Nuclear Pollution

Farewell James Lovelock, the green icon who turned his back on modern environmentalism

The death of James Lovelock on his 103rd birthday brings to an end one of the most original lives this planet has seen. He never wasted a moment on conventional thinking. His secret? I suspect it was his avoidance of being an employee for almost all his life. Although a Companion of Honor and a fellow of the Royal Society, he was never part of the establishment.

In 2010 he expressed this mindset with characteristic verve: “Science, pre-1960s, was largely vocational. Back when I was young, I didn’t want to do anything other than be a scientist. They’re not like that nowadays. They go to these mass-produced universities. They say: ‘Science is a good career. You can get a job for life doing government work.’ That’s no way to do science.”

As a result, he never made much money despite inventing a machine of global importance, the electron capture device, which allows people to detect the faintest traces of rare chemicals, vital in the fight against pollution. He died quietly in a small cottage on Chesil Beach, cared for by his wife Sandy. A heart attack in his fifties could not stop him, nor could an adder bite when he was 100, but his life faded out this week.

It was in 1972 that he put forward his Gaia theory, that the earth is like an organism, its living creatures adjusting its physical conditions to suit themselves in an almost mystical way. Taken literally, this is clearly not true: the earth does not have a parent or children, let alone a brain. But Lovelock gradually won over skeptics like me to the less mystical notion that ecology is not just a reaction to the physical world but also influences it in ways that moderate the effects.

Here’s my favorite example of a Gaian idea. At the height of ice ages, carbon dioxide levels drop very low, we now know – cold seas absorb it from the air. This means plants disappear from dry or high areas of continents, unable to feed off the air. Huge deserts generate vast dust storms. These darken the ice caps of the northern hemisphere and when a burst of warming is caused by orbital changes, the darkening accelerates as the ice melts and brings together years of dust. This leads to a collapse of the ice caps, a warming of the world and an increase in carbon dioxide released from the ocean, causing a flourishing of plants again.

Mr. Lovelock’s goddess Gaia is a hero to extreme greens. So it was with shock that they learned that he disagreed with a lot of green stuff. He said The Guardian in 2016 that trying to heat your home with biomass was expensive and dirty, fracking for shale gas made sense, nuclear power was essential, and computer models of the climate were not reliable. And of the green movement, he said: “Well, it’s a religion. It’s totally unscientific.”

He went on: “I’m afraid the thing gets exaggerated out of all proportion, and the greens have behaved deplorably instead of being reasonably sensible.”

He then went on to tell his startled interviewer that by the end of this century, robots will have taken over and they will have a rather different view of planetary affairs. He gave a splendid answer to a question about what the robots will think about climate change: “They could accommodate infinitely greater climate change than we can. It’s what the world can stand that is the important thing. They’re going to have a safe platform to live in, so they don’t want Gaia messed about too much.”

We have lost a unique and truly independent mind.


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