01 April 2014

James Lovelock - "A Rough Guide to the Future"

This evening, I was lucky enough to watch James Lovelock be interviewed at Conway Hall, by John Gray.  He was launching his new book, "A Rough Ride to the Future ", which I'll read when I get a chance, and add my thoughts to this blog entry.

James is over Ninety years young now, but the audience could hardly tell, as he sat in a particularly challenging chair, and brought to life some of the key themes of his book so passionately.

James Lovelock being interviewed by John Gray

Of course, the audience were aware that James is well-recognised as being a leading thinker in Earth being a self-regulating system, with the 'Gaia Theory'. And he didn't disagree when it was suggested that some of the latest thinking around climate change, and the need to balance mitigation with adaptation, were ideas he's been a forefather of.  Here's a very quick skip through some of the other ideas which caught my attention as I listened - hopefully I haven't misrepresented him...


The anthropocene is an era of time (which we're in currently), when "mankind began to exert a noticeable effect on the living environment (a definition which has been extended to include "changes to the Earth's atmosphere and surface sufficiently great to be discernible by observers viewing the Earth from space".  James suggests that us Brits started it all off, when Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine back in 1712.

Concurrently to the anthropocene, James also recognises an accelerated evolution, leaving Darwinian timescales, and piggy-backing off things like Moore's Law - the doubling of computing power roughly every two years. Humankind can turn the sun's energy into information and rather than be alarmist about how this could lead to robots taking over from humans, he suggests that much like his own pacemaker, computing will supplement humans, either in an isolated fashion, or perhaps as a shared consciousness (I think Twitter is already doing this).


James looked to nature and saw inspiration in "...social insects like ants, bees and wasps."  He went on to reference the perfectly controlled micro-climate of a termite mound in Australia. Relating that to human-scale, he then considered Singapore, a city which is highly successful, surrounded by fertile land, yet averages 12 degrees higher than the Earth's average.  He ponders whether human's sustainable future will be found in gravitating towards cities.


Although geo-engineering has its detractors, and certainly it's important to understand the longer-term unintended consequences of actions, James was supportive of certain measures needing to be utilised as the climate worsens. In particular, he supported giant aerosols spraying fine seawater mist from cargo ships, to help clouds form, wherever they were required.  However, the political barriers may be harder to overcome than the engineering ones, as humans are fundamentally a tribal species with allegiances to our own nations.


Controversially perhaps, James is a supporter of Nuclear power and thought that it was "... given to society as an incredible gift..".  The challenge was that it was misused initially, and thinks that society still feels guilty about it.  When questioned about radioactive waste by an audience member, he suggested we should look across the English Channel, where the French burn their waste.


James acknowledged that climate scientists had "got it wrong", assuming that the linear relationship between atmospheric carbon and temperature still held in the anthropocene. He argues that climate science is more complex due to the pollutants in the atmosphere which reflect the sun's rays (e.g. aerosols), and also the incredible importance of our oceans - an area of almost 2/3 the Earth's surface, but hardly understood at all.

Science vs. Inventors

As well as being an eminent scientist, with over 200 scientific papers published, he sees himself as 50% an inventor.  And that we shouldn't underestimate the potential breakthroughs that inventions may bring, perhaps even without understanding the science.  Just think of Faraday...

In wrapping-up with audience questions, when asked what James considered 'progress' to be, he suggested that, given the sun has a worse case of global warming than Earth, it is simply "...measured by success in an ever worsening environment."

Hearing an optimist speak about such serious issues is refreshing - climate science can often seem like a doomsday scenario, so fans of human ingenuity like James should be given a louder voice.  And it certainly helps put in perspective the day-to-day challenges of corporate and political sustainability and helps reflect on the (even) bigger picture.

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