Wind power is just a gesture

February 3rd, 2004

The inventor of the 'Gaia theory' and inspiration for the green movement, Dr James Lovelock, tells Andrea Kuhn why windfarms do not address the problems of global warming

The leading environmentalist and scientist who invented the "Gaia theory" has told the Western Morning News that he now regrets his endorsement of windfarms in the Westcountry.

Dr James Lovelock proposed the widely respected view that the earth is a self-regulating, living system rather than the Darwinian theory of competing physical, chemical and biological interests.

He also says the Government should "come clean" over its plans on wind power for the region.

"I was asked to open the windfarm at Delabole," he said. "At that time nobody was talking about a gigantic programme, getting 15 or 20 per cent of the country's energy from wind turbines. It was a kind of nice green gesture. I think, now that I know as much as I do, I wouldn't have touched it with a bargepole."

He believes the actions by the Government have been reminiscent of something out of the comic science fiction novel The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy.

"It has stolen up on us without any of us being aware of it," he said. "The Government really has not come clean on this. There has not been a general public announcement. You cannot count the White Paper. How many people read that?"

Dr Lovelock, 84, who in 2002 was made a Companion of Honour by the Queen for his research, believes nuclear power is the only form of energy that will not contribute to global warming and could supply enough power for the planet.

He waves away the argument that wind is a natural form of energy. "Lots of things are good in nature - like motherhood - but it can be an absolute menace in certain circumstances," he says.

Dr Lovelock believes we face devastating consequences from climate change and that putting up a few wind turbines will not address the problem.

He cites the example of the Danes, who have found turbines will only work with conventional power stations to support them when there is no wind.

As such power stations cannot be fired up at will, they have to run constantly, which defeats the "green" objective.

Dr Lovelock cannot emphasise enough how anxious he feels that time is running out to address the issue of climate change. "Windfarms won't cut it at all," he said. "It's better than doing nothing, but it's absurd, just gestures. Time is of the essence."

It was over 40 years ago that Dr Lovelock, a Fellow of the Royal Society, first put forward his Gaia theory, and he has become a respected authority on the subject.

The research scientist coined the term Gaia, from the ancient Greek earth mother goddess, while out walking with Lord of the Flies author William Golding, his former neighbour in Wiltshire.

On his walls hang a number of plaques from his work with the American space agency, NASA. He invented small devices designed to detect if there were signs of life on Mars - a planet which he says is like a desert.

He thinks the Government has been surprised at the backlash against its plans to install so many wind turbines. He wrote to Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, expressing his concern last year and received a reply which he described as saying "everything and nothing".

"I don't think they expected any objections and the greens told them: 'It's a wonderful idea, people will love this. It's getting energy without polluting anything. We can put them up in various places in the Westcountry.' They didn't think through the consequences."

He came to his house on the Devon/Cornwall border, which he shares with his wife Sandy and their two cats, almost 30 years ago. Set in 35 acres, the area is a carefully preserved "habitat" largely left to its own devices.

He continues his research and his work on a follow-up to his original book on the Gaia theory, which attracted world-wide interest.

He chose to live in the Westcountry because it was one of the last remaining places in England, with Northumberland, where the "old-style countryside" still remained and appeared to have escaped the spread of urbanisation elsewhere.

"England is becoming, in many ways, just one big town," he explains. "You wouldn't put a sewage plant in Hyde Park and you shouldn't put great industrial wind turbines here in the Westcountry, in some of the last remaining bits of old-fashioned countryside where humans and wildlife live together in a reasonable sort of way."

Dr Lovelock has been a lifelong environmentalist and member of the green movement. He says the more "pragmatic" nations, such as France, Finland, Sweden, Japan and China, are embracing nuclear power as they believe it is the most viable and safe source of energy for the future.

So why are we scared of it? "I think the reason is just simple politics," he declares. "Our Government is persuaded that there are so many people in Britain who are frightened off nuclear energy by fiction, mainly films. Bad fiction written by good writers. It continues to pervade and give the impression it is the most evil thing.

"I would take high-level waste if they would let me have it. I would have it just over there," he says, pointing to the hedge visible from his sitting room window.

"We could use it for home heating. They could put in a concrete pit and it would stay hot. What a waste not to use it. People have got in mind great big glowing slag heaps. It's all nonsense."

He dismisses Chernobyl as a "nasty accident that killed 45 people" saying it was not comparable to the amount of people who die in an air crash or in an industrial accident such as Bhopal in India, which killed 3,500 people and maimed countless others.

He believes that if we are concerned about health risks we should consider how many people are dying as a result of climate change. He estimates that last summer's heatwave in Europe killed upwards of 20,000 people.

"The area around Chernobyl has been invaded by wildlife and allowed to flourish as it has been left alone. It doesn't mind the radiation in the least," he says.

"We have lived under a lot of absolute nonsense for years and years about radiation. You can't live without breathing oxygen, but it's also the most ubiquitous carcinogen of the lot. Just breathing daily is equivalent to quite a hefty radiation dose." Where he does agree with the pro-wind energy lobby is that climate change is an immediate and urgent threat. He recently attended a lecture given by Government scientist Professor David King, who discussed the Thames barrage, which was barely used initially when it was built over a decade ago. Yet two years ago it was used 24 times.

He describes predictions made by The International Panel for Climate Change as "awesome". It estimates a rise in temperature of anything between 1.5 and 6C in this century.

The average is the same as the jump in temperature between the last Ice Age and before it began warming up, he says. "That produced gigantic changes. At the end of the last Ice Age??? the sea was 120 metres lower to start with."

As one of the earliest members of the green movement he fears the arguments are now becoming fractured as some people pursue the humanist cause above the ecological one. He said they were more concerned about things such as carcinogens in salmon than the bigger issue of the planet itself. "They think the most noble thing is for the benefit of human kind. They don't think beyond that. Because of the work I have done, I have become more and more convinced that we live on a self-regulating planet which looks after the environment and keeps it comfortable for all the living things on it, including us.

"In a sense, the Earth should come first - ahead of the humans on it. If we stop now, it will still get to warm up for 50 years to a very uncomfortable state. If we don't, it is too awful to contemplate."

Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist' is published by Oxford University Press 2000.