books climate change science

A rough ride to the future, by James Lovelock

rough ride to the futureJames Lovelock is one of Britain’s most influential scientists. For most of his career he worked independently, a free ranging maverick who could turn his mind to anything that caught his imagination. He came up with Gaia theory, invented the measuring devices that made it possible to detect CFCs in the atmosphere, and built tools that NASA robots used on Mars. Lovelock is now in his mid 90s and still coming up with extraordinary and outrageous ideas, and his latest book contains a few more of them.

It’s hard to pick out a central thread to A rough ride to the future, even though it begins with a chapter called ‘what this book is about’ and ends with a chapter called ‘so what was it all about?’ to try and clarify. It is peppered with navigational reminders, pauses to say ‘my point is’ or ‘the reason for this diversion…’

Still, the general gist is this: for aeons, evolution has ticked along at its own slow and steady pace, until humanity arrived on the scene. Equipped with a large brain and agile hands, we became inventors, and the process of evolution suddenly had a new dynamic. Beginning in 1712 with the invention of the Newcomen steam engine, the rate of change on the planet shot up exponentially, and the earth would never be the same again. “The emergence of this crucial period may change the earth and its future as much as did the origin of life more than 3 billion years ago.”

This change is to do with the flow of energy. Previously, everything had been regulated by incoming sunshine, dictating the pace to the rest of nature. Humans had used wood burning and wind power before, but coal was so much more powerful, it created whole new possibilities. “I see this as the start of a new evolutionary process” says Lovelock, “that soon became one million times faster than Darwinian evolution by natural selection, and it was one that proceeded in parallel.”

What we couldn’t know, as we kicked off this process, is where it would lead and the changes it would bring to the planet. As the CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels warm the planet, the conditions for life are changing dramatically. Unawares, we may be creating new conditions for a new kind of life. And this is where Lovelock’s theory of accelerated evolution goes down the rabbit hole.

If climate change is making the world hotter, more heat resistant forms of life will evolve – perhaps “an electronic life form based on silicon semiconductors.” Essentially, Lovelock suggests, our machines will meld with organic life through endosymbiosis to create “an electronic ecosystem that, for example, used silicon leaves to convert sunlight to usable energy, and that had herbivores that used the electricity the electronic plants stored, and served to recycle them.”

Right. And beyond silicon life forms, Lovelock postulates graphene or diamond life forms, capable of withstanding even greater heat.

This could just be a playful futurist fantasy, except that there’s something of a dark side here. As far as Lovelock is concerned, the important thing is that life endures, not humanity. Our role is simply to survive long enough to create the advanced sentient computers that can make the evolutionary jump, something he sees as inevitable. Since a hotter world is better for electronic life, we can “relax” about climate change. All we need to do is survive – and not even all of us, just a few million. The answer then is nuclear powered, air conditioned cities for the lucky survivors. And the rest? Lovelock doesn’t say.

This is a bizarre change of direction from Lovelock. His last couple of books have been about climate change, featuring some of the most catastrophist opinions on offer. Now he admits that they were too extreme in their predictions, and he almost seems to want to paint himself as a sceptic all along in some sections. But then he takes it a step further than almost anyone. Not only is climate change happening, it can be welcomed as a new dawn. Far from feeling guilty, we should celebrate our role in creating new forms of life. We are the cavalry, rushing to the aid of evolution. “As the bell of Nemesis tolls the end of the current earth system, in the distance we hear the sound of trumpets” he writes. “Coming to the rescue is an army of super-nerds.”

Okay then. The only thing that saves this from being a complete farce is that it’s hard to know how serious Lovelock is. He’s wondering out loud, on a time-frame of millions of years. Why not let the imagination run?

The danger of doing that is conflating the long-term destiny of the earth with short term action on climate change, and the book is thoroughly muddled here. It alternates between telling us to relax about climate change and saying we should be concerned. It accuses politicians of ramming a green agenda down people’s throats, and then chastises them for not doing enough. He insists that environmentalists need to be objective about nuclear power, but then decries wind turbines as “satanic”. It’s a complete mess, and a thoroughly frustrating read.

What rescues A rough ride to the future from irrelevance is that provocative ideas, thorny questions and unorthodox perspectives are a dime a dozen in amongst all of this. It’s packed with things nobody else is saying, and manages to be worth reading despite the fact that it is a quixotic, rambling, and conflicted book.


  1. Maybe change the yardstick Jeremy. Though way beyond age, James might be thinking, not documenting an incoherent outcome for humanity as in anyway to be the case. Amazing how in his lifetime creative thinking as opposed to christalised bodies of knowledge revisiting has the overtone.

    He is the only pro-nuclear advocate who has any kind of rational argument as to the long term of it. The engineering the universe no holds barred, might indeed be one option to cope with human life within life. Not that our power structures consciously are aware of his argument.

    Lovelock might be in this marvelously floating bulb of emotional disconnect to practicallity and symbiosis to pure rational science, an emotion in itself, the zen of the creative mind.

    Would like to come back later to this(a bout of no time pertinency).

    1. Yes, being a floating bulb of disconnection is one way of putting it. It is clearly a book in thrall to exciting scientific frontiers. Unfortunately it’s not all that rational in a lot of places, which often undermines the work.

  2. Conceded, the some suggestions in the book are odd, (are they meant to be odd as in attractive to sparks of original thinking).

    Maybe there is the one step further to consider, the element of what ‘a minor matter’ calls ‘quality of desire’, the intentions to applied science, what science should be driven by.

    Is it human survival in a fixed state, as today(even including the dynamics of foresee-able phenomenae, the conventional line of thought), or is it opening up to the idea that whatever shape of humanity is measured as, should be in it’s capacity of added value to the planet,

    How to get there as fast as possible, considering ephemeral the conditions of human comfort zones, as insignificant. James might be suggesting a better definition of relevancy to be due. A different line of thought, embracing a different understanding of ‘greater reality’.

    To be added explicitely, this logic might stand in James case, no way is there such a drive, nor comprehension in the utilitarianism of our power elites.

    James might bet on the power elites running things into the ground, by now unavoidably… and not caring much. Some of his suggestions are how ‘fast'(evolutionary, evolutionary standstill, new equilibrium, how to measure the value of any stage) and how some situations might look like, in a let go, creative brainstorming way. There appear sprinkled playfull sketches with suggestive, ‘graphic purpose’, merely to connect to planet reader.

    One core element: that we cannot expect answers, that we must expect the right questions from our thinkers might be a point he is trying to make casually at absurdum. This 90? year old mentally binds to no address.

    To have it said in a different way, what my book calls ‘the confusion of language’ is un-avoibable if there is no such thing as an underlying qualty of desire defining the markers.

    Slavoy Zizec(an admirable moral outlier, a misfiring intellectual, an unknown to himself philosopher, coopted by US intelligencia, ‘somone’ in his creative freaky way, on peers attached), far less charmingly(as eclectic James), on location on Bigthink(generally largely inferior as to relevant insight) webpages today(April 09) says it his way(see the short video).

    In ‘a minor matter”s closing statements, it is pointed at as balancing whether we(regardless) will initiate and abuse the chance of change, or will we have solely admitted to our conventional inspired truisms of numbers before potential, things instead of thinking and doing, so steering away from our main grand-stand purpose of steering the universe and as a consequence submitting to it anyhow.

    If the book in question confuses as to general references of ours, it suits purpose. If some of the better intellectuals tell us ‘we do not know’, it might take away the religious edge of science as the religious believe of solution.

    Thanks for the good work and keep up the next generation standing Jeremy!

  3. Lovelock seems to have become a truly grumpy old misanthropist in the last decade. His opposition to wind farms largely stems from his aesthetic preferences concerning his local area.

    1. Absolutely, and his wind power comments are really quite daft. He also extrapolates from wind power and condemns all renewable energy with equal vehemence, which there’s little excuse for really.

      I think I’ve actually given the book a fairly generous review because I’ve heard Lovelock in interviews recently and have heard him say how he might be wrong, that he offers his thoughts for discussion. That doesn’t really come across in the book, which as you say, is grumpy and misanthropic as well as being unfocused.

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