In defence of optimism
by Mark Stevenson
Video still: John Gray and James Lovelock. Click here to watch the full conversation
9 May 2011
As 400 souls gather to hear James Lovelock and John Gray at The Artangel Longplayer Conversation 2011 I find myself wondering how many of us might leave with any remaining will to live. James Lovelock, most famous as the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, is on record as saying that as a result of climate change “we’ll be lucky if there are a billion [people] left”. This translates to a cull of over eighty-five percent of all humanity. Political philosopher John Gray meanwhile is known for his view that free will, and hence morality, is an illusion. On paper, this looks like a conversation to confirm that we’re all doomed (Lovelock), and what’s worse that there’s nothing we can do about it (Gray). The evening, however, turns out to be more comic and uplifting than I have any right to expect.
Right off the bat Lovelock asserts just how important he believes human beings are.
“It has taken three and a half billion years for the Earth system to produce us. We are incredibly valuable to the Earth. For the very first time the planet has been able to see itself through our eyes from space and see what an incredibly beautiful planet it is, compared to Mars or Venus. Having on board an animal like us, if we evolve a bit and get a bit more capable, we have a chance of being something that can gradually integrate with the rest of the planetary system and really truly be a part of it, just as our brain is a part of us.”
This echoes my own views – we’re beginning to realise that we’re no longer Earth’s tenants, but its landlords. Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline puts it more strongly: “We are as Gods and we have to get good at it”.
But just as I’m thinking this means Lovelock has embraced the idea that innovation will play a part in saving us, Gray asks “With climate change already programmed, what should we do?” and Lovelock replies, “Nothing. We’re not smart enough yet.” Later he repeats the point: “We’re not only somewhat stupid, we also have a lot of hubris. Just doing something is likely to lead to worse results than doing nothing.”
Gray counters, suggesting that our ‘do something rather than nothing’ nature may be a good thing: “it’s the irrational optimists who survive, not the realistic pessimists”. It’s like this for much of the next hour. Humans are stupid, but you can’t stop them having a go, bless them. It strikes me there is a brilliant existential sit-com waiting to be written by our two speakers, whose pithy one-liners demonstrate a wry sense of humour. Humans are not really evil, just a bit hapless. They’re lovely, just don’t give them anything difficult to do.
Human innovation in a positive direction is accepted but not without reference to the role of war – Lovelock asserts that if you “got rid of war altogether science would slow up massively”. Which is great for Sitcom Earth, but overlooks the fact that the world is currently more peaceful than it has been while innovation progresses at an unprecedented pace. And although Lovelock asserts that “messing about with geo-engineering” could lead to “a gigantic mistake that could make things a lot worse than they were” he has, in collaboration with Chris Rapley, proposed a geo-engineering solution to climate change: placing vertical pipes 200 meters long in the sea that pump nutrient-rich water from below and thus encouraging the growth carbon-hungry algae .
It’s difficult to be depressed by Lovelock and Gray. They’re less curmudgeons than critical friends, raising important challenges to the wide-eyed techno-optimist. Throughout the night, they can’t help but accord the human animal a grudging respect for its ability to innovate, even while suggesting civilisation should sit on its collective hands a while longer. Gray quotes Mark Twain: “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes”. I’d add that the tune is just as likely to change from minor to major as it is in the other direction. Especially if more of us start playing it that way.
It’s a comment from the floor that becomes my ‘take home’ moment:
“The trouble with pessimism is that the problems of the future are always knowable, but the solutions are not knowable. The solutions are the province of science, of the things humans do, and by their nature humans are creative and not predictable. So we tend to have a dimmer view of the future than I think we deserve to have”
Ending the talk Gray asks Lovelock if it was the human groups who “adapt intelligently that have a better a chance”.
“Yes,” comes the reply.
Perhaps one of those intelligent adaptations is to accept and embrace those earlier-mentioned 'irrational' optimists – the ones who survive precisely because they believe a better world is possible – and in doing so give permission for the rest of us to do the same. I think, despite it all, that’s what Gray and Lovelock believe too.
Mark Stevenson is the author of An Optimist's Tour of the Future.
The Artangel Longplayer Conversation 2011 took place at RIBA in London on 18 April 2011. Click here for more information.