British scientist James Lovelock is one of those people whose brilliant insights have single-handedly shaped our way of thinking about the world. He's emerged as a kind of Einstein of biology, developing a highly plausible theory that the interaction between living things and the physical Earth makes our planet so hospitable to life. He dubbed this idea Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess, and in a clever stroke of genius married modern science with the view of the ancients that there really is a Mother Earth.
- The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, by James Lovelock, Penguin Books, $34, 178 pages
Lovelock first began thinking that the planet resembles a living entity in the 1960s, while working for a NASA project on how to detect life on Mars. While other scientists suggested elaborate tests involving space probes to check for microbes in Martian soil, Lovelock said to save the rocket fuel, we didn't even need to bother going there. Life, he theorized, would leave its telltale signature in a planet's atmosphere. There would be chemicals or elements that shouldn't be there but for the existence of something unusual, like living things. Anyone looking at the Earth from afar could tell right away that it had to harbour life because its atmosphere is loaded with oxygen, a gas so chemically reactive it shouldn't exist at all in any quantity.
The thin atmosphere on Mars didn't have anything untoward in it, according to Lovelock, who correctly, as it turned out, predicted the planet would be just as dead as the Moon.
These days, the octogenarian Lovelock is making another bold - and scary - prediction, this time about humankind's future. He's worried that global warming - a term he eschews and calls global heating instead - is going to amount to a planetary disaster. He thinks that after the cataclysm, there could be only a billion and perhaps as few as 100 million of us left, compared to 6.8 billion currently.
What is more, he thinks it's too late to dodge the looming disaster because our releases of carbon dioxide have been so massive that climate upheaval is all but baked into the pie. In the time remaining before the climate blowout, he contends that the few countries likely to escape relatively unscathed, Canada among them, should figure out how cope with the millions of environmental refugees that will wash up on their shores from the soon-to-be scorched areas of the world.
In the past few years, there has been a rash of ecological mayhem books that place humans and the world in imminent peril. Disaster themes come and go as a fad in books. But Lovelock's writing, given his stature and impeccable scientific credentials, is worth paying close attention to.
Lovelock isn't a newcomer to worries over global warming, which he began expressing in the 1980s, once again presciently as it turned out, years before the topic gained the prominence it has now. In this book, Lovelock contends that mainstream scientists from the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have the future wrong in predicting slow, steady warming over the next century.
Based on his idea that the Earth operates as an interactive, living system, Lovelock predicts climate will alter abruptly, over the course of a few years, taking average temperature up to a new steady state about 4 to 5 degrees warmer. While the increase may not seem like much, it's about the same amount of warming that accompanied the end of the last Ice Age, suggesting we're in store for a great upheaval.
Given his views, Lovelock might be considered a hero among environmentalists. But he's too much of an independent thinker to be totally embraced by them. For instance, he says we should love nukes, contending they are a far better alternative than wind power, an industrial blight threatening the rural landscape he loves.
There are some difficulties with the book - its figures on the amount of land needed for wind farms are far off the mark. And a full understand of why his arguments have more validity than those of the average doomsayer requires knowledge of his previous books, the best of which is Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
Still, Lovelock's newest views provide something worrisome to ponder, and they come from a scientific prophet with an uncanny track record.
Martin Mittelstaedt is the Globe and Mail's environment reporter.