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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

James Lovelock

I was a teenager when I first heard of the Gaia hypothesis. In Oz, we learned that the amount of CFCs emitted by our spray aerosols, refrigerators and so on were contributing to the phenomena known as the Greenhouse effect. We heard that these CFCs were creating a hole in the ozone layer which protects Earth from being burnt to a crisp by the Sun. This was big news in Oz, a place where the sun is so strong you can feel it burning into your skin on hot days. Suddenly we all started using roll on deodorants and pump sprays.

James Lovelock is the man who discovered the build up of CFCs and coined the Greenhouse effect which is part of his larger Gaia hypothesis. His view is that Earth is part of a self regulating, living organism of which the human species is but an element. Due to the impact of human activities on Earth, the median balance of this organism is shifting, causing a rise in the average temperature on Earth. Put it this way. It’s as if the human body temperature rose from an average operating point of 37 degrees celsius to 42 degrees. What would happen to us as a species? Some of us would die but over time, perhaps our bodies would adapt, evolve and our species might live on in an altered way.

I went to see James Lovelock last night in conversation at the Southbank Centre. For an eminent scientist/philosopher in his 90’s, he did not disappoint. His brain was sharp and irrigated and his views were not those of a harbinger of doom as he is often portrayed (unfairly, I feel) in the media. His approach seemed based on empirical evidence and he fully acknowledged that science does not have all the answers and is based wholly on probability. He spoke about the need for scepticism in science to challenge views of people like himself. The area for which his scorn was reserved was that of politicians, climate boards and scientists who fudge data in order to affect policies. I felt that I was in the presence of someone truly learned whose vision is before his time.

It was bitter sweet to see in the flesh someone whose learning and advice will accumulate resonance as the years roll on, long after he has passed. I feel sad about this but for many great thinkers in human society; this always seems to be the way.

All the more pity for us.

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