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When Vivienne Westwood met Mother Earth’s champion James Lovelock

In 2009, Vivienne Westwood met the man who named Gaia – the British climate scientist James Lovelock. In the wake of Lovelock’s death this week, on his 103rd birthday, revisit their inspiring conversation from the Dazed archives

Taken from the July 2009 issue of Dazed:

A year ago, Vivienne Westwood guest-edited an issue of Dazed, and we had several meetings in which we discussed ideas for the issue, including the appearance of future youth tribes, and the relative merits of raving in the daytime. Vivienne also suggested that she interview James Lovelock – the independent scientist and environmentalist who proposed Gaia Theory (the concept that the earth behaves as a highly complex living organism) and a key inspiration behind her recent environmental activism. Although Lovelock’s idea was derided as New Age nonsense when he first published it in the 70s, it has slowly gained acceptance as one of the key explanations for climate change, and at the age of 90 he is now one of the world’s most respected scientific voices, predicting that billions of us will die in the coming century as a result of global warming (he has since changed his position: in a 2012 interview with MSNBC, he said that climate change is not happening as quickly as he predicted, and that he had been “extrapolating too far”.)

At the time, we were told that he was too busy holed up in his Devon cottage working on his new book to be interviewed – but earlier this year, we were informed he had completed The Vanishing Face of Gaia, and was coming to London to talk about it. So, in February, we crammed into a small meeting room in the Penguin offices on The Strand – Westwood, her brother Gordon Swire, a filmmaker for her website Active Resistance, Lovelock and his wife Sandy, our photographer, and myself – and over tea and biscuits discussed humanity’s imminent near-extinction by runaway climate change, what might be done to avert it, and why it could be too late already...

Vivienne Westwood: I would like to approach this on two levels – firstly, how can we ensure that the human race survives? And secondly, what can we do just in case your prediction has got a bit of space to be adjusted? Please tell us what we can do when this climate disaster strikes, how you think it will occur…

James Lovelock: Somebody once described war as hours and hours of boredom, and moments of panic. I think this is how climate change will affect people. There’ll be events, such as London flooding, and this will be devastating. Just imagine the tubes! They’d never get it straight again. But there will be long periods where nothing much happens, and you’ll even have sceptics saying, ‘Where’s this global warming gone?’

Vivienne Westwood: If London flooded, surely no one would be able to say, ‘Where’s global warming?’

James Lovelock: You see, it doesn’t work like that. In 1953, there was what was called a storm tide event in the North Sea. At the high spring tide, a storm blew the water down the North Sea – thousands died in Belgium, and we lost hundreds in this country, just from the violence of that sudden inundation. What will happen with the London flood is a repeat of that event. These things don’t happen very often, perhaps every hundred years or so, but that’s often enough, and that’s how it will get us. Like New Orleans – only two years ago, the hurricane lifted water 20 metres above its normal level and flooded the whole city.

What do you think we should be doing as a society in terms of preparation? Is it really just a waste of time installing energy-saving lightbulbs?

James Lovelock: I think you’ve put your finger on it, really. We should stop trying to save the planet. We can’t, we don’t have the capacity, we’re not clever enough… it will save itself, as it always has. It won’t die and neither will we, because we’re a tough species, but it’s going to be a very rough time. So, what we should be doing is making where we live as fi t a place as possible, and preparing for the damage that will occur. In the UK our climate is going to be quite comfortable despite global warming, but Europe will be horrific. It’s going to be hideous – it’ll be a climate very much like the one Baghdad has now. People will survive, but nothing will grow. There will be floods and refugees coming to live in this country. And what will we do with them? It’s a monumental job, and that’s why I say forget this nonsense about wind turbines and tidal power schemes. There’s not time, we’ve got more urgent jobs to do.

Vivienne Westwood: With regards to electricity, you strongly advocate the use of nuclear energy, as a stop-gap at least?

James Lovelock: I think so, certainly for Britain, Germany, Holland, and other over-crowded nations. It wouldn’t apply to Iceland – they’ve got all the energy they need from geothermal. It also wouldn’t apply to America because they have solar energy, and in regions like Arizona it’s so powerful. We don’t have sunlight like that.

“If young people don't listen to him, they're either stupid or just don't care” – Vivienne Westwood

Some leading environmentalists have recently changed their position on nuclear energy, and are now in favour of it. It’s an emotional issue...

James Lovelock: I‘ve always been in favour of it, because nearly all the anti-stories about nuclear energy are propaganda, they’re not truth at all. During the Cold War everyone was rightly scared of a nuclear war, and people equated in their minds the horrors of nuclear war with nuclear energy, but there’s just no connection in reality. We’ve had nuclear energy in this country for about 40 years, and during that time not a single person has been killed. Not a single person has even been injured by radiation. The only damaging acts in the world were in Russia at the time of its Soviet empire, when everything was in a mess, and it was nowhere near as bad as it was made out to be. I think it killed 75 people according to the United Nations, but most people think of Chernobyl as a monumental disaster. It was nothing like the industrial disaster at Bhopal in India that killed 3,000 people in a night, and a similar number of people a night for the rest of the week. That was really nasty, but nobody hears about Bhopal.

Vivienne Westwood: So, what can we do – stop heating the planet up, or maybe try some kind of geo-engineering project to try and cool it down?

James Lovelock: Well, think of the earth as alive – a living thing. Imagine you’ve got a horse in a stable and it’s getting too hot, and the horse really feels in danger… you’re not going to stop it by saying, ‘Calm down, it’s not as bad as you think.’ It takes a long time to cool down an animal as large as a horse. It’s much more likely to kick down the stable and go running out to where it’s cool, and that’s just what the earth is doing. In its history, which is very long – it’s over a quarter of the age of the universe – the earth has got a few havens to go to when things get rough. And one of its favourite havens when it starts heating up is a state about fi ve degrees hotter than it is now, and once it starts running to those temperatures you’re not going to stop it, and that’s it.

Vivienne Westwood: I’m calling my new collection “Plus Five Degrees”, but that is more to do with the idea that we might be able to prevent this happening. But you’re saying that we can’t really do anything?

James Lovelock: I’m not saying we can’t do anything. We’ll certainly try and do lots of things. There is one thing that will have effect, definitely, and remove the carbon dioxide from the air, and that is by convincing farmers everywhere to turn their waste products into charcoal, and either bury it in the ground, or drop it in the sea and let it sink. That would be far more powerful than any industrial scheme, or any crazy ideas like burying carbon from power stations and CO2 in the ground – we’ll never get that done, and I think most of the companies involved in energy production know that. But there are always huge government subsidies for any of these things, and that’s the problem. I can remember three years ago we visited big firms in the city after a lecture I had given, and they just loved the idea of all the money they’d gain out of carbon trading. They weren’t concerned with the earth 50 years from now, they were just concerned with next year and their bonus.

Vivienne Westwood: So, if people would agree to try to turn waste into charcoal, you think that might be something that could be effective?

James Lovelock: 
That’s right. But you have to think of human nature, if people are then going to lose money from selling coal, or oil, or windmills, or something, we’re going to find all sorts of objections to burying charcoal. It’s already happening. There are papers from what I call “tame scientists” coming up, pointing out the drawbacks of putting charcoal in the soil.

One of the technologies you don’t mention in your book is nuclear fusion. Is that because you think its development is just too far away to be within the realms of possibility?

James Lovelock: No, I think it’s got quite a good chance of providing us with electricity. The real problem is the lack of will.

Why, because apparently we spend more on ringtones every year than we do on its development?

James Lovelock: Yeah, that’s why. But don’t forget, if it worked in 20 years, it would still take another 20 years before they had fusion stations – whereas you could have a nuclear power station in a maximum of four and a half years, and replacing the old ones would be less than that.

Gordon Swire: In your books you talk about “tribal carnivores” and how that’s what we are as tribes. Do you not see a positive aspect in terms of the tribes getting smaller and the world becoming a smaller place? Governments are now starting to cooperate on an international level, for example.

James Lovelock: I do. It’s a damn good question and a hopeful one. My view is very much, yes, that is what our future might well be, and I’m hoping that the awful side of the event coming up will select a better class of humans who are more likely to be of that ilk than the ones we’ve got around at the moment. Don’t forget that that’s a good sign, but it’s amazing how almost any group of us can go in for genocide if we get steamed up enough about the tribe next door. It’s in all of us. It’s part of our inheritance.

Gordon Swire: I suppose the fact that there hasn’t been a nuclear war since World War II is a truly amazing feat.

“We should stop trying to save the planet – we're not clever enough... It will save itself as it always has. It won't die and neither will be... but it's going to be a very rough time” – James Lovelock

James Lovelock: That’s because the generals are too scared that they’d blow up their memoirs! A quixotic cooperation when you’re scared stiff of each other – I hope that’s not what we live like in the future. I like your suggestion very much, and it answers my first question in some ways. I have to be fairly negative because as one of the only scientists in this game who are wholly independent and don’t get money from any single group, all I support myself on is my own efforts like writing books and doing odd jobs for people. As the only independent, I’ve got to say what I really think. People in the IPCC, for example, individual scientists who would lose their jobs if they say what I say… many of them think just the same as I do.

One of the things you say in your book is that the problem with the green movement is that it needs a leader, a kind of Churchill figure. Where do you think that leader will come from?

James Lovelock: You don’t really get a change unless there is a major disaster that really shakes you up and then, by good luck, there emerges a leader. We saw it in 1939 in Britain – suddenly, everybody was thinking there was going to be a war but we didn’t want to join it. But after a short while, everybody started pulling together in the most amazing way, and putting up with rations that in peacetime would have caused riots. Leaders are very important, and although I think Churchill was a lousy politician and a bit of an idiot in many ways, he was a wonderful orator, a rabble-rouser and a stirrer, and that made everybody feel very good. We need to look on the disasters of climate change as equivalent to warfare, and the kind of thing that brings everyone together. Then they’ll stop being quite so damn selfish as they are otherwise.

Vivienne Westwood: Is it a mistake to rely on this idea that we will be able to get rid of the C02?

James Lovelock: What we should be thinking about is not trying to stop it but preparing for the new world that’s to come. It’s not a bad world but it’s not fi t for seven billion people. There’ll be lots of places, not only on this island but places like Canada, Siberia and so on, and we’ve got to make wherever we are a civilized place. It’s an enormous challenge and I hope we’ll succeed. History tells us we might, you see: humans have been on the earth for a million years now and there have been seven events, like the one about to happen, during that time. That’s where the legends of the floods come from, because the sea level rose 120 metres at the last one, flooding an area equal to the size of Africa. And on one of those occasions, geneticists tell us only 2,000 people survived. We’ve all come from that group of 2,000; it’s amazing really.

Something else you mention in your book is Richard Branson offering you a place on one of his flights into space. How did that come about, and what do you hope for from that experience?

James Lovelock: It all started because a friend sent me an email to say, “Hey, have you seen this? Virgin Airlines are promoting Gaia bio-fuels. We know you’re utterly against bio-fuels.” I immediately emailed Sir Richard Branson saying I’d just heard this, and that for him to put the name Gaia to bio-fuels – one of the most damaging things you could do to the earth – was as bad as me opening a chain of brothels and naming them ‘Virgin’. He responded almost immediately – I think he’s a fun man, so he asked what would I think about having a free ride up into space?

Over the years, you’ve met with an awful lot of disagreement and outright hostility regarding your ideas. Where did you find the personal belief and drive to stick to your convictions?

James Lovelock: (Laughs) I’ve always been an obstinate person, and that’s it really. When I was a schoolboy, I was caned most days for absolutely refusing to do homework. I was not going to have the wretched school interfere with my private life, and I’d rather put up with a bit of pain than go along with it. That set me on course for a lifetime!

Vivienne Westwood: I do think that human beings can change, that you can temper your temper, you can learn all kinds of things, wisdom… but you cannot change your essential character. Whenever you feel you’ve got a choice because certain circumstances put you in a position that you’re not used to, in the end you’ve never got a choice, you will only behave according to your character. There’s nothing you can do about it.

James Lovelock: Absolutely. And it’s a pity it takes us so long to discover that wisdom.

Vivienne Westwood: Aristotle said that the process of nature is the conquest of matter by structure, and I just thought that was pretty amazing.

James Lovelock: There’s not too much doubt among physicists that the universe started in a very small volume indeed. And gradually as it has expanded and grown cooler, remarkable things can happen like stars and planets, and eventually even more remarkable things like us. One thing I haven’t said yet but that has moved me very much is the idea of learning from mistakes. You see, early in the earth’s history, three billion years ago, photosynthetic organisms – those that capture sunlight and turn it into food and oxygen – appeared on the planet. And when they made their oxygen, it was a deadly poisonous gas, and they did more mayhem than we’re doing on a grand scale… they must have wiped out whole ranges of species! But gradually over time, the earth learned, and the rest of life, to turn that to an advantage, and that oxygen enabled us to exist. Now, I see humans as like this. We have now evolved collective intelligence, so that the planet, Gaia, for the first time in three billion years, can see herself from space and see what a beautiful planet she is. And perhaps we’ll have the capacity in the future to protect her, when we’re far cleverer than we are now, from dangers from the outside, like asteroids coming in and what have you. And in that way we will be able to extend her lifespan, as well as our own.

Visit Active Resistance to find out more about Vivienne Westwood’s manifesto. All images from He Knew He Was Right: The Irrepressible Life of James Lovelock and Gaia, published by Allen Lane