Jim Lovelock has no university, no research institute, no students. His almost unparalleled influence in environmental science is based instead on a particular way of seeing things. It is a way of seeing things as systems of connections, responses and feedback that applies both to experiments and instruments (of which he is a gifted inventor), and to the world itself.
Studying the earth in the 1960s, Lovelock saw a system that was, in terms of atmospheric chemistry, utterly unstable and yet it had persisted for hundreds of millions of years. The control needed to combine such power and such stability, he decided, must have something to do with life. At the suggestion of his neighbor, the novelist William Golding, he called the living-system-as-self-regulator Gaia.
Lovelock has been my subject, friend and inspiration for 20 years. Humble, stubborn, charming, visionary, proud and generous, his ideas about Gaia have started a change in the conception of biology that may serve as a vital complement to the revolution that brought us the structures of dna and proteins and the genetic code. That revolution came from the realization that biology required an understanding of living systems at a molecular level; Lovelock's revolution, as yet unfinished, seeks to understand their mechanisms on a planetary level.
His Gaian thinking has led Lovelock to be pessimistic about the current carbon/climate crisis, which he expects to be harsher than most people do. But at the same time it provides an inspirational vision of what it might be to work with nature on a planetary scale. Gaia works only because it is open to the universe, powered not by finite internal stores of fuel but by the endless flow of solar energy through the system as a whole. There is no reason why we should not, by combining our understanding of the world-system at both molecular and planetary levels, open up our industrial civilization as the earth itself does, and weave our needs and uses for energy into the great flow of sunlight coursing through the world around us.
Oliver Morton is chief news and features editor of Nature, and the author of Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet
Next Robert Redford