James Lovelock’s Gaia theory inspired the Green movement. But as fossil fuels begin, literally, to cost the Earth, he argues that nuclear power could save the planet. Life is not just a force for good; it is a force for its own good. Life has a way of managing things in favor of more life. And in the course of doing so, life manages a whole planet. It makes an atmosphere to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and then it recycles its own detritus.
It’s been more than 30 years since James Lovelock, a freelance chemist with a background in medical research and a gift for devising sensitive detectors, worked for Nasa on the Mars exploration program. While doing so, he began to form the idea of the biosphere as a self-regulating entity of life and the planet as a kind of sensitive organism. Not sensitive to any particular form of life, just to the principle of life. He called it the Gaia hypothesis. It was the novelist William Golding, his friend and neighbor, who suggested the name. Gaia was the Earth goddess, the Greeks’ Mother Nature. Gaia is a kind of metaphor for a very subtle lesson in the physiology of a planet. But Gaia became a reality, too, for the Greens, particularly those inclined to mysticism.
Where to find an easy answer to the great problem of how to power an economy without shutting down the biosphere with polluting greenhouse gases? The answer, Lovelock says, is ecologically clean and tidy and has a terrible press. It is nuclear power. But the real dangers to humanity and the ecosystems of the Earth from nuclear power are almost negligible. You get things like Chernobyl, but what happens? Thirty-odd brave firefighters died who needn’t have died, but its general effect on the world population is almost negligible. What has it done to wildlife? All around Chernobyl, where people are not allowed to go because the ground is too radioactive, nature doesn’t care about radiation. It has come flooding in. It became again one of the richest ecosystems in the region.
The big threat to the planet, he says, is people: there are too many, doing too well economically and burning too much oil. “It’s the people that count and the only message I would have to give is to stop fretting, stop looking for scapegoats, people are to blame for the condition of the Earth. It is me, you, all of us that are to blame and if we are going to do anything about it we have to tackle it individually, not expect anybody to take the load off us and do it.
If you are a housewife in Balham you are not, probably, doing anywhere near as much to damage the planet as suburbanites and exurbanites living around here, using their cars wholly unnecessarily in huge numbers of journeys and burning far more fuel. The more money you have, the more damage you can do.” He thinks the big dangers to the planet are the greenhouse effect and the spread of humanity. Just by their fecundity and their economic demands, humans have begun to affect habitat and biodiversity so furiously that it might happen that one day Gaia might not be able to step in and adjust the conditions to secure her reign.