By Swati Chopra
An interview with Dr James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory, environmentalist, and independent scientist who practices ‘science with soul’
He (James Lovelock) is to science what Gandhi was to politics. And his central notion that the planet behaves as a living organism is as radical, profound, and far-reaching in its impact as any of Gandhi’s ideas,’ says Fred Pearce in the New Scientist. Indeed, James Lovelock is the pater familias of the global ecological movement that in a way originated in, and is sustained by, his practice of ‘science with soul’.
Dr Lovelock is best known among those interested in holistic science as the propounder of the Gaia theory according to which, the Earth is a self-regulating living organism of which all living and non-living components are an integral part. The implications of Gaia theory are immense, not only for the environmental sciences but for all science and all of us. It demands an attitudinal shift from regarding the Earth as a collection of chemical and physical attributes and processes to looking upon her as a living, breathing entity of which we, humankind, are the nervous system, according to Dr Lovelock. He could not have chosen a name more apt for this theory than Gaia, the ancient Greek earth goddess, actually suggested to him by the famous novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies).
Before he developed Gaia theory, Dr Lovelock had become one of the progenitors of the 20th century’s green movement through his invention of the electron capture detector, which revealed for the first time the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues and other halogen-bearing chemicals in the natural environment. This information enabled Rachel Carson to write her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, often said to have initiated the awareness of environmental disturbance. Further in 1971, Dr Lovelock discovered chlorofluorocarbons distributed throughout the atmosphere, which became the basis for the theory of ozone depletion.
James Lovelock is today an independent scientist, environmen-talist, author and researcher, and lives in Cornwall, UK. He is author of numerous books including Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, (Oxford University Press, 1979); The Ages of Gaia, (W.W. Norton, 1988); Gaia: The practical science of planetary medicine, (Gaia Books, 1991), and his autobiography, Homage to Gaia (2000). Despite being busy with his new book, The Revenge of Gaia, to be published in February 2006, Dr Lovelock found the time to respond to questions about his life, work, Gaia, science and spirituality, over email. Excerpts:
Science’s perspective has been essentially materialistic, and one where the earth has been relegated to the service of humankind. We are now reaping the bitter fruit of this mentality in the form of environmental disasters. To heal the scars of the earth and its environment, the very attitude of science must change. Do you think Gaia theory has helped in this?
Scientists should not be thought of as separate from society they are a part of, and the way they behave is in part conditioned by their interaction with society. Science itself has suffered and benefited during the last two centuries from reductionist thinking. We must not forget that this was imposed upon science by Descartes who was a devout Christian who thought that there must be a separation of the mind from the body. He, and many others since, felt strongly that if science was to be true and advance, such a separation was essential, but they never seem to have considered the price that would have to be paid.
The separation has never been complete between intuitive holistic thinking and reductionism. Theoretical scientists need instruments to measure and provide the data to verify or falsify their theoretical predictions. Instruments are usually made by engineers or by what are called experimental scientists. Engineers welcome intuition and holistic thinking and their satisfaction comes from a well-made artefact that works, not from how it works. I know because I am an inventor. It took me ten years from the invention of the electron capture detector (the instrument whose data helped start the environmental movement) to the development of a theory of how it works. I suppose that one could call engineering, human medicine, and possibly also the practice of Gaia theory, as ‘meta sciences’. None of us would like to be so called because meta science is too much a pejorative.
At first glance, science appears to be split into at least a hundred different specialties, each of them with its own arcane language. These specialists often seem to know no more about the other specialties than a lay person. Small wonder that they are not in communication with the public, unless through a discovery that enters the public domain – such as a cure for cancer, virgin birth or a hydrogen bomb. But these remarks are a reductionist analysis of science and only partly true. Many climate scientists are now amazingly holistic in their thinking, partly from the global nature of their subject, partly from the hands-on nature of their work and their frequent interaction with the public. Those of us who research Gaia are scientists and there is a growing disenchantment in science with the wholly reductionist approach.
That is some of the scientist’s side of the story. On the public side, there are few who ever hear or speak to a scientist and fewer still who understand them. As a consequence the public get their science from media presenters and from talented science writers. It is important to understand that few of these are scientists themselves and often they will be the spokespersons for an unrepresentative part of science. If you ask anyone to name present-day famed scientists, they almost always list science writers like Richard Dawkins, Fred Pearce, John Gribbin, and so on; almost never is a real scientist recalled.
As for whether Gaia theory has changed the attitude of science, I am fairly sure that it has but as part of a slow change that was happening anyway. The keystone of reductionism was knocked out when Werner Heisenberg introduced his Uncertainty Principle and belief in absolute determinism collapsed. This still did not greatly change things because biologists, for example, neither knew nor cared much about physics. Then the mathematical demonstration of chaos and its discovery in all parts of science and walks of life started the demolition in earnest. Gaia in its way is a part of all this.
I suppose my main concern is that science is not made the scapegoat for the awful state of the Earth. Without science, Gaia would never have seen how beautiful a planet she still is. Without science, I could never have brought Gaia theory to practice. We are all of us, in different ways and to different extents, responsible for the demolition of our habitat. I think it began over 100,000 years ago when fire was first used to clear forests by early hunters and gatherers.
According to Gaia theory, the Earth is a self-regulating organism. Do you see the recent spate of natural disasters (the Asian tsunami, the string of hurricanes, increased incidence of earthquakes) as being signs of some sort of self-regulation by Gaia?
Gaia’s goal for self-regulation is always to aim for the best climate and the best chemical composition for the majority of organisms and especially the primary producers. In the ocean the primary converters of sunlight to food are the microscopic algae floating in the top layer; on the land the primary producers are the trees of the forest ecosystems. The preferred temperature for the ocean algae is below 12°C and for the trees below 20°C. The oceans cover nearly 75 per cent of the Earth and not so surprisingly the preferred state of Gaia is in an ice age when the global average temperature is close to 12°C – somewhat cool for trees but good for algae.
Gaia has some difficulty in keeping the temperature low because the sun is always increasing its output of heat and is now 30 per cent hotter than when life began. We are now in a warm period between ice ages, and regulation has failed. It is a bad time for humans to add greenhouse gases to the air and replace the forests with farm land; doing this is taking away from Gaia what remains of her ability to self-regulate. The human disasters of the hot European summer of 2003 and probably the intense hurricanes are a consequence of Gaia’s failure to regulate against the ever-increasing heat. Earthquakes and tsunamis are different and are caused by movements deep in the Earth’s crust unconnected with human action but possibly part of the long-term regulation of the planet. Even so, the loss of life and damage from both earthquakes and tsunamis would be much less if people were part of the natural ecosystems, as they once were.
According to Gaia theory, life changes the Earth according to its own purposes. In a way, this echoes the Buddhist notion of an interconnected reality, where everything exists in relation to and is connected with everything else, nothing is standalone or by itself. Would you agree with this?
According to Gaia theory the surface rocks, the air and the oceans and all of life from bacteria to elephants act together to form a single entity, which is Gaia and whose goal is always to keep the Earth fit for whatever life is on it at the time. When I first thought of this 40 years ago, I wrongly assumed that life was the regulator. I now realise that it is not life alone that regulates the Earth but the whole system made up from the living and non-living parts. The Buddhist philosophical notion of an interconnected reality, where everything exists in relation to and is connected with everything else, would seem to be another name for Gaia.
You have said that, ‘Gaia embraces the intuitive side of science as well as the rational’. How would you define the intuitive aspect of science?
Western philosophy, especially that which has come from post-revolutionary France, has put great value on the power of reason and on a belief separation of mind from body. From this philosophy sprung reductionist science. An excellent critique of atomistic reasoning is in the book of the philosopher, Mary Midgley, called Science and Poetry. To my thinking, the Western faith in rationalism is a false dream. Our real understanding of the world and of life is almost all intuitive, and intuition can rarely be analyzed rationally.
Our unconscious minds are capable of thoughts far deeper than we can consciously understand. Conscious thought is limited like the display screen of a computer. The screen image is limited to two dimensions, but the computer itself can operate on multidimensional concepts and so can our unconscious minds. We can also understand unconsciously emergent phenomena like life, Gaia and consciousness. Consider the impossibility of defining life in rational terms. Yet unconsciously we instantly can tell the difference between a beetle and a stone. We have evolved to recognise life because it is vitally important for our survival to do so. Life is usually edible, lovable or lethal.
One of the oppositions that Gaia theory has faced is from Darwinists who hold ‘survival of the fittest’ as the great evolutionary truth, which Gaia theory turns on its head by proposing that it is not competition but cooperation that sustains Gaia. I think this has profound implications to support the value of goodheartedness and kindness as being paramount in all aspects of life, human and nonhuman. Would you agree?
I wish that I could agree but I cannot. Gaia theory does not turn Darwinism on its head. This rarely happens in science; new theories build on and enrich the older ones. Einstein did not contradict Newton, he added to Newtonian physics. So it is with Gaia. Darwinian evolution was limited to the evolution of living things. Gaia theory is about the evolution of the whole system of life and its material environment. I see the evolution of life by natural selection tightly coupled with the evolution of the rocks, the air and the oceans. Darwin said that the evolutionary process was ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel’. And later this century as Gaia, forced by what we have done to the Earth, moves to a different stable state, those alive will suffer great cruelty. Kindness and cooperation certainly exist but I wonder if they are merely a part of our civilized behavior. As animals we can be amazingly cruel and unkind.
You have said that you don’t know if there is God or not. Must we not declare Gaia the God(dess) of this millennium? Perhaps doing this will channel the energy of religious faith into sustaining the Earth.
Most of us have a need for something or someone transcendental to revere and be our guide. Gaia does seem to be a good candidate for this post especially where the older faiths are no longer followed. Rather than try to push Gaia for this role, I have long thought it better to have the different faiths adopt Gaia as part of their doctrine. Christians, Jews and Muslims could see Gaia as part of God’s creation, something to be worshipped and respected. To an extent Buddhists do this anyway, although not formally.
You seem to suggest that even if civilization as we know it comes to an end, it is not important in the general scheme of Gaia, and that Gaia will ultimately survive even if we don’t. Is Gaia really that resilient? And if humanity perishes, will also not the nervous system of Gaia, which are her eyes and ears according to you?
Gaia is now more than 3.5 billion years old, but may have no more than 0.5 billion years left to live. She is mortal just as we are, and she is now quite elderly and needs to be treated with love and respect. Compared with Gaia, species like ours are transient and still evolving and there have been at least 30 civilizations before the present ones. Civilizations are much more fragile than humans. However bad the coming climate change is for humanity, I am fairly sure that breeding pairs of people will survive. We are a tough animal and will rebuild civilization again; probably around the North Polar basin and in Antarctica. Our greatest virtue in Gaian terms is to bring to her awareness of her existence and place in the universe. Not least to let her see through astronauts’ eyes how very beautiful she is. That we are also one of the more destructive species of her long history is surely part of the selection game.
You have practiced a holistic attitude to science all your life, which you call ‘science with soul’. What are the characteristics of holistic science, and can it become a mainstream movement?
It would be wrong to regard holism as the true or only way of science. Reduction is also important; we would not have discovered the DNA code of life without it. We need intuitive holism for insights and analytical reduction to try to explain our insights, first to ourselves and then to the world. I deplore the all too common bad use of the words ‘holism’ and ‘holistic’ to put fine clothes on the shabby side of New Age thought.
What sort of a lifestyle would you advocate as being best in sync with Gaia?
Like any sensible family, humans have always to adjust their numbers to what Gaia can give and will tolerate. If everyone is to live at the same standard as Japan, Europe or the USA there is room on Earth only for as many as now live on the Indian subcontinent. As I said in my first book on Gaia, ‘There can be no prescription, no set of rules, for living within Gaia. For each of our different actions there are only consequences’.
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