What Can We Learn from James Lovelock’s latest book Novacene for Earth Day?
On April 22 we celebrate Earth Day around the world in support of environmental protection. It is the perfect moment to discuss what we can learn from James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia Hypothesis, who at 99 years of age published what might be his last book: Novacene.
James Lovelock, now 100 years old and still a wonderfully active and independent mind, is a well-known environmentalist and inventor who proposed the Gaia Hypothesis. Wikipedia’s neat summary explains that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain the life conditions on Earth. In other words, the entire Earth is a single living organism and life has worked to modify its environment. According to Lovelock, Gaia saves us by continuously and sufficiently pumping down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by land and ocean vegetation (p. 105). As many of us know, Gaia is the Greek goddess of Earth; Lovelock named the theory at the suggestion of the novelist William Golding, but he admits how wrong it is to call this planet Earth “when, clearly, it is Ocean” (p. 59). Nearly three-quarters of its surface is covered by oceans, and he therefore criticizes how discussions of global warming seldom mentioned the role of evaporation of water from the sea (p. 61). The Gaia Hypothesis requires an acceptance that reality is multi-dimensional and non-linear: “Much more than this, the temperature regulation of an animal or Gaia is equally inexplicable by classical logic… As Newton found long ago, logical thinking does not work with dynamic systems, things that change over the course of time. Quite simply, you cannot explain the working of something alive by cause-and-effect logic” (pp. 16-18). He quotes Einstein who once said that “[t]he intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”. For those interested in Lovelock’s work, I strongly recommend checking out his autobiography Homage to Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist. As Lovelock has shown, Gaia has so far protected us by cooling Earth’s surface. He emphasizes that “Gaia must continue her work of cooling the planet, because it is now old and frail” (p. 5) and that Gaia is more vulnerable to shocks such as super-volcanic eruptions or asteroid strikes. If the Earth’s temperature rises to 47ºC, we would comparatively quickly enter an irreversible phase described by climatologist James Hansen as finding ourselves aboard the Venus Express (p. 63). And, according to Lovelock, the tipping point temperature that further accelerates heating may even be much lower.
Lovelock is very critical about Elon Musk’s goal to colonize Mars and to die on Mars: “Martian conditions suggest death on impact might be preferable…It would actually be far less cruel to allow them to build their prison cells on the ice cap of Antarctica. At least the air is breathable” (pp. 8-9). He finds the plan of such ventures that actually ignore the true state of the Earth as “extraordinarily perverse” (p. 9). “Information about the Earth, although less exciting than news from Mars, may be the one thing that can ensure our survival” (p. 9). Lovelock stresses the importance of focusing on heat, describing it as “the most pressing and probable threat to our home and our existence” (p. 9). He also criticizes the search for exoplanets as too anthropocentric; we are wasting search time by failing to distinguish between planets regulated by organic life forms and those regulated by electronic life, something that more advanced civilizations such as ours have mastered. Long ago, Lovelock suggested that he would search for planets by looking for entropy reduction on the planetary surface. Thus, many have failed to understand that life itself modifies its environment and climate beyond geological happenstance. Earth would have been rejected as a contender; being too close to the Sun as it absorbs and radiates such a “prodigious amount of heat that it cannot possibly be classified as lying within the habitable zone” (p. 10). This means that – when seen from outer space – the temperature of the Earth is hotter than Venus, despite being 30 percent further away from the Sun than Venus. “To stay in thermal equilibrium with the Sun, the Earth must radiate more thermal energy, and it does so at the long wavelengths of infrared” (pp. 10-11), heating the upper atmosphere while keeping the Earth’s surface cool. In other words, the Earth’s environment has been adapted to sustain habitability by life on Earth that controls the heat from the Sun. He also notes that the Sun is now too hot for organic life to start again on Earth as it did during the Archean Period, as the sun gradually emits more heat (20 percent more than 3.5 billion years ago and enough to raise the surface of the Earth to 50 degrees Celsius). Thanks to Gaia, excess heat is usually pumped out into space to preserve life. “It itself for her sake that we must change our way of thinking” (p. 15), Lovelock notes. “Gaia prefers it cool. A cool Earth has more life – 70 per cent of the surface is ocean and, when the temperature rises above 15ºC, it is almost lifeless” (p. 55). He admits his initial thoughts were that “global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions would soon be catastrophic for humans and that Gaia would simply flick us aside as an annoying and destructive species” (p. 57). Later he changed his opinion and thought that “we could manage the heat increases in the near future and should no longer regard warming as an immediate existential threat” (p. 57). But now he believes that “we should do what we can to cool the planet. I cannot say too strongly that the greatest threat to life on Earth is overheating” (p. 57). He still thinks that we have time to do it and is critical of our failure to gather information about our own, essential planet: “Our lives may depend on understanding it properly” (p. 59). He therefore struggles to understand NASA’s Mars exploration while ignoring our own oceans: “[T]hat we live on an ocean planet is only just beginning to penetrate the dusty science of geology. It is shameful that we know far more about the surface of Mars and its atmosphere than we know about parts of our ocean” (p. 59).
A core message of the book is also that the future of AI and cyborgs is less grim and risky than people such as Nick Bostrom, Elon Musk and others suggest. He reassures us that inorganic beings will need us and the entire organic world to continue to regulate the climate to keep Earth cool: “We shall not descend into the kind of war between humans and machines that is so often described in science fiction because we need each other. Gaia will keep the peace” (p. 30). He calls the book Novacene to describe what he refers to as the most crucial periods in history of our planet, namely the period in which humans developed technology enabling them to intervene directly in the processes and structures of the entire planet (p. 30). It may even be that “the Novacene becomes one of the most peaceful ages of the Earth” (p. 117). He goes so far as to suggest that electronic life “alone can guide Gaia through the astronomical crises now imminent” (p. 86). “In their own interest, they will be obliged to join us in the project to keep the planet cool” (p. 106) unless they ask the question of why on earth should we stay on Earth (p. 108) or whether photosynthesis by plants can be replaced by electronic light collectors leading to reduction of oxygen (p. 109) and therefore “self-regulation is no longer aimed at sustaining our form of biosphere alone” (p. 114). “We are now preparing to hand the gift of knowing on to new forms of intelligent beings” (p. 130). Welcome to AI, Gaia! For Lovelock, electronic life “would be another biosphere coexisting with the one we have now” (p. 99). Gaia “is all about constraints and consequences” (p. 71). “Our mastery of information should be a source of pride, but we must use the gift wisely to help continue the evolution of all life on Earth” (p. 75). “The world of the future”, Lovelock stresses, “will be determined by the need to ensure Gaia’s survival, not by the selfish needs of humans or other intelligent species” (p. 103). “Do not be depressed by this. We have played our part. Take consolation from the poet Tennyson writing of Ulysses, the great warrior and explorer, in old age:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are… (p. 130)”
Lovelock, James (2019). Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence. Penguin Books.