This piece is not solely an homage essay to James Lovelock, English chemist, medical doctor, scientific instrument developer and author best known for the creation of the Gaia Theory. Lovelock celebrated his 100th year on earth last year (2019), and his dazzling Gaia Hypothesis was also celebrated – that is, the theory of Earth/Gaia as a living organism that can regulate its own environment. My little essay is also to celebrate Lovelock’s scientific colleagues who – though they considered his theory to be (initally) a wee bit whacky and as time went by, still to contain more than a few holes – embraced Lovelock’s originality and breadth of vision as a brilliant stimulant to their community and an audacious holistic approach to Earth’s study.
To summarise Lovelock’s scientific approach, Lovelock believed that scientists need to approach the ailments of the earth as ’a general practitioner for planetary medicine’. He believed that many aspects of the Earth’s operation act as integral parts of a complicated, dimensional system rather than more simplistic, discrete cause-effect relationships.
“The entire range of living matter on Earth from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of maintaining the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.” James Lovelock – 'Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth', 1979
Theme sound a little familiar? If you saw James Cameron’s film ‘Avatar’, a glorious science fantasy about how we Earthlings, having exhausted our own Earth’s energy supplies to the point where Earth is close to uninhabitable, are now attempting to colonise the populated moon Pandora, you will already have a good grasp of Lovelock’s Gaia Theory. In Cameron's film, as we damaging Earthlings try to blow away the native peoples of Pandora and mine her cheap energy resources, Pandora’s Mother Earth-equivalent 'including' her indigenous tribes, thwarts us and our plundering ways. (A similar saga too, might have been if Tolkien’s ancient ‘Ents’ and Middle Earth’s entire eco-system had come to the rescue by defeating the toxic Sauron and his dark forces:)
Lovelock’s Gaia theory highlights that, far from any one species being able to damage the Earth, if any life-form becomes too damaging (for example, those bad Earthlings in ‘Avatar’), it is the damaging species that will be blown away by virtue of Mother Nature protecting the healthy balance of her eco-system.
I’m a Lovelock fan and I am certainly not alone in my admiration. Lovelock has been awarded a number of prestigious prizes including the Tswett Medal (1975), the American Chemical Society Award in Chromatography (1980), the World Meteorological Organization Norbert Gerbier–MUMM Award (1988), the Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences (1990) and the Royal Geographical Society Discovery Lifetime award (2001). In 2006 he received the Wollaston Medal, the Geological Society of London's highest award, whose previous recipients include Charles Darwin. Lovelock was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to the study of the Science and Atmosphere in the 1990 New Year Honours and a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) for services to Global Environment Science in the 2003 New Year Honours.
How fabulous is Lovelock and his Gaia (Mother Earth).
And how fabulous is the Scientific community for acknowledging that being ‘right’ is not the be-all and end-all of brilliance.
Read more about this maverick thinker here.
And see Lovelock speak of famous old friends, Gaia, and a new species that may yet evolve on Earth.