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James Lovelock, the Prophet

Eminent scientist says global warming is irreversible - and over 6 billion people will perish at the end of the century

November 1, 2007
James Lovelock, the Prophet
Illustration by Brad Holland

At the age of eighty-eight, after four children and a long and respected career as one of the twentieth century's most influential scientists, James Lovelock has come to an unsettling conclusion: The human race is doomed.

"I wish I could be more hopeful," he tells me one sunny morning as we walk through a park in Oslo, where he is giving a talk at a university. Lovelock is a small man, unfailingly polite, with white hair and round, owlish glasses. His step is jaunty, his mind lively, his manner anything but gloomy. In fact, the coming of the Four Horsemen – war, famine, pestilence and death – seems to perk him up. "It will be a dark time," Lovelock admits. "But for those who survive, I suspect it will be rather exciting."

In Lovelock's view, the scale of the catastrophe that awaits us will soon become obvious. By 2020, droughts and other extreme weather will be commonplace. By 2040, the Sahara will be moving into Europe, and Berlin will be as hot as Baghdad. Atlanta will end up a kudzu jungle. Phoenix will become uninhabitable, as will parts of Beijing (desert), Miami (rising seas) and London (floods). Food shortages will drive millions of people north, raising political tensions. "The Chinese have nowhere to go but up into Siberia," Lovelock says. "How will the Russians feel about that? I fear that war between Russia and China is probably inevitable." With hardship and mass migrations will come epidemics, which are likely to kill millions. By 2100, Lovelock believes, the Earth's population will be culled from today's 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million, with most of the survivors living in the far latitudes – Canada, Iceland, Scandinavia, the Arctic Basin.

By the end of the century, according to Lovelock, global warming will cause temperate zones like North America and Europe to heat up by fourteen degrees Fahrenheit, nearly double the likeliest predictions of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations-sanctioned body that includes the world's top scientists. "Our future," Lovelock writes, "is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail." And switching to energy-efficient light bulbs won't save us. To Lovelock, cutting greenhouse-gas pollution won't make much difference at this point, and much of what passes for sustainable development is little more than a scam to profit off disaster. "Green," he tells me, only half-joking, "is the color of mold and corruption."

If such predictions were coming from anyone else, you would laugh them off as the ravings of an old man projecting his own impending death onto the world around him. But Lovelock is not so easily dismissed. As an inventor, he created a device that helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer and jump-start the environmental movement in the 1970s. And as a scientist, he introduced the revolutionary theory known as Gaia – the idea that our entire planet is a kind of superorganism that is, in a sense, "alive." Once dismissed as New Age quackery, Lovelock's vision of a self-regulating Earth now underlies virtually all climate science. Lynn Margulis, a pioneering biologist at the University of Massachusetts, calls him "one of the most innovative and mischievous scientific minds of our time." Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, credits Lovelock with inspiring him to pledge billions of dollars to fight global warming. "Jim is a brilliant scientist who has been right about many things in the past," Branson says. "If he's feeling gloomy about the future, it's important for mankind to pay attention."

Lovelock knows that predicting the end of civilization is not an exact science. "I could be wrong about all this," he admits as we stroll around the park in Norway. "The trouble is, all those well-intentioned scientists who are arguing that we're not in any imminent danger are basing their arguments on computer models. I'm basing mine on what's actually happening."

When you approach Lovelock's house in Devon, a rural area in southwestern England, the sign on the metal gate reads:
COOMBE MILL EXPERIMENTAL STATION
SITE OF NEW NATURAL HABITAT
PLEASE DO NOT TRESPASS OR DISTURB
A few hundred yards down a narrow lane, beside the site of an old mill, is a white, slate-roofed cottage where Lovelock lives with his second wife, Sandy, an American, and his youngest son, John, who is fifty-one and mildly disabled. It's a fairy-tale setting, surrounded by thirty-five wooded acres – no vegetable garden, no manicured rosebushes. "I detest all that," Lovelock tells me. Partly hidden in the woods is a life-size statue of Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth, whom Lovelock named his groundbreaking theory after.

Most scientists toil at the margins of human knowledge, adding incrementally to our understanding of the world. Lovelock is one of the few living scientists whose ideas have touched off not only a scientific revolution but a spiritual one as well. "Future historians of science will see Lovelock as a man who inspired a Copernican shift in how we see ourselves in the world," says Tim Lenton, a climate researcher at the University of East Anglia, in England. Before Lovelock came along, the Earth was seen as little more than a cozy rock drifting around the sun. According to the accepted wisdom, life evolved here because the conditions were right – not too hot, not too cold, plenty of water. Somehow bacteria grew into multicelled organisms, fish crawled out of the sea, and before long, Britney Spears arrived.

In the 1970s, Lovelock upended all this with a simple question: Why is the Earth different from Mars and Venus, where the atmosphere is toxic to life? In a flash of insight, Lovelock understood that our atmosphere was created not by random geological events but by the cumulative effusion of everything that has ever breathed, grown and decayed. Our air "is not merely a biological product," Lovelock wrote, "but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat's fur, a bird's feathers or the paper of a wasp's nest, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment." According to Gaia theory, life is not just a passenger on Earth but an active participant, helping to create the very conditions that sustain it. It's a beautiful idea – life begets life. It was also right in tune with the post-flower-child mood of the Seventies. Lovelock was quickly adopted as a spiritual guru, the man who killed God and put the planet at the center of New Age religious experience.

Rising Seas: A City-by-City Forecast

Lovelock is not an alarmist by nature. In his view, the dangers of nuclear power are grossly overstated. Ditto mercury emissions in the atmosphere, genetic engineering of food and the loss of biodiversity on the planet. The greatest mistake in his career, in fact, was not claiming that the sky was falling but failing to recognize that it was. In 1973, after being the first to discover that industrial chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons had polluted the atmosphere, Lovelock declared that the buildup of CFCs posed "no conceivable hazard." As it turned out, CFCs weren't toxic to breathe, but they were eating a hole in the ozone. Lovelock quickly revised his view, calling it "one of my greatest blunders," but the mistake may have cost him a share in a Nobel Prize.

At first, Lovelock didn't view global warming as an urgent threat to the planet. "Gaia is a tough bitch," he often said, borrowing a phrase coined by a colleague. But a few years ago, alarmed by rapidly melting ice in the Arctic and other climate-related changes, Lovelock became convinced that Gaia's autopilot system – the giant, inexpressibly subtle network of positive and negative feedbacks that keeps the Earth's climate in balance – is seriously out of whack, derailed by pollution and deforestation. Lovelock believes the planet itself will eventually recover its equilibrium, even if it takes millions of years. What's at stake, he says, is civilization.

"You could quite seriously look at climate change as a response of the system intended to get rid of an irritating species: us humans," Lovelock tells me in the small office he has created in his cottage. "Or at least cut them back to size."

Lovelock's cottage in the woods is a world away from South London, where he grew up with coal soot in his lungs, coughing and pale and working-class. His mother was an early feminist; his father grew up so desperately hungry that he spent six months in prison when he was fourteen for poaching a rabbit from a local squire's estate. Shortly after Lovelock was born, his parents passed him off to his grandmother to raise. "They were too poor and too busy to raise a child," he explains. In school, he was a lousy student, mildly dyslexic, more interested in pranks than homework. But he loved books, especially the science fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

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