Darwin’s Heir – The Island

By Gwynne Dyer

Jim Lovelock was a latecomer. His first book, “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth”, was published in 1979, when he was already 60 years old. When he died last Thursday at his 103rd birthday, he had written 10 more books on “Gaia,” the hypothesis that has become the key academic discipline of Earth system science.

This gives him a strong claim to be Charles Darwin’s rightful heir. Just like Darwin’s 19eThe last century’s theory of evolution has shaped our understanding of how life has become so diverse, our understanding of the present is shaped by Lovelock’s idea that the millions of living species function as a mechanism of self-regulation that keeps the planet cool enough for abundant life.

The conundrum that started Lovelock on this path was the fact that solar radiation has increased by 30% since life first appeared on Earth 3.7 billion years ago, while the planet’s average temperature , despite occasional huge increases or decreases, has consistently come back cramped. range most suitable for life.

What made this happen?

Together with American biologist Lynn Margulis, in the 1970s he developed a tentative description of the superorganism he named “Gaia” and wrote his first book. Most scientists treated him with disdain because he was not a biologist, but also because ‘Gaia’ had ‘New-Age’ connotations that he was unaware of. (Jim was not a hippie.)

By 1988, however, the scientific world was beginning to take the theory seriously. In 2001, a special congress of more than 1,000 physicists, biologists and climatologists declared that the planet “behaves as a single self-regulating system, composed of physical, chemical, biological and human components”.

“Gaia” (by the more dignified name of Earth System Science) had achieved the status of scientific orthodoxy. Meanwhile, Lovelock had been granted honorary environment saint status by the Greens, although he viewed most of their priorities as mere distractions and some, such as their hostility to nuclear power, as potential blunders. deadly.

Jim Lovelock’s direct predictions of global climate catastrophe were once considered exaggerated, but he understood what was really happening. In his first book, in 1979, he gave a warning that I can still quote verbatim 43 years later.

“The greater the proportion of the earth’s biomass occupied by humanity and the animals and crops needed to feed us, the more involved we become in the transfer of solar and other energy through the whole system…We we will have to exercise caution to avoid the cyber disasters of uncontrollable positive feedback or sustained oscillation….

“If…man had intruded on Gaia’s functional powers to such an extent that he disabled her, then he would wake up one day to find he had the permanent job of a planetary maintenance engineer. ..and the complex and unceasing task of keeping all world cycles in balance would be ours.

“Finally, we should ride this strange craft, ‘Spaceship Earth’, and whatever remains of the tamed, domesticated biosphere would indeed be our ‘life support system’…. (We would be faced with) the final choice of permanent slavery on the carcass prison of spaceship Earth, or gigamort to enable survivors to restore a Gaian world.

Apocalyptic but precise, and yet he never despaired. I didn’t meet him for the first time until 20 years after this book, but every time I went down to Devon to see him, his natural cheerfulness kept breaking through his professional pessimism. Finally, I asked him the question.

He replied, “Why do I oscillate between being cheerful and being pessimistic? My role, really, my main job, is to be a prophet, and that’s the only way to make prophecies. You have to build scenarios in your mind: it could go this way or it could go this way, and only then can you get a more balanced picture of what the future could be.

“The behavior of the Earth itself is sufficiently uncertain, but the behavior of people is the greatest uncertainty of all. I mean, we could be well on our way to solving all of these problems, and then some dumb, silly war or a pandemic breaks out and it all takes our minds off it. We are the joker of the peloton.

We are not on track to fix all these problems, of course. We are off the right track, as Jim well knew, but he gave us the vital context for a self-regulating Gaian system. Without it, we wouldn’t even know where to start trying to undo the damage we’ve caused.

He was also a brilliant inventor: his “electron capture detector” confirmed the existence of the ozone hole and made him financially independent. He had a side business as an actual Q, a gadget maker for MI5. But above all he was a warm, gentle man with a mischievous sense of humor. It was a privilege to know him.

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