Interview with James Lovelock: A New Planetary Perspective

MOTHER interviews the man behind the controversial Gaia hypothesis.

| September/October 1989

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    James Lovelock developed the Gaia hypothesis, which argues that the planet's earth, water and air interact with evolving life forms in a complex, self-regulating system.
    PHOTO: J.S. GIFFORD
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    "A living redwood tree is 97% dead; there's just a thin skin of living tissue around the circumference. This is very like the earth."
    EARTH SCENES/BRECK P. KENT
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    "Just as countless organisms sustain human life, so have living things transformed our planet from an inert chemical ball into a self-sustaining organism."
    ANIMALS ANIMALS/CARL ROESSLER
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    In Lovelock's theoretical Daisyworld, light and dark daisies regulate the environment.
    BRUCE COLEMAN,INC./HANS REINHARD
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    "Instead of a steady heating up, we may have violent storms, the like of which we've never seen before."
    EARTH SCENES/MICHAEL & ELVAN HABICHT
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    "If the present rate of clearance is sustained, the forests will all be gone by early in the next century, and roughly a billion people in the Third World will suddenly find themselves in desert regions."
    ALLSTOCK, INC./KEVIN SCHAFER

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Have you ever had that micro-macro sensation in which you feel yourself to be a tiny organism interacting with some infinitely greater being? I experienced something similar upon reading The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth by James Lovelock (1988, W. W. Norton). Lovelock contends that just as countless organisms sustain human life, so have living things transformed our planet from an inert chemical ball into a self-sustaining organism. This view, instead of evoking the expected feeling of insignificance, left me mulling over the concept of being a child of mother earth—Gaia, as the Greeks called her.

For almost 20 years, Lovelock has theorized that our earth, water and air have been changed in very specific ways by the presence of life. But his most scientifically heretical suggestion has been that these basic elements have been regulated by evolving life-forms. In other words, they did not just adapt to their surroundings, as disciples of Darwin believed, but remade them.

For example, when Archean life began about 4 billion years ago, the sun was 30% cooler than it is today. Yet the average temperature of the earth's surface has remained within the critical life-supporting range of 50° to 68°F—even during the ice ages—thanks to a hundredfold drop in the carbon dioxide level, which offset the warming of the sun by reducing the atmosphere's capacity to hold heat. In other words, the earth has managed to maintain a constant temperature, much as mammalian bodies do.

Likewise, about 2 billion years ago, ancient plants began using photosynthesis to harness the sun's energy, producing oxygen as a by-product and eventually creating an atmosphere in which many new life-forms could evolve. And, despite volcanic eruptions, meteor impacts and species extinctions—which would, as Lovelock puts it, "make total nuclear war seem, by comparison, as trivial as a summer breeze"—the planet's evolving photosynthesizers have held oxygen at an ideal 21% for the past 200 million years. Should this level vary by a few percentage points either up or down, life as we know it would end.



In another example, the oceans' salt content, 3.5% by weight, remains roughly constant despite continental runoff that dumps more than 500 megatons of salt into the water each year.

An "interdisciplinary wanderer," James Lovelock holds a Ph.D. in medicine from the University of London but is generally considered to be a biologist. He has also served as a professor of chemistry at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and as visiting professor of cybernetics at England's University of Reading, and he was elected president of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. Above all, he's an inventor; his many patents support both his family and his personal scientific research, most of which he conducts without assistance in a country cottage in southwestern England. (The data gathered using his palm-sized electron capture detector, developed in 1957, substantiated the threat of pesticides as detailed by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, and Lovelock, using this same detector, was the first to demonstrate that chlorofluorocarbons were accumulating worldwide.)



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