Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

James Lovelock is a key figure in the development of modern cosmology — not in the limited modern sense of the word, which refers to the study of the wider universe, but in the older sense, referring to our picture of how the world works, and how we fit into it. His notion that Earth is a self-regulating system has many potential ramifications — not all of which the man himself subscribes to.

But whatever else we can say about him, his commitment to independence of mind shines through here. Often it illuminates, with penetrating insight; just as often it splits into bewildering contradictions. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone agreeing with everything in here. But it doesn’t seem to be just a simple, laudable, free-thinking at work here. As many have noted, Lovelock’s recent thinking — often down to the paragraph level — is often incoherent, sometimes bizarrely so.

This is the first Lovelock book I’ve actually read, so I base my sense of his other works on second-hand reports. But this little volume seems to be slightly less pointed in its doomsaying than 2006’s The Revenge of Gaia. He seems to have backtracked a little in terms of the immediacy of the threat posed by climate change. Much of this is to do with his distrust of abstract science. He makes a lot of his hands-on approach to things — as much an engineer and inventor as a scientist. This seems to feed into his (apparently very recent) heavy scepticism about climate modelling on computers — one of the cornerstones of all our knowledge about how the climate in the future may react to our excessive use of fossil fuels. He’s basically come out recently saying, ‘We just don’t know what’s going to happen.’

Coming from such a respected figure, this has of course been music to the ears of the climate change deniers who want business as usual. But hang on — Lovelock’s having none of that, either. Apparently a reporter asked him, since he seems to have changed his mind, if he thinks should we relax now? ‘No, I do not,’ he replied. ‘I see the threat is just as real; all that has changed for me is that I have less confidence in the present model-based projections of future climate. We are now less sure about when and how it will happen, but there is little doubt that there could be dire consequences for humanity’s current way of life if carbon dioxide and population continue to increase.’1

So, little doubt about a dire future if we carry on with business as usual. And if we’re less sure about when the consequences of our actions will kick in, I guess that’s good news, right? More time to change our ways, and if we press forward with the so-far inadequate changes we’ve been making, we could avert disaster? No. Lovelock thinks we can’t control anything, and we just need to make do, and adapt. How? A combination of retreating into climate-controlled cities, allowing our social forms to follow the lead of social insects like ants and termites, and merging with the evolution of new, electronic lifeforms.

Welcome to Lovelock’s future. Resistance is futile!

Seriously, I’ve a lot of sympathy with Lovelock’s aversion to ‘sustainable development’, his aggressive objection that it’s an oxymoron. He apparently coined the phrase ‘sustainable retreat’, which is a concept I’ve generally agreed with since reading Richard Heinberg’s work on peak oil. And even though calls for action against carbon emissions are generally seen as coming from the ‘left’, I remember the time when much left-wing politics was profoundly anti-environmentalist. Certainly, the Gaia theory need not be taken spiritually to rile old-school Marxists, who baulk at the idea of us being embedded in a wider ecology which we cannot ultimately control. This flies in the face of the Marxist commitment to an anthropocentric idea of scientific mastery over the world.

But at the same time, his sense of global warming as an inevitability has far too much passive fatalism about it. He seems to have abandoned the idea of mitigating climate change through reducing carbon emissions — but then he more than flirts with geoengineering ideas. The notion that we’re ‘geoengineering’ in any case — through pumping carbon into the atmosphere — and that it might be wiser and easier to stop doing this rather than fight fire with fire, often seems to slip through his hands. His hands are far too busy throwing punches at ‘urban greens’.

He subscribes to the common idea that a lot of green politics is grounded in puritanical guilt — an idea which more and more strikes me as odd. There may well be elements of that out there, but I can’t see them in any prominent strand of the green movement.2 Regarding the idea of puritanism as a return to a pristine state: is there anyone out there in a position worth attacking who really believes in a literal, wholesale ‘return to nature’? Regarding puritanism as a denial of pleasure: well, applying this to green politics just seems like calling someone campaigning for treatment of severely destructive addictions a killjoy. Besides, the majority of eco-activists I’ve known are inveterate hedonists. They just don’t possess a lot of shiny things which get replaced every year.

As for guilt, well in terms of climate change, of course Lovelock’s right that we didn’t really have any idea about this implication of industrialisation until quite recently. But we’ve known about it for two or three decades, during which there’s been staggeringly ineffectual action. No innocence there. I’m with Lovelock in objecting to the conflicted religious aura that can surround guilt (though again, he seems to be seeing a different world than I see in terms of its prevalence in the green movement). Fine — maybe a better word is ‘responsibility’? Denying guilt — which Lovelock certainly does, despite our recent stretch of informed inaction — is merely a reaction against our Christian inheritance, not an overcoming of it. Responsibility becomes so laden with mortifying notions of sin that it becomes ‘guilt’. But then a simple denial of this, out of admirable objections to all that useless self-punishment, merely leads to throwing responsibility out with the dirty bathwater. I don’t see a way forward without clear acknowledgement of responsibility, and simplistic rejection of guilt can end up compounding the toxic effects of religious morality.

Lovelock also shows some confusion when it comes to our remote past. He cites population increases following the taming of fire as a driver towards agriculture3 — a theory I’ve not heard of before, and which seems unlikely given the hundreds of thousands of years between these two developments. (As George Monbiot points out in his attack on Lovelock’s unfounded notions about DDT and heating costs, it’s rather hard to argue with him because he often provides no references for his assertions.)

And when it comes to our ‘tribal nature’, he cites some interesting recent work on kinship structures among hunter-gatherers,4 but treats it far too roughly. This work notes the seeds of tribalism in hunter-gatherer pair-bonding and kinship. But there’s little evidence that tribalism per se, the clumping together of bands into larger, territorial political units, formed any significant part of the 95% of our species’ history that was hunter-gatherer.5 Raymond Kelly’s careful work on violence among hunter-gatherers6 suggests that the fluidity of kinship among simple nomadic people mitigates against any entrenched ‘tribalism’. Of course this is incidental when it comes to confronting the issues we face now, after millennia of strongly tribal culture. But I’m always wary of lazy attempts to root anything in ‘human nature’, and to project things further back into our past than evidence warrants. It’s often this kind of thinking that leads to the passive fatalism that Lovelock appears to succumb to.

While this book gave me plenty to think about, it left me wondering about the wisdom to be gained by pondering vast scales of time. I think it’s an essential task, but it needs to be kept in its place, as buffering or grounding for our more urgent tasks. It seems odd, at best, to base political goals on visions that apply to a geological timescale.

Much of what Lovelock discusses here regarding the future is pure sci-fi, which he admits. But it seems strange to be so vocal about the extent of uncertainty in climate modelling, and then propose alternative futures to the one where we curb our excesses that involve wild, unproven, and often deeply unattractive ideas, such as living exclusively in dense nests. He says, leave the rest of the planet to Gaia, and says nothing of the food that might feed these vast cities. (Presumably there are some sci-fi urban agriculture ideas in the background somewhere — but are they more certain than our climate models?)

And as he pushes this idea of going with the flow into cities, he also casually throws around some worrying assertions. ‘Could it be that class divisions are evolved to sustain stability?’ As he waxes lyrical about the monarchical hierarchies of insect colonies, it’s incredibly hard to remember that this is the man who decried the push for wind energy as ‘fascist’. Whatever the arguments about wind, they pale into insignificance in the fascism stakes when placed next to Lovelock’s vision of an insectile future. Of course egalitarianism in any pure sense is a pipe dream for mass civilisations. But constantly pushing in that direction, even if we never arrive there, is one of the foundations of the precious freedoms we have. Abandoning that push because we can’t attain the ideal is simply reactionary. Like the flat denial of guilt, it’s a polarised flip which solves nothing.

In the end, while his grasp of the life’s large-scale complexities is thrilling, I’m much less impressed by his ability to translate this into coherent and credible goals. I’m not going to categorically put down his incoherence, as part of me is convinced that if you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention. But as he makes suggestions about what we should be doing now based on his long-term vision of planetary dynamics, I can’t help thinking that he’s not wary enough of the slippage between his scientific ideas and science fiction. It’s an old truism that sci-fi about the far future is really a reflection of our current struggles. If we apply this to Lovelock’s vision, we find in his long-term thinking reflections of a defeatism which is belied by his endearing cheeriness. Of course we can’t control Gaia, but the underlying struggle in facing our industrial influence on the climate seems to be: to what extent can we control ourselves? And while, again, we know we can’t (thank Gaia!) control ourselves absolutely, flippantly giving ourselves over to the excesses of the past few centuries — or decades even — seems to be a dismal abdication of our fight to live better lives.

If we follow Lovelock’s advice and completely retreat into cities, that abdication will not just be an admission that the planet is beyond our control. It may also be resignation before our slipperiest collective pathologies. After that, I wouldn’t like to live in those cities.