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When Hans Ulrich Obrist met Gaia theorist James Lovelock

Following the release of Ever Gaia, Hans Ulrich Obrist discusses the Gaia hypothesis, breaking the barriers between disciplines, and the power of worldbuilding

“Rational thinking has been the greatest mistake to befall humans,” asserts the renowned environmentalist and originator of the Gaia Theory, James Lovelock, in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s latest text, Ever Gaia. A meeting of two great intellects, Ever Gaia is a conversation dating back to 2015 when Obrist travelled down to Lovelock’s home off the coast of Dorset. Across 200 pocket-sized pages, it celebrates Lovelock’s life and career – in particular, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which sees the world as an entangled series of living creatures that generate their own environment.

Today, the idea that the Earth is a totality of interconnected living beings is commonly accepted – but Lovelock reveals that wasn’t always the case, with biologists in the 70s even going so far as to proclaim Gaia “an evil religion”. Yet as humanity’s impact on nature can no longer be ignored, it’s become clear that “the real world is far, far more complicated than we shall ever understand”. Nature is unpredictable all the way down to the bacteria in our bodies and our surroundings. The same bacteria that ruled the Earth for two billion years before the first animals crawled out of the water and onto the land. As Lovelock puts it: “The future of the Earth depends on us as much as it depended on the bacteria.”

But beyond flora and fauna, the Gaia theory has applications across culture; Lovelock’s idea of entanglement can be felt in the online spaces we inhabit. From the memes we share to chatbots and deepfakes, the rapid pace of technology is altering the ways we perceive not only ourselves but the world around us. Below, Obrist delves into his meeting with Lovelock, the Gaia hypothesis, and the power of worldbuilding in imagining new worlds.

What initially drew you to James Lovelock as a subject?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I had long been an admirer of Lovelock, in large part thanks to the Gaia hypothesis, which he began developing with the genius biologist Lynn Margulis. To put it simply, the Gaia hypothesis suggests that the Earth can be viewed as a single self-regulating organism. Once you learn of it, it’s impossible to shake – it reshapes how you look at everything.

But he was also one of our great inventors, a restless tinkerer responsible for machines that helped put us on the moon and showed the presence of harmful chemicals in the atmosphere. After years of reading his books and discussing them with friends like the late Bruno Latour, I wanted to know how he came up with his ideas, which always seemed to turn the world on its head. So I went out to meet the man himself. He was in his late 90s then, but he was exceptionally sharp and quick. His approach to invention is really the heart of this book. I think we still have a lot to learn from him.

What about the Gaia hypothesis makes it particularly relevant to conversations surrounding climate change now?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: What Lovelock noticed about the world was its entanglement – and of course, on a societal level, our world has never been more entangled than it is now. The Gaia hypothesis is a shift in perspective away from monoliths. Everything on Earth – all lifeforms but also abiotic material – is not just intertwined but interdependent. This is also an idea to inject into art.

How can we use Lovelock’s ideas on Gaia to reprogramme our attitudes towards the current climate crisis?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: Lovelock was sceptical of many of the popular ideas for how to respond to the climate crisis. For instance, he did not align himself with certain prescriptions like sustainable development. His ethos to all this – which came from John Steiner’s idea of a psychic retreat – was more like a ‘sustainable retreat’, a way of recognising that humans have already impacted Earth in a way that can’t be frozen or reversed, and so we now must imagine a world without growth. How might that look?

Most importantly, though, is that he believed – as do I – that the only way to address any of the big problems of the 21st century is to work across disciplines. We need to acknowledge our interdependence. The barriers standing between politics, science, art – all of the disciplines – need to be broken down so that we can work together.

In Ever Gaia, you mention Lovelock’s final book Novacene, which imagines a rather optimistic future where cyborgs take over the planet entirely. How can AI and emerging technologies help us understand and face the issues surrounding the anthropocene?

Hans Ulrich Obrist: A big question! I don’t know if it’s for me to say. James Lovelock was one of pioneers of geoengineering, alongside Stewart Brand – and he could not imagine his kind of radical retreat without new technologies – which is why continuing to invent, at a microscopic as well as planetary scale remains key. I think video games, for example, can be a surface for exploring these questions. They are a kind of technology, software and hardware, for world building. Certainly, there are more ways we could thread technology and art as methods for building, creating new worlds – in an effort to understand and more meaningfully inhabit our own.

Ever Gaia is out now via Isolarii