James Lovelock
Influential British scientist James Lovelock, famed for his Gaia hypothesis and pioneering work on climate change, died at the age of 103 Image Credit: AFP

“Look at that dot”, Carl Sagan, the celebrated American cosmologist, wrote in his iconic 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future, asking us to contemplate our tiny planet Earth. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering”.

And Khalil Jibran, the Lebanese American poet, wrote in his equally iconic 1923 book, The Prophet, even a touch more lyrically, “And forget not that the Earth delights to feel your feet when you walk on it and the wind longs to play with your hair”.

Now enter James Lovelock, who was neither a cosmologist nor a poet but, as a scientist, environmentalist and futurist, transformed not only the way we think of life on Earth but of what Earth is — in and by itself.

Lovelock, who died last week on his 103rd birthday, was, as the Economist claimed in his obituary on July 28, “one of the most influential scientific minds in the 20th and 21st centuries”.

And why, those who are not familiar with this English polymath’s intellectual effusions wonder, would he have been one of the most influential minds in the 20th and 21st centuries? He was that because, in the view of many — including this columnist, who serendipitously stumbled upon his work in the 1970s — he was behind one of the most influential hypotheses in our time, known as Gaia.

Just like Charles Darwin before him, Lovelock propounded his theory in a popular book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), a tome that challenged the orthodoxies hitherto held by the established paradigm. The book, a synthesis of several papers he had published in earlier years, was an instant hit.

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In his vivid telling, it is revealed that on Earth all life forms, along with the other forms of inanimate matter that surrounds them, are organically integrated, making up a living, breathing organism, a self-sustaining system regulated by the dynamic interaction of its subsystems, whether human and plant or rock and soil, thus preserving Earth’s habitability.

Thus, when we, as humans, inflict harm on the environment of one subsystem, we are told, the harm is inflicted, in a ripple effect, on the other subsystems, to the detriment of the whole — in this case, on Earth itself, or Gaia, a term borrowed from Greek mythology that translates as mother of all life.

When Lovelock proposed the hypothesis, it was met with scepticism, even derision, by fellow-scientists. But the public reaction to the idea that our planet was alive, a sentient being, as it were, was overwhelmingly positive and found favour with philosophers, writers, poets, belles lettristes and, not surprisingly, environmentalists — not to mention surviving Flower Children who could still recall glimpses of Lovelock’s grand vision on their acid trips.

To be sure, Lovelock’s book had been preceded by the equally visionary Silent Spring, the most highly anticipated work on the environment to be released in 1962, by the American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson. After hitting the shelves in September that year, it immediately became a sensation, with no less than then Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas calling it “The most important chronicle of this century for the human race”.

The book had succeeded like no other before it — indeed, perhaps like no other it — in bringing environmental concerns front and centre in the public discourse, and in finally leading to the emergence of an environmental movement, that in turn led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, an agency of the Federal Government tasked with environmental matters.

The warnings given by countless environmentalists all these years about the dangers posed to the planet by our depraved assault on the environment, including those not as lyrically presented as Lovelock’s and Carson’s, have long been shown to be legitimate, and heeding them to be a necessary function of our human existence.

Idle talk? Forget about it

As I sit here, writing this column, massive floods and heavy rains, unprecedented in their severity, have hit Kentucky, causing significant destruction and deaths, and wildfires are exploding in California and several surrounding states, charring hundreds of square miles of forest. And, yes, let’s not forget the freaky heatwaves that hit North America, Europe and other parts of the world two weeks ago, where temperatures reached record highs.

Earth has a problem. A serious problem that should be of deep concern to the whole of humanity. And if there are still people around who think climate change isn’t it, then these folks are proverbial ostriches with their heads buried in the sand.

It’s climate change, baby, climate change. The problem will get worse in our lifetime and worse still in the lifetime of our children. As for those children’s children, well, a climate disaster of apocalyptic proportions awaits them.

You know what? I’m not sure I care to live long enough to be 103, the advanced age James Lovelock had reached before he died last week. I don’t care to do that because I know I would then be witness to how much humans had degraded the very Earth that, in Carl Sagan’s words, represented “the aggregate of our joy and suffering”, and in Khalil Jibran’s, “delighted to feel our bare feet when we walked on it”.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.