Festival of Ideas: James Lovelock interview


St George’s welcomed James Lovelock as part of this year’s Festival of Ideas, the burgeoning season of lectures and talks covering topics as far-ranging as contemporary cinema, urbanisation and monetary reform.

Lovelock is a seminal thinker, whose once-ridiculed theories of Gaia and a self-regulating planet have now been absorbed into mainstream environmental thought. Essentially, the theory proposes that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings in order to form a complex ecological system that maintains the conditions for life on Earth. Gaia has, in his words, ‘kept the planet fit for life’.

Introduced by the night’s interviewer,  John Gray, himself an eminent political philosopher, as having ‘transformed the way we think of ourselves and our relationship with the planet’, Lovelock mainly covers his latest work, covering human response to climate change and the future evolution of our species.

On climate change, Lovelock dryly suggest that Western nations are ‘losing their cool’, fiddling about with renewable energy and such like, when in fact there is ‘almost nothing we can do’ to halt a shift in climate that could take thousands of years to settle back to what we once knew. What is more, we should not necessarily see climate change as a disastrous process. Without warming, we would likely be facing the far-worse scenario of mass glaciation and another ice age.

There is so much uncertainty surrounding climate science that we would do well to avoid the gloom-mongering and instead focus on how we can thrive in on a warmer planet. Lovelock’s latest thinking covers ‘intensive city living’, much like Singapore. The Asian city-state prospers with an average annual temperature 12.5C higher than global average. The rest of the world needs to learn to cope with a rise of 6C, the current worst-case scenario put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The second theme Lovelock introduces is that of future human evolution. It is natural for us to think of ourselves as the ultimate being, the endpoint of species evolution. However, we are merely a stepping stone in the grand scheme, and our species, like the early hominids, will be ‘lost somewhere in the future.’ The first real ‘breakthrough’ species were the photosynthesisers, organisms capable of transforming sunlight into oxygen for life on planet Earth. Humans were the next breakthrough, capable as we are of ‘harvesting information.’

Lovelock is a big fan of science fiction, and runs through the idea that computers may be the next evolutionary step. After all, they tend to double in capacity every year or so. However, Lovelock claims that computers miss one key function needed to take over: irrationality. For all our self-promotion as ultimate rational beings, it is in fact our irrationality that has allowed us to make leaps forward in terms of technology and more. Lovelock made his money as an inventor, and states that ‘humans are inventors as much as rationalists.’

Considering his Gaia past, Lovelock is used to garnering controversy, and his thoughts will not always win fans among environmentalists. He is critical of ‘Green religion’, and supports ‘sustainable retreat’ (embracing high-tech to diminish the human footprint). However, his ideas are always worth listening to and considering carefully, and at the age of 94 it is remarkable that he remains an incredibly important figure in environmentalism and futurism.

A full recording of the event will be available through the Festival of Ideas

Conal Dougan