Natural Life Magazine

The Green Interview:
Silver Donald Cameron Speaks With James Lovelock

In 1979, James Lovelock’s book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, rattled the scientific world and electrified the rest of us by arguing that the Earth behaves like a single living organism that creates and maintains a viable environment for life. The Gaia hypothesis offered a coherent vision of the whole living world that echoed all our wisdom traditions and renewed the human sense of wonder.
Silver Donald Cameron
Silver Donald Cameron

Lovelock’s bold insights became the foundations of Earth-systems science, the study of systems like the circulation of the oceans, the maintenance of the atmosphere, and the relationships among the Earth’s biological and geological processes. He has been called the most important figure in the life sciences and the climate sciences for the past half century, and his stature has been compared to Darwin’s. Here is part of an interview I conducted with him in January, 2010.

You said at one point that the germ of the Gaia theory was your realization that the Earth had “an atmosphere that was wildly anomalous, and a strange, wonderful and beautiful anomaly that sort of shouted a song of life right across the solar system, right out into the galaxy.” I want to take you right back to that beginning of when you began to suspect that the Earth as a whole could be seen as an organism. Tell me how that came about.

Well, it came about when I was working for NASA. They were then – and I’m talking about 1965 – just as now, obsessed with finding life on Mars. I put forward a paper in Nature suggesting that they were going about it the wrong way [by] sending biological expeditions there to look for microbes and things. The only way to look for life on Mars was to check if the planet had a lower entropy than the other planets, following Schrödinger, the great physicist’s idea. They naturally asked, “Well, how on earth would you measure entropy?” After a lot of thought it occurred to me that all you have to do is measure the chemical composition of the atmosphere. If it’s way out of equilibrium chemically, then it has a low entropy. If there’s life on the planet, it will be bound to use the atmosphere for raw materials and a place to dump waste, just as we do. That tells you whether there is life there.

One afternoon at Jet Propulsion Lab, I was in a room with Carl Sagan and a colleague of mine, Dian Hitchcock. In marched an astronomer, Lew Kaplan, and he said, “Look at this!” He brought great sheets of data. He said, “Here are the complete analyses of the chemical compositions of Mars and Venus.” We said, “Well, what is it?” He said, “They’re both almost entirely carbon dioxide with just traces of the other gases present.” And I knew instantly that they were both chemical-equilibrium atmospheres, just what you’d expect. Then I suddenly thought, “But the Earth is so weird.” [Here] you’ve got oxygen in abundance mixed with hydrocarbons like methane. So something must be producing the pair of them – and in substantial quantity. There’s only one thing that could make them, and that was life.

Of course, it was wrong. There’s just no way for living organisms to regulate anything beyond their phenotypes, so how could they be regulating the planet?

This forced me to rethink. It took me about a year and it suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t the life that was regulating the planet. It was the whole damn system of life and the environment tightly coupled as a single entity. Of course, this didn’t cut any ice with the critics, so what I did was make a simple mathematical model.

That would be the Daisyworld model?

James Lovelock
James Lovelock
Yes. It showed how a planet with two competing species of dark- and light-colored daisies could regulate its surface temperature with extraordinary accuracy and home in automatically on the most favorable temperature for daisy growth. It was about as solid as it could be. It was a model that you could kick. What happens if a plague kills off seventy percent of the daisies? Does it still regulate? Yes, it does.

You continue to be a bit of a critic of science too, particularly at the moment – a critic of climate science and the way that it’s proceeding. You argue that the situation may be much worse than the traditional mainstream climate scientists say it is.

That’s right. Well, you see, if you look at the history of the Earth, you find that it seems, as far as climate goes, to have two main stable states. One is about five or six degrees hotter than now and the other five or six degrees colder than now. And once in those states, it can stay there for long periods of time fairly stably…So we are poised between slipping back into glaciation and moving to a hot state.

If we go on adding greenhouse gases and nothing else, we will almost certainly precipitate a flip to the hot state because once we’ve added a certain amount and the Earth has warmed up a bit, then the whole system starts emitting carbon dioxide at a considerable rate.

Now think of the permafrost in Canada and Siberia. It will soon be releasing methane and carbon dioxide in huge amounts, and that’s the sort of process that will cause the jump up to the hot state. It’s only one of five total positive feedback systems like that, and several of them involve the ocean. So it’s a complex process, but a whole system process, and you can see where it will go.

To see this full one-hour interview (in video, audio or transcript), go to and sign up for a free one-week subscription. The site offers more than sixty in-depth interviews with environmental giants from around the world. Silver Donald Cameron, host and executive producer at The Green Interview, is one of Canada’s most respected authors and broadcasters. The Living Beach, his classic book on the ecology of shorelines, has just been re-issued by Red Deer Press.

This article was published in Natural Life Magazine in 2014.


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