Gaia

James Lovelock died four days ago, on his 103rd birthday.

On that day, July 26th, 2022, temperatures in southern Spain were over the one hundred mark—I know, I was there. By all accounts, it’s already been an extraordinary summer in the northern hemisphere, with temperature records broken in a number of countries, including the U.K.

Few people have heard of Lovelock, and those in the scientific world who know of him mostly regard him as a maverick—largely because of the Gaia theory, the concept that our planet is a self-regulating entity. Our earth is not a sentient being, and as such cannot knowingly regulate itself, but it is a fact that the biosphere reacts to change and acts to redress the balance, rather than tipping the system into a tragic spiral.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory doesn’t have space for mother earth to be some kind of guide, promoting actions in response to human or natural aggressions—Lovelock was pounded by the likes of Richard Dawkins, a brilliant but irascible researcher.

Lovelock was an extremely clever man—one of the fathers of gas chromatography, a technique used to detect very small amounts of substances—that’s important for two reasons: it pays to detect problems early, and in some cases, even a small amount can cause a lot of harm.

He was a tinkerer, an inventor—the best inventors require only two qualities: a vivid imagination and lots of junk. One of his devices, the Electron Capture Detector, or ECD, detected chlorofluorocarbons in the Antarctic stratosphere—from there came the science on the holes in the ozone layer and their consequences for increased ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer.

CFCs are the most potent greenhouse gases of all, ten thousand times more efficient than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere—Lovelock’s device and his CFC discovery led to the 1987 Montreal protocol—without it, climate change would be considerably worse.

This great man conformed to the tradition of previous centuries, when brilliant scientists struggled to make a living, sometimes as advisers of nobility or by turning their hand to smaller matters. These were men who moved comfortably from physics to biology, from mathematics to medicine—Lovelock too investigated a wide range of topics, ranging from industrial toxins to life on Mars.

James Lovelock was one of the first to speak about climate change, its causes, and its consequences.

In 2011, he said in an interview:

My main reason for not relaxing into contented retirement is that like most of you I am deeply concerned about the probability of massively harmful climate change and the need to do something about it now.

We’re now in 2022—eleven years have flown by, not much has been done, the climate change prophet is no longer with us…

…and it’s getting toasty.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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