Allen Lane £20 (178pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897; Allen Lane £20 (240pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897

The Vanishing Face of Gaia, By James Lovelock
He Knew He Was Right, By John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin

It is one of the supreme ironies of intellectual and scientific history that a profound new understanding of the Earth should come along just in time to forecast its end.

Perhaps not the end of the planet itself, but certainly the end of much of the life that has flourished upon it, and of human society: to foresee this has become in the last few years the role of the Gaia theory, the compelling idea of the British scientist James Lovelock, that our world behaves like a single organism, and possesses a planetary-scale control system which keeps the environment fit for living things.

Forty years ago when he worked it out, Lovelock named the system after the Greek goddess of the Earth, creating in many people's eyes a new Earth Mother, benevolent and all-wise, watching over us. Now he believes that our abuses of the planet are making this system work against us, and that this means climate change, the greatest threat the human world has ever faced, will be impossible to solve, and will soon destroy civilisation as we know it, perhaps within the lifetime of a person born today.

Can there ever have been such a double leap inside the head of a thinker? First, to conceive of an entirely new way of looking at life on Earth, the first since Darwin, with the revolutionary insight that it is living things themselves, interacting with their environment, which maintain the stable conditions we need to exist – stable air temperature, stable composition of the atmosphere, stable salinity of the sea.

To have that accepted by mainstream scientific opinion involved a struggle of many years – it is widely accepted now – and most of us might want to rest on our laurels when it was done. But then, half a lifetime later, to become convinced that it is this very system which means we will not be able to escape the terrible consequences of our own despoiling of the biosphere with the waste products we are pouring into it, greenhouse gases above all. Well! These are two succeeding insights, each enormous in scale; they would normally belong to two successive and enormous intellects; yet they followed each other in the head of the same man.

He will be 90 in July. There is no sign of diminution, however, of James Lovelock's intellectual powers or his energy, no slipping in the logic of his thinking, the logic which led remorselessly from his proclamation of Gaia the protector, to the role he plays now as ringer of the planetary alarm bells, and which he takes up once more in his new book. The Vanishing Face of Gaia follows on from the 2006 book in which he announced the danger, The Revenge of Gaia, and if the second goes over some of the same ground as the first, it does so with enormous force and lucidity.

At the heart of Lovelock's concern is feedback, that feature of cybernetics, or the control of systems, in which a part of the output of a process returns to affect the input; his key insight in the conception of the Gaia theory was that the Earth, or the "Earth System", was maintained in a stable state by a whole series of feedback mechanisms. They were benevolent; but our stressing of the system, Lovelock is convinced, means they will now turn against us and combine to amplify the changes to come.

A perfect example is the melting of the Arctic sea ice. As it disappears, the bright surface which reflected back much of the sun's warmth goes with it, leaving dark ocean, which absorbs more heat, which leads in turn to more melting, and so on. The Vanishing Face of Gaia makes a gripping, convincing and indeed terrifying case that this process, this moving of the whole Gaian system against us, will make catastrophic global warming impossible to stop, and that the end of our current way of life is far closer than almost anyone imagines.

If you are coming to Lovelock fresh, in picking it up, you will quite simply never have read a book like this. Lovelock believes that the UN's climate scientists (who were accused of exaggerating by the Bush administration) have in fact grossly underestimated the speed at which climate change is happening, and that what we must do now is concentrate on survival. His recipes are as controversial as his forecasts are unpalatable, in particular, his urging us to abandon renewable energy schemes as a waste of time and concentrate on nuclear power.

And yet the man behind this apocalyptic message has been led there solely by logic and a unusually fertile mind; in his personal life, as John and Mary Gribbin make abundantly clear in their absorbing new biography, Lovelock is the most genial and common-sense of characters, a boy from Brixton whose endless curiosity led him to become one of the 20th century's leading inventors of scientific instruments, before stumbling on something far greater. Now, as he comes up for his tenth decade, he has another remarkable project in mind: to see the earth as he has never seen it before. Richard Branson is developing a rocket plane to take passengers to the edge of space, and has promised Lovelock a free ride. His final ambition is to behold Gaia from above, in all her glory: let us wish him a fervent bon voyage.

Penguin are issuing the two books together, which is a marketing ploy, but in this case a worthy one, as the Gribbins' enormous scientific knowledge and clarity of expression make equally comprehensible Lovelock's initial Gaian vision, and the frightening conclusion to which it has now led him.

Michael McCarthy is environment editor of 'The Independent'. His book, 'Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo', will be published by John Murray on 2 April

Click here to purchase this book

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup