by Jeff Goodell
November 01, 2007
from RollingStone Website
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 super-organism 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,
Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, credits Lovelock with inspiring him to pledge billions of dollars to fight global warming.
Lovelock knows that predicting the end of civilization is not an exact science.
When you approach Lovelock's house in Devon, a rural area in southwestern England, the sign on the metal gate reads:
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The freedom and romance Lovelock felt on these jaunts had a transformative effect on him.
By the time Lovelock hit puberty, he knew he wanted to be a scientist. His first love was physics. But his dyslexia made complex math difficult, so he opted instead for chemistry, enrolling at the University of London. A year later, when the Nazis invaded Poland, Lovelock converted to Quakerism and soon became a conscientious objector.
In his written statement, he explained why he refused to
fight: "War is evil."
He spent months in underground bomb shelters studying how viruses are transmitted - and shagging nurses in first-aid stations while Nazi bombs fell overhead.
As a result of his research in the bomb shelters, Lovelock ended up inventing the first aerosol disinfectant. A few years later, as a pioneer in the field of cryogenics, he became the first to understand how cellular structures respond to extreme cold, developing a means to freeze and thaw animal sperm - a method still in use today.
But Lovelock's most important invention was the Electron Capture Detector, or ECD. In 1957, working at his kitchen table, Lovelock hacked together a device to measure minute concentrations of pesticides and other gases in the air. The instrument fit into the palm of his hand and was so exquisitely sensitive that if you dumped a bottle of some rare chemical on a blanket in Japan and let it evaporate, the ECD would be able to detect it a week later in England.
The device was eventually redesigned by Hewlett-Packard: If Lovelock had retained the patent, he would have been a rich man.
As it turned out, Lovelock's invention roughly coincided with the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides like DDT.
By the time her book appeared, scientists were already using the ECD to measure pesticide residue in the fat of Antarctic penguins and in the milk of nursing mothers in Finland, giving hard evidence to Carson's claims that chemicals were impacting the environment on a global scale.
A decade later, Lovelock made an even more important discovery. In the late 1960s, while staying at an isolated vacation house in Ireland, he took a random sample of the haze that drifted into the area and found it laced with chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs are man-made compounds used as a refrigerant and as a propellant in aerosol cans - a sure sign of man-made pollution.
If CFCs are in remote Ireland, Lovelock wondered, where else might they be?
Hitching a ride on a research vessel for a six-month voyage to Antarctica, he used a jury-rigged ECD to detect the buildup of CFCs in the atmosphere. But Lovelock failed to grasp the danger that they posed; two other scientists won the Nobel Prize for correctly hypothesizing that CFCs would burn a hole in the stratosphere, allowing dangerous levels of ultraviolet light to reach the Earth.
As a result, CFCs were banned.
If you type "gaia" and "religion" into Google, you'll get 2,360,000 hits - Wiccans, spiritual travelers, massage therapists and sexual healers, all inspired by Lovelock's vision of the planet. Ask him about pagan cults, though, and Lovelock grimaces - he has no interest in soft-headed spirituality or organized religion, especially when it puts human existence above all else. At Oxford, he once stood up and admonished Mother Teresa for urging an audience to take care of the poor and "leave God to take care of the Earth."
As Lovelock explained to her,
Lovelock came up with the Gaia theory during a rough time in his
life. In 1961, he was forty-one and working at a research center in
London. It was a good job, decent pay, plenty of freedom, but he was
bored. He had four kids at home, including John, who was born with a
birth defect that left him brain-damaged. In addition, Lovelock's
mother - cranky, demanding, aged - was driving him nuts. He
smoked, he drank. Today, we'd call it a midlife crisis.
The real excitement was Mars.
Lovelock's colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, struggled to design instruments to test for life on the Martian surface. Lovelock, as usual, took a different approach. Instead of using a probe to dig up soil and look for bacteria, he thought, why not analyze the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere?
If life were present, he reasoned, the organisms would
be obliged to use up raw materials in the atmosphere (such as
oxygen) and dump waste products (like methane), just as life on
Earth does. Even if the materials consumed and discharged were
different, the chemical imbalance would be relatively simple to
detect. Sure enough, when Lovelock and his colleagues finally got an
analysis of Mars, they discovered that the atmosphere was close to
chemical equilibrium - suggesting that there had been no life on
What was modulating the surface temperature of the Earth, keeping it hospitable? Life itself, Lovelock concluded.
When the Earth heats
up, plants draw down levels of carbon dioxide and other
heat-trapping gases; as it cools, the levels of those gases rise,
warming the planet. Thus, the idea of the Earth as super-organism was
When established scientific journals refused to touch his ideas, Lovelock put out a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
Gaia, he added, offers an alternative to the,
Hippies loved it. Darwinists didn't.
Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, dismissed Lovelock's book as "pop-ecology literature." British biologist John Maynard Smith went further, calling Gaia "an evil religion."
In their view, Lovelock's concept flew in the face of evolutionary logic: If the Earth is an organism, and organisms evolve by natural selection, then that implies that somehow the Earth out-competed other planets. How is that possible? They were also troubled by Lovelock's suggestion that life creates the condition for life, which seems to suggest a predetermined purpose.
In the minds of many of his peers, Lovelock was dancing very close
He supported himself in part as a consultant for MI5, England's top counterintelligence agency, where he developed a method to monitor the movements of KGB spies in London by using an ECD to track their vehicles.
To Lovelock, working for the spy agency was the equivalent of writing potboiler novels for a quick paycheck.
Among scientists, Lovelock redeemed himself with a second book, The Ages of Gaia, which offered a more rigorous exploration of the biological and geophysical feedback mechanisms that keep the Earth's atmosphere suitable for life.
Plankton in the oceans, for example, help cool the planet by giving off dimethyl sulfide, a chemical that seeds the formation of clouds, which in turn reflect the sun's heat back into space.
Of course, scientists like Broecker rarely used the word "Gaia."
In other words, Gaia in
a lab coat.
The trees are about forty feet tall now, but rather than feeling "natural," parts of his land have the look of a badly managed forestry project.
Until recently, Lovelock thought that global warming would be just like his half-assed forest - something the planet would correct for. Then, in 2004, Lovelock's friend Richard Betts, a researcher at the Hadley Centre for Climate Change - England's top climate institute - invited him to stop by and talk with the scientists there.
Lovelock went from meeting to meeting, hearing the latest data about melting ice at the poles, shrinking rain forests, the carbon cycle in the oceans.
Equally chilling, he says, was the tone in which the scientists talked about the changes they were witnessing,
As Lovelock was driving home that evening, it hit him. The resiliency of the system was gone. The forgiveness had been used up.
A few weeks
later, he began work on his latest and gloomiest book, The Revenge
of Gaia, which was published in the U.S. in 2006.
But evidence from the real world suggests that the IPCC is far too conservative. For one thing, scientists know from the geological record that 3 million years ago, when temperatures increased to five degrees above today's level, the seas rose not by twenty-three inches but by more than eighty feet.
What's more, recent satellite measurements indicate that Arctic ice is melting so rapidly that the region could be ice-free by 2030.
It's not just ice that throws off the climate models. Cloud physics are notoriously difficult to get right, and feedbacks from the biosphere, such as deforestation and melting tundra, are rarely factored in.
Here, in its oversimplified essence, is Lovelock's doomsday scenario:
In a functioning Gaian world, these positive feedbacks would be
modulated by negative feedbacks, the largest of which is the Earth's
ability to radiate heat into space. But at a certain point, the
regulatory system breaks down and the planet's climate makes the
jump - as it has many times in the past - to a new, hotter state.
Not the end of the world, but certainly the end of the world as we
But let's assume for the moment that Lovelock is right and we are indeed poised above Niagara Falls. Do we just wave as we go over the edge? In Lovelock's view, modest cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions won't help us - it's too late to stop global warming by swapping our SUVs for hybrids.
What about capturing carbon-dioxide pollution from coal plants and pumping it underground?
To Lovelock, the whole idea of sustainable development is wrongheaded:
Retreat, in his view, means it's time to start talking about changing where we live and how we get our food; about making plans for the migration of millions of people from low-lying regions like Bangladesh into Europe; about admitting that New Orleans is a goner and moving the people to cities better positioned for the future.
Most of all, he says, it's about everybody,
Even Lovelock's friends cringe when he talks like this.
Others are justifiably concerned that Lovelock's views will distract from the rising political momentum for tough restrictions on greenhouse-gas pollution.
Broecker, the Columbia paleoclimatologist, calls Lovelock's belief that cutting pollution is futile "dangerous nonsense."
This is not to suggest, however, that Lovelock believes we should just party while the world burns. Quite the opposite.
In his view, we have two choices:
For water, the answer is pretty straightforward: desalination plants, which can turn ocean water into drinking water.
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.
Lovelock argued that we should,
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
However the future turns out, Lovelock is unlikely to be around to see it.
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:
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
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.
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?
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.
Lovelock looks at me with unflinching blue eyes.