CLIMATE CRISIS | James Ephraim Lovelock (1919–2022): on cities as world-changing powers
by Guy Mannes-Abbott, PhD candidate based at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
James Lovelock died at his home overlooking Dorset’s Chesil Beach on July 26th of this year. It was his 103rd birthday. From the vantage of 2022, it’s clear that the core ideas of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and theory, which established a state of radical reciprocity between the planet and everything that has ever lived on it, ‘have pervaded contemporary Earth sciences and the climate politics that stand beside them’ (Clarke/Dutreuil, 2022: pp.20). Lovelock has also followed Michel Serres (The Natural Contract, 1992) in describing human approaches to the planet and Life itself as a war we are destined to lose, in which the principal battlegrounds are the cities where we gather.
‘Britain was the first country to experience rapid and large-scale urbanisation and by 1851 50.2 per cent of the recorded population lived in cities, driven by the pioneering industrialisation and colonial extraction that became generators of climatic breakdown, observed Law half a century ago (Law, 1967: pp.125). By 2008 half of the world’s population (Konijnendijk, 2018) lived in urban formations, occupying only 3 per cent of the land but accounting for ‘no less than 60–80 per cent of energy consumption and 75 per cent of carbon emissions (UN, 2015) … by 2030 this will be 60 per cent of all humans (UN, 2015)’ (Ferrini et al, 2017: pp.1). Lovelock considered anthropocenic crises to centre on urban existence, characterised by exploitative extraction and energy-use, and exacerbated by what he regarded as unsustainable levels of over-population and an ignorance of species worlds beyond (mega) city limits. However, despite further sharp antipathies towards city-bound institutions, discipline-bound academics and green activists whom he once called ‘urban imperialist infiltrators’ (Lovelock, 2009: pp.142), Lovelock would finally concede the possibility that dense urban formations can optimise resources, minimise impacts and free productive land for spontaneous reforestation and food production. In his last book, Novacene, Lovelock described the ‘megacity’ as ‘the world-changing power of our age’ — an age he called the Age of Fire (Lovelock 2019, pp.ix).
James Lovelock was born in 1919 to a forty-six-year-old convicted poacher (Lovelock, 2009), and grew up in Brixton, south London. From here he conjured a childhood of Blakean inspiration in walks out into the countryside of the South Downs, spatial adventures that echoed Abercrombie’s plans for green infrastructural networks to transform post-war London (Abercrombie/Forshaw, 1943, Abercrombie, 1945). He worked as a chemical technician for twenty years during which time he developed instruments to monitor atmospheric gasses in previously untraceable quantities, including the Electron Capture Detector which produced evidence to support Rachel Carson’s warnings about agricultural pesticides in Silent Spring (Carson, 1962), detected explosives for the British secret services (Clarke/Dutreuil, 2022) and led NASA to headhunt him for their mission to discover life on Mars — a pointless exercise, he argued, based on the evidence that visible atmospheric traces evinced no organic life in the present or near past.
Lovelock was primarily an atmospheric chemist, and it was his work on anomalies in the Earth’s atmosphere; its homeostatic state of chemical ‘disequilibrium’ (Lovelock/Giffen, 1968) associated with the entropic resistances of organic life, that led to his understanding of Mars and his Gaia hypothesis about Earth. However Lovelock situated himself as a maverick outsider, inventor and intuitive thinker, working from rural homes in Wiltshire, Devon and Dorset supported by income from the patents of ‘over a hundred useful devices’ (Ball, 2014), sponsorship by Shell and NASA as well as work for British intelligence agencies. He was writing from cob cottages built from the River Carey’s mud in a still-remote part of west Devon with sufficient land to trial rewilding, reforestation, and biofuels with mixed success. Situatedness mattered: ‘The description of the place where this book was written is relevant to its understanding … There is no other way to work on an unconventional topic such as Gaia’ (Lovelock, 1989: pp.xiii).
Lovelock’s key findings on the ‘living’ Earth are contained in scientific papers published between 1965 and 1978. In the first, A Physical Basis for Life Detection Experiments, Lovelock concluded that ‘Life does not easily form, but persists indefinitely and vastly modifies its environment.’ (Lovelock, 1968: pp.568) The next argued that the Earth’s singular atmosphere can be explained ‘on the grounds that a terrestrial biota exists’ (Lovelock/Hitchcock, 1967: pp150), when biota means the ‘ubiquitous scum of the planet’ (Lovelock/Margulis, 1974: pp.471–89), defined in this paper as ‘life plus environment’ (Lovelock/Hitchcock, 1967: pp.150). In 2021 Jérôme Guillardet described something very similar: ‘we do not live on Earth, but on a thin film’ or ‘permeable zone on the Earth’s surface with many different shapes and features: soil, groundwater, river, trees, swamps, glaciers, and so on … Scientists studying the Earth call this the “Critical Zone”’ (Guillardet in Latour/Weibel, 2021: pp.122). Lovelock’s prescience was evident in a 1968 paper that warned of ‘major ecological problems of global dimensions which involves the atmosphere’, caused by ‘fossil fuel burning’ and ‘industrial activity’. (Lovelock, 1968: pp.179–93)
Lovelock first named his hypothesis in a letter to a journal called Atmospheric Environment in 1972. Working with Lynn Margulis, who was already known for landmark work on symbiosis in the ‘evolutionary assembly’ (Clarke/Dutreuil, 2022: pp.5) of cellular complexity with which life-forms like ours emerged, they combined the atmospheric and microbiological sciences to consolidate the Gaia hypothesis. Margulis brought to it billions of years of bacterial life and the eventual arrival of plants, trees and creatures; the ‘microbial contributions to the formation of ancient as well as present day environments’ (Lovelock/Margulis, 1974: pp.475). This recognition of our ancestors elicited the clearest definition yet of Gaia as ‘a complex entity involving the earth’s atmosphere, biosphere, oceans, and soil. The totality constitutes a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for the biota’ (Lovelock/Margulis, 1974: pp.473).
It was in 1979 that Lovelock published his first book and popular break-through, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), based on previously published findings that stirred ‘powerful forces’ of opposition in the scientific establishment (Lovelock, 1989). It took a decade to refute criticisms of teleology and loose terminology, to model the hypothesis and produce a theoretical account of Gaia, in The Ages of Gaia (1989). This was closely edited by Margulis (Clarke/Dutreuil, 2022) and presents Gaia as a ‘physiological entity … built by our ancestors, ancient and modern, and which is continuously maintained by all things alive today’ (Lovelock, 1989: pp.xvii). The ‘world’ of the earliest forms of bacterial life ‘has never ended, but lives on in our guts’ he wrote (Lovelock, 1989: pp14), a line that evinces the closeness of their relationship even while Lovelock remains ‘the central figure in the story’ of Gaia (Clarke/Dutreuil, 2022: pp.11). From here on Lovelock continued championing his single ‘living organism’ while Margulis — who preferred assemblages of cooperating organisms — ‘carried forward the torch of symbiosis, of which Gaia is the consummate planetary manifestation’ (Clarke/Dutreuil, 2022: pp.11), in her many publications.
In The Ages Lovelock remains focussed on the Earth’s oceans where coral reefs ‘are constructed on a Gaian scale, with city walls miles high and thousands of miles long’ (Lovelock, 1979: pp.98), and links between organisms and continent formation are plausible extensions of Gaian theory (Mannes-Abbott, 2022). The Revenge of Gaia (2006) is a cry of despair from which he rebounds in The Vanishing Face of Gaia, A Final Warning (2009) to do battle with the IPCC’s climate modelling, which underplayed observable measures like rising sea levels he argued. Lovelock reverted to a call for rapid climate adaptation, the immediate ending of fossil fuel use, and reconfiguring human habitation across the planet. He repeats his faith in geoengineering solutions that have never materialised — such as giant floating platforms to reflect back the sun’s energy, and the insertion of giant tubes into the ocean to cycle cold waters, while ridiculing the effectivity of wind turbines -which even IPCC reports continue to prioritise as proposed adaptive strategies.
In Lovelock’s last work, Novacene: the coming age of Hyperintelligence (2019), he presents a new hypothesis about an Information Age in which intelligent machines will lord over us with grace and outsmart climactic perils as they condescend towards us as we do to orchids at Kew: ‘A practical difference between the thinking and acting speed of artificial intelligence and the speed of mammals is about 10,000 times. At the other end of the scale, we act and think about 10,000 times faster than plants’ (Lovelock, 2019: pp.81). Novacene accelerates logically from the Gaia hypothesis half a century earlier and both hypotheses are ‘a product of evolution [or] an expression of nature’ just as he described the Anthropocene (Lovelock, 2019: pp70). Thus it is clear that human ongoingness depends upon the city and the application of a ‘thinking with’ or ‘like’ –after Serres who asked: who ‘thinks like a river… the entirety of the Earth and the living species?’ (Serres, 2012: pp.23)- that embodies Life’s central characteristic: symbiosis.
I can imagine Lovelock sneering at London’s classification as an urban forest, but he and the IPCC both rank afforestation in their top three responses to immediate climate peril, the other two being variations on the geoengineering schemes above. Much earlier, in The Ages, Lovelock had written that ‘tree planting would seem to be a sensible way to remove carbon dioxide naturally from the air’ (Lovelock, 1989: pp.97), and expanded urban forests might also be considered a form of geoengineering, being the largest structure built by human creatures. Lovelock’s ‘story’ has been supported by astonishing amounts of data since conception. We should embrace his notion of the city as ‘the world-changing power of our age’ as both a description and a challenge, one that is both urgent and actionable.
Guy Mannes-Abbott is a PhD candidate based at the Bartlett School of Architecture and affiliated to UCL Urban Laboratory, whose research centres on the histories and futures of reconceptualising London as an urban forest. He is the author of In Ramallah, Running (2012), a widely published essayist and critic in volumes that include Supercommunity (2017) and WdW Review Vol 1 (2017) as well as journals like Architectural Review, Bidoun and The Independent. He led the campaign to recognise the commons value of the urban forest on the demolished and redeveloped Heygate Estate, London -planning precedents which restored, redistributed and expanded the canopy. His next book ‘River World Roding’, about a river, its riverworlds and connected world rivers, is forthcoming. @guymannesabbott
Patrick Abercrombie, Greater London plan 1944, 1945
Patrick Abercrombie/J. H. Forshaw, County of London plan, 1943
Philip Ball, Prospect Magazine, 14 April, 2014 (https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/science-and-technology/unlocking-james-lovelock-more-than-a-maverick)
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962
Bruce Clark/Sébastian Dutreuil, Writing Gaia: The Scientific Correspondence of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, 2022
F. Ferrini et al, Routledge Handbook of Urban Forestry, 2017
Jerome Guillardet, in Bruno Latour/Peter Wiebel, Critical Zones — The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, 2021
C. C. Konijnendijk, The Forest and the City: The Cultural Landscape of Urban Woodland, 2018
C. M. Law, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 1967
James Lovelock, A Physical Basis for Life Detection Experiments, Nature, 1965
James Lovelock, Planetary Atmospheres: Compositional and Other Changes Associated with the Presence of Life, Advances in the Astronautical Science, 1968
James Lovelock, Gaia as Seen through the Atmosphere, Atmospheric Environment, 1972
James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 1979.
James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth,1989
James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, 2006
James Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, A Final Warning, 2009
James Lovelock, Novacene: the coming of Hyperintelligence, 2019
James Lovelock/Dian Hitchcock, Life Detection by Atmospheric Analysis’, Icarus, 1967
James Lovelock/C. E. Giffen, Planetary Atmospheres: Compositional and Other Changes Associated with the Presence of Life, Advances in the Astronautical Sciences, 1968
James Lovelock/Lynn Margulis, Biological Modulation of the Earth’s Atmosphere’, Icarus, 1974
Guy Mannes-Abbott, Critical Zones –The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth review, Third Text, 2022 (http://www.thirdtext.org/mannes-abbott-criticalzones)
Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, 1992
Michel Serres, Biogea, 2012