James Lovelock is a British scientist and inventor. He is also 100 years old. His research extends into the fields of medicine, biology and geophysiology and he has filed more than 50 patents. With NASA, he searched for life in outer space. He has been influential in the environmental movement since he developed the Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s: the idea of the Earth and its inhabitants as a kind of self-regulating system. This theory was initially dismissed by many scientists as esoteric but has since found its way into climate research and is now called Earth System Science. Lovelock enjoys controversy, and his new book, "Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence," out in German and English, is likely to again stir up opposition from environmentalists. He lives with his wife Sandy in a cottage directly on the beach in Dorset, along England's southern (and windy) coast.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Lovelock, how are Earth's chances of survival?
Lovelock: Gaia is in double jeopardy. On the one hand, our sun is slowly getting hotter and hotter until it will have burned up all life one day. On the other hand, humans are artificially accelerating this warming by greenhouse gases. This is very, very stupid of us. The Earth has a chance of surviving for billions of years, but it would not be a fit place for life -- it would resemble Venus.
DER SPIEGEL: Does the Fridays for Future protest movement give you hope?
Lovelock: No. I think it's just typical adolescent behavior. I mean, all throughout my life it's been happening. There are always students with too much time on their hands, who were on the streets making a big fuss.
DER SPIEGEL: But couldn't the protests change climate policy?
Lovelock: Oh, politicians should just ignore the protests and keep their minds straight. It will go away. It always does. They’ll find another big issue after a little while and switch to something else.
DER SPIEGEL: What should politicians do instead against climate change?
Lovelock: We are zipping around in airplanes too much and airfares are too cheap. Also, if you really want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, you should go for nuclear power. A lot of people are afraid of nuclear energy, but it's extremely safe.
DER SPIEGEL: The victims of Chernobyl and Fukushima might see things differently.
Lovelock: The tsunami in Japan in 2011 killed 20,000 people or thereabouts, but there wasn’t anybody much hurt by the Fukushima nuclear power plant itself, that’s the extraordinary thing. We estimate that the increase in mortality from higher electricity prices outnumbers the mortality itself, suggesting the decision to cease nuclear production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself.
DER SPIEGEL: Did countries like Germany that opted out of atomic energy make a mistake?
Lovelock: Yes, very much so. France does it completely differently. We were invited to visit some nuclear power plants there. They took us everywhere. They took us to the cooling ponds where the hot rods from the power plants are put to reduce their radioactivity. And we both had radiation monitors and we could see the radiation above the pool was almost the same as it is here. And I asked the physicist who was taking us, well, what would happen if I dived into that water? He said you could have a good swim, it's about body heat.
DER SPIEGEL: In your new book, you suggest installing a kind of parasol in space to cool the Earth. Are you serious?
Lovelock: A sunshade a few hundred miles in diameter on a heliocentric orbit between the Earth and the sun could stop global warming completely.
DER SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t that be extraordinarily expensive?
Lovelock: Oh, yes, it would be expensive. But no more expensive than going to Mars.
DER SPIEGEL: Would it make sense to colonize Mars as a Plan B, as planned by Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk?
Lovelock: It’s crazy, completely crazy. Elon Musk has read too much science fiction. He got carried away with it. If I were in his position, I would not waste my fortune on colonizing Mars. And all they would learn is how awful it is up there: You can't breathe the air, the pressure of the atmosphere is a tiny fraction of what we have on Mount Everest. We'd be better off investing that money to save the Earth.
DER SPIEGEL: Aren't there any other geoengineering ideas for cooling our planet?
Lovelock: Well, lots of people have suggested putting sulfur compounds in the stratosphere, which would create haze and cooling clouds similar to those created by volcanic eruptions.
DER SPIEGEL: Do we understand the planet well enough make such interventions?
Lovelock: Yes, I think somebody talked about the law of unexpected consequences. It's something that nearly always happens. Unfortunately, the current scientific system is not designed to understand the big picture. The universities claim to teach the sciences to students. They don't. All they teach them is how to pass an exam. The universities should be reformed. The very idea of teaching separate subjects in separate buildings, isn't that madness?
DER SPIEGEL: Surely you’re joking?
Lovelock: Seriously, I learned most of my science in the lab, not at university. Engineers, unlike scientists, need to see the big picture. The Wright brothers' plane was not created by scientists, but out on the beach by two practitioners. I'm sure that those craftsmen who built the cathedrals in Europe and in Britain were wondrous engineers. They had no computers. And they were craftsmen who followed their instincts and built the cathedrals that have lasted all these years.
DER SPIEGEL: "Despite all our efforts to retreat sustainably, we may be unable to prevent a global decline into a chaotic world ruled by brutal war lords on a devastated Earth." You wrote that back in 2006 in your book, "The Revenge of Gaia." It sounded much more apocalyptic than your current book. Why?
Lovelock: That may be true, partly because in the past, nobody took any notice at all of these things. And the pioneers of climate change science were forced to make more and more exaggerations in order to get the audience to listen to them. If you are in that atmosphere, it's difficult not to write in that sort of way. It doesn't necessarily mean that your thinking process is that different.
DER SPIEGEL: How did you get into environmental research?
Lovelock: When I was young, we lived in Kent, in the south of England. There in the summertime you would get nice, clear weather and the sun was there, wherever the wind came from. After World War II, especially in the 1950s, the air began to get very hazy, especially when the wind blew from continental Europe. At that time, people still thought that this must be some natural exhalation from the ground. I could not believe that. I decided to look into it and started measuring chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) because they are man-made. And so I started measuring them and found that when the wind blew from the east, the concentration rose three times, which is quite a lot. But when it came off the Atlantic, it dropped right down.
DER SPIEGEL: What did you use to measure this?
Lovelock: I put together a crude model of a new kind of measuring device in two weeks. It was incredibly sensitive. But the accuracy also had disadvantages. Once I was on a German research ship in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida. But the sailors on the ship were using so many spray cans, it was impossible to measure and I asked the captain if he'd leave me a mile or so behind the ship to sample the air. And this I did. So, I sat down in a small rubber dinghy and they left me floating in the Sargasso Sea. It was a great experience – I could feel how huge the ocean is. To me, it was important.
DER SPIEGEL: Where did your love of nature come from?
Lovelock: From my father, who was in many ways a hunter-gatherer. His father died when he was a child, so there were 13 children to fend for themselves. He knew the habitats of plants and animals but had no formal education. In those days, large parts of Southern England were heath land. There were very few farms indeed, and you could hunt and gather and that's what they did, except that wealthy people owned that land and didn't like the peasants hunting. So my father did some time in prison when he was caught by a gamekeeper. And we used to go for walks and he would find all sorts of natural habitats. He taught me how to tickle for trout. You go under the bank with your hand and come up underneath the trout and catch it. It is quite a skill, it takes some time to do that. My father was a kind of Dr. Pangloss, he believed that "Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."
DER SPIEGEL: During World War II, you did medical research on burn wounds. You were asked to scorch rabbit skin, but you refused. Why?
Lovelock: Would you burn rabbits? Or any animal?
DER SPIEGEL: If it saved human lives?
Lovelock: Oh, no. To hell with it. There's something repulsive about the thought of doing that. I'd rather burn myself. The burns were very painful at first, but within a week my body got used to it. And at the end of that time, I could take a lighted cigarette and put it on my skin as a party trick. I knew it is was not going to be pleasant, but it is better than feeling guilty and rotten for doing cruel things to other living things.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 05/2020 (January 25, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you acting on religious grounds?
Lovelock: I was Quaker up until the end of World War II, but my first wife, who was a Scotswoman, strongly objected to it. She absolutely disapproved of their ideas and principles. And I just thought, "Oh, well, we have to live together and bring up our family." So, I gave it all up. But I always said that of all religions, the Quakers have the best view of God: the still, small voice within.
DER SPIEGEL: Why then did you not put the human conscience at the center of your new book, but instead artificial intelligence (AI) and the hope that it could one day help control the Earth’s climate?
Lovelock: I can’t propose cyborgs. These ideas don't come from me, but from experts. Recently, Demis Hassabis visited me here, the chap who produced the program that beat the best Go player in the world with his AI. He's a very nice man. And I think he's got the right sort of ideas for these kinds of things.
DER SPIEGEL: How do we know that such a planetary AI wouldn’t turn against us humans?
Lovelock: Well, the important thing to remember is that such an AI could think maybe 10,000 times faster than humans. That's about the speed advantage humans have over plants. Now, we didn't get rid of the plants, because we are only too pleased to keep them to feed us. I don't know that artificial intelligence will feed on us, but they need us to keep the carbon balance on the Earth happy. You can't just kill off animal life. And so I don't think we have to worry too much.
DER SPIEGEL: This hope for a solution brought about by a benign technological singularity sounds utopian, maybe even religious.
Lovelock: It wouldn't be the first leap in evolution that is utterly remarkable. If you think that it all started from a mess of organic chemicals left over from the debris of supernova explosions. The emergence of intelligent cyborgs is, in this sense, just another small step.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it this hope that keeps you happy and healthy?
Lovelock: You see, when I passed 100, I thought, "What is there to do now? What is there to look forward to?" I don't have any more duties. I enjoy life now. Most people think, you know, advanced old age is a bad time when everything is falling apart. Well, it is to some extent, but it's also an opportunity. It's a long holiday. For some reason I get contentment. When I wake up in the morning I often think: "Oh, it’s a nice world!" I live here with my wife, we are still in love, what more do I want?