It is no surprise that a sense of “polycrisis” (or “permacrisis”) is percolating through the collective consciousness. It is as if we have been wrong-footed by a complex, dynamic, organic, willful reality. A place where a rapidly spreading, mutating virus can lock us down and suddenly deer are wandering brazenly down the road in place of cars. Where the captain of a container ship tries desperately to correct its wandering path only to amplify its oscillations, wedge it across the Suez Canal, and stop the flow of goods along global supply chains. A place where the weakened meanderings of the jet stream allow a merciless “heat dome” to expand over North America and torch a town to the ground in twenty minutes. Where a despot with confused notions of sovereignty starts a war in Ukraine and threatens nuclear escalation. Where unelected libertarians take power in the UK, slash taxes, free “the market,” and the market replies: “No, this is madness.”
Someone who was not surprised by such coupled crises, and indeed foretold of some of them, was the late Jim Lovelock. For the second half century of his remarkable (and long) life, he gave the world a new view of our complex, organic, willful reality—called Gaia. It’s a humbling worldview, but then Jim was a humble person. It is a worldview we need now, more than ever, if we are going to navigate the increasingly troubled waters that we have put ourselves in. Jim offered us a map and compass for a situation that requires a fundamental reorientation: “The Gaia hypothesis implies that the stable state of our planet includes man as part of, or partner in, a very democratic entity.” “In Gaia we are just another species, neither the owners nor the stewards of this planet. Our future depends much more on a right relationship with Gaia than with the never-ending drama of human interest.”
Jim’s greatest qualities were his inventiveness and his extraordinary ability to make new connections. For Jim, necessity was very much the mother of invention, and one invention would sometimes generate opportunities and necessities that triggered the next. Answering the challenge to make a more sensitive gas chromatograph, he invented the argon detector. The peculiar cases where it failed led him to invent the electron capture detector. That device provided the data to start the environmental movement and led to an invitation from NASA for Jim to join the space program, where the idea of Gaia was born out of necessity: Jim’s dismissal of his biologist colleagues’ approach to searching for life on Mars led to an ultimatum from the director to come up with a better approach or face the sack. Jim’s insight that life would leave its signature as disequilibrium in the composition of a planet’s atmosphere led him to realize that life is not just transforming but also somehow involved in regulating the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, and with that the climate. Thus, the Gaia hypothesis was born.
This is not to say that regulation is (or was always) perfect. Rather, Jim’s key insight was that life has fundamentally altered its own conditions for surviving and flourishing on Earth—and continues to do so. This happens through a pattern of short intervals of tumultuous change that punctate long intervals of comparative stability. There is no “environment” separate from us organisms—life is continually transforming its surroundings, taking in matter and energy in particular forms and excreting them in different forms, creating extraordinary cycles of all the elements it needs to flourish. Very occasionally something evolves that seriously disrupts the status quo, producing new waste products, changing the atmosphere and climate, triggering extinctions—and we appear to be the latest “something.” But we all recognize the climate is—or was—regulated, otherwise we would not be so exercised by the realization that we are knocking it out of whack.
When crisis hits, a change of direction is usually needed. The rich will still gather in Davos and try to plot a “green growth” course out of catastrophe. But who does not harbor doubts that we can grow our way out of the trouble that growth got us into in the first place? Jim rejected the notion of sustainable development and argued instead that we need to chart a sustainable retreat. In his 2015 conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist that appears in Ever Gaia, he also offers us some bearings to follow. Jim argued that we need invention now more than we need science. By science he meant both explanation and the institutions of academia. For sure we are struggling to understand what is unfolding around us, but the necessity for change is clear enough, hence the urgent priority should be to start innovating our way out of trouble. To do that, we need to transcend divisions between disciplines and between art and science. And we need fleet-of-foot organizations and governance. Our factioned academic institutions are too ponderous for urgent times.
I have fond memories of going to see Jim in the same cottage on the beach in Dorset as Hans Ulrich did, to tease out the same extraordinary biographical story—getting ready to do it in front of a live audience at Jim’s centenary meeting that I hosted in Exeter in 2019. I first met Jim in 1992 at his previous home, Coombe Mill, on the border of Devon and Cornwall. As an undergraduate I had been captivated by his books on Gaia and had determined that it was what I wanted to research when I graduated. I wrote to Jim to answer his call for “practitioners of planetary medicine,” and he invited me to visit, just as I turned nineteen. In my Ph.D. years that followed I would make monthly trips to learn from the master. Jim was still inventing things—usually early in the mornings, before I arrived, and mostly for the secret service, for example, to help sniff out explosives. Perhaps mirroring the evolution of Q in the James Bond films, instead of creating widgets, we worked together in the virtual world of computers. Inventing planets inhabited by life, or simulating the early Earth. Exploring the different ways in which something like Gaia could come about.
But Jim’s thinking went well beyond trying to explain the unique entity that is Gaia. What we might call Jim’s Gaian approach can help us comprehend the other complex, dynamic, organic, willful networks of actors within Gaia that are currently creating the “polycrisis.” It can also offer a guide to acting within this new reality. The Gaian approach was enriched by the final great intellectual connection in Jim’s life—to the late Bruno Latour, to whom Hans Ulrich starts to introduce Jim in their 2015 conversation. Bruno more than anyone understood Gaia from the bottom up as Jim’s “very democratic entity.” In Latourian terms, Gaia is the consequence of autonomous living beings forming networks that extend their consequences across space and time. Trace their chemical, physical, and informational consequences, and connections, as far as they stretch, and you will arrive at Gaia—four billion years of life transforming the world.
We have been collectively slow to realize how far our own influences are extending across space—to be changing the climate. And we can barely comprehend the long echo they will leave in time—the half million or so years that some of our fossil CO2 will remain in the atmosphere. The resulting prevention of ice age cycles. The species that will never return. The great diversification event that will follow the extinction event we have started. If necessity is the mother of invention, Gaia is the mother of necessity—for all of us. We must learn to live within her “planetary boundaries” if we are to have a future. But a sustainable retreat is not a restrictive or retrogressive step. It is a pathway to flourishing that will need to be anchored on a different goal than maximizing GDP.
As Bruno and I wrote, we humans could still add a little self-awareness to the Earth’s self-regulation. If we start consciously deciding to act differently to stop disrupting our life-support system, that would be a new kind of feedback for Gaia. So how do we need to innovate to get there? We’ll need to learn a few simple lessons from prior Gaia as to what supports sustainable flourishing. Firstly, societies need to become “autotrophic” rather than “heterotrophic”—powered by renewable energy from the sun, not the ancient sunlight trapped in fossil fuels from the ground. That transformation is just beginning, but the reinforcing feedbacks propelling it suggest that within a generation renewable energy could dominate. Secondly, we must recycle all the materials we need to thrive rather than just getting them out of the ground or the atmosphere, using them once, dumping them as waste, and living in an increasingly soiled nest. Current progress toward a “circular economy” is woefully poor when compared with Gaia. Thirdly, we need to revisit the flows of information—or lack of them—in our societies. For the products and services we enjoy, we should be able to easily see their impact on Gaia (let alone other people). But currently we are living in a realm of restricted information flows where data is increasingly monetized merely to try to sell us more things with which to impact Gaia.
It is easy to despair, and I am still mourning the loss of my friends Jim and Bruno, who died within months of each other in 2022. I find myself increasingly drawn to the wild expanses of Dartmoor, for long runs and walks. Recently I bumped into a friend sat on High Willhays—the highest point in Southern England. The same friend has built a Passivhaus home with solar panels charging their electric car, around which fly bees making honey in their wildflower garden. As we wandered to Yes Tor, they asked me if I have given up hope in humanity acting on climate change. I said no, but then I wondered, “Why not?” Where does the optimism come from? It was something I shared with Jim. Is it wider identification with Gaia? The knowledge that the sphagnum mosses, lichens, and microbes around me would thrive regardless of our fate. That if the sheep disappeared with us, the temperate rainforest would again spread out from its remnant fragments to cloak the sides of the valleys around me. That life always bounces back. Maybe—but there is more to it than that. We still have a chance to turn the “polycrisis” into a “polyopportunity,” and Jim Lovelock gifted us a Gaian approach to doing that. Can anybody else out there hear a gentle voice, and see a twinkle in the eyes, leading us in a different direction?