I was saddened to read this week of the death of British environmental scientist James Lovelock. He had a good run, dying at the great age of 103.
In a statement, his family expressed what his loss meant publicly and privately: “To the world, he was best known as a scientific pioneer, climate prophet and conceiver of the Gaia theory. To us, he was a loving husband and wonderful father with a boundless sense of curiosity, a mischievous sense of humour and a passion for nature.”
He was indeed best known for his Gaia theory. The theory, named after the ancient Greek goddess of Earth, envisions all living organisms interacting with their inorganic surroundings in a complex, self-regulating system that creates and maintains the conditions for life on the planet. In short, the Earth and its biological systems are a single entity.
All this may sound like charming if naive metaphor, but it contains fundamental truths. We are, after all, all of us, from planet to people, created from star dust. And all life on Earth evolved from one single-celled organism 3.5 billion years ago. Indeed, possibly from one cell that learned how to replicate itself. We are all related.
Since the beginning, all living things have been involved in the business of replication. The purpose of life. And eventually evolution arrived at us, Homo sapiens. According to Lovelock, a most dangerous species. A species that is throwing the universal system dangerously out of kilter.
Like us, our technology too has evolved: from simple hunting and gathering tools to technology that can heat up the atmosphere, exterminate other species one after another, and exhaust the planet’s resources.
We didn’t reach our advanced level of technology because we are all that intelligent a species. We reached it because of a tiny minority among us. If progress was up to most of us, we would still be sitting around campfires gnawing on bones which, given the misuse we make of our technologies, may actually not have been such a bad thing. But because of exceptional men and women such as Pythagoras, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein we reached our current technological heights, capable of great good or great evil.
Now we need to listen to another exceptional man, James Lovelock. It’s past time to heed his message that we are part of an intricate and vast system. We can be a toxic part and do harm to it or we can recognize that we are part of this vast and complex entity, treat it wth respect and live sustainably and comfortably within it. Unfortunately at the moment we seem to making mostly wrong choices. Not a proper commemoration for a great man.