Godfather of Green
There aren't many people who, at the age of 97, are as open minded or as contrarian as James Lovelock. The Englishman is most famous for developing the Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s, suggesting that the earth is one living breathing organism.
Lovelock now spends his days in Devon, quietly working, as he puts it as “a loner and an odd ball.” Lovelock spurred an environmental revolution long before Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore came along, first earning the scorn of biologists for his theory, then the love of hippies and environmentalists. Today his predictions for the planet are dire, and more relevant than ever, but we find out that’s the last thing he’s worried about.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your earlier years at the beginning of your career?
I began working for the Medical Research Council in the early stages of World War II. One of problems I worked on was attending to the thousands of people that were exposed to hazardous pathogens in air raid shelters, such as the underground tube stations in London. We were scared that something like the influenza epidemic of World War 1 (that killed more people than the war did) might start under the very tight conditions of life inside those shelters. It was so bad that in one shelter near London Bridge the oxygen in the air fell to about 13%. You can still breathe it, but you can’t light a match. That caused an amazing amount of complaints because people couldn’t smoke their fags.
I worked at that institute from 1941 right the way through until 1961, 20 years continuously. But there was a different problem every day.
Was that a very fertile period for you in terms of developing ideas?
It was. To give you some idea of what kind of institute it was, it was in north London and it wasn’t very big by modern standards. But it was the place where Crick and Watson discovered DNA and RNA. I debased myself a bit by being almost the only scientist in the corridor that I worked in who didn’t get a Nobel Prize.
Why didn’t you win a Nobel Prize for the electron capture detector? It was clearly revolutionary.
I often see myself as like some guy who can run a mile in three minutes. But there’s no use in just being able to do it, you have to do it under official conditions on a proper track. It’s the same in science. If you’re an odd ball and a loner, who doesn’t play by the rules, you can’t expect to get recognised. So I don’t complain. That’s just one of the facts of life.
Photo of James Lovelock in his laboratory at Coombe Mill (1970s)
I read that you were coerced into transferring the patent of the electron capture detector to the US surgeon general while you were at university. Is it true that you gave away the patent?
I didn’t give it away, I was threatened. They said that if I didn’t sign the document then they would stop all grant funds to the Yale University medical department. That would have been disastrous and would have given me an awful reputation as the guy who stopped all the medical research. Of course it was a bit bureaucratically unpleasant for the US government to do that. I hadn’t even invented it at Yale, I’d invented it when I was in England. But it was a different ethos. In Britain we didn’t patent anything that was medical. We felt it was for everyone’s benefit and shouldn’t be patented, but the Americans patented everything they could.
So your greatest work was given away and there was no reward for you.
Well that’s how others see it but that was not how I understood it. For a start I don’t think it was my greatest contribution, I think my view of the earth as a single living organism is my greatest contribution. The Gaia notion. The thing is. . . I’ve never been hungry, and I’ve always had enough money to live on and support my family. I’ve led a happy and pleasant life with lots of friends. So I’m not particularly bothered about being rewarded. It may seem odd, or you may think I’m not telling the truth, but I am. We live in a tiny house with only four rooms and we don’t expect anything. We’re happy.
"He regarded Gaia as a Copernican idea."
William Hamilton [Richard Dawkins' mentor] on Gaia
So the electron capture detector allows you to detect certain gases in our atmosphere but it was also used in the Viking Lander programme to test for life on Mars in the 70s. So the instrument that should tell us if there’s life on Mars is the same instrument that tells us our earth is uninhabitable.
Yes, the ECD is associated with life. The things it detects mostly are the important things in living organisms, from bacteria to elephants, but also the things that are poisonous to us. Those are the two things it detects which makes it a very interesting device. If it had been sensitive to everything then all the ordinary things around would have blinded it, but it only sees the important things for life, and it sees them very clearly.
So in 1961 you got a call from NASA to come work for them, is that correct?
That’s right, I got a letter form the director of space flight operations, which was quite something for me because as a kid I’d always read science fiction. To get a letter from NASA, which was only three years old itself, asking if I’d join in their lunar and Mars explorations, it was unbelievable.
The reason that NASA called really was because I’d invented the ECD. When you’re sending something with a lot of instruments on it to a place like Mars, millions of miles away, whatever you send has to be very light. You can’t send a great big laboratory because there weren’t any rockets powerful enough to get it there. You needed tiny things. What I’d invented was a device that was not only more sensitive than any other detector in existence but that also only weighed a few grams. It was just the kind of thing they needed and that’s why they chose me in particular.
Early model of the electron motion detector
You’re known for being an independent scientist. What was the scientific environment like at that time? Was it easier in those days to work on your own?
No, I don’t think it’s ever very easy to work on your own. It’s just that I’m an odd ball person. I’m a bit of a loner and I like working on my own. I regarded the time I was at the MRC as an apprenticeship, twenty years of learning how to do things by myself. We had to tackle problems from every branch of science, from astronomy to zoology, and I published papers in most of them. You couldn’t have a better apprenticeship for going off to work on your own.
You went on to hypothesize the Gaia theory, which as you just said, is your greatest work. Some biologists have spoken out against this theory but from outside the scientific world it makes so much sense that the Earth is almost like the human body, a living organism that we inhabit, that is living and breathing.
It makes sense to me. I think the problem really is organisational. Universities have everything under separate headings, physicists, chemists, biologists and so on. They don’t stop at that, they start splitting those up into geo-chemists and physical chemists and a whole range of things. They have bio-geo-chemists now. From an organisation point of view it’s wonderful, but from their perspective a theory like Gaia that says, hey it’s all really only one subject, that’s the worst possible idea as far as they’re concerned.
I think it’s all rather wonderful when you think about it. There are all of us here, and we’re very sensitive to small changes, and yet the whole system has kept itself alive for four billion years.
Put simply, the Gaia theory is that everything on the earth, all the molecules in the air and the ocean and on the surface of the land, all the living things and all the dead things, the whole darn lot, are co-operating together. The only exception is the lower part of the earth, below about 100 kilometres deep.
One analogy is a tree like the giant redwood trees in California that are about 300 feet high. They are about 99 percent dead, all the middle of the tree is just dead wood. There’s just a thin skin of living tissue around the outside and it’s the same with the earth. The thin skin around the outside is Gaia, and it regulates itself just as all living things do.
So when humans as a species arrived on the scene we obviously accelerated change dramatically and contributed to the destruction of the environment, but changes were happening already and will continue after us. Is that right?
That’s right. I think people have got it all wrong when they talk about doom and gloom. You can’t make something beautiful without making a mess. Imagine a sculptor with a great big block of raw marble. He or she chips away at it with a chisel and hammer, and over time it will become the most beautiful statue. So beautiful you want to reach out and touch it. Yet surrounding the sculptor is pollution, all the bits he’s chipped off, a great big mess. We can’t build a beautiful city without making a bloody mess at the same time, but over the course of time the whole system learns how to get rid of it. What tends to happen is that all sorts of things evolve to clean up the mess. That’s how the real world is.
If you go to a field and see a cow shitting all over the grass, you don’t look at that as pollution. There are all sorts of things that see that as food, including the grass itself. The whole system works itself out, but it takes time and we haven’t had enough time on the planet for anything like that to evolve. I don’t think we shall have time either because things are moving so fast now that I won’t be surprised if in 100 years’ time artificial intelligence is running the whole planet and displacing us. They may keep us as pets, but I wouldn’t in their position.
Images from his latest book, The Earth and I
Do you think we’re too egocentric to see the world clearly?
I think so. An awful lot of our thought comes from the big religions, and we can’t get away from that in a way. We tend to think in terms of guilt and punishment and so on, instead of looking at things in a more neutral way and realising that it’s just the way that things go.
You’re incredibly progressive for someone –
Someone who is 97? Yes.
But humans have had an adverse effect on the earth, so of course we feel very much morally responsible to all the problems we’ve created. What’s your view on the human species in the short time that we’ve been here?
I don’t think we could have behaved any differently. The key thing was the first steam engine that was commercially successful. Once it was made people were queuing up to get it, and firms were setting up plants to make them and so on. Once that happened we were in the world we’re in now.
At what point did we really start to take the environmental issue seriously? Was it when we started to see a hole in the ozone layer and when you created the electron motion detector?
Oh no, long before that. I’m old enough to remember the London smogs. They were quite unbelievable. The air quality was so bad that you quite literally couldn’t see your feet. I remember standing on a railway station in London and I couldn’t see where the platform ended and where the train was coming into. It was a very dangerous situation but people put up with that. It gradually got better, but pollution then became invisible and started to kill people without them noticing it.
Something that’s been said about you is that you blundered into the field but in the end you became its saviour.
I suppose in a way that’s true. I didn’t go out looking to find the problem with pollution. I’m an inventor as much as a scientist and what turns me on is if someone comes up to me and says, “I wish you could invent something that would do this or that.” That lights me up and then I go and try to answer their puzzle, and quite often succeed. That’s what drives me really. Certainly I don’t have any desires to make the world better, because nobody has asked me to.
"I think Elon Musk is crazy. We have a beautiful planet here on Earth. Why would you want to go and make Mars habitable?"
You say you don’t have a desire to make the world better, but you have in many ways.
I think all of us do, if we’re not too much of a nuisance. We can’t help it. But the rate of evolution is so rapid now that things are getting out of or hands. You know about Moore’s law don’t you, that the number of transistors have doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented. If you can do sums in your head you realise that in 100 years that’s getting astronomical. So by the end of the century, if that kind of thing continues, things will be right out of our hands altogether.
I agree with you that there’s been a rapid rise in technological innovation and it seems that we’re hurtling towards some sort of technological utopia, or dystopia.
Looking at it from the Gaia point of view it’s simpler than that. The overriding thing that effects evolution is the sun. Without the sun and without photosynthesis we wouldn’t be here talking about it. The sun produces the energy and plants turn it into oxygen and food, and that keeps the whole show going, and has done for 4 billion years. What is happening that people don’t talk about much is that the sun has a pollution problem too. As it burns it produces ash, and the ash is helium, and the consequence of building up a lot of pollution in the atmosphere of the sun is that it gets hotter. It’s getting hotter at an increasing rate. In fact I wrote a paper in 1980 roughly saying that the biosphere, if it wanted to stay just the same as it was, couldn’t last more than 100 million years. That’s a long time from a human pint of view but biologically its nothing. There’s no reason to take back what we said then. Of course evolution will allow us to adapt to the sun growing hotter but there’s a limit. You can’t run the planet with biology on it above about 50 Celsius. So once you reach that point life is finished. But anyway long before that artificial intelligence will have taken over.
What are the main issues right now in terms of climate change that the pubic don’t necessarily understand?
I think people don’t take enough notice of the fact that there’s an awful lot of us on the planet and there’s a false assumption that there will always be enough food. There’s a limit to the amount of food that can be grown. There’s even a limit to the amount that can be synthesized because unless we really get our act together I can’t see us having unlimited energy to produce food chemically. I don’t think it matters though because the rate at which AI is developing it will take over before the end of this century.
There are so many problems with our environment and our planet. Is it not possible that we can use our growing mastery of technology to solve a lot of those issues?
It might be able to solve problems for itself. What you’re asking is, can it solve it or humans? And would it want to?
James Lovelock in conversation with fellow environmentalist Vivenne Westwood
What do you think?
I think it wouldn’t. Like all living systems it would want to look after itself first. And that would be right. AI devices are on the verge of taking over as alive themselves. Once they do that they’re not going to be interested in helping us. They want to help themselves. As far as Gaia is concerned, she doesn’t give a damn whether it’s us running things or them.
One of the main criticisms of your Gaia theory originally came from Richard Dawkins.
Oh yes, there’s no problem from him now. His mentor, the man who got him thinking about the selfish gene and all that, was a man called William Hamilton. He was a true genius if ever there was one and he was against Gaia in the beginning. But when we came to talk about it he swung right around and gave me the biggest compliment of the lot by saying that he regarded Gaia as a Copernican idea.
And does Richard Dawkins now shares that same opinion?
I think so because in the speech Richard Dawkins gave at the funeral of Bill Hamilton, he said one of the last things Hamilton was working on was understanding Gaia.
What is one of the main pieces of definitive evidence that supports the Gaia theory?
The one to put in your mind is that anything that can exist for more than 4 billion years on this planet, and is varying all the time, must be pretty tough. It needs explaining and the only way in which you can explain it is that it’s working to keep the earth system habitable. That’s the main objective of Gaia, to keep the earth habitable.
I know you’re a big advocate of nuclear power. We talked with Hans Blix and he argues, as you do, that nuclear provides the highest safe source of energy. But a lot of countries are dismantling their nuclear reactors. How do we get over that?
We don’t. It’s happening everywhere and its pure fear. I think the big mistake was using nuclear weapons. That was a ghastly mistake and I think there’s a big feeling of guilt, and feelings that we didn’t ought to have done it. So they put the brakes on nuclear generally, but there’s no sense to it. It’s just another way of getting energy. After all, think of it, the whole universe runs on nuclear energy. The sun up there is one giant fusion reactor and when you stand in front of it on a clear day for too long your likely to get cancer. So you don’t do it.
Do you think the Paris agreement will help, with set regulations that we need to get to by 2020? Do you think these things make any difference?
No I don’t, I think that people just go on doing what they want to do. It takes a long time to turn people around from burning carbon fuel to running on solar, or nuclear or whatever. We’ll do it in the end but it’s a slow process. Anyway AI is developing so fast that we’re not going to be able to work it out. If AI didn’t exist then we would solve the energy problem long before the end of the century and all would be well, but because AI is developing so rapidly I think this is going to be the main problem.
You think AI is a bigger problem than the environmental problem?
JAMES LOVELOCK AND HIS DAUGHTER COLLECTING AIR SAMPLES IN SOUTH WEST IRELAND, 1970
Would you agree that environmentalists are in some ways their own worst enemies? They want to help the world but they won’t allow nuclear energy to be an option.
That’s right, I think they’re being silly. But then religion has always been like this as well. There was its good side, like wanting to clear up sin (whatever that was) and it had its bad side, which was stopping progress.
Why hasn’t the environmental movement managed to make some kind of monumental change? Is there something fundamental that just hasn’t worked?
It’s not meetings that do things, it’s the acts of individuals.
We just moved past 400 parts per million (PPM) of Co2 in the atmosphere. Would you agree that we’re in some pretty unchartered territory?
No, the earth has had more Co2 in it than it does at present, but it was a long time ago. You have to go back about 55 million years to what was called the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). At that time something happened very much like what we’re doing now. A lot of molten lava came up from underground into a huge oil reservoir somewhere near where Norway is now. It boiled the whole blasted lot of it up into the atmosphere and set fire to it presumably, and that raised the Co2 right up to a huge level. The Arctic Ocean was so warm that crocodiles lived in it. You can find their skeletons in the fossil records. But there was no great extinction, there was no great dip in the number of species of any kind, it was just that stuff was distributed around more. The tropics were everywhere, that’s the best way to look at it.
"I won’t be surprised if in 100 years’ time artificial intelligence is running the whole planet and displacing us."
But what I’m saying is that with the 400 PPM of Co2 in the atmosphere there is imminent danger. Are there any predictions you would commit to? You said a while back that in 30 – 40 years people will be able to take a sail boat to the poles.
That may well still be the case but that won’t be our main problem then. As I keep saying, our main problem is going to be the AI one.
It’s fascinating to hear you talk about the AI issue. It’s not something I would have expected from you. What do you think of someone like Elon Musk who is making a very concerted effort to leave Earth and build the first habitat on Mars?
I think Elon Musk is crazy. We have a beautiful planet here on Earth. Why would you want to go and make Mars habitable? Antarctica is enormously more habitable than Mars, but who would want to go and live there?
Speaking of celebrities, what do you think of people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore who put their weight behind environmental issues?
I wouldn’t really like to comment. Let’s assume that they’re doing it because it’s something they genuinely care about, and good luck to them. But I don’t think it’s sensible to do it via politics. I don’t think that works.