Thursday, June 25, 2009

James Lovelock: Gaia


James Lovelock was born in Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, England in 1919. He initially studied Chemistry and then took a PhD in medicine. He claims to have invented, but not patented, the microwave oven and then invented the Electron Capture Detector (ECD) which was able to detect the presence of pollutants in the atmosphere to a very precise level. Lovelock is most famous for his Gaia hypothesis (later the Gaia Theory) that living organisms regulate the conditions in the biosphere to keep it within hospitable limits. He lives and works in a barn in Cornwall. In his later years he has not lost his ability to stir up controversy.


While the invention of the ECD was certainly a huge breakthrough in our ability to analyse our interactions with the environment, Lovelock’s inclusion here as a guru is down to his revolutionary Gaia hypothesis.

The birth of the Gaia hypothesis can be traced back to the 1960s when Lovelock was employed by NASA to develop systems to detect life on Mars. He realised that simply trying to capture a living cell would be too hit and miss, and that looking for evidence of life would be a better bet. Living organisms, he reasoned, required fluids such as water and the atmosphere to bring them food and remove waste products. These fluids would undoubtedly be changed by this interaction, so there was a strong possibility that life could be detected simply by the constituency of the atmosphere (Mars having no water).

When Lovelock studied the atmosphere of the Earth to assess what evidence he could use to detect a planet supporting life, he found that it had many unstable components living in apparent equilibrium. 21% of the air is oxygen, a very reactive gas, which should react with the trace amounts of methane present and with the earth’s minerals. Until this point it had largely been assumed that the Earth’s atmosphere had come about by chance and that living organisms had evolved to thrive in it, but Lovelock threw this assumption on its head. His new hypothesis was that those organisms en masse were responsible for maintaining conditions in the biosphere in a reasonably stable and comfortable condition much in the same way as organisms regulate their internal salinity and temperature - homeostasis. As such the whole Earth could be considered as one living organism.

This may have simply stayed as an obscure scientific hypothesis had Lovelock’s neighbour William Golding (of “Lord of the Flies” fame) not suggested the name “Gaia”, the Greek Goddess of the Earth. This new name and the classic 1979 book “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth” flung the idea into the mainstream, and led to the embracing of the idea by the New Age wing of the environmental movement. This perceived ‘spirituality’ element of the hypothesis led to attacks from the scientific establishment. Lovelock is no hippy and reacted by changing the hypothesis to more of an analogy – like a living organism – and clarifying that it had no aspect of ‘planning’ which would imply a higher intelligence at work. Instead, organisms had evolved and would continue to evolve to maintain hospitable conditions as it was in their best interest. Many biologists still dispute the Gaia hypothesis, but it has been generally embraced by climatologists, including the International Panel on Climate Change, leading it to become known as the Gaia theory.

In the 1979 book, Lovelock despairs at the then obsession of the environmental movement with industrial pollution in general and the effect of CFCs on the ozone layer in particular. He called on them instead to campaign against the destruction of natural habitats for agriculture. While he was right about the latter, he has since had to admit he was wrong about CFCs once the link to ozone depletion was established in 1984. Interestingly it was Lovelock’s own study of CFCs that opened the doors to this discovery.

On man-made climate change, he asserts that Gaia will reset the balance upset by greenhouse gas emissions but over a long timeframe in human terms: in 1979 he quoted ‘perhaps’ 1000 years but in 2006 pronounced that 100,000 years may be the time period required.

In 2004, he caused something of a stir by declaring that nuclear energy would have to be adopted quickly to tackle climate change. This was portrayed in the media as a break from the environmental mainstream, but his endorsement of nuclear and other technologies is clear back in the 1979 book, where he stated that uranium was simply a natural remnant of the forces that created the Earth and should be seen as a natural resource like any other.

Of all the gurus in this series, Lovelock is probably the most revolutionary: always controversial, undoubtedly brilliant and never dull.

© Terra Infirma 2009, all rights reserved

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