Online chat with James Lovelock

The inventor of the Gaia theory

Transcript of an online chat, Friday September 29, 2000

One of the (if not the) main initiator of the modern Green movement, James Lovelock discusses with some internet correspondents, his friendship with William Golding who named the Gaia theory, the end of our civilisation, and the benefits of nuclear power for the environment.


Are you prepared to accept an ethical dimension to your Gaia theory whereby all lives have equal value? Or are we, as humans, entitled to favour ourselves as we must in everyday life?

James Lovelock:
So far as Gaia is concerned, humans are not special. We're just another species. There is a strong ethic attached to Gaia, and that is that the species that lives well with its environment favours it for its progeny and the species that fouls the environment spoils it for its progeny and goes extinct.

Your thoughts on nuclear power are refreshing. For so long it has been singled out as the evil amongst energy sources while conventional power stations the world over continue to belch their polluting gases. But there is a risk factor with nuclear power even if it's smaller than that of coal etc. Renewable fuels, particularly biomass, used locally on a small scale seem better still. Should we be putting more effort into this research?

James Lovelock:
Large-scale nuclear power is the only practical way that we have to solve the greenhouse gas problem. Of course we should do everything else as well including renewable fuels, windmills, but we should recognise that these are no substitute.

You probably get asked this a lot, but how did you come to know William Golding, who gave Gaia her/its name? What was he like and what did he think of the theory?

James Lovelock:
I knew Bill Golding as a neighbour when I lived in Wiltshire. He was a good friend and we would often talk as we walked to the village post office about half a mile away. When it was something exciting, like Gaia, we would walk well beyond the post office. He liked the theory, perhaps because he had been trained in physics as a student as well as in the arts. He said that if you would put forward a big theory about the earth, you'd better give it a good name and he would call it Gaia. We walked on for 20 minutes talking at cross-purposes because I thought he meant 'gyre' (I have no classics). Then Bill said no, I meant Gaia - the Greek goddess.

You say that nuclear power plants may be useful in supply electricity without worsening global warming. But doesn't it take generating extra greenhouse gases to be able to build and then dispose of one nuclear power plant. A nuclear power station also has to be very big to work with a centralised power grid and we would need to build a lot of them across Europe. Wouldn't we just end up with big, inefficient plants and lots more greenhouse gases? Wouldn't it be better to decentralise the grid, build efficiency into useage and the grid, use renewables and take away the subsidies from nuclear power generation and give this to alternatives?

James Lovelock:
It's true that building a nuclear power plant will require a lot of concrete and release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, a plant runs for 50 years or more, and in that time release vastly less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel-burning power stations. I believe that in Sweden small-scale nuclear power stations have now been designed for public use.

What are your thoughts on the recent fuel 'crisis' and the way that it was/is being handled?

James Lovelock:
The public response to the recent fuel crisis appalled me. They seemed to have no idea whatsoever of the dangers that lie ahead and thought only of their immediate personal needs. I should not have been surprised because in China, with its truly powerful government, they have admitted that they cannot hold back the personal aspirations of the people where burning fossil fuels is concerned. In a survey during the Suez fuel crisis, people interviewed claimed to be prepared to pay so much for fuel that their families would be in danger of privation. They valued personal mobility above all else. This is a human characteristic. I think the Chancellor is right - you've got to be tough on this one.

I think that Gaia is a great metaphor for processes in the biosphere. However, I've been disappointed to find that other ecologists instinctively recoil at the idea of the Planet Personified. Whilst they are right to argue in favour of rigorous hypothesis testing, we all need some kind of bigger picture. What do you make of this? Where is the halfway house?

James Lovelock:
I think the biologists fight dirty. You have to use metaphor to explain science to people. The biologists have the wonderful metaphor of the selfish gene. No one challenges them, saying 'how absurd - how could a gene take thought and be selfish?' So why do they dislike my metaphor of a living earth? It's very expensive to experiment with the earth - as we shall soon find out, for that's exactly what we've been doing with C02s.

How would you sum up the concept of 'Gaia'?

James Lovelock:
Gaia is a theory about the earth. It sees it as a self-regulating system. It keeps its climate and its chemistry always comfortable for whatever is the contemporary biosphere. Its major difference from older evolutionary theories such as Darwinism is that it sees organisms not just adapting to the environment, but changing it as well.

How far do you consider the name 'Gaia' to be responsible for the popular attraction to your theory? Equally, how far do you consider the name to be responsible for popular misunderstanding of the theory?

James Lovelock:
Folk need a good metaphor and 'Gaia' has helped establish herself by her nice short name. Naturally, many academic scientists do not like this way of presenting science.

If you were prime minister for a day, what would be the one law you would pass to try to restore our relationship with Gaia?

James Lovelock:
A few years ago, I published an article in Science,the American equivalent of Nature. In it, I considered what might happen in the 21st century. Perhaps we would go on slowly getting a little more crowded and a little more polluted, but still civilisation would be much as before. Alternatively, we could suffer any one of several catastrophes, such as a volcanic eruption no more severe than Tamboura in 1815 or Laki in Iceland in 1783. These two volcanoes put so much dust into the air that the sun's rays were enfeebled, the earth grew cool and there were two years without harvest. There were then far fewer people in the world, so there were famines, but not enough to destroy civilisation. Just imagine what would happen now. It is said that we have no more than 15-50 days' grain stocks in store at any one time. Two years makes this seem a very short time. So what can we do about it? One thing we can do is to make sure that our successors in the next Dark Age know what we did wrong and have encapsulated in a simple book all the hard-won key facts of science, philosophy, art, etc that would enable them to start the new civilisation. I would like to see the book as a primer for primary-school use to make children familiar with what our civilisation really was. It would be as well-written as the Tyndale bible and kept in every home - thus available, should disaster strike, for our successors.

The greenhouse effect and the potential damage to the ozone layer has only entered the public consciousness in the last 10 years. With the onset of unleaded petrol and 'environmentally friendly' products, is it really a case of too little too late?

James Lovelock:
Too little too late? It may be too late to save civilisation, but people will survive and there will be another one. There were 30 before the present, so why should this one be so special?

And what are your views on GM Crops, how do they fit into the gaia theory?

James Lovelock:
My feeling about GM crops is that we are straining at a gnat while swallowing the camel of greenhouse-gas accumulation.

That's all I have time for - thanks very much and goodbye.

Source : Guardian

James Lovelock is a member of EFN (Association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy)