05 May 2012

Beyond Clever

Written by Published in Art & Culture

The present climate nightmare is a perfect example of two kinds of intelligence locked in a battle: the rational beauty of scientific progress, and then how we address the reality it uncovers

This past month has been a roller-coaster ride of success and struggle for the climate agenda. Nature Climate Change has just published a feature on Cape Farewell: Climate is Culture, plus we’re on the cover. Success! The UK government is dragging its feet over its climate commitment – ‘we are going to be the greenest government ever’ – uphill struggle. The Science Museum in London has been offered the chance of hosting the James Lovelock archive – success! But they have to raise half a million pounds to keep this great resource in the UK – struggle.

At the launch of the fund-raising campaign at the Science Museum, Vivienne Westwood raised Lovelock to the status of a ‘great’ scientist as important, or more important, than Einstein or Newton. The argument is not just media spin: it was Lovelock who alerted us to the ozone hole, and his theory on Gaia is scientifically groundbreaking and, importantly, it is about us, as humans, and how the scientific agenda has to match the mess, chaos and ambition of human activity.

It is brilliant that we know the physics of how our planetary system was formed, and the laws that govern the speed of light, but these truths are distant from our human lives – they are literally in another time. Space is factual. What Lovelock has spent his scientific life trying to achieve is to match the natural laws that govern our planet with the way we humans live. This humanising of scientific theory should rightly elevate him to the status of ‘great’.

He writes in The Vanishing Face of Gaia:

Nothing that I have read in a long life better explains our agonising condition. We have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves; we can communicate and exchange our deep thoughts and keep them outside our minds as a permanent record. We have all this, but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet. Our inherited urge to be fruitful and multiply, and to ensure that our own tribe rules the earth, thwarts our best intentions.

Lovelock holds up a mirror for us: his success in communicating the complexities of a possible symbiotic natural and animal relationship is set against the human capability of denial when faced with the challenge of engaging with climate change. His warnings are often so alarmist and pessimistic that the media parody him, and we in turn dismiss his dire warnings as indulgent folly. I am often confronted with the fact that it is the scientists – the most rational and logical of professionals – and not the artists who have the imagination to perceive the trouble we and our planet are in.

Human activity is now on such a scale that we are dwarfing the monumental power of nature itself. It is we who are melting the northern ice cap with our CO2 emissions, and it is we who are subjecting great swathes of our own population to water shortage, starvation and the abandoning of habitats. Lovelock again:

We are deeply impressed by the power of our weapons, yet they are puny compared with the most powerful weapon of all: creative intelligence. Consider how many of the great and powerful empires have been brought down by ideas alone.

His idea of Gaia theory is monumental, creative intelligence at its best, and could indeed turn the tide of our culture. Having his ideas, and his archive as a resource at the Science Museum and online, available to us all, would be a great result, another success.

Churchill, when taking over the reins of government in the national emergency at the beginning of the Second World War, understood the power of the idea and put out a call for the UK’s best creative minds to apply themselves to the war effort. His ask was not for what we could do, but for us to address what needed to be done. There is an ocean between what we ourselves can do and what needs to be done to address the true magnitude of anthropogenic climate change. This ambition is self-serving, something we as humans are very good at. Getting it right, applying ourselves to what needs to be done, also gets it right for our children.

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