Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas

Gaia and the City

Urban solutions to overpopulation: James Lovelock in conversation with Crispin Tickell.

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One of the most famous names in environmentalism, James Lovelock is the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, which sees the biosphere is a self-regulating entity. He is less well known as the inventor of both the microwave oven and the electron capture device. Here, he sits down with diplomat, academic and environmentalist Crispin Tickell to discuss the lone scientist, the “population problem” and why we shouldn’t try to air condition the whole of the Earth.

 

Crispin Tickell: I would argue that the work you’ve done in the past has been that of a lone scientist, and we all agree that lone scientists don’t operate in a void. Maybe you can say something about that?

James Lovelock: That's a good one to start with, yes. Lone scientists are not very usual. In America they're considered very dangerous and people walk on the other side of the street if you come down.

I was born in Letchworth Garden City, which I think was one of the first garden cities in the world. I'd been dumped there by my mother, who was a feminist, and I was brought up by my grandparents. I had to find my own way around, which becomes a way of life after a while.

I was very lucky in science. The first job I got, because my parents were quite poor and I had no way to go to university whatever, was as a lab technician to a firm of consultants. I think it was the luckiest event of my life. I learned more from them working in London than I ever could have been taught at any university.

The first thing that I learned, which most scientists are not taught nowadays as students, is how important it is to do your work well and produce the right answer, and the accurate answer, and to regard everything that you do seriously.

So the hands-on experience I got from these consultants stood me in good stead all my life. I really regarded any fudging or cheating in science as almost a sin against the Holy Ghost. This is something that loners have, I think, because many come from that sort of background.

Consider Michael Faraday, for example. He was an apprentice to a bookseller. He was almost innumerate and yet he became one of our greatest scientists, and was in many ways was the founder, intuitively, of electromagnetic theory, which of course led to James Clerk Maxwell, and to Einstein. And he didn't have any sort of education in modern terms. People like that were my heroes, and not surprisingly I finished off as a lone scientist.

But in between, in World War II, I was very lucky to be sent to the National Institute for Medical Research in London. I remember being interviewed by the director then, who happened to be President of the Royal Society, Sir Henry Dale. He said, "My boy, dismiss from your mind all thoughts that you're going to do any science here. It's wartime now and there's nothing but ad hoc jobs. You've got to find the answer, preferably yesterday."

I was a bit bemused by this at first; it was not what I expected. But I rapidly found that it was far better than anything I'd dreamt of. There were endless problems on almost every subject under the sun, and quite literally, if you could find the answer by yesterday, that was better than next week. So, it went on. It was such a lovely place to work, and I stayed with him until I reached the age of 40.

It was a peculiar form of civil service. We were responsible to no administration, but only to the monarch. So, it was a privy council, which meant that there was no interference with what we were doing, political or otherwise, and it set up an atmosphere which I think should be taken as an example in science. The Medical Research Council, during those years up until about 1940, acquired as many Nobel prizes as France did. Which is pretty impressive when you really think about it. And how many scientific government departments nowadays even vaguely approach that thing? So, I feel something went wrong somewhere.

I could see, by the time I reached 40 – you know that famous saying, life begins at 40 – looking ahead at my own future that there were tramlines of complete security. I felt that I had to go on my own. And then out of the blue came a letter from NASA.

NASA was only three years old in those days, and they hadn't done anything, sent anything anywhere. It was from the director of Space Flight Operations, asking me, “would I like to join their lunar and planetary expeditions?” Having read science fiction since I was a lad, well, who would refuse an offer like that? That set me on my course as a loner.

I became a consultant to NASA and that gave me a chance to get to Gaia, because it was the evidence they brought back from robot missions to the moon and Mars and telescopic observations of Mars and Venus, that made me realise just how different our own atmosphere is, and how something must be regulating it. Anyway, that's how I started as a loner.

I think the role of the loner is always quite interesting, because many scientific discoveries have been made by loners. If you look to the history of science over the last 150 years, you can see time and time again that when someone has invented something, everyone around him says, "that's nonsense”. So, he has to somehow prevail. Sometimes he gives up, and sometimes he's recognised, often fairly long after the event.

There has to be a dialogue between the individual scientist who either has a good idea or a bee in his bonnet, and those in corporate science who often have a strong vested interest in either proving that something is right, or very often proving that something is wrong. You can see, very often, that corporate science is devoted to saying that things are wrong and they want to maintain the status quo.

If you think of some of the great changes that have taken place in our view of the world, going from Darwin onwards, to tectonic plate movement, indeed to Gaia theory, the first expression of this idea presents resentment, sometimes frenzied resentment.

So, it's not the battle between individual scientists and corporate science, but rather the inevitable cooperation that must develop between them that is absolutely fundamental. You’ve been a good example of how a very good idea, originally regarded with scepticism, has now turned into mainstream science. Indeed, I regard it as one of the successions of really good ideas that characterise our civilization. So, there you are, I've paid you a compliment.

Thank you! In that case I have nothing to do but agree with you wholeheartedly. You're absolutely right. I'm not saying that all science should be done by loners – that would be hopeless. We'd be quarrelling like mad. No, you need the teamwork, really. I think that we as an animal are quite hierarchical, and nothing is more idiotic than the idea that we're all equal, or born equal. It's so absurd, I'm amazed that it can have any place in society at all.

I think that if you want to understand the way that people work, don't make a model of it. That's the favourite thing nowadays. That won't help you much. Models are based on mathematics and it’s too pure and ideal, and they don’t have the rough edges that reality does. What you need is what it says in the Bible. Go watch the ants. There is no better person for understanding that than the American scientist E. O. Wilson. He's just produced a new book.

The Social Conquest of Earth?

That's it.

It's a very brilliant and interesting book, because it shows the relationship between individuals working in one respect, and the kind of corporate identity which follows. And how humans can, in a way, be compared to other superorganisms, like ants. Which, of course, was Ed Wilson's original specialty. In fact, it still is, I think.

Yes, yes. And I think he's learned from that.

I think he has. What Ed Wilson's examining in his new book is how the species as a whole becomes a superorganism, and how that can be compared with ants. In the case of ants, the genes will produce one ant and he knows that epigenetics will tell him what to do. And then each of the members of the hive will gradually develop into members of a kind of superorganism, and in a way, that can be compared to the human superorganism. So, it's a very interesting thesis.

I was going to raise another related issue. One of the problems that was until very recently a kind of taboo subject, but which is very much related to what we've been talking about, is human proliferation. In a way, the population problem underlies almost every other problem that we have at the moment. Although, most people, until very recently, were unwilling to talk about it. Only now are people beginning to recognise, as the first figures come out, of the extraordinary way in which humans are proliferating as an animal species almost out of control.

And then, where does the control come? Is it going to be built into the system or is it going to be something else? Are we going to face terrible problems of health? Are we going to face the problems other species have encountered when they too proliferate beyond a certain point and come up against the stops? I know you have your views on this very difficult subject.

Well, I think this is where living a long time causes me to disagree with you.

Good!

I specifically remember the 1930s. An aunt and uncle of mine were into very middle-class thinking about subjects like eugenics, which, thanks to World War II, became an absolute no-no, that you could not tangle with at all. But it was openly discussed in those days and scientific books were written by people like J.B.S. Haldane on the virtues of eugenics. He even went as far as to suggest that teenage girls who produce large numbers of children who weren't very bright should be sterilised. This was openly discussed quite readily amongst people in those days.

I think it was the awful example set in Germany that turned people's thoughts and minds against the whole topic altogether. I would feel very strongly that that was a battle that the Nazi's won, and we shouldn't really concede them the victory on that. We should be willing to discuss that sort of topic more openly still.

We don't actually disagree, because it was very much a prime subject of discussion before the late 1960s. Of course, Paul and Ann Ehrlich produced a famous book on the subject. It was really in the '70s and the '80s that it became taboo. But I think it's now coming back in quite a successful way, not least because, as you know, last October, the calculations suggested that the seven billionth human being had been born.

When you think that in my lifetime, when I was born, there were roughly two and half billion humans. Now there are seven billion, and the models, maybe as you are right to say, models being wrong, but it's suggested that these will go up to nine billion by the middle of this century. That will really be a very serious thing indeed when you think about the effects that nine billion people, more than half of them living in cities, are going to have on the natural environment.

Don’t you think it's not so much the number of people that matters, but how they're also living?

Yes.

I think the Ehrlichs made a good point of this. They had it in terms of consumption, not just of food, but of all sorts of resources in the world. But, bearing that in mind, the argument is still the same. There is a limit to the number of people that the Earth can carry at any moment. I think we may well be close to it or have passed it.

We may be. As you know, the Chinese have actually taken fright at what's been going on there. So, they had the one child, one family policy, which works to a certain extent. Of course, it tends to produce an older generation. There are more old people, and the next problem that arises is that if people live longer, as they now do, how are you going to match that with a shrinking younger population?

Isn't it generally agreed now that the empowerment of women has done more to reduce the birth rate than almost anything else?

I think so, yes.

That is to be wholly approved. It's a much kinder way out of the problem than the Chinese one. I don't know how the empowerment of women quite came about. I don't think it was entirely peaceful. At least remembering my own childhood and my own very feminist mother, it certainly wasn't. But it's worked out and it's doing its good.

I quite agree with you. I think the role of women is absolutely critical in looking at this. Indeed, I also descend from a family of feminists. My grandmother was even a suffragist.

Mine was a suffragist, yes.

The suffragettes were the ones who were the kind of GreenPeace of the day; the suffragists were the ones who wanted constitutional change. I think there are four factors which are very important in the human population increase, which all relate to women. One is that when women are given the same status as men they have much more control of their own bodies, and this is not of course the case in Africa, where it doesn't always happen.

The second thing is when girls are educated in the same ways as boys. The third is when contraceptive devices are available and not subjected to bans and religious objections. And the fourth one, I think, is accepting that women play a major role in society right across the whole board. And on that, I think we're agreed.

Yes, of course.

If you get those four factors brought together, you find that population immediately begins to first of all to go down, and then to get into a kind of broad balance.

I absolutely agree here. The only thing I'll add is that we shouldn't worry too much if population goes below the reproductive point, because it then becomes almost a purely tribal concern. We get worried that our tribe is going to be less represented than some other tribe, and in the long run that doesn't actually hold.

It's interesting that the French president has been saying, “Go, get multiplying.” I'm not going to use the root word, but you know what I mean.

Yes. We don't want that, do we?

Anyway, the role of women is absolutely critical when we look at the future of our society. I'm glad to say that it is changing very fast in this country and we're well below the 2.1. I think it's also true to say that women are occupying more and more important places in society.

What about another interesting thing that's happening at the moment, which is that an awful lot of the people of the world are moving to live in cities. In our part of the world, what they call the first world, it's already over 90% and I think in Britain about 95% live in the city. This is a huge change and it's been happening relatively quietly without too much fuss or notice. 

This has enormous impacts on all sorts of the things. One that I feel is very interesting at the moment, and it's right up your street, and that is if everybody moves to live in the city, we don't have to worry about global warming, because it's a relatively trivial task to look after the climate of the city, instead of trying to air condition the whole of the earth.

Gaia has been doing that for three billion years or more now, and done it very well, or we wouldn't be here talking about it. The system's been through far worse threats than we represent, as far as climate change goes, so leave it to Gaia to run the planet and we just look after the city. It's much less of a task and far less contentious.

Well, I see cities as superorganisms of the kind that I was talking about before.

Absolutely.

They absorb resources and the emit wastes. If they absorb resources and emit waste, and they can do so on a sustainable basis, very well and good. But often that is not the case.

I once sat on a kind of task force where we looked in on some of these issues, and we came to the conclusion, unlike you, that you don't want to have these big cities. Indeed, in an electronic future it won't be necessary to create big cities. The aim should be to go for smaller living communities with heavy public transport, not being in your cars, but dependent on trains, with more and more work done at home.

So, you would have a sort of dispersed society in which everyone would feel at home with nature, they wouldn't feel the need to go to work.

I do think that we face a major problem with our cities in the future, not least because, to use this analogy again of a superorganism which emits immense quantities of waste, absorbs resources, and isn't perhaps the kind of long-term proposition that we would like it to be.

Well, I think the best way to answer that one is with an anecdote. Sandy and I were lucky enough to travel a few years ago across Australia on the Ghan train, which goes all the way from Adelaide to Darwin in the North. It's a wonderful journey and it was interesting. The middle of Australia is semi-desert, all the way across – some of it is savannah, some of it is complete desert.

It was fascinating. Everywhere the train passed you saw these termite cities sticking up. They all had air-conditioned themselves by building themselves oriented north-south, so that the heat load from the sun was minimal during the daytime. I have a feeling that's the way we're going. We are all moving into cities, whether we like it or not, or whether some committee decides it wouldn't be a good idea and that we better disperse. I just think we're going there because people move at their own volition. The ants and termites are a lovely example of the way we're going to go.

Well, I look at the ants, and I say to myself, what is the history of ant superorganisms? And the answer is that it's a very chequered history. Ant societies collapse very suddenly and horribly. Human societies have also collapsed. They haven't collapsed for quite a while, but if you look at the history of civilisation, which after all is the last flash of geological time – that's to say the last 2,000, and perhaps 3,000 years – you'll see that human societies have indeed collapsed and there the superorganism is indeed horribly exposed, because they can't do anything. And then people flood out.

I would not like to see us become particularly dependent on an urban society because I think that urban society might indeed be in peril, partly from itself, as it has to have available resources, use them, and emit all the waste that can change our environment.

Do you think it's right to always aim for the safest possible option? Unless I read you wrongly, that's what you're saying. Evolution seems to suggest that all sorts of experiments have been tried. Some failed and some lead to the survivors and the successors. Really, the thing that counts is the old way of expressing Darwin's views: those that leave the most progeny succeed.

But the human organism is a very vulnerable thing. Whether it's an individual, or whether a society, and in looking at the future of the planet we have to remember that the way we are treating the planet at the moment is something that probably can't be continued beyond a certain amount of time without doing enormous damage to it.

We can debate the human future almost endlessly, but one of the things that is alarming is not only the constant proliferation, but as you rightly said a moment ago, the increase in consumption of resources that often can't be replaced.

There is the test for scientists, to try to produce interesting answers to some of these questions.

One of the things that fascinates me is Singapore. It's a very strange city. I don't know if you've ever been there, but one of the first things that you notice is the appalling climate. The temperature daily gets into the 90s and the humidity is very high, so it feels intensely hot and uncomfortable. But everywhere are extraordinary fit and healthy and young looking policemen. They carry canes and there are large notices up – “penalty for littering, five strokes of the cane” – and there's no litter to be found anywhere in the city.

But what is more extraordinary is that this is a city community which is one of the most successful in the world. The GDP of Singapore I think stands level with almost anywhere else you'd like to think of. And it survives and is highly efficient and has solved the climate problem in a sense, and it's choosing to do so on the very worst spot that you would ever think of choosing, 65 miles from the equator, with a climate hotter than most of the climatologists’ projections.

So, it can be done, and done very efficiently. I know that many think liberty and things like that in Singapore are nowhere near where they should be, and that may be true. However, as far as the quality of life goes for the average person, I'd imagine that it's a lot better than most parts of the world. I'd far rather live in Singapore than, say, equatorial Africa.

I think I would agree with you. By chance I've just been in Singapore. I went there about a month ago to spend a week conducting an inquiry into the affairs of one very new and interesting Singaporean University, which is looking into natural catastrophes. They've been working on this for three years and I chaired this little committee of inquiry. They face volcanoes, they face tsunamis, they face tectonic plate movement, and contrary to what you've been saying they're very worried about the future of Singapore in terms of sea level rise, which is perceptible everyday, and they are very much aware of.

But I entirely endorse what you say about Singapore, because they are a very disciplined people, their unemployment is down to about 2%, they are very hardworking, and also they are very nice, which makes an enormous difference. When you walk around and look at all the things that they're doing, and you realise the enthusiasm with which they're doing it, you cannot but be impressed. Even so, I think I prefer Hawaii if I'm going to live anywhere.

I know just what you mean!

 

 

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