More than 30 years ago, James Lovelock proposed "the Gaia theory," which posits that Earth is a self-regulating organism, with life forms that manage the planet's chemical composition to sustain their own existence. This idea, together with his support for action against climate change, made him a darling of the environmental movement.
Today, though, the 94-year-old scientist and inventor is something of a contrarian, earning enemies for his support of nuclear power, his opposition to wind turbines and solar panels, and his disdain for "greens."
His new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, introduces a new theory – that the invention of the Newcomen steam engine in 1712 triggered a phase of "accelerated evolution" – but also settles old scores.
You're regarded as an early alarm-ringer on climate change, but you've since said that some of your predictions, specifically in The Revenge of Gaia, were a bit alarmist. What's your stance now?
Not just me, but scientists generally were in a state of alarm round about the turn of the 21st century.
We were carried away by the connection between the composition of the ice cores of Antarctica and the climate going back right through time, perhaps as long as a million years ago. It showed there was almost a direct, linear connection between the amount of carbon dioxide in the air and the average global temperature – and made all of us feel that, at long last, we could predict the future with a fair degree of confidence.
But we now live in a world which is quite different. Not only is carbon dioxide in the air, but aerosols, all sorts of things. The surface reflectivity is changing. Crop patterns change.
So we're no longer in a position to say that just because carbon dioxide rises by such and such an extent, therefore the temperature will rise likewise.
So you still regard climate change as a threat, you're just not sure to what degree of a threat it is.
Exactly. Or when it will be a real problem.
You also write that we shouldn't feel guilty about causing climate change because we didn't realize the effects that burning fossil fuels would have. But we've known for at least several decades. Don't you think we have to hold those responsible to account?
But who is responsible for it? I see all of us as responsible for it. I know it's fashionable to blame big business, the oil companies, coal companies and so on. … But it's you, me and everyone else who drives their cars to work, who burn fuel to keep warm in the winter. We're all in this, and most of the things we're doing, we have to do. We have no options.
But isn't there's a different kind of responsibility for those who directly profit off the continued use of fossil fuels?
I think this is more of a political argument than a scientific one, and I'm not at all happy with politics of any kind – above all, I don't like accusations of guilt. I think they're very suspicious.
Your portraits of environmentalists are pretty unflattering. What do you see as your relationship with the movement today?
Now greens are mainly urban, and their knowledge of the countryside and feeling for it is almost zero, and they imagine you can cover all the fields with solar panels and therefore you'll get your electricity without contaminating the atmosphere. I think this is very poor thinking.
You've become controversial for speaking out against some forms of renewable energy and for supporting nuclear power. How do you respond when environmentalists accuse you of advocating dangerous solutions?
I think nearly all of the arguments against nuclear energy are just false and highly political.
I would even wonder if they're corrupted in some way or another by rival energy producers, like coal or oil companies. I long for some investigative journalist to find out where all the anti-nuclear money comes from.
I asked representatives of the nuclear industry why they didn't have full-page advertisements about the safety of nuclear energy, because they have good evidence for it. And they said, "We'd love to, but we are really only a cottage industry and we don't have the money."
But there was a time when nuclear power was being used more, and it still is in places like France.
That's right, and then enormous propaganda began to downgrade it. I wouldn't say it was intentional at first, but things like The China Syndrome had an enormous influence. And then, lo and behold, a short time afterwards there was the real Three Mile Island accident. But what an accident! Nobody was killed. Nobody was even injured.
People were killed in Chernobyl. There were actual radiation-related illnesses and deaths.
But the actual number of deaths in Chernobyl was not all that high. It was about 75 total. [Estimates vary wildly about actual death rates.]
And all the nonsense about remote damage by radiation spread all over Europe has been proven to be totally untrue.
There was a recent bit of evidence that's quite fascinating: In the hottest parts of Chernobyl, the old reactor that they haven't been able to get near enough to examine, birds are nesting – and they've found that they are radiation-resistant. Evolution has taken care of the nuclear problem.
There has been evidence of adverse effects from radiation among birds, though, such as higher frequencies of tumours and abnormalities.
Chernobyl was a horrible thing, no doubt about that.
But it's a question of how you compare: What's the risk of powering your nation by nuclear power, compared with coal or oil? I think the case in favour of nuclear is enormously strong.
In your book, you also argue that banning DDT was a mistake, leading to millions of deaths from malaria.
The guy that introduced the use of DDT to kill pests was actually awarded a Nobel Prize. And then along comes Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the story is reversed and DDT went from saviour to devil.
In his blog post on your book, though, British environmentalist George Monbiot says that in fact DDT was only banned for agricultural use.
That's right. It's a fairly complex situation. I brought it up in my book mainly as an illustration of the way there is, how can I put it, loose thinking about whether a substance is good or bad.
We seem to have forgotten Paracelsus's suggestion that the poison is the dose.
You can have a lot of radiation and it'll kill you, but a small amount will do nothing.
Mr. Monbiot also questions your sources on DDT – that, as you say, malaria deaths increased as a result of the insecticide ban.
The source was a United Nations agency, I've forgotten which. One of them published quite a fair bit of. ... You can look it up in Wikipedia, which is what I did.
This interview has been edited and condensed.