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The Sunday Times February 05, 2006

Interview: Jasper Gerard meets James Lovelock

We’re all doomed, so to hell with wind farms

Off to a Greenpeace rally via the bottle bank in your eco-car, converted to run on organic carrot juice? Don’t bother. Instead, go for a burn-up in a Ferrari, crank up the heating and wait for the end of the world.

This seems to be the message of James Lovelock, celebrated scientist and creator of the Gaia theory that taught us to think of the planet as a living organism. He declares it is too late to save civilisation as we know it, so save yourself. Find a mountain, perhaps on the island of Cornwall, before the floods arrive — London, he tells me, could be under the North Sea within 50 years.

Gulp. Is this some swivel-eyed old boy with a sandwich board assuring us the end of the world is nigh? Nope. Lovelock is one of Britain’s most revered thinkers. Sure, his Gaia theory — named during a Wiltshire walk by Lovelock’s friend William Golding after the Greek goddess of the earth — was considered cranky back in 1979. But it is now the paradigm in which science is done.

It holds that the planet, far from being just a ball of lumpen matter like Mars, is living and self-regulating: a series of connected systems control conditions; crucially including climate. But so badly has man treated his mistress, Gaia, that she can no longer heal herself.

Lovelock says global warming is caused by industry belching out too much carbon dioxide, farming that eats away at forests, and too many damn people who, because of increased wealth, are pumping out more emissions through everything from their cars to their fridges. The great thaw is now so advanced that the sun’s rays are no longer being cooled by the whiteness of the icecaps, as they are melting away.

Lovelock is no eco-nut with personal hygiene issues: he supports nuclear power and once worked for MI5 as “Q” — inventing whizzo gadgets to spy on Ruskies.

So his warning about rising sea levels caused by global warming puts into alarming relief sedate conferences on climate change and George Bush’s aspiration to cut back a teensy-weensy bit on Middle East oil. Lovelock’s intervention has been described as a “wake-up call”, but could be termed a “thank you and good-night call”.

“It is much too late for insulating your house and all that,” says Lovelock. “Fifty years ago it would have helped. What we need now is sustainable retreat.” As he concedes, it is a “gloomy” prognosis from an otherwise cheery man, born working-class in Brixton but now pottering about a converted Devon mill.

Yet in 20 years he predicts fuel will grow so short it will be rationed. “It will be like world war two,” he says, eyes twinkling. He remembers. He looks puckishly in the pink, chomping on fruit cake baked by his much younger American wife Sandy, but Lovelock knows he is also running out of time: he is 86.

As for London: “There was a three-year period the Thames barrier wasn’t used at all, but in a recent year it went up 24 times. Why isn’t government planning to rehouse people? London is sinking anyway, so global warming is lethal.”

Flooding, caused by the melting of the ice caps, will wipe out entire countries, he contends. Only the more northerly countries will survive. Luckily, this includes chunks of Britain. Then, he suggests, we will have to form nothing less than a new civilisation based not on the creation of wealth but the preservation of the earth. He ends his latest book, The Revenge of Gaia (published by Allen Lane), proposing a manual for human survivors of the coming apocalypse, telling them how to start again, with fewer people leading simpler lives. Meanwhile, as it would be “hubris” to imagine we can save the planet, he reckons it is “natural to think ‘let’s make hay while it lasts’”.

Unlike science-bores, Lovelock talks in the vivid lingo of the science fictionalist: “The Arctic basin,” he declares, “will be home to the desirable real estate.” You suspect he enjoys these little bons mots. By then the Arctic will not quite be St Lucia, but it will be pleasant in an austere sort of way; much of the Third World, by contrast, will be too hot to support human life. So grave is the crisis that he seeks radical solutions.

But his former friends, the greens, are horrified by his call to renew our ageing nuclear reactors — although he insists a few big turnips in the green lobby “privately agree but have told me they couldn’t possibly say it publicly”. His reasoning? There is simply no time to mess around developing alternative energy.

Nuclear opponents, he believes, deliberately confuse civil and military nuclear programmes. “I know how scary it was. I was working in Houston (for Nasa) during the Cuban missile crisis and we were a prime target.”

As a socialist who grew to admire Margaret Thatcher, he is exasperated by David Cameron’s flirtation with Zac Goldsmith and his trendy turquoise tendency. “What is happening to the Conservative party?” he smiles. “I hope Zac Goldsmith looks at things a little more open-mindedly.” Pointedly he adds: “I will remain independent. Once you become an adviser, I don’t say you are corrupt, but you have loyalties not just to your beliefs but to the group.”

But Lovelock’s own thesis is not without difficulties. He chirpily predicts the earth is on a road to “hell”, but still grumbles about plans for a wind farm that might tarnish his view. “Why wreck the countryside with wind turbines when they are not going to do any good?” he argues. If we will be drowned in rising waters, does the desecration of his view really matter? But his argument about the uselessness of wind turbines is compelling: they only work 25% of the time — when it is blowy — and cannot store energy.

He also has a good dig at bio-fuel — popular with Goldsmith and co — arguing farmland, as much as emissions, causes global warming. Still, there are graver apparent contradictions in Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Twenty-five years ago he warned that the world could be on the brink of a new ice age, now he tells us it is burning up. Might he change his mind again in another 25 years? “I won’t be around in 25 years.”

He justifies his U-turn on the ice age front by saying the world is in an “unstable state” as Gaia’s thermostat can’t cope. “It is like when one has a fever. It can cool off, or it can flip upwards so high you die.” The world has been pretty toasty before and supported life; need heat be disastrous? “In Gaian terms, no, it is part of the game.” But a game in which the players — us — will be toast. “If you look at it more deeply, it is terrible for the earth, too: if it loses us, its first organised intelligence, well . . . It was through our eyes that she was, for the first time, able to see her beauty.”

This is the language that has scientists spluttering into their test tubes — and has Lovelock’s new age fans puffing on their joints. “All scientists haven’t accepted is the name. William Golding offers them a beautiful word and they call it ‘earth system science’.”

But Gaia, it transpires, should only be seen as a “metaphor”. “The world is not sentient except through us,” Lovelock clarifies. If he had made that clear, perhaps scientists would not have been so outraged, though as he says: “Science always uses metaphor: the ‘selfish gene’ was a lovely metaphor.” So does he feel vindicated? “You can’t help feeling that. Though I would have liked it 20 years ago when I was in the centre of the battle.”

Not that the battle to prove carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming is won entirely. President Bush is equivocal on the causes of global warming — he has not pledged to use less oil, just less Arab oil.

“You never know with politicians what they are really saying. And I don’t say that in a negative way — they have an appalling job,” Lovelock says of Bush’s comments last week. Rather than blame the president he puts it down to the culture of American science and its “stifling cronyism” that holds back young scientists. “It takes an awful lot to shift a paradigm there, whereas we,” he laughs, “are an argumentative lot.”

As someone who has worked in America, he says the problem is their sense of splendid isolation, but Hurricane Katrina could shake them out of that. Lovelock says he is just waiting for President Bush or his successor to say “We can get the technology, we can fix the planet”.

But by then it won’t work. “Or if it does work, it will create even more problems.” He gives the example of the European Union’s aerosol ban which, he contends, actually increases global warming because some aerosol particles provide protection from the sun. “Europe criticises America, but its policy on sustainable development is lots of greedy snouts in the subsidy trough. It’s a scam.” As for Tony Blair: “He hints he wants to go nuclear but is he just making noises? I fear he will decide opposition within his cabinet is too strong. It’s full of old CND marchers like Margaret Beckett.”

If we must forget sustainable development and think sustainable retreat, how can we tell that to the Third World, where people, far from enjoying the last post- industrial fag, are still starving? Lovelock concedes all governments are in a bind: “China will soon emit more greenhouse gases than America, but its regime knows if it caps aspirations there will be a revolution.”

Lovelock seems blown in different directions: part extreme end-is-nigh ecologist, part capitalist economist. He says he is a scientist before he is a green, which makes his theology technology: mobiles and computers, for instance, have been a green boon as they cut transport.

Small and sprightly, he leaps from his chair, smile beaming, to show me his gadgets. “This kicked off the environmental revolution,” he says, pointing to a small black box. “It found the first CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) emission.” He went freelance 40 years ago, inventing whizzo kit for a living. “I knew if I worked for a university they would have said, ‘Look here, Lovelock, you have to drop this research. It is giving us a bad name ’.”

Gadgetry led him, via his friend Lord Rothschild, to design spy gizmos for MI5. One of his inventions worked like a sniffer dog “only better”. He is distraught MI5 is, apparently, closing the lab. “Civil servants just don’t see the value.” Sad, really, when MI6 seems to have had such fun with that clever rock in Moscow.

“As you can see,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “I have had a wonderful life.” The question that has me scratching my head all the way back from Devon is: will we? Not if Lovelock’s global prophecies come to pass.