Washington Post, September 2, 2006
End of Eden
James Lovelock Says This
Time We've Pushed the Earth Too Far
ST. GILES-ON-THE-HEATH, England -- Through
a deep and tangled wood lies a glade so
lovely and wet and lush as to call to
mind a hobbit's sanctuary. A lichen-covered
statue rises in a garden of native grasses,
and a misting rain drips off a slate roof.
At the yard's edge a plump muskrat waddles
into the brush.
A lean, white-haired gentleman in a blue
wool sweater and khakis beckons you inside
his whitewashed cottage. We sit beside
a stone hearth as his wife, Sandy, an
elegant blonde, sets out scones and tea.
James Lovelock fixes his mind's eye on
what's to come.
"It's going too fast," he says
softly. "We will burn."
Why is that?
"Our global furnace is out of control.
By 2020, 2025, you will be able to sail
a sailboat to the North Pole. The Amazon
will become a desert, and the forests
of Siberia will burn and release more
methane and plagues will return."
Sulfurous musings are not Lovelock's characteristic
style; he's no Book of Revelation apocalyptic.
In his 88th year, he remains one of the
world's most inventive scientists, an
Englishman of humor and erudition, with
an oenophile's taste for delicious controversy.
Four decades ago, his discovery that ozone-destroying
chemicals were piling up in the atmosphere
started the world's governments down a
path toward repair. Not long after that,
Lovelock proposed the theory known as
Gaia, which holds that Earth acts like
a living organism, a self-regulating system
balanced to allow life to flourish.
Biologists dismissed this as heresy, running
counter to Darwin's theory of evolution.
Today one could reasonably argue that
Gaia theory has transformed scientific
understanding of the Earth.
Now Lovelock has turned his attention to
global warming, writing "The Revenge
of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the
Fate of Humanity." Already a big
seller in the United Kingdom, the book
was released in the United States last
month. (He will speak in Washington, at
the Carnegie Institution, Friday at 7
p.m.) Lovelock's conclusion is straightforward.
To wit, we are poached.
He measured atmospheric gases and ocean
temperatures, and examined forests tropical
and arboreal (last year a forest the size
of Italy burned in rapidly heating Siberia,
releasing from the permafrost a vast sink
of methane, which contributes to global
warming). He found Gaia trapped in a vicious
cycle of positive-feedback loops -- from
air to water, everything is getting warmer
at once. The nature of Earth's biosphere
is that, under pressure from industrialization,
it resists such heating, and then it resists
Then, he says, it adjusts.
Within the next decade or two, Lovelock
forecasts, Gaia will hike her thermostat
by at least 10 degrees. Earth, he predicts,
will be hotter than at any time since
the Eocene Age 55 million years ago, when
crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean.
"There's no realization of how quickly
and irreversibly the planet is changing,"
Lovelock says. "Maybe 200 million
people will migrate close to the Arctic
and survive this. Even if we took extraordinary
steps, it would take the world 1,000 years
Such dire talk no doubt occasions much rolling
of eyes in polite circles, particularly
among scientists in the United States,
that last redoubt of global-warming skeptics.
Lovelock's so intemperat e, and more than
a few of his peers distrust his preference
for elegant nouns and verbs served with
no crusting of jargon. His grim predictions
tend to be twinned in the press with those
of the skeptics, each treated as a radical
diversion -- purveyors of "climate
porn," an English think-tank called
them recently -- from a moderate mean.
Lovelock's radical view of global warming
doesn't sit well with David Archer, a
scientist at the University of Chicago
and a frequent contributor to the Web
site RealClimate, which accepts the reality
of global warning.
"No one, not Lovelock or anyone else,
has proposed a specific quantitative scenario
for a climate-driven, blow the doors off,
civilization ending catastrophe,"
The headline on Archer's essay, which is
in fact respectful of Lovelock's science,
calls the Englishman a "renegade
earth scientist." It's a curious
Lovelock works independently on various
biochemistry projects, in a lab in an
old barn behind his farmhouse in Devon.
He often quarrels with the scientific
establishment, which he sees as crippled
by clubby orthodoxy. (Nor does he hesitate
to tweak environmentalists -- Lovelock
is a passionate backer of nuclear power
as a carbon-clean palliative for global
warming.) But it's difficult to see Lovelock,
an inventor with 50 patents to his name,
a fellow in the Royal Society -- England's
scientific society -- as a Gaian bandito.
What's perhaps as intriguing are the top
scientists who decline to dismiss Lovelock's
warning. Lovelock may be an outlier, but
he's not drifting far from shore. Sir
David King, science adviser to Prime Minister
Tony Blair, saluted Lovelock's book and
proclaimed global warming a far more serious
threat than terrorism. Sir Brian Heap,
a Cambridge University biologist and past
foreign secretary of the Royal Society,
says Lovelock's views are tightly argued,
if perhaps too gloomy.
Then you dial up Paul Ehrlich, the eminent
Stanford University biologist, at his
cottage in the mountains of Colorado,
where he's been meeting with other scientists.
Three decades ago Ehrlich wrote "The
Population Bomb," a best-selling
jeremiad in which he warned that the Earth's
population was expanding much too fast.
Disaster did not arrive precisely as Ehrlich
foretold, and he was treated as a doomsayer
debunked. Maybe Ehrlich just was too early
to the party.
Today Ehrlich sees global warming and population
growth, with its attendant pressures on
natural resources and demand for oil and
gas, as menaces dancing in tango step.
"Technically speaking, most scientists
I know are scared [expletive]," Ehrlich
says. "Lovelock and I are doomsayers
because I'm afraid we see doom."
"Like the Norns in Wagner's Der Ring
des Niebelungen, we are at the end of
our tether, and the rope, whose weave
defines our fate, is about to break."
You read such lines in "The Revenge
of Gaia" and ask this wiry Jeremiah:
Why so gloomy? Lovelock grins, his face
a web of smile lines, and demurs: No,
no, no. You have him all wrong. He started
a family in the darkness of the London
Blitz -- he has nine grandchildren, whom
he loves, and a country of which he's
"I'm an optimist," he says. "I
think that after the warming sets in and
the survivors have settled in near the
Arctic, they will find a way to adjust.
It will be a tough life enlivened by excitement
That still sounds a tad short of good cheer.
Lovelock and Sandy, whom he married after
the death of his first wife, take afternoon
walks in Devonshire, and he quotes Shakespeare
on the joy of finding oxlip by a stream.
Lovelock finds too much delight in the
mysteries of the universe to call himself
an atheist. But he remains at heart a
biochemist, a rigorous empiricist who
refuses to shrink from the reality of
Lovelock grew up in working-class London.
He could not afford Oxford or Cambridge
and so attended at night. During World
War II Lovelock walked sentry duty with
professors on the roof of the lab. They
watched the twinkling lights of German
V-1 missiles draw close.
"A missile would veer off and explode
and the professors would feel an immediate
need to impart their wisdom." Lovelock
chuckles. "It was like a graduate
course. Terrible to say, but war makes
us more alive."
Lovelock was a prodigy, earning degrees
in chemistry and medicine. In the 1950s
he designed an electron capture machine,
which provided environmentalist Rachel
Carson with the data to prove that pesticides
infected everything from penguins to mother's
milk. Later he took a detector on a ship
to Antarctica and proved that man-made
chemicals -- CFCs -- were burning a hole
in the ozone.
"Gaia, shmaia," says Ehrlich,
the Stanford biologist, who has been critical
of Lovelock's latest theory. "If
Lovelock hadn't discovered the erosion
of the ozone, we'd all be living under
the ocean in snorkels and fins to escape
that poisonous sun."
In 1961 Lovelock worked with NASA. The space
agency wanted to design a lander to search
for life on Mars. That, Lovelock thought,
was silly. What if a lander set down in
the wrong spot? What if Martian life wasn't
Lovelock took a conceptual leap. If Mars
bore life, bacteria would be obliged to
use oxygen to breathe and to deposit their
wastes as methane. Lovelock found that
Earth's atmosphere contained massive quantities
of oxygen and methane, gases that are
the very signature of life. Mars's atmosphere
was thick with carbon dioxide, the calling
card of a dead planet.
That discovery changed his life. He came
to see Earth as a self-regulating biosphere.
The sun has warmed by 25 percent since
life appeared, so Earth produced more
algae and forests to absorb carbon dioxide,
ensuring roughly constant temperatures.
In 1969, Lovelock lacked only a name for
his theory. He took a walk with novelist
A big concept needs a big name, Golding
said. Call it Gaia.
Gaia proved controversial, and not just
because the name made New Age priestesses
go weak in the knees. ("Gaia's not
'alive' and I'm afraid I'm not a very
good guru," Lovelock notes dryly.)
Biologists nearly choked -- they argued
that organisms cannot possibly act in
concert, as that would imply foresight.
Lovelock recalls being denounced at a conference
The intolerance gave him a pain. Lovelock
said that the world's biomass can act
without being "conscious." "The
neo-Darwinists are just like the very
religious," Lovelock says. "They
spend all their time defending silly doctrine."
Forty years later, talk of an interconnected
planetary system is the lingua franca
of Earth science. The queen has handed
Lovelock a prize, Oxford has invited him
to teach, and his small forest lab had
more government contracts than he could
handle. (In his lab, the octogenarian
scientist follows few safety protocols
save the dictates of self-preservation.
"I can kill only myself; it's a splendid
freedom," he says.)
But friends say he's restless.
"Maybe Jim thinks the world has gotten
too comfortable with his theory,"
says Lee Kump, a prominent geologist at
Penn State. "He sees Gaia treating
us as a body does an infection -- it's
trying to burn us out."
"The meltdown of Greenland's ice sheet
is speeding up, satellite measurements
-- BBC, 2006
"Dr. Deborah Clark from the University
of Missouri, one of the world's top forest
ecologists, says the research shows that
'the lock has broken' on the Amazon ecosystem.
She adds: The Amazon is 'headed in a terrible
-- CNN, 2006
How will our splendid Spaceship Earth so
quickly become the oven of our doom? As
we sit at his table in Devon, Lovelock
expands on his vision.
It begins with the melting of ice and snow.
As the Arctic grows bare -- the Greenland
ice cap is shrinking far faster than had
been expected -- dark ground emerges and
absorbs heat. That melts more snow and
softens peat bogs, which release methane.
As oceans warm, algae are dying and so
absorbing less heat-causing carbon dioxide.
To the south, drought already is drying
out the great tropical forests of the
Amazon. "The forests will melt away
just like the snow," Lovelock says.
Even the northern forests, those dark cool
beauties of pines and firs, suffer. They
absorb heat and shelter bears, lynxes
and wolves through harsh winters. But
recent studies show the boreal forests
are drying and dying and inducing more
Casting 30, 40 years into the future, Lovelock
sees sub-Saharan lands becoming uninhabitable.
India runs out of water, Bangladesh drowns,
China eyes a Siberian land grab, and local
warlords fight bloody wars over water
Lovelock sees the look on your face and
"Look, this is why it's a gloomy book,"
he says. "Would you care for some
The mind reels off objections. Doesn't this
amount to a great piling up of what-ifs
and could-bes? "The Day After Tomorrow,"
"On the Beach," Helen Caldicott,
Nostradamus, a thousand tipping-point
predictions of doom fade into the mists
of human history. We humans are clever.
We'll send a space shade into outer space
to deflect sunlight (as a couple of California
professors have proposed)?
Lovelock nods, weary; he's heard this before.
"We like to think of Hurricane Katrina,
or a killer heat wave in Europe, as a
one-off," he says. "Or we like
to think that we'll come up with a technological
Lovelock reminds you that the Mayan seers,
to name another maligned bunch of doomsayers,
were spot on. Their great civilization
died of an environmental apocalypse. He's
not romanced by the primitive. Across
the world, from the American Indians to
the aborigines of Australia to European
hunters, research is suggesting that native
peoples played a key role in the burning
of forests and the extinction of thousands
of species. Today the environmentally
conscious seek salvation in solar cells,
recycling and ten thousand wind turbines.
"It won't matter a damn," Lovelock
says. "They make the mistake of thinking
we have decades. We don't."
Lovelock favors genetically modified crops,
which require less water, and nuclear
energy. Only the atom can produce enough
electrical power to persuade industrialized
nations to abandon burning fossil fuels.
France draws 70 percent of its power from
But what of Three Mile Island? Chernobyl?
Lovelock's shaking his head before you
complete the litany. How many people died,
he asks. A few hundred? The radiation
exclusion zone around Chernobyl is the
lushest and most diverse zone of flora
and fauna in Eurasia.
Sir Brian Heap accepts this. But he worries
that South Asia and Africa are about to
suffer the terrible consequences of First
World excesses. What of our responsibility
to them? "The poor aren't our problem,"
Heap says. "We're their problem."
Lovelock acknowledges the moral conundrum.
But he sees no we-are-the-world solutions.
The heat waves that kill millions, the
powerful typhoons, the droughts that suffocate
cities, will force a retreat to nationalism.
After a couple of hours, you wonder about
his own good cheer. His internal combustion
engine shows few signs of flagging; he
wakes up 5:30 a.m. and reads, writes and
tramps through the countryside. The studiously
polite Lovelock seems a touch annoyed
only at the suggestion he's frivolous
about what the future holds.
"People say, 'Well, you're 87, you
won't live to see this,' " he says.
"I have children, I have grandchildren,
I wish none of this. But it's our fate;
we need to recognize it's another wartime.
We desperately need a Moses to take us
to the Arctic and preserve civilization.
"It's too late to turn back."
New York Bureau Chief