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Paul Vallely: Don’t dismiss Lovelock’s prophecies

09 August 2019

The maverick scientist has been proved right before, says Paul Vallely


An RAF chinook flies in bags of aggregate to help shore up the damaged dam

An RAF chinook flies in bags of aggregate to help shore up the damaged dam

THERE has been something horribly symbolic about the crumbling dam above the Pennine town of Whaley Bridge, which all week threatened to send a devastating flood down upon the human habitation below. For a looming presence environmental disaster, of catastrophic proportions, seems to threaten us all.

We may already be too late to avert the irreversible global warming that appears to be causing the extreme weather volatility that has so strained the Whaley Bridge dam, an analyst in the Financial Times suggested.

The largest-ever offshore wind farm opened in the United States last month. Yet even if we opened a similar project every day for the next 30 years, the expert adjudged, that might not be enough. The planet may now have already reached the trigger point at which the earth’s atmospheric feedback loops trip from a virtuous circle, which keeps the world cool, to a vicious one, which amplifies and accelerates overheating. Investment may now need to switch from prevention, the analyst said, to finding ways to adapt to irrevocable change.

Ironically enough, this all coincided with the 100th birthday of the maverick visionary scientist Dr James Lovelock. He first came up with the idea that the earth was a single complex self-regulating organism he named Gaia, which constantly adjusted itself to sustain the conditions for life — until humans interfered with it by spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

To celebrate his centenary, Dr Lovelock published a new book, Novacene (Allen Lane), which predicts that, by 2100, about 80 per cent of humans will be wiped out by climate change. The remaining few will live in the temperate clime of the North Pole, where they will be kept alive by hyper-intelligent self-replicating Artificial Intelligence cyborgs, who will be able to think 10,000 times faster than us, and will by then have replaced us.

Doubtless, some will dismiss this as a dystopian fantasy, much as they rejected Gaia as unscientific. But Dr Lovelock has an interesting track record. As long ago as 1965, he told a group of Shell executives that, by the year 2000, climate change would be their biggest problem. In 2008, he said that there was nothing we could do about it: recycling and green lifestyles were a waste of time — we should have turned to nuclear energy. In 2014, he said that we would just have to move to more habitable bits of the Earth. Now, he seems to have given up on us entirely, and has turned his attention to devices to shoot down meteors before they can smash disastrously into the earth.

“I’m a cheerful person, and I don’t like the idea we’re going to be wiped out,” he said in a centenary video. “It seems such a waste, after all this time, doing all these things, all for nothing.”

Dr Lovelock, who was described by The Guardian on his birthday as “a combination of environmental Cassandra and Old Testament prophet”, sees a parable in the story of Adam and Eve, “punished for their knowledge with expulsion from the garden”. Humankind has been a chosen species: developed through natural selection, creating intelligent life, and then snuffing ourselves out.

All we can do is hope that the dam does not break — and keep pumping the water.

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