an optimist," he says. "I think that after the warming sets in and the survivors have settled in near the Arctic, they will find a way to adjust. It will be a tough life enlivened by excitement and fear."

That still sounds a tad short of good cheer.

Lovelock and Sandy, whom he married after the death of his first wife, take afternoon walks in Devonshire, and he quotes Shakespeare on the joy of finding oxlip by a stream. Lovelock finds too much delight in the mysteries of the universe to call himself an atheist. But he remains at heart a biochemist, a rigorous empiricist who refuses to shrink from the reality of hard times.

Lovelock grew up in working-class London. He could not afford Oxford or Cambridge and so attended at night. During World War II Lovelock walked sentry duty with professors on the roof of the lab. They watched the twinkling lights of German V-1 missiles draw close.

"A missile would veer off and explode and the professors would feel an immediate need to impart their wisdom." Lovelock chuckles. "It was like a graduate course. Terrible to say, but war makes us more alive."

A conceptual leap

Lovelock was a prodigy, earning degrees in chemistry and medicine. In the 1950s he designed an electron capture machine, which provided environmentalist Rachel Carson with the data to prove that pesticides infected everything from penguins to mother's milk. Later he took a detector on a ship to Antarctica and proved that man-made chemicals - CFCs - were burning a hole in the ozone.

"Gaia, shmaia," says Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist, who has been critical of Lovelock's latest theory. "If Lovelock hadn't discovered the erosion of the ozone, we'd all be living under the ocean in snorkels and fins to escape that poisonous sun."

In 1961 Lovelock worked with NASA. The space agency wanted to design a lander to search for life on Mars. That, Lovelock thought, was silly. What if a lander set down in the wrong spot? What if Martian life wasn't bacterial?

Lovelock took a conceptual leap. If Mars bore life, bacteria would be obliged to use oxygen to breathe and to deposit their wastes as methane. Lovelock found that Earth's atmosphere contained massive quantities of oxygen and methane, gases that are the very signature of life. Mars's atmosphere was thick with carbon dioxide, the calling card of a dead planet.

That discovery changed his life. He came to see Earth as a self-regulating biosphere. The sun has warmed by 25 per cent since life appeared, so Earth produced more algae and forests to absorb carbon dioxide, ensuring roughly constant temperatures. In 1969, Lovelock lacked only a name for his theory. He took a walk with novelist William Golding.

A big concept needs a big name, Golding said. Call it Gaia.

Gaia proved controversial, and not just because the name made New Age priestesses go weak in the knees. ("Gaia's not 'alive' and I'm afraid I'm not a very good guru," Lovelock notes dryly.) Biologists nearly choked - they argued that organisms cannot possibly act in concert, as that would imply foresight.

Lovelock recalls being denounced at a conference in Berlin.

The intolerance gave him a pain. Lovelock said that the world's biomass can act without being "conscious." "The neo-Darwinists are just like the very religious," Lovelock says. "They spend all their time defending silly doctrine."

Forty years later, talk of an interconnected planetary system is the lingua franca of Earth science. The queen has handed Lovelock a prize, Oxford has invited him to teach, and his small forest lab had more government contracts than he could handle. (In his lab, the octogenarian scientist follows few safety protocols save the dictates of self-preservation. "I can kill only myself; it's a splendid freedom," he says.)

But friends say he's restless.

"Maybe Jim thinks the world has gotten too comfortable with his theory," says Lee Kump, a prominent geologist at Penn State. "He sees Gaia treating us as a body does an infection - it's trying to burn us out."

"The meltdown of Greenland's ice sheet is speeding up, satellite measurements show."
- BBC, 2006

"Dr. Deborah Clark from the University of Missouri, one of the world's top forest ecologists, says the research shows that 'the lock has broken' on the Amazon ecosystem. She adds: The Amazon is 'headed in a terrible direction.' " -- CNN, 2006

How will our splendid Spaceship Earth so quickly become the oven of our doom? As we sit at his table in Devon, Lovelock expands on his vision.

It begins with the melting of ice and snow. As the Arctic grows bare - the Greenland ice cap is shrinking far faster than had been expected - dark ground emerges and absorbs heat. That melts more snow and softens peat bogs, which release methane. As oceans warm, algae are dying and so absorbing less heat-causing carbon dioxide.

To the south, drought already is drying out the great tropical forests of the Amazon. "The forests will melt away just like the snow," Lovelock says.

Even the northern forests, those dark cool beauties of pines and firs, suffer. They absorb heat and shelter bears, lynxes and wolves through harsh winters. But recent studies show the boreal forests are drying and dying and inducing more warming.

Casting 30, 40 years into the future, Lovelock sees sub-Saharan lands becoming uninhabitable. India runs out of water, Bangladesh drowns, China eyes a Siberian land grab, and local warlords fight bloody wars over water and energy.

Too late to turn back

Lovelock sees the look on your face and pauses.

"Look, this is why it's a gloomy book," he says. "Would you care for some more tea?"

The mind reels off objections. Doesn't this amount to a great piling up of what-ifs and could-bes? The Day After Tomorrow, On the Beach, Helen Caldicott, Nostradamus, a thousand tipping-point predictions of doom fade into the mists of human history. We humans are clever. We'll send a space shade into outer space to deflect sunlight (as a couple of California professors have proposed)?

Lovelock nods, weary; he's heard this before.

"We like to think of Hurricane Katrina, or a killer heat wave in Europe, as a one-off," he says. "Or we like to think that we'll come up with a technological fix."

Lovelock reminds you that the Mayan seers, to name another maligned bunch of doomsayers, were spot on. Their great civilization died of an environmental apocalypse. He's not romanced by the primitive. Across the world, from the American Indians to the aborigines of Australia to European hunters, research is suggesting that native peoples played a key role in the burning of forests and the extinction of thousands of species. Today the environmentally conscious seek salvation in solar cells, recycling and ten thousand wind turbines. "It won't matter a damn," Lovelock says. "They make the mistake of thinking we have decades. We don't."

Lovelock favours genetically modified crops, which require less water, and nuclear energy. Only the atom can produce enough electrical power to persuade industrialised nations to abandon burning fossil fuels. France draws 70 per cent of its power from nuclear plants.

But what of Three Mile Island? Chernobyl? Lovelock's shaking his head before you complete the litany. How many people died, he asks. A few hundred? The radiation exclusion zone around Chernobyl is the lushest and most diverse zone of flora and fauna in Eurasia.

Sir Brian Heap accepts this. But he worries that South Asia and Africa are about to suffer the terrible consequences of First World excesses. What of our responsibility to them? "The poor aren't our problem," Heap says. "We're their problem."

Lovelock acknowledges the moral conundrum. But he sees no we-are-the-world solutions. The heat waves that kill millions, the powerful typhoons, the droughts that suffocate cities, will force a retreat to nationalism.

After a couple of hours, you wonder about his own good cheer. His internal combustion engine shows few signs of flagging; he wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and reads, writes and tramps through the countryside. The studiously polite Lovelock seems a touch annoyed only at the suggestion he's frivolous about what the future holds.

"People say, 'Well, you're 87, you won't live to see this,' " he says. "I have children, I have grandchildren, I wish none of this. But it's our fate; we need to recognize it's another wartime. We desperately need a Moses to take us to the Arctic and preserve civilization.

"It's too late to turn back."

Michael Powell is New York Bureau Chief at the Washington Post. His interview with James Lovelock took place on September 2, 2006.

Related links:

Lovelock warns of Gaia's revenge

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