The green giant

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

Environmentalism has gone too far; renewable energy is a disaster; scares about pesticides and chemicals are horribly overdone; no, the planet is not going to end any time soon; and, by the way, the answer is nuclear…

This isn’t me speaking, but the views of an environmentalist so learned, distinguished and influential you could call him the Godfather of Green. His name is James Lovelock, the maverick independent scientist perhaps best known for positing the theory that our planet is an interconnected, self-regulating organism called Gaia.

Not ‘Sir’ James Lovelock, I was mildly surprised to discover when I met him at his Dorset home, perched idyllically just behind Chesil Beach. ‘But I am a CH,’ he says, meaning Companion of Honour. ‘There are only 65 of them,’ chips in Lovelock’s American wife Sandy. ‘Yes, but I have to share the honour with Shirley Williams, which dilutes it somewhat — you know, comprehensive education,’ says Lovelock. ‘You’re not supposed to say that!’chides Sandy, clearly amused.

The Lovelocks are delightful company. Our lively conversation ranges from Brexit (they’re both very pro) to the joys of having a hornets’ nest in your house (they kill all the wasps in your garden so you can enjoy picnics undisturbed); they’ve witnessed an awful lot of history (‘I was stationed briefly at a B-17 base in the Midlands. The death toll was hideous, almost as bad as Passchendaele. One day I remember 21 planes  — each with a crew of ten — took off and only three came back. It was devastating’); and they fizz with irreverent good humour. We’d never met before, but they felt like
old friends.

Really old friends. Lovelock is 98, though you’d never guess it to look at him. His movements are light, agile and brisk; his marbles more than still there. One secret is his three-mile daily walk with Sandy; another is that though he used to smoke, he has never been a big eater or drinker. Mainly, though, he puts it down to a lifetime spent doing whatever has taken his fancy: ‘Live life as an independent! Never have a boss.’

Lovelock came up with his Gaia hypothesis more than half a century ago, in the course of a conversation with fellow scientists including Carl Sagan at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he was employed to work out ways of testing whether there was life on Mars.

This got him thinking about the mystery of life on our own planet: our peculiar atmosphere, largely comprising nitrogen and oxygen (unlike Mars and Venus, where it’s mostly CO2), and the extraordinary way that for the past 3.5 billion years, Earth has remained within a narrow temperature band capable of supporting life, even though the sun has grown 30 per cent hotter and ought to have fried us by now. Could it be, he wondered, that the entire planet is an incredibly complex, self-regulating system designed for supporting life?

The name Gaia came later, provided by his friend, the novelist William Golding, after the ancient Greek name for Earth. This didn’t help its reputation with scientists, many of whom dismissed it as a neo-pagan religion. But from the early 1970s  onwards it struck a chord with the green movement, which used it to support its belief that the planet’s delicate balance was on the verge of being destroyed forever by an unwelcome interloper: man.

In 2006, Lovelock burnished his green credentials with The Revenge of Gaia, in which he argued that, thanks to global warming, man was all but doomed. By the end of the 21st century ‘billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable,’ he told an interviewer. Climate change was so serious a threat, he told the Guardian in 2010, that democracy might have to be ‘put on hold’.

Within two years he’d had a remarkable change of heart. ‘All right, I made a mistake,’ he told the cable channel MSNBC. He still believed —and continues to believe — that manmade carbon dioxide is a problem that needs addressing. But we’ve plenty of time to do something about it before any dangerous effects are felt, and in any case, the cures being advanced by green zealots are often worse than the disease itself.

One of his main bugbears is biomass, such as the woodchips from old oak forests in the US, which are shipped across the Atlantic to be burned for electricity at the Drax power station: ‘This is one of the most monstrous examples of green absurdity that I know of. It’s wicked!’

Nor is he a fan of wind energy, which he considers environmentally damaging, inefficient, expensive and a scam. ‘There’s so much money in renewable energy. I’m sure there’s a giant corruption going on.’

He’s modestly pro shale gas — only as a transition fuel to wean the world off coal — but his real enthusiasm is for nuclear, ‘so cheap, so safe’, whose dangers, he believes, have been grotesquely oversold by greens for reasons which have more to do with quasi-religious ideology than with science.

‘The way to look at radiation is that it’s about what they call the linear no-threshold. Namely, what the greens say is that there’s no amount of radiation that won’t give you cancer, no matter how small it is. Well, this is as stupid as saying, “Never go out of your home because if you do you’ve a chance of being killed by something or other.”’

He has a similar gripe about the greens’ attitude to chemicals and pesticides. Ironically, Lovelock himself helped to bolster this scare by inventing the machine — an electron capture detector — capable of measuring substances in quantities so tiny that they were previously undetectable. The good news was Lovelock was able to warn of the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere and thus avert a potential environmental disaster. The bad news was that his device also gave the greens ammunition for more scaremongering, even though in fact the presence of most chemicals in tiny quantities is ‘of no consequence to anyone’ in terms of health or safety.

Lovelock has always been a cussedly free-thinking sort. He was born in 1919 into a working-class Quaker family. His mother Nell, who started work at 13 in a pickle factory, was a suffragette and socialist; his father Tom was a conservative despite, or perhaps because of, serving six months hard labour in his teens for poaching (‘I did wrong and I was punished and that’s all there is to it,’ he’d say). Lovelock’s experiences at a grammar school in Brixton made him a firm believer in selective education.

‘It wasn’t the teaching, it was the kids,’ Lovelock says. ‘When I came back from the summer holidays when I was 13 there was one boy called Piercy, who said: “I’ve been spending the hols swotting up on quantum theory.” This was 1933. It was utterly new. It wasn’t taught in universities. “And if any of you are interested in discussing it…” And we did. Now this is the unique education only a grammar school could give because it had selected. No bullies. No nasties. Just kids who were intelligent enough to be interested in the world around them… Egalitarianism is utterly evil. It’s contra Darwin.’

Despite his lowly 2.2 (‘really not much use’) in chemistry from Manchester — a result he blames on his dyslexia — his professor, Nobel laureate Alexander Todd, recommended him for a job at the National Institute for  Medical Research. ‘It was wartime and it was wonderful — just solving a series of problems in every damn field under the sun,’ he says. ‘Someone might come in and say: “Lovelock, could you make me a gadget to show whether radiation from a source will cause a first-, -second-, or third-degree burn.” You’d have it with them by ten the next day.’ The problem with modern science, he thinks, is that everyone is far too specialised, and no one has a sense of vocation. It’s ‘just a career, where scientists don’t even do much science. They’re just line managers’.

Lovelock was famously adventurous, insisting on testing burns on himself (‘it hurt like hell’) rather than on lab animals, working on a vaccine for scrub typhus (‘if you’d caught it in the lab it would have been certain death’) and trying out one of the rocket–firing-tank landing ships like the one commanded on D-Day by his mate ‘Bill’ Golding.

The war really was Britain’s finest hour, he believes: ‘It’s one of the things that made me vote Brexit — it was such a tribal thing. It was a society that you felt was right and doing wonders and fighting a hell of an enemy. And you couldn’t not join in.’

On Brexit, as on many other issues, his opinions are surprisingly reactionary
for a (tarnished) green icon. He thinks Al Gore is a ‘nasty piece of work’; he’s a fan of Jacob Rees-Mogg and the British Empire; he’s mystified by the anti-scientific nonsense about ‘gender fluidity’; and he and Sandy love The Spectator (though they also take Prospect for balance).

But while he’s inclined to think things have mostly gone downhill since the war, he remains so full of the joys of life that they ought to bottle him and sell him as a tonic. He’s survived everything from anthrax (‘It’s a bloody horrible disease. Makes you feel like absolute shit for a very long time’) to, recently, a bite from an adder. ‘Israeli scientists have worked out you can’t live much beyond 110, though,’ he tells me cheerfully as we part. Knowing Jim as I now do, I expect he’ll cram more into those remaining 12 years than most of us do in a lifetime.

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