James Lovelock: The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may
last as long as 100,000 years
Each nation must find the best use of its resources to sustain
civilisation for as long as they can
Published: 16 January 2006
IMAGINE A YOUNG policewoman delighted in the fulfilment of her
vocation; then imagine her having to tell a family whose child had
strayed that he had been found dead, murdered in a nearby wood. Or
think of a young physician newly appointed who has to tell you that
the biopsy revealed invasion by an aggressive metastasising tumour.
Doctors and the police know that many accept the simple awful truth
with dignity but others try in vain to deny it.
Whatever the response, the bringers of such bad news rarely become
hardened to their task and some dread it. We have relieved judges of
the awesome responsibility of passing the death sentence, but at least
they had some comfort from its frequent moral justification.
Physicians and the police have no escape from their duty.
This article is the most difficult I have written and for the same
reasons. My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive,
and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease.
Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession
seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news.
The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the
pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth's physical
condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and
soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000
years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an
intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave
Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an
animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its
existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when
the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon
her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there
before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are
responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century
progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in
temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.
Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert, and will
no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40 per cent of the
Earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves.
Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global
warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This "global dimming" is
transient and could disappear in a few days like the smoke that it is,
leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are
in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this
century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of
people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains
By failing to see that the Earth regulates its climate and
composition, we have blundered into trying to do it ourselves, acting
as if we were in charge. By doing this, we condemn ourselves to the
worst form of slavery. If we chose to be the stewards of the Earth,
then we are responsible for keeping the atmosphere, the ocean and the
land surface right for life. A task we would soon find impossible -
and something before we treated Gaia so badly, she had freely done for
To understand how impossible it is, think about how you would regulate
your own temperature or the composition of your blood. Those with
failing kidneys know the never-ending daily difficulty of adjusting
water, salt and protein intake. The technological fix of dialysis
helps, but is no replacement for living healthy kidneys.
My new book The Revenge of Gaia expands these thoughts, but you still
may ask why science took so long to recognise the true nature of the
Earth. I think it is because Darwin's vision was so good and clear
that it has taken until now to digest it. In his time, little was
known about the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, and there
would have been little reason for him to wonder if organisms changed
their environment as well as adapting to it.
Had it been known then that life and the environment are closely
coupled, Darwin would have seen that evolution involved not just the
organisms, but the whole planetary surface. We might then have looked
upon the Earth as if it were alive, and known that we cannot pollute
the air or use the Earth's skin - its forest and ocean ecosystems - as
a mere source of products to feed ourselves and furnish our homes. We
would have felt instinctively that those ecosystems must be left
untouched because they were part of the living Earth.
So what should we do? First, we have to keep in mind the awesome pace
of change and realise how little time is left to act; and then each
community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have
to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is
energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we
need the security of a powered descent. On these British Isles, we are
used to thinking of all humanity and not just ourselves; environmental
change is global, but we have to deal with the consequences here in
Unfortunately our nation is now so urbanised as to be like a large
city and we have only a small acreage of agriculture and forestry. We
are dependent on the trading world for sustenance; climate change will
deny us regular supplies of food and fuel from overseas.
We could grow enough to feed ourselves on the diet of the Second World
War, but the notion that there is land to spare to grow biofuels, or
be the site of wind farms, is ludicrous. We will do our best to
survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging
economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the
main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will
have to adapt to a hell of a climate.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than
we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but in
human civilisation the planet has a precious resource. We are not
merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication,
the nervous system of the planet. Through us, Gaia has seen herself
from space, and begins to know her place in the universe.
We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let
us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and
see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace
with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to
negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of
all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our
The writer is an independent environmental scientist and Fellow of the
Royal Society. 'The Revenge of Gaia' is published by Penguin on 2