Hickman on Lovelock

by | Jun 16, 2012

Leo Hickman has an interesting interview with James Lovelock here, and a fuller transcript of their discussion here.

Given that Lovelock predicted in 2006 that by this century’s end “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”, this new laissez-faire attitude to our environmental fate smells and sounds like of a screeching handbrake turn.

Indeed, earlier this year he admitted to MSNBC in an interview reported around the world with somewhat mocking headlines along the lines of “Doom-monger recants”, that he had been “extrapolating too far” in reaching such a conclusion and had made a “mistake” in claiming to know with such certainty what will happen to the climate.

But Lovelock is relaxed about how this reversal might be perceived. He says being allowed to change your mind and follow the evidence is one of the liberating marvels of being an independent scientist, something he has revelled in since leaving Nasa, his last full-time employer, in the late 1960s.

This raises some points of discussion that Hickman has in the past shrunk away from, and no doubt, given his green leanings, is made uncomfortable by. Kudos to him for that. But as I pointed out in my review of Mark Lynas’ attempt to reformulate environmentalism, these uncomfortable issues might well have been confronted years ago.

Environmentalism, ignorant to criticism, has thus developed inside an insular, self-regarding bubble. Perhaps only someone from within it could prick that bubble, revealing to its members what those outside it have been telling them for decades.

Lovelock observes, for instance, that environmentalism has developed into something resembling a religion, which is mirrored by a religiosity amongst some sceptics. On the first point, Lovelock is hardly the first to point it out. And though as a description it seems to explain the excesses of environmentalism, it isn’t enough to explain how green thinking developed in this way.  And the second point seems to present environmentalists as equal and opposite forces, which is inaccurate, as we know, because ‘scepticism’ simply isn’t a political force — it has very little institutional muscle through which it can assert itself . Similarly, the substance of many arguments on Hickman’s own articles seems to have been that a handful of tiny and barely-funded organisations have been able to thwart the progress of huge NGOs and governments seeking to establish global political institutions to ‘tackle climate change’.

The interview concludes, after Lovelock’s entirely correct pointing out that ‘sustainability’ is a meaningless concept:

Lovelock says he’s doubtful that internationalist efforts of this sort achieve much: “Whenever the UN puts its finger in, it seems to become a mess. The burden of my thoughts are very much that the climate situation is more complex than we at present are capable of handling, or possibly even in the future. You can’t treat it as a scientific problem alone. You have to involve the whole world, and then there’s the time constant of human activity. Look at how long ago the Kyoto treaty was – 15 years ago – and damn all has been done. The human time constant is very slow. You don’t get major changes in under 50-100 years, and climate doesn’t wait for that.”

Lovelock is influenced at present by US biologist EO Wilson and his study of social insects. “He’s come up with an extraordinary theory that the nest is the unit of selection, not the individual insects. That has enormous consequences. Now consider that applied to humans. If we all move into cities, they become the equivalent of a nest. Then another thought comes immediately from that: if that’s the way the flow is going, don’t stop it, let’s encourage it. Instead of trying to save the planet by geo-engineering or whatever, you merely have to air-condition the cities.”

This Logan’s Run vision of the future – where we all live in megacities to better manage dwindling resources – might not appeal to all, he admits. “But you don’t even have to do the experiment. You only have to go to Singapore. You could not have chosen a worse climate in which to build a city. It’s a swamp with temperatures in the 90s every day, and very humid. But it is one of the most successful cities in the world. It seems to me that they are treading the path that we are all going to go. It’s so much cheaper to air-condition the cities and let Gaia take care of the world. It’s a much better route to go than so-called ‘sustainable development’, which is meaningless drivel.”

The idea of cities as ‘nests’, which better enable us to survive nature’s (now mediated, or at lest, deferred) revenge is not a real escape from the ‘Spaceship Earth’ idea of social organisation. Cities were attractive once because they offered many things than amount to a preferable way of life (for most), not simply an escape from nature — whatever her plans. The idea of limited resources still seems to forces us into megacities, whereas a proper break with environmentalism’s precepts would conceive of a future in which we are <i>less</i> bound by material constraints — natural resources and hostile environments — than more so. Cities should develop according to our wishes, not organised around the (myth of the) necessity of survival.
There is little reflection, also, in Lovelock’s distancing from his alarmist past. It’s one thing to recognise the excesses of environmental orthodoxy, and its weakening foundation in science. But surely the most interesting thing is how one moves from a perspective in which ‘Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change from radically impacting on our lives over the coming decades‘ and ‘became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago‘ into one in which environmentalism is seen in as an irrational, inflexible and religious ideology. After all, Lovelock’s comments were related by Hickman just two years ago.
Maybe… Just maybe… it was this view of humans — their capacities and moral value — which helps to explain environmentalism. It follows that if you think humans are stupid, and simply a virus, you might not have too much time for nuclear power.


  1. Graham

    Ironic that Lovelock does not consider his own contribution of the Gaia hypothesis as having strongly influenced the “religious” dimensions of environmentalism! Sure, it was misrepresented, but we should not forget that in its original formulation it did indeed imply a teleological intention to the way the Earth behaves, with humans being an infection that are giving the planet a temperature. Lovelock’s earlier doomerism was really nihilistic- his “Revenge of Gaia” left really no room for any hope no matter what we do, thus making his support for nuclear redundant.

  2. Philip

    “Maybe… Just maybe… it was this view of humans — their capacities and moral value — which helps to explain environmentalism”

    Misanthropy as the precursor of ecocentrism? Sounds plausible. I was also quite impressed by the hint that he doesn’t like wind turbines at the end of his road.

  3. Alex Cull

    Re wind turbines, last month on Radio 4 they broadcast an interview with James Lovelock (part of “The Life Scientific” series), in which he said that if there was ever an earthquake of 9 on the Richter scale in Europe, the whole lot would topple over and, in contrast to Fukushima, quite a few people would be killed!

    The audio for this interview is here:

    I’ve also posted a full transcript here:

    He also talks about Gaia, scepticism and a little about climate change. He gives out a few mixed messages when Jim al-Khalili asks him whether he thinks it’s too late to do anything about climate change:

    I think it probably is. But I don’t have evidence that would convince you. There’s a lot of climate change deniers who are not just paid servants of the oil industry, or something like that, as they’re demonised as being. They’re sensible scientists. There is no great certainty about what the future is going to be, so legislation based on green pressure to say “Well, in 2050 the temperature will be so much…” and everything, is not really very good science at all. It’s based on supposition. But having said that, I think they may not be far off the truth. We are moving in a direction which won’t do humanity any good at all, if we just go on doing it.

  4. Shub

    The Brazilians fell in love with the idea of Singapore when they tried to solve their favela problem. They attempted to build their way out using the Cingapura model


  5. Philip


    Thanks for pointing out the Lovelock interview, which probably shows I was a little too quick to be critical yesterday. It’s actually rather refreshing to hear him supporting nuclear and criticising wind-turbines, as well as his quite reasonable assessment of the dangers of CO2. Let’s hope his comments will encourage people in the green movement to also consider a more balanced view, both of the many dangers they point out, and of the morality behind some of their arguments.

    PS: Thanks as well for your work in creating/posting these transcripts — they are very useful.

  6. Rich Kozlovich

    Am I the only one who thinks this man’s comments border on the insane? He bounces back and forth like a hard thrown rubber ball in a small room. He says it is so nice to be independent and be able change his mind; but what if everyone had taken his word for all the nonsense he spewed out for all of those years? What if the world acted on what he wanted the world to undertake?

    We need to get this. Dystopia follows the green movement like Sancho Panza followed Don Quixote. Don Quixote was insane and Sancho Panza left his home and family (all that was stable and traditional) to follow him. Does anyone see anything different in the way we listen and follow these maniacs? They have a virtual monopoly on being wrong!

    So why do we listen to these people?

  7. Steven Earl Salmony

    If we agree to “think globally” about climate destabilization and at least one of its consensually validated principal agencies, it becomes evident that riveting attention on more and more seemingly perpetual GROWTH could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now. Each village’s resources are being dissipated, each town’s environment degraded and every city’s fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened. To proclaim something like, ‘the meat of any community plan for the future is, of course, growth’ fails to acknowledge that many villages, towns and cities are already ‘built out’, and also ‘filled in’ with people and pollutants. If the quality of life we enjoy now is to be maintained for the children, then limits on economic and population growth will have to be set. By so doing, we choose to “act locally” and sustainably.

    More economic and population growth are soon to become no longer sustainable in many too many places on the surface of Earth because biological constraints and physical limitations are immutably imposed upon ever increasing human consumption, production and population activities of people in many communities where most of us reside. Inasmuch as the Earth is finite with frangible environs, there comes a point at which GROWTH is unsustainable. There is much work to done locally. But that effort cannot reasonably begin without sensibly limiting economic and population growth.

    Problems worldwide that are derived from conspicuous overconsumption and rapacious plundering of limited resources, rampant overproduction of unnecessary stuff, and rapid human overpopulation of the Earth can be solved by human thought, judgment and action. After all, the things we have done can be undone. Think of it as ‘the great unwinding of human folly’. Like deconstructing the Tower of Babel. Any species that gives itself the moniker, Homo sapiens sapiens, can do that much, can it not?

    “We face a wide-open opportunity to break with the old ways of doing the town’s business…..” That is a true statement. But the necessary “break with the old ways” of continuous economic and population growth is not what is occurring. There is a call for a break with the old ways, but the required changes in behavior are not what is being proposed as we plan for the future. What is being proposed and continues to occur is more of the same, old business-as-usual overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities, the very activities that appear to be growing unsustainbly. More business-as-usual could soon become patently unsustainable, both locally and globally. A finite planet with the size, composition and environs of the Earth and a community with the boundaries, limited resources and wondrous climate of villages, towns and cities where we live may not be able to sustain much longer the economic and population growth that is occurring on our watch. Perhaps necessary changes away from UNSUSTAINABLE GROWTH and toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises are in the offing.

    Think globally while there is still time and act locally before it is too late for human action to make any difference in the clear and presently dangerous course of unfolding human-induced ecological events, both in our planetary home and in our villages, towns and cities. If we choose to review the perspective of a ‘marketwatcher’ who can see what is actually before our eyes, perhaps all of us can get a little more reality-oriented to the world we inhabit and a less deceived by an attractive, flawed ideology that is highly touted and widely shared but evidently illusory and patently unsustainable.


    This situation is no longer deniable. During my lifetime, many have understood the Global Predicament we are having to confront now, but only a few ‘voices in the wilderness’ were willing to speak out loudly and clearly about what everyone can see. It is not a pretty sight. The human community has precipitated a planetary emergency that only humankind is capable of undoing. The present ‘Unsustainable Path’ has to be abandoned in favor of a “road less travelled by”. It is late; there is no time left to waste. Perhaps now we will gather our remarkably abundant, distinctly human resources and respond ably to the daunting, human-induced, global challenges before us, the ones that threaten life as we know it and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation. Many voices, many more voices are needed for making necessary changes.

  8. Alex Cull

    @ Philip – thanks!

    @ Rich – it’s interesting that James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt consider each other “insanely wrong” on the subject of nuclear – presumably on the subject of enviro-doom in general, where their views coincide, they consider each other to be perfectly sane!

  9. Ben Pile

    Alex – it’s interesting that James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt consider each other “insanely wrong” on the subject of nuclear – presumably on the subject of enviro-doom in general, where their views coincide, they consider each other to be perfectly sane!

    Porritt is a Deeper Green – I mentioned abundance a few times in the debate last week, and the very idea is a complete anathema to him. He’s completely incredulous when the possibility of more — and the moral good of more — is discussed. His kind of environmentalism’s ethics needs scarcity, whereas Lovelock is much more aware of possibilities. His emphasis is on the ‘system’, perhaps, while Porritt needs us to be in a prison.

    Before the debate, I suggested to Porritt that Lovelock was pro-nuke because he was a scientist. He replied that many scientists were against nuclear.

    Funny how science ceases to be ‘unequivocal’ about things.

  10. Mooloo

    Ah, Malthusianism. The -ism that never dies. So many assumptions that have no basis in the real world.

    could be a grave mistake because we are denying how economic and population growth in the communities in which we live cannot continue as it has until now.

    I disagree. We can continue for quite a long time.

    Show me evidence that we can’t. Not speculation based on “obvious” features, because they aren’t obvious to me. What I see is people living better and better every day, not worse.

    Each village’s resources are being dissipated,

    No they aren’t. Most urban sites are cleaner now than they ever have been. Better sanitation, cleaner water, better transport infrastructure etc.

    A resource that isn’t being used isn’t a resource. Nor is using up a resource necessarily a waste. I see Michaelangelo’s David as a good use of a non-renewable resource (i.e. Carrara marble). If we are wasting resources, then that is an issue. Mere use, however, is not an issue.

    each town’s environment degraded

    Not true. My home town (Hamilton, New Zealand) has suffered no major degradation, with the possible exception of increased nitrogen flow into the rivers.

    There is a major case to be made in NZ that our water ways need to be cleaned up. But that is different from them being destroyed. Once an economic choice has been made to pay for the clean-up we will have a clean river.

    I have lived in Europe. Very little of it is degraded. The bits that are tend to be bits where the rulers were anti-human (especially the Soviets), not where they were intent on making life better for the inhabitants.

    and every city’s fitness as place for our children to inhabit is being threatened.

    Really? Have you read about how people lived even 50 year’s ago in European and US cities? Our cities are better than ever.

    There are parts of the modern world that need tidying up. Our oceans, in particular. But that is a problem that needs a solution, not a catastrophe that requires a revolution.

    Meanwhile your anti-growth message is a death sentence to people who live in places that desparately need the growth that the West has experienced over the last century.

    Nairobi and Mumbai are far harder on the environment than Paris and Berlin. It is growth that will clean them up, not poverty.

  11. Anteros

    Mooloo –

    You saved me from typing something very similar – well put.

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time travelling around Britain recently and overall I’d say it is akin to an environmental paradise. It is teeming with nature parks, forests, wetland centres, green belts, arboretums, botanical gardens and so on. Of course there are issues but as you say, they are things being solved not catastrophes needing revolutions.

    I often wonder what someone transported 400 years forward from Shakespeare’s day would say seeing 21st Century Britain. It’s an interesting exercise, but I usually end up convinced that seeing all the health, prosperity, abundant wildlife, clean rivers, and clean cities, the Elizabethan would say ” With all this environmental glory, why are some people still bleating about dissipation, degradation, and destruction. What is wrong with them? This is truly heaven on earth!”

  12. IanW

    I too am bemused by the anti-population dimension of environmentalism. Today, with mounting evidence that world population will plateau later this century and then decline, one wonders what the fuss is about.

    If we stand well back and look at the multi-century secular trend in the human condition, it seems clear that fertility and longevity improved with the growth in understanding about human hygiene and medicine while social and cultural influences on family size changed more slowly as education and economic influences had a gradually increasing impact. The increase in population has meant that more people have been engaged in adding to knowledge and technological change. Indeed, the growth in population and growth in aggregate knowledge, if charted together, should have a similar but lagged pattern.

    It is intriguing to speculate how all this will change as population plateaus and declines. There will be greater recourse to robotics in the advanced societies, of course, but what will be the long term effect on the growth of knowledge if the number of knowledge workers declines? Indeed, what will be the optimum size of world human population? That size must be compatible with the harsh climate conditions that we know have prevailed in the past and can expect, given Svensmark’s work for example, will return sometime in the future. There is plenty of time to adapt to a more practical population level. If we could project forward 500 years, we may well find population at a level below that of 1900. What we can be sure of at this point is that social considerations will naturally limit the population level that human beings will accept. Environmentalism is a distraction.



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