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The cheerful prophet of doom

County View


County View
John Healy

WHENEVER yours truly feels the need to spice up the week a little, there is nothing like a dip into the writings of James Lovelock to raise a wry smile or two. Its not that the maverick scientist is a barrel of laughs - more gallows humour, if truth be told - but it’s his cheery acceptance that the apocalypse is not far away that can stop the reader in his tracks.
Now aged 97 and as sprightly as ever, it was Lovelock who, 40 years ago, first came up with the now respected notion of Gaia, earth as a self regulating super organism. Earth, he said, had an almost endless capacity to adapt and adjust and to pretty much handle whatever humankind could throw at it.
But, he warned, there could be a bridge too far, and in recent years his predictions for earth, and for those who populate it, are nothing  short of dire. From his remote home in Dorset, he has been warning that we have passed the point of no return. Global warming has passed the tipping point; catastrophe is inevitable; and humans are too stupid to be able to do anything about it. Renewable energy, carbon emission reductions, world agreements on climate change - all are dismissed as too little, too late, and simply not practical.
There is little doubting James Lovelock’s credentials as a scientist and environmentalist, so how does he see the future of the world in the next 50 years?
Well, first of all, large parts of the planet will be too hot to inhabit, while much will be sunk under the waters of rising floods, with the big cities dependent on flood defences constructed at huge cost. By 2040, much of southern Europe will be Saharan, resulting in mass migration, famines and epidemic. Britain, Ireland, Canada and Australia will become the lifeboats for refugees from the south of mainland Europe.
By then the world’s population will have been culled by floods, drought and famine. Food supplies will have run out because plants will no longer be able to grow, and in Europe, food production will have all but ceased completely. A few decades further on, he says cheerily, the few breeding pairs of human beings that survive will be living in the Arctic where, in spite of the ice shelf having melted and disappeared, the climate will remain tolerable.
It’s all a gloomy scenario, but Lovelock does offer a few crumbs of advice even while believing that, in the long run, it’s all too late. Long an advocate of nuclear power, he is equally supportive of fracking and can see no good reason why, facing into the abyss, we should be so opposed to tapping into such an abundance of natural energy. By the end of the century, he predicts, robots will rule the world. They will have been allowed - by human beings who could not see the consequences - to develop sufficient volition and intuition to take over from their human masters. And burning temperatures won’t effect their ability to function.
James Lovelock’s latest book, ‘The Earth and I’, is a moving valedictory to a place which has nurtured human life for countless thousands of years, and yet which humanity has managed in its blind incompetence, to destroy. In spite of such an appalling scenario, he is often asked how he retains the mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“I’m cheerful. I’m an optimist. But it’s going to happen,” he says. And his advice to the rest of us is “enjoy it while you can, it will soon be over.”