The Revenge of Gaia

Earth's Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity


By James Lovelock

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In The Revenge of Gaia , bestselling author James Lovelock- father of climate studies and originator of the influential Gaia theory which views the entire earth as a living meta-organism-provides a definitive look at our imminent global crisis. In this disturbing new book, Lovelock guides us toward a hard reality: soon, we may not be able to alter the oncoming climate crisis. Lovelock’s influential Gaia theory, one of the building blocks of modern climate science, conceives of the Earth, including the atmosphere, oceans, biosphere and upper layers of rock, as a single living super-organism, regulating its internal environment much as an animal regulates its body temperature and chemical balance. But now, says Lovelock, that organism is sick. It is running a fever born of the combination of a sun whose intensity is slowly growing over millions of years, and an atmosphere whose greenhouse gases have recently spiked due to human activity. Earth will adjust to these stresses, but on time scales measured in the hundreds of millennia. It is already too late, Lovelock says, to prevent the global climate from “flipping” into an entirely new equilibrium state that will leave the tropics uninhabitable, and force migration to the poles. The Revenge of Gaia explains the stress the planetary system is under and how humans are contributing to it, what the consequences will be, and what humanity must do to rescue itself.


Praise for The Revenge of Gaia
"James Lovelock is among the planet's most interesting and productive scientists.... [His] flashes of insight about Gaia illuminate many of the interconnections between systems that many more pedestrian scientists have slowly been trying to identify."
New York Review of Books
"Readers without scientific degrees may lack the credentials to weigh Lovelock's reasoning, but his fury, his fear, and his sorrow are unmistakable. . . If you want to read a terrifying book, this is the one."
Boston Globe
"James Lovelock will go down in history as the scientist who changed our view of the Earth... the most important book ever to be published on the environmental crisis."
—John Gray, The Independent
"His final testament about the catastrophe of global warming is probably the most important book for decades."
—ANDREW MARR, Daily Telegraph
"[Lovelock] is a systems thinker. His informed, often iconoclastic ideas are, as usual, worth pondering. There are gems here."
"Lovelock is one of our most distinguished ecologists, the environment movement's sanest pontificator and a scientist of considerable distinction. We should take note of his words... "
—ROBIN MCKIE, The Observer
"James Lovelock, now 86 years old, is a unique figure among contemporary scientists: a sturdy individualist who has carved his own furrow independently of the great research labs and corporations. Unlike many scientists, he sees the broad sweep of things: an immense vision that takes in, down to the finest detail, the history of the earth and its likely future... Is Lovelock right? No-one can be sure. All one can say is that his arguments carry more conviction than anyone else's now writing."
"In The Revenge of Gaia Lovelock sets out the clearest statement of Gaia as a metaphor for a single self-regulated system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. This is an important scientific development. More than that, he emerges as a scientific visionary... His book is riveting, but not always comforting reading. His view of the world is all-encompassing but he manages this with well chosen examples drawn from the scientific literature and his own experiences . . . a small book packed with wisdom and integrity, beautifully written, challenging."
—SIR DAVID KING, Chief Scientific Advisor
to the UK Government, The Times
"If the Earth as a whole exhibits the properties of a living organism, then it seems fair to assume that it has some sort of immune system—and this, in essence, is the message of The Revenge of Gaia. In this brief, urgent and sobering polemic Lovelock argues that our rampant plundering of natural resources will soon lead to planetary conditions of lethal heat... Seen from this perspective, the much-trumpeted issues of the day—from international terrorism all the way down to local trivia such as Tory leadership contests—are significant only as dangerous distractions. Lovelock is no woolly-minded hippy, however, and along the way he slays most of the sacred cows of supposedly 'green' ideology."
—NED DENNY, Evening Standard
"If Lovelock is still considered a maverick among scientists it is in part due to the way he writes... [he] long ago grasped something that other scientists are only just beginning to: that the public are just as likely to be influenced by the films they watch and the books they read as by dry, scientific pronouncements they only half understand... Lovelock's voice is a beguiling one."
—SUSAN ELDERKIN, The Sunday Telegraph
"[Lovelock] is a fascinating figure, and a scientist of long and impeccable pedigree... he is a powerful thinker and an elegant writer."
—FIONA HARVEY, Financial Times
"James Lovelock, the celebrated environmental scientist, has a unique perspective on the fate of the Earth... The uniqueness of the Lovelock viewpoint is that it is holistic rather than reductionist. His astonishing conclusion—that climate change is already insoluble and life on earth will never be the same again."
"In raising awareness, James Lovelock has been a key player . . . Cogently and lyrically he has shown how the living creatures of the biosphere affect the behaviour and fate of the planet itself, and are in turn affected by it... Like Rachel Carson in Silent Spring and Jane Goodall with her books on chimps, he has not merely informed us. He has changed the way we look at the world."
—Colin Tudge, The Guardian
"Lovelock's tough-minded presentation is a valuable contribution to the urgent debate over humankind's future."
"Lovelock's pro-nuke enthusiasm, unexpected from one of the mid-20th century's most ardent environmental thinkers, is the well-reasoned core of this urgent call for braking at the brink of global catastrophe."
Publisher's Weekly

I dedicate this book to my beloved wife Sandy

List of Illustrations
(Photographic acknowledgements are given in parentheses.)
1. Greenland's melting glaciers (Roger Braithwaite/Still Pictures).
2. Exit Glacier, Harding Icefields, Alaska (copyright © Ashley Cooper/Picimpact/Corbis).
3. Peat bog fires in Dumai, Indonesia (AFP/Getty Images).
4. Deforestation in the Amazon, Brazil (Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images).
5. Pre-agribusiness English countryside (Royalty-free/Corbis).
6. Intensive farming (copyright © Bill Stormont/CORBIS).
7. Energy use and urban spread, as seen from space (NASA/ Newsmakers).
8. Algal life in the oceans (image proved by ORBIMAGE and NASA WiFS Project).
9. The scarcity of the Earth's vegetation (NASA/Corbis).
10. The surface of Mars (HO/AFP/Getty Images).
11. Land devastation by mining (James Lovelock).
12. Par Pond, Savannah River nuclear facility, USA (David E. Scott/ SREL).

Preface to the U.S. Edition
One of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be the bearer of seriously bad news. No one knows this more than the army officer tasked to tell a family that their son or daughter had died in action. This has been the hardest of books to write for the same reason. I have for the past forty years looked on the Earth through Gaia theory as if, metaphorically, it were alive at least in the sense that it regulates climate and composition of the Earth's surface so as always to be fit for whatever forms of life inhabit it. It is not pushing the metaphor too far to consider anything alive as either healthy or diseased. Thinking this way has made me a member of the new profession of planetary physicians, and as a planetary doctor I have now to bring the worst of news. The climate centers around the world, which are the equivalent of pathology labs in hospitals, have reported the Earth's physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as intimate members of the Earth's family, that civilization is in grave danger.
Without our realising it we have poisoned the earth by our emissions of greenhouse gases and weakened it by taking for farmland and housing the land that once was the home of ecosystems that sustained the environment. We have driven the Earth to a crisis state from which it may never, on a human time scale, return to the lush and comfortable world we love and in which we grew up.
This is no sci-fi speculation; we now have evidence from the Earth's history that a similar event happened fifty-five million years ago when a geological accident released into the air more than a terraton of gaseous carbon compounds. As a consequence the temperature in the arctic and temperate regions rose eight degree Celsius and in tropical regions about five degrees, and it took over one hundred thousand years before normality was restored. We have already put more than half this quantity of carbon gases into the air and now the Earth is weakened by the loss of land we took to feed and house ourselves. In addition, the sun is now warmer, and as a consequence the Earth is now returning to the hot state it was in before, millions of years ago, and as it warms, most living things will die. Once started, the move to a hot state is irreversible, and even if all the good intentions expressed at the Kyoto and Montreal meetings were executed immediately, they would not alter the outcome. Much of the tropical land mass will become scrub and desert and will no longer serve for regulation, thus adding to the 40 percent of the Earth's surface we have already depleted to feed ourselves. Curiously, smoke and dust pollution of the northern hemisphere reduces global warming by reflecting sunlight back to space. This 'global dimming' is transient and could disappear in a few days if there were an economic downturn or a reduction of fossil fuel burning. This would leave us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse. We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic region where the climate remains tolerable.
The great party of the twentieth century is coming to an end, and unless we now start preparing our survival kit we will soon be just another species eking out an existence in the few remaining habitable regions. Perhaps the saddest thing is that Gaia will lose as much or more than we do. Not only will wildlife and whole ecosystems go extinct, but the planet will lose a precious resource: human civilization. Humans are not merely a disease; we are, through our intelligence and communication, the nervous system of the planet. Through us Gaia has seen herself from space and begins to know her place in the universe. We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all we should remember that we are a part of Gaia, and she is indeed our home.

Who is Gaia? What is she? The What is the thin spherical shell of land and water between the incandescent interior of the Earth and the upper atmosphere surrounding it. The Who is the interacting tissue of living organisms which over four billion years has come to inhabit it. The combination of the What and the Who, and the way in which each continuously affects the other, has been well named 'Gaia'. It is, as James Lovelock says, a metaphor for the living Earth. The Greek goddess from whom the term is derived should be proud of the use to which her name has been put.
The notion that the Earth is in this metaphorical sense alive has a long history. Gods and goddesses were seen to embody specific elements, ranging from the sky to the most local spring, and the notion that the Earth itself was alive came up regularly in Greek philosophy. Leonardo da Vinci saw the human body as the microcosm of the Earth, and the Earth as the macrocosm of the human body. He did not know as well as we now do that the human body is a macrocosm of the tiny elements of life – bacteria, parasites, viruses – often at war with each other, and together constituting more than our body cells. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake just over 400 years ago for maintaining that the Earth was alive, and that other planets could be so too. The geologist James Hutton saw the Earth as a self-regulating system in 1785, and T. H. Huxley saw it likewise in 1877. For his part, Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky saw the functioning of the biosphere as a geological force which creates a dynamic disequilibrium which in turn promotes the diversity of life.
But it was James Lovelock who brought this together into the Gaia hypothesis in 1972. In this book he refines and enlarges upon it in new and practical ways. Looking back it is strange how uncongenial the idea was to the practitioners of the conventional wisdom when it was put forward in its present form over a quarter of a century ago. Unfamiliar ways of looking at the familiar tend to arouse emotional opposition far beyond rational argument: thus the opposition to the ideas of evolution by natural selection in the nineteenth century, of tectonic plate movement in the twentieth century, and more recently of Gaia. At the beginning some New Age travellers jumped aboard, and some otherwise sensible scientists jumped off. They are now jumping on again. The change was well summed up in a declaration published after a meeting of scientists from the four great international global research programmes in 2001 which said
The Earth system behaves as a single, self-regulating system, comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. The interactions and feedbacks between the component parts are complex and exhibit multi-scale temporal and spatial variability.
This indeed is Gaia.
The prime message from this book is less that Gaia herself is under threat ('a tough bitch', as Lynn Margulis has called her), but rather that humans have been doing her present configuration increasingly serious damage. Gaia is anyway changing, and may be less robust than in the past. The sun's heat on the Earth is steadily increasing, and eventually the self-regulation on which all life depends will be put at risk. Looking at the global ecosystem as a whole, human population increase, degradation of land, depletion of resources, accumulation of wastes, pollution of all kinds, climate change, abuses of technology, and destruction to biodiversity in all its forms together constitute a unique threat to human welfare unknown to previous generations. As Lovelock has written elsewhere,
We have grown in number to the point where our presence is perceptibly disabling the planet like a disease. As in human diseases there are four possible outcomes: destruction of the invading disease organisms; chronic infection; destruction of the host; or symbiosis – a lasting relationship of mutual benefit to the host and the invader.
The question is how to achieve that symbiosis. We are far from it today. Lovelock eloquently examines each of the main issues, most arising from the effects of the industrial revolution, in particular use of fossil fuels, chemicals, agriculture and living space. He then goes on to suggest how we might – at long last – begin to cope. As has been well said, the first requirement is to recognize that the problems exist. The second is to understand and draw the right conclusions. The third is to do something about them. Today we are somewhere between stages one and two.
When applied to the problems of present society, the concept of Gaia can be extended to current thinking about values: the way we look at and judge the world around us, and above all how we behave. This has particular application in the field of economics, where fashionable delusions about the supremacy of market forces are so deeply entrenched, and the responsibility of government to protect the public interest is so often ignored. Rarely do we measure costs correctly: thus the mess of current energy and transport policy, and the failure to assess the likely impacts of climate change.
The main difference between the past and today is that our problems are truly global. As Lovelock points out, we are currently trapped in a vicious circle of positive feedback. What happens in one place very soon affects what happens in others. We are dangerously ignorant of our own ignorance, and rarely try to see things as a whole. If we are eventually to achieve a human society in harmony with nature, we must be guided by more respect for it. No wonder that some have wanted to make a religion of Gaia, or of life as such. This book is a marvellous introduction to the science of how our species should make its peace with the rest of the world in which we live.

The symbol † indicates that further definition is given in the glossary (pp. 160 – 65).

The State of the Earth
Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
King James Bible, Matthew 23:24
As always, bad events usurp the news agenda, and as I write in the comfort of my Devon home, the New Orleans catastrophe fills the television screens and front pages. Horrific though it was, it distracts us from the more extensive suffering caused by the tsunami in December 2004 that disastrously splashed across the bowl of the Indian Ocean. That awful event starkly revealed the power of the Earth to kill. The planet we live on has merely to shrug to take some fraction of a million people to their death. But this is nothing compared with what may soon happen; we are now so abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does most of us, and our descendants, will die. It is as if we were committed to live through the mythical tale of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen and see our Valhalla melt in torrid heat.
But I hear you say, 'What? Another book on global warming; isn't what was once a scare now becoming overkill?' If this book were no more than a reiteration of the arguments and counterarguments you would be right, and it would be one book too many. What makes it different is that I speak as a planetary physician whose patient, the living Earth, complains of fever; I see the Earth's declining health as our most important concern, our very lives depending upon a healthy Earth. Our concern for it must come first, because the welfare of the burgeoning masses of humanity demands a healthy planet.
At this point my friends and colleagues will wince and wish that I would give up talking of our planet as a form of life. I understand their concern but I am unrepentant; had I not first thought of the Earth this way we might all have remained 'scientifically correct' but lacked enlightenment about its true nature. Thanks to the concept of Gaia we now see that our planet is entirely different from its dead siblings Mars and Venus. Like one of us, it controls its temperature and composition so as always to be comfortable, and it has done this ever since life began over three billion years ago. To put it bluntly, dead planets are like stone statues, which if put in an oven and heated to 80°C remain unchanged. I would die and so would you if heated that hot, and so would the Earth.
Only when we think of our planetary home as if it were alive can we see, perhaps for the first time, why farming abrades the living tissue of its skin and why pollution is poisonous to it as well as to us. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide and methane gas in the atmosphere have consequences quite different from those that would occur on a dead planet like Mars. The living Earth's response to what we do will depend not merely on the extent of our land use and pollutions but also on its current state of health. When the Earth was young and strong, it resisted adverse change and the failure of its own temperature regulation; now it may be elderly and less resilient.
Sustainable development, supported by the use of renewable energy, is the fashionable approach to living with the Earth, and it is the platform of green-thinking politicians. Opposing this view, particularly in the United States, are the many who still regard global warming as a fiction and favour business as usual. Their thinking is well expressed in the recent novel by Michael Crichton, State of Fear, and by that saintly woman, Mother Theresa, who in 1988 said, 'Why should we care about the Earth when our duty is to the poor and the sick among us. God will take care of the Earth.' In truth, neither faith in God nor trust in business as usual, nor even commitment to sustainable development, acknowledges our true dependence; if we fail to take care of the Earth, it surely will take care of itself by making us no longer welcome. Those with faith should look again at our Earthly home and see it as a holy place, part of God's creation, but something that we have desecrated. Anne Primavesi's book Gaia's Gift shows the way to consilience between faith and Gaia.
When I hear the phrase 'sustainable development' I recall the definition given by Gisbert Glaser, the senior advisor to the International Council for Science, who said in a guest editorial of the International Geosphere Biosphere Program (IGBP) newsletter, 'Sustainable development is a moving target. It represents the continuous effort to balance and integrate the three pillars of social well-being, economic prosperity and environmental protection for the benefit of present and future generations.' Many consider this noble policy morally superior to the laissez faire of business as usual. Unfortunately for us, these wholly different approaches, one the expression of international decency, the other of unfeeling market forces, have the same outcome: the probability of disastrous global change. The error they share is the belief that further development is possible and that the Earth will continue, more or less as now, for at least the first half of this century. Two hundred years ago, when change was slow or non-existent, we might have had time to establish sustainable development, or even have continued for a while with business as usual, but now is much too late; the damage has already been done. To expect sustainable development or a trust in business as usual to be viable policies is like expecting a lung cancer victim to be cured by stopping smoking; both measures deny the existence of the Earth's disease, the fever brought on by a plague of people. Despite their difference, they come from religious and humanist beliefs which regard the Earth as there to be exploited for the good of humankind. When there were only one billion of us in 1800, these ignorant policies were acceptable because they caused little harm. Now, they travel two different roads that will soon merge into a rocky path to a Stone Age existence on an ailing planet, one where few of us survive among the wreckage of our once biodiverse Earth.
Why are we so slow, especially in the United States, to see the great peril that faces us and civilization? What stops us from realizing that the fever of global heating is real and deadly and might already have moved outside our and the Earth's control? I think that we reject the evidence that our world is changing because we are still, as that wonderfully wise biologist E. O. Wilson reminded us, tribal carnivores. We are programmed by our inheritance to see other living things as mainly something to eat, and we care more about our national tribe than anything else. We will even give our lives for it and are quite ready to kill other humans in the cruellest of ways for the good of our tribe. We still find alien the concept that we and the rest of life, from bacteria to whales, are parts of the much larger and diverse entity, the living Earth.
Science is supposed to be objective, so why has it failed to warn us sooner of these dangers? Global heating was lightly discussed by several authors in the mid twentieth century, but even that great climatologist Hubert Lamb, in his 1972 book Climate: Present, Past and Future, had only one page on the greenhouse effect in a work covering 600 pages. The subject did not go public until about 1988; before that, most atmospheric scientists were so absorbed by the intriguing science of stratospheric ozone depletion that they had little time for other environmental problems. Among the brave pioneers of the larger issues of global change were the American scientists Stephen Schneider and Jim Hansen. I first met Schneider in the late 1970s during a visit to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, an entrancing place of science perched on a mountainside at Boulder in Colorado, and our paths through science have been interlaced ever since. In his book with Randi Londer, The Coevolution of Climate and Life, published in 1984, he warns of the probable consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels and recommends the need for a strategic control of emissions, not the business as usual of market forces. Jim Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies was equally strong in his warnings, and on 23 June 1988 he told the United States Senate that the Earth was now warmer than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements. The best and most complete histories of this period are in John Gribbin's book Hothouse Earth, published in 1990, Schneider's 1989 book, Global Warming, and Fred Pearce's Turning up the Heat, published in 1989.


On Sale
Aug 2, 2007
Page Count
208 pages
Basic Books

James Lovelock

About the Author

James Lovelock is the author of more than two hundred scientific papers and the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis (now Gaia Theory). In September 2005, Prospect magazine named him as one of the world’s top 100 global public intellectuals. He lives in Louceston, England.

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