Skip to main content

A Rough Ride to the Future – James Lovelock ****

James Lovelock is unique, both as a scientist and as a writer. He may be most famous for his Gaia hypothesis that the Earth acts as if it were a self-regulating living entity, but has done so much more in a 94 year life to date.
A Rough Ride (not to be confused with Jon Turney’s Rough Guide to the Future) is an important book, but it is also flawed, and I wanted to get those flaws out of the way, as I’ve awarded it four stars for the significance of its content, rather than its well-written nature. It is, frankly, distinctly irritating to read – meandering, highly repetitive and rather too full of admiration for Lovelock’s achievements. But I am not giving the book a top rating as a ‘well done for being so old’ award – far from it. Instead it’s because Lovelock has some very powerful things to say about climate change. I’ve been labelled a green heretic in the past, and there is no doubt that Lovelock deserves this accolade far more, as he tears into the naivety of much green thinking and green politics.
He begins, though, by taking on the scientific establishment, pointing out the limitations of modern, peer reviewed, team-oriented science  in the way that it blocks the individual and creative scientific thinker – the kind of person who has come up with most of our good scientific ideas and inventions over the centuries. He does this primarily to establish that he is worth listening to, rather than being some lone voice spouting nonsense. I’m not sure he needs to do this – I think there are few who wouldn’t respect Lovelock and give him an ear, but it’s a good point and significant that he feels it necessary.
The main thrust of the book is to suggest that our politicians (almost universally ignorant of science) are taking the wrong approach to climate change. He derides the effort to develop renewable energy, despises the way the Blair government chickened out of nuclear power (and is very heavy on the Germans and Italians for their panic reaction after the Japanese tsunami) and makes it clear that from his viewpoint, our whole approach to climate change is idiotic.
With the starting point that the whole system is far too complex to allow any decent modelling, or to be sure what any attempts at geoengineering could achieve, Lovelock suggests that the answer is to let Gaia get on with sorting itself out, and instead of worrying about trying to manage carbon emissions in our current situation, we should instead put our efforts into adapting the way we live to cope with changes in the climate. He points out, the kind of climate we had before the industrial revolution (or accelerated evolution, as he believes it to be) was not the typical climate of the Earth either, which would be more like its state in the grips of an Ice Age.
Rather that trying to somehow get it back to an imaginary utopian state, he argues we should be looking at new ways to live that will enable us to manage despite what the climate throws at us. He points out, for instance, that in our fears of the impact of 2 to 6 degrees of warming we miss that Singapore manages perfectly well in an environment that is 12.5 degrees above the global average. Of course, you might argue that we couldn’t sustain that way of life for 7 billion people – and Lovelock is sanguine about this. He doesn’t expect humans to carry on at that kind of population level, as part of the adaptation.
What’s fascinating is that while reading the book I also read an article by that most demonised of environmental figures, Bjorn Lomborg, and it was remarkable how much similarity there was in their views of the approach we should take, though coming at the problem from very different directions and with very different predicted outcomes.
A final thrust of the book is perhaps less convincing. Lovelock, looking 100 million years or more into the future, suggests that the best way our descendants can survive to keep Gaia going is in electronic form, as it would be possible to live on for many more millions of years despite the Earth warming, due to the Sun’s gradual increase of output, to a stage where it is uninhabitable by biological life. At the same time he dismisses terraforming Mars (and doesn’t even consider starships) as a mechanism for keeping a future humanity alive. This seems a bit of an stance and dilutes, rather than helps the central message of what we should do about climate change and human existence on Earth.
As I mentioned earlier on, you may well find the book a frustrating read because of all the repetition, but this is a book that will really get you thinking about our approach to climate change, and whether we’ve got it all terribly wrong. Read it.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book.  The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones . In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save

A Dominant Character - Samanth Subramanian ****

When a science book does well in the mainstream press, the science content is often weak. In this biography of geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, Samanth Subramanian manages to get enough science in to make it worthwhile as popular science, but also piles on the biographical details, particularly on Haldane's political side, which unusually for a scientist dominated his life. Haldane, it seems, was a classic posh boy who thinks he knows what's good for working folk - a communist who quoted the classics - and along with his irascible, blunt (well, rude really) personality, delight in shocking others and apparent enthusiasm for the dangers of warfare, comes across as a fascinating, if sometimes repulsive study (on the whole, Subramanian takes a more forgiving view, though without holding back on Haldane's faults). Apart from his decades-long enthusiasm for the Soviet Union and ruthless (and fearless) approach to military life, we see how Haldane's science brought huge strides i

This is Your Mind on Plants - Michael Pollan ***

There is a powerfully American cultural flavour to this book that even comes through in the title. I'll be honest, that title baffled me initially. The first thing it made me think of was the TV show 'This is Your Life', then I wondered if it was about having ideas while lying on a straw mattress. In reality it's a complete misnomer - it's entirely about Michael Pollan's life on plants (and the psychoactive chemicals derived from them) - it's a very me-oriented book. I was sold this as a science book, but it really isn't. Pollan describes his interactions with three plant-derived chemical substances: opium, caffeine and mescaline - but there's hardly anything about the science of what's involved, just a brief, dictionary-like reference to how these chemicals act. It's all about Pollan, what he experiences, how he feels. That Americanness also comes across in his casual acceptance that someone he deals with keeps an assault rifle by his desk,