James 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.