James Lovelock remembered by John Gray

26 July 1919 – 26 July 2022
The author and philosopher looks back on his friendship with the creator of the Gaia theory, who was ‘the closest to genius’ of anyone he has met

I first met Jim Lovelock in 1994 when he was staying in Oxford with his devoted wife, Sandy. He was a visiting fellow at what was then Green College. We discussed a whole variety of things on that first meeting, including his Gaia theory, and I came away hugely impressed by the extraordinary fluidity of his mind, which ranged over many, many disciplines. I’ve met some very clever people, but I think he was closest to genius. He said he benefited from never having a regular university post; he never had to specialise. He used to tell me he got his schooling as a boy from Brixton public library and visits to the Science Museum.

I’d read Gaia when it came out and been very impressed by it. Partly because contrary to what many people claimed it seemed to me both rigorously scientific and rigorously Darwinian. Jim believed life was closely interconnected, and in some ways self-regulating. Some of the more mechanistic Darwinists, Dawkins and others, objected to that. Others wanted to find a mysticism in the idea of Gaia, but that was never there.

After our chats in Oxford, I’d often get the train down to see Jim, first at what he called his “experimental station” not far from Exeter, and later at the small coastguard’s cottage near Weymouth, where he lived until his death. The experimental station was so called because Jim made most of his income throughout his life as an inventor. He was among the last in that tradition of Darwin and others, an independent scientist. He didn’t need a big organisation. He was part of that era where someone would call him up and say: “Look here, Lovelock, why don’t you try working on this for a while?”

Jim was from a Quaker family and when war broke out he was a conscientious objector. However, when he saw the merchant marines risking their life to bring in food he felt that position was unsustainable. He was enlisted to work on inventions to help ships get through the German blockade more safely. Some of that was trying to make fires less likely to spread; he recalled how he put a lot of effort into that, though I remember him also saying, “wet blankets were pretty effective”. In later years, he was involved in a lot of research projects for Nasa on its Mars programme.

What the green movement often misses about Jim was his absolute love of science. He was strongly pro-nuclear energy, for example. He thought that if we could mitigate the climate crisis, or survive through it in some way, that could only be achieved through serious technology. Uniquely, though, this was not a faith in the Promethean kind of ideas of Elon Musk, say, of humans mastering the Earth, of no limits to growth. Historically, that’s been a disastrous philosophy. Jim’s belief was that science should be used to achieve what he called a “sustainable retreat” from the Earth. That technology had to be used to diminish the human imprint on the planet, to allow the biosphere to be partially restored and rewilded.

James Lovelock with his cats.
James Lovelock with his cats. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

Jim attributed his great old age to long daily walks – he lived to 103 and right up to the end his mind was very vivid. I joined him sometimes wandering through his grounds, where he’d let Gaia have its will. He had a cat and once the cat sat on my shoulder through the entire walk. His ideas had a big impact on me particularly because of his non-anthropocentric worldview. He certainly helped to shape the understanding in my book Straw Dogs that humans aren’t the centre even of life on Earth, let alone of the universe. Jim loved to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, but at the same time he knew: Gaia doesn’t care about you. He had no doubt that Gaia was a very stern mother and that humans had made too much of a mess of the world. It would react as it is doing by global warming.

I stopped visiting him during the pandemic, of course. The last time we spoke he was describing his recent interest in termite communities among many other things. He was, to the end, linking things together in a radically fresh way. He was the sort of man, both as a human being and as a mind, you’d be lucky to meet once in three or four lifetimes.


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