The deification of Earth

The persistence of the notion that ‘Gaia’ is a living organism with its own interests exposes the mystical, anti-human streak in environmentalism.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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This article is republished from the April 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The king of televised natural history, David Attenborough, announced last week that he has become a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), an organisation campaigning for ‘stabilisation and gradual population decrease globally and in the UK’. The argument of the OPT and other greens is that there are simply too many people wanting too lavish a lifestyle for the planet to cope. A warming, polluted planet will lead to starvation and disease – if the collapse in oil supplies doesn’t get us first.

The solution to this epidemic of people, we are told, is a drastic cut in the human population. According to Attenborough, announcing his new role, ‘I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more’. Another elder statesman, and one of the leading and most explicit proponents of the idea that the world is overpopulated, has been James Lovelock, creator of the ‘Gaia hypothesis’. Back in 1974, in his first book on the subject, Gaia, Lovelock wrote cheerfully: ‘Assuming the present per capita use of energy, we can guess that at less than 10,000million we should still be in a Gaian world. But somewhere beyond this figure, especially if the consumption of energy increases, lies the final choice of permanent enslavement on the prison hulk of the spaceship Earth, or gigadeath to enable the survivors to restore a Gaian world.’

In his new book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, Lovelock declares that Paul and Anne Ehrlich – authors of The Population Bomb 40 years ago – ‘tended to exaggerate, but their insight about the dangers of overpopulation was right’. Lovelock seems even less optimistic about our prospects: ‘The Earth, in its but not our interests, may be forced to a hot epoch, one where it can survive, although in a diminished and less habitable state. If, as is likely, this happens, we will have been the cause… too many people, their pets and their livestock – more than the Earth can carry.’

There is more to Lovelock’s book than such apocalyptic alarm-ringing. He is an intelligent man who developed highly sensitive scientific instruments for NASA, and he’s a free thinker who could be selectively quoted to provide succour to an enormous range of views, from the failings of climate science to the benefits of nuclear power. But his writings also throw up the possibility of a world in which Nature is placed before humanity, with irrational and reactionary consequences.

Lovelock’s argument, first mentioned in print in an academic paper in 1968, is that understanding our planet in a rather unconnected way as a set of geological, physical, chemical or biological processes is unsatisfactory. For Lovelock, the Earth is a self-regulating, living system. He was initially struck by just how precisely the Earth’s atmosphere suited the maintenance of life compared with that of Mars, and concluded that this could not have simply been some geophysical accident; he argued that a web of complex feedbacks helped to ensure that the proportions of different gases were closely maintained. From this starting point, he started to speculate as to how the combined effect of plants, animals, rocks, seas and so on could influence and sustain an environment conducive to life.

Lovelock is far from alone in identifying the weaknesses of science that simply deals with discrete and fixed layers of understanding rather than seeing how different elements operate holistically to create new phenomena. As Fredrick Engels noted in 1878, while Enlightenment science had undertaken the vital task of analysing the structures and components of nature, true science could not emerge without seeing things in motion:

‘The analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organised bodies in their manifold forms – these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life.’

Lovelock’s Gaia thesis is an interesting one, attempting to grapple with how the Earth functions as a total system to produce an environment conducive to life – not just human life, but all living things. But the name is downright off-putting to most scientists. As Lovelock notes, he simply felt that ‘Earth System Science’ or ‘Geophysiology’ were too dull as labels for his new idea. It was Lovelock’s friend, Lord of the Flies author William Golding, who suggested the name Gaia, after the Greek goddess who represented the Earth and brought forth order from chaos. Unfortunately, Gaia seems synonymous with ‘Mother Earth’, a reading which is amply reinforced by Lovelock’s insistence on using the feminine pronoun in relation to the planet and, metaphorically he claims, reading characteristics into his system that imply some kind of emergent intelligence – for example, ‘her interests’.

Lovelock is certainly in no doubt that the Earth is alive, though he is not really sure what that means. ‘Why do you keep on talking about the Earth as alive? This is a good question, and there is no rational answer; indeed to some of my friends my suggestion that the whole planet is alive is not “scientifically incorrect”, it is absurd. In reply, I say that science has not yet formulated a full definition of life.’

True enough – there are many things that blur the difference between living and not-living. A virus, for example, contains genetic matter and can evolve through natural selection, yet because it relies on the internal workings of a host cell to reproduce, it is generally not considered to be ‘alive’. However, when ‘life’ means anything that is one step up from a dumb replicator like a virus, it is plausible that some definition of life could be cobbled together that would qualify the Earth as alive.

So what? I have no regard for the welfare of most non-human living things (my cat is a noble exception). Even if the Earth were to meet some internationally agreed, dumbed-down definition of life, it would recognise that the Earth is alive in much the same way that bathroom mould is alive. That’s a very different thing from suggesting that we should care about the Earth for its own sake rather than for human interest. It is the idea that the Earth has interests, which it can pursue, consciously or blindly, that is really objectionable. Yet this is the way in which the notion of Gaia is presented and widely interpreted.

In this respect, Gaia is mysticism, pure and simple, an anti-human concept that really suggests that our existence is no more worthy than that of any other living thing. In fact, human beings are exceptional, not because some supreme being or holy book says that we are, but because the reality of human history and society, and our mutual, enlightened self-interest, indicates that this is so. It makes perfect sense to be concerned about environmental matters if they threaten human welfare. But it makes no sense to put the wellbeing of any other species, let alone a mythical earth-intelligence, above that of people.

At times, Lovelock seems to deify the planet; it existed before us, will exist after us, and won’t have any qualms about chewing us up and spitting us out if we don’t start behaving ourselves. ‘The real Earth does not need saving. It can, will and always has saved itself and it is now starting to do so by changing to a state much less favourable to us and other animals.’ Foolishly, we think we can take over Gaia’s role of regulating the planet, but in reality, says Lovelock, ‘we are merely one of the partner species in the great enterprise of Gaia. We are creatures of Darwinian evolution, a transient species with a limited lifespan… Do we really believe that we humans, wholly untrained as we are, have the intelligence or capacity to manage the Earth?’ For now, he argues, all we can do is survive as best we can until we evolve into something more useful for the purposes of Gaia.

Since this is our Final Warning, Lovelock comes up with some fairly unconventional thinking for someone who is a hero of the green movement. He’s passionately in favour of nuclear power, which could ‘see us through the troubled times ahead when the climate changes and there are shortages of food and fuel and major demographic changes’; we should ‘welcome nuclear energy as the one good and reliable power source’. He demolishes concerns about nuclear waste and potential accidents. He despairs that the anti-war campaigns of the past have led to the situation where ‘no political party in the UK has the courage fully to endorse nuclear energy as the greenest, cheapest, safest and most secure source of electricity’.

Lovelock also rightly sticks his eco-guru boot into the reliance on modelling in climate forecasting. ‘Gradually the world of science has evolved to the dangerous point where model-building has precedence over observation and measurement, especially in Earth and life sciences. In certain ways, modelling by scientists has become a threat to the foundation on which science has stood: the acceptance that nature is always the final arbiter and that a hypothesis must always be tested by experiment and observation in the real world.’ Admittedly, Lovelock’s criticism is really directed at the failure to appreciate fully the complexity of Gaia – but his verdict on those who conduct science in the virtual world rather than the real one is valid nonetheless.

Yet while he has no truck with some of the totems of the green movement, he ends up taking his criticism in an utterly anti-democratic direction. What is required, he suggests, is smart, clear-thinking people to sort out the mess. Like Attenborough and others have done in the past, he falls back on the experience of the Second World War. ‘[W]hat if at some time in the next few years we realised as we did in 1939 that democracy had temporarily to be suspended and we had to accept a disciplined regime that saw the UK as a legitimate but limited safe haven for civilisation?’ He continues: ‘Orderly survival requires an unusual degree of human understanding and leadership and may require, as in war, the suspension of democratic government for the duration of the survival emergency.’ He then gently suggests that his old mate, former diplomat and academic Sir Crispin Tickell, might be just the kind of stand-up fellow to reprise the role of Churchill.

Here Lovelock reveals his frustration with the hassle of persuading the masses to sign up to the kind of action that he and his chums claim is necessary. In this respect, he doesn’t seem too keen on the current lot of environmental campaigners and politicians: ‘The green lobbies and political parties owe their existence to the unending flow of good stories about environmental disasters.’ For a man who writes books that are a ‘final warning’ and contemplate ‘gigadeath’, it seems a little rich to be irritated when greens spread scare stories about the things he wants to promote, like nuclear power.

Lovelock is 90 years old this year – and most people’s great-grandfathers are a mix of interesting experiences and wacky views. What is really worrying, though, is the uncritical adulation that he receives for his books in many quarters, despite – or, more likely, because of – his shrivelled view of humanity and his take-it-or-leave-it approach to democracy. Far too many people in high places and the media share Lovelock’s view that only smart people like them should be running things, while the rest of us should do as we are told, trying our best not to leave too big a footprint on the face of Gaia.

The managerial, technocratic nature of government we’ve faced in recent years, in our end-of-politics era, is bad enough already. Yet in interviews and reviews, Lovelock’s views on democracy are, at best, ignored in the general reverence he is accorded; at worst, they are quietly agreed with. In some ways, Lovelock should be applauded for his honesty: at least his dim view of political accountability is explicit and can be disputed. Many others who share that outlook are only too happy to employ notions like ‘the good of the planet’ to push through green ideas in the offices of Whitehall and Brussels, far from the madding crowd. Maybe it is the exposing of the authoritarian impulse of green politics that is Lovelock’s real Final Warning.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, by James Lovelock, is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the April 2009 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.


To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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