Brilliance and Bunkum

The terrible howlers in James Lovelock’s new book show that genius is no defence against being wrong.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th April 2014

Is there anyone as stimulating, infuriating, fascinating and contradictory as James Lovelock? As I found during our radio discussion this week, at 94 he’s as acute and lively as ever. And, as ever, I kept switching between delighting in what he said and groaning with despair. He has greatly enriched our understanding and experience of the living planet. And he doesn’t half talk some rubbish sometimes.

James epitomises that romantic ideal: the independent scientist and inventor. Few succeed in going it alone in any field, least of all these. For every lone genius, there are 1,000 people who believe themselves to be one, but who either unwittingly repeat other people’s work or who, without a sufficient grounding in science, begin with a wildly mistaken premise and go downhill from there. If I had a pound for every email I’ve received claiming to have discovered new forms of energy or propulsion, I could have bought myself a warp drive.

But his achievements are real ones, and are currently being celebrated with an exhibition in the Science Museum. He invented the electron capture detector, which has greatly enhanced our ability to detect small quantities of pollutants, and was critical to the detection of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere and the attribution of their responsibility for ozone depletion. (His claims to have invented the microwave oven, on the other hand, are not widely accepted).

His Gaia hypothesis, while fiercely contested, has changed the way we talk about and understand the Earth. Until I started researching Feral, my book about rewilding, and began to explore new developments in ecology which show the remarkable extent to which some animals engineer the physical environment – to the extent of altering the nature of soils, the behaviour of rivers and the composition of the atmosphere – I was highly sceptical of Lovelock’s hypothesis. It now seems to me that, at the ecological level at any rate, evidence which might support it is accumulating rapidly.

Lovelock’s new book, A Rough Ride to the Future, is, as ever, interesting and insightful in some places and plain wrong in others. Perhaps it’s a result of his proud detachment from the work of other scientists, or perhaps it’s just excessive confidence, but the book contains some significant and highly charged howlers.

James appears to possess a profound and irrational prejudice against renewable energy. This seems to encourage him to believe almost any rubbish its opponents publish.

For example, he states (page 135) that “it costs three to ten times as much to heat a house in Britain as it does to heat a comparable house in America, which overall has a colder climate. This huge discrepancy, which affects everyone and all our industry in Britain, is part of the cost of believing in renewable energy as if it were a religious obligation.”

Like all the claims in his book, his premise is impossible to check because he provides no references. Though the book is full of strong and often extravagant claims about science, technology and policy, not one of them is sourced. Being an independent maverick scientist is one thing, and sometimes a very good thing. Making wild statements of fact without providing references is quite another.

When I challenged James about his statement, he replied (very briefly): “Can provide heating bills for comparable house in USA and Devon, ratio 10 to 1. (10 time as costly in Devon)”. This suggests he is basing the comparison on a single house in each place. I wrote back asking if this is the case, which houses is he talking about and whether he has accounted for how often and how intensely those houses are used, but have not yet received a reply.

The conclusion he draws from his comparison cannot be true.

Most of the households in the UK (85%) use gas for heating. Environmental charges (of which renewable energy is just one component) account for a total of 6% of the typical gas bill. A rather different proposition from the 300 or 1000% that Lovelock appears to be claiming.

He has not replied to my question about why he believes that the discrepancy he reports (if indeed it exists) is the result of the UK’s renewable energy policy.

But that’s a quibble by comparison to a much more serious mistake he makes. James repeats and embellishes an extraordinary and disgraceful myth, first circulated a few years ago by corporate-funded astroturfers, that green campaigners are responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Here’s what he says (page 126) about a ban on the use of the pesticide DDT for disease control:

“Young ideologues” and “urban green lobbies … made noisy demands until the US Congress obliged them and other nations soon followed. One consequence of this ban was a sharp rise in the human death rate from malaria and other insect-borne diseases in tropical regions.”

He continues (page 127):

“Neither Rachel Carson, nor the green movement – nor the US government seemed aware of the dire human consequence of banning the manufacture of DDT and its lookalikes before substitutes were available. … In 1963 malaria was about to become effectively controlled. The insecticide ban led to a rise in malaria deaths to 2 million yearly, plus over 100 million disabled by the disease.”

So here we have a detailed and damning claim, containing specific figures. Just one problem: it’s not true. There is no ban on the use of DDT for the purpose of malaria control. The global ban was for agricultural uses, and one of the reasons for it was to ensure that malarial mosquitoes did not become immune to DDT. In other words, the reality is exactly the opposite of Lovelock’s claim: the ban on the indiscriminate use of DDT is likely to have saved lives rather than destroying them.

In the US, where malaria was eliminated by 1952, the 1972 ban by Congress (to which Lovelock appears to be referring) on the domestic use of DDT did not prevent manufacturing the chemical for export to countries using it for malaria control.

Globally, the instrument regulating the use of DDT is the Stockholm Convention on Persistant Organic Pollutants. This permits countries to use or produce DDT for the purposes of controlling disease vectors, as long as they follow the guidelines set out by the World Health Organisation.

It’s hard to think of a more disgraceful or damaging smear than the one Lovelock is circulating. As a document lodged in the tobacco archives demonstrates, it was deliberately concocted to divide and discredit environmental campaigns.

Had James spent even a minute checking, he would have discovered that it has been debunked many times. So where did he get it from?

As usual he doesn’t say, but in the back of his book is a short section entitled Further Reading, and among the books he lists is Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline. Brand made similar claims in this book, and he too failed to provide any references for them. When I challenged him, he both failed to provide the evidence required to support his assertions and refused to admit that he had got it wrong. Pretty disgraceful from a man who had just opined on television that “I would like to see an environmental movement that’s comfortable noticing when it’s wrong and announcing when it’s wrong.”

I challenged Lovelock on this issue too, and received just this: “DDT was banned outright. Subsequently it became usable again for malarial control in a limited way.” Really? When and by whom? Again, he provides no source for this claim (and fails to explain where his original contentions came from), so it’s not easy to address. Is he suggesting that there was a treaty pre-dating the Stockholm Convention? I have not had a reply from him on that point.

It looks as if Lovelock might have made the great mistake of relying on Brand as his sole source. It should stand as a warning: that genius is no defence against getting things wrong. Being brilliant, as I believe James is, doesn’t exempt you from checking your facts.