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James Lovelock, the Prophet

Page 4 of 4

This is not to suggest, however, that Lovelock believes we should just party while the world burns. Quite the opposite. "We need bold action," Lovelock insists. "We have a tremendous amount to do." In his view, we have two choices: We can return to a more primitive lifestyle and live in equilibrium with the planet as hunter-gatherers, or we can sequester ourselves in a very sophisticated, high-tech civilization. "There's no question which path I'd prefer," he says one morning in his cottage, grinning broadly and tapping the keyboard of his computer. "It's really a question of how we organize society – where we will get our food, water. How we will generate energy."

For water, the answer is pretty straightforward: desalination plants, which can turn ocean water into drinking water. Food supply is tougher: Heat and drought will devastate many of today's food-growing regions. It will also push people north, where they will cluster in cities. In these areas, there will be no room for backyard gardens. As a result, Lovelock believes, we will have to synthesize food – to grow it in vats from tissue cultures of meats and vegetables. It sounds far out and deeply unappetizing, but from a technological standpoint, it wouldn't be hard to do.

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

A steady supply of electricity will also be vital. Five days after his visit to the Hadley Centre, Lovelock penned a fiery op-ed titled "Nuclear Power Is the Only Green Solution." Lovelock argued that we should "use the small input from renewables sensibly" but that "we have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear- the one safe, available energy source – now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet."

Environmentalists howled in protest, but for anyone who knew Lovelock's past, his embrace of nukes is not surprising. At the age of fourteen, reading about how the sun is powered by a nuclear reaction, he came to believe that nuclear energy is one of the fundamental forces in the universe. Why not harness it? As for the dangers – radioactive waste, vulnerability to terrorism, the possibility of a Chernobyl-like meltdown – Lovelock says it's the lesser of two evils: "Even if they're right about the dangers, and they are not, it is still nothing compared to climate change."

As a last resort, to keep the planet even marginally habitable, Lovelock believes that humans may be forced to manipulate the Earth's climate by erecting solar shades in space or building devices to strip huge quantities of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Although he views large-scale geoengineering as an act of profound hubris – "I would sooner expect a goat to succeed as a gardener than expect humans to become stewards of the Earth" – he thinks it may be necessary as an emergency measure, much like kidney dialysis is necessary to a person whose health is failing. In fact, it was Lovelock who inspired his friend Richard Branson to put up a $25 million prize for the Virgin Earth Challenge, which will be awarded to the first person who can figure out a commercially viable way of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. As a judge in the contest, Lovelock is not eligible to win, but he's intrigued by the challenge. His latest thought: suspend hundreds of thousands of 600-foot-long vertical pipes in the tropical oceans, put a valve at the bottom of each pipe and allow deep, nutrient-rich water to be pumped to the surface by wave action. Nutrients from the deep water would increase algae bloom, which would suck up carbon dioxide and help cool the planet.

"It's a way of leveraging the Earth's natural energy system against itself," Lovelock speculates. "I think Gala would approve."

Oslo is Lovelock's kind of town. It's in the northern latitudes, which will grow more temperate as the climate warms; it has plenty of water; thanks to its oil and gas reserves, it's rich; and there's already lots of creative thinking going on about energy, including, much to Lovelock's satisfaction, renewed discussion about nuclear power. "The main issue they'll face here," Lovelock tells me as we walk along Karl Johans Gate, the city's main boulevard, "is how to manage the hordes of people that will descend upon the city. In the next few decades, half the population of southern Europe will try to move here."

We head down to the waterfront, where we pass Akershus Castle, an imposing thirteenth-century fortress that served as Nazi headquarters during their occupation of the city during World War II. To Lovelock, the parallels between what the world faced then and what the world faces now are clear. "In some ways, it's 1939 all over again," he says. "The threat is obvious, but we've failed to grasp what's at stake. We're still talking about appeasement."

Then, as now, the lack of political leadership is what's most striking to Lovelock. Although he respects Al Gore's efforts to raise people's consciousness, he believes no politician has come close to preparing us for what's coming. "We'll be living in a desperate world in no time," Lovelock says. He believes the time is right for a global-warming version of Winston Churchill's famous "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech he gave to prepare Great Britain for World War II. "People are ready for this," Lovelock says as we pass under the shadow of the castle. "They understand what's happening far better than most politicians."

However the future turns out, Lovelock is unlikely to be around to see it. "My goal is to live a rectangular life: long, strong and steady, then a quick drop at the end," he says. Lovelock shows no signs of hitting his own personal tipping point. Although he's had forty operations, including a heart bypass, he still zooms around the English countryside in his white Honda like a Formula One driver. He and Sandy recently took a month-long trip through Australia, where they visited the Great Barrier Reef. He's about to start another book about Gaia. Richard Branson has invited him on the first flight on the Virgin Galactic space shuttle late next year – "I want to give him a view of Gala from space," says Branson. Lovelock is eager to go, and plans to take a test in a centrifuge later this year to see if his body can withstand the G-forces of spaceflight. He shuns talk of his legacy, although he jokes with his kids that he wants his headstone to read, HE NEVER MEANT TO BE PROSCRIPTIVE.

Whatever his epitaph, Lovelock's legacy as one of the most provocative scientists of our time is assured. And for all his gloom and doom, his notion of the planet as a single dynamic system remains a hopeful idea. It suggests that there are rules the system operates by and mechanisms that drive it. These rules and mechanisms can be studied and, possibly, tweaked. In many ways, Lovelock's holistic vision is an antidote to the chaos of twentieth-century science, which fragmented the world into quarks, quantum mechanics and untouchable mystery.

The Vanishing Ice Sheets

As for the doom that awaits us, Lovelock may well be wrong. Not because he's misread the science (although that's certainly possible) but because he's misread human beings. Few serious scientists doubt that we're on the verge of a climate catastrophe. But for all Lovelock's sensitivity to the subtle dynamics and feedback loops in the climate system, he is curiously tone-deaf to the subtle dynamics and feedback loops in the human system. He believes that, despite our iPhones and space shuttles, we are still tribal animals, largely incapable of acting for the greater good or making long-term decisions for our own welfare. "Our moral progress," says Lovelock, "has not kept up with our technological progress."

But maybe that's exactly what the coming apocalypse is all about. One of the questions that fascinates Lovelock: Life has been evolving on Earth for more than 3 billion years – and to what purpose? "Like it or not, we are the brains and nervous system of Gala," he says. "We have now assumed responsibility for the welfare of the planet. How will we manage it?"

As we weave our way through the tourists heading up to the castle, it's easy to look at them and feel sadness. It's harder to look at them and feel hopeful. But when I say this to Lovelock, he argues that the human race has gone through many bottlenecks before - and perhaps we're the better for it. Then he tells me the story of an airplane crash years ago at Manchester Airport. "A fuel tank caught fire during takeoff," Lovelock says. "There was plenty of time for everybody to get out, but many of the passengers wouldn't move. They just stayed there in their seats as they were told to, and the people who escaped had to climb over them to get out. It was perfectly obvious how to get out, but they wouldn't move. They died from the smoke or burned to death. And an awful lot of people, I'm sad to say, are like that. And that's what will happen this time, except on a much vaster scale."

Lovelock looks at me with unflinching blue eyes. "Some people will sit in their seats and do nothing, frozen in panic. Others will move. They'll see what's about to happen, and they'll take action, and they'll survive. They're the carriers of the civilization ahead."

This story is from the November 1st, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.


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