From The Archive: James Lovelock Lecture at KU (1991)

For our final From the Archive feature for the time being, we have a special hour-long lecture from noted scientist and thinker James Lovelock, who visited the University of Kansas back in 1991 to give this lecture. Those who study environmental science and philosophy, and especially those who have done so for a few decades now, will likely recall Lovelock as the creator of the Gaia Hypothesis. This theory proposes that the Earth is one large, interconnected, self-regulating ecosystem, essentially, composed of the organisms that inhabit it and their inorganic surroundings. Anything that happens within the biosphere affects all other factors for existence on earth. This theory was crucial to the development of the field of geophysiology. It has also prompted many to think of the Earth itself as one large living being – hence the name of the Gaia Hypothesis, taken from its Greek mythic roots. This is a concept, of course, that has appealed to SF fans for a long time now. (Ever heard of the planet Solaris, or Pandora from Avatar?)

Like everything else in our From the Archive series, this lecture feels like viewing a time capsule from a different period altogether, which may seem a little depressing, given that it was only delivered 24 years ago. That said, a lot changes in 24 years, and the dissonance between the past and present can be felt tremendously when watching this video. We live at a time when we are profoundly worried about the state of our planet, due to processes that are most likely the result of human actions and pollution. Global climate change is transforming our planet into something new and potentially harmful to most forms of life, the by-product of processes that were certainly happening when Lovelock first delivered his lecture, and likely had been happening since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution – also regarded, by many scholars and writers, as the birth-time of science fiction as we know it. (It is somewhat bittersweet to consider that SF has developed as a genre and global narrative force alongside the parallel slow apocalypse of the Earth.)

Early in the lecture, Lovelock says “We’re at a time when scientists as professionals seem to have lost sight of the earth as a planet in the intricacies of detail. As a result, when confronted with environmental concerns, they tend to think about specific dangers to people, especially themselves, and ignore hazards that loom on a planetary scale.” What are we, as scholars, SF fans, and inhabitants of Earth, to make of that statement, made back in 1991, as people who live in 2015, the heart of the Anthropocene? It seems unlikely that most climate scientists now would be more worried about themselves or other people than the planet at large. To the extent that these scientists talk about their worry concerning people, they seem mostly worried about what humans are doing as actors of destruction, as opposed to any role of victimhood. Threats such as cancer, due to a depleted ozone layer, seem almost quaint, horrible as cancer is, next to mass extinction events and the melting of ice caps, among other natural disasters.

What could we have done as members of the SF community back then, and what could we do now? An obvious recent response is the surge of pre- and post-apocalyptic texts: books, movies, TV, video games. We are already imagining how bad it’s going to be, it seems, but what function do these stories serve? Cautionary tale? Weary acceptance of fate? Or, heavens forbid, wish-fulfillment fantasies?

Another response is perhaps a new resurgence of interest in space and space opera; if the planet is falling apart, take to the stars. But as SF fans and inhabitants of earth, we have to think of SF’s close relationship to the present and not the hypothetical future. This is the literature of extrapolation and speculation after all. If we’re going to fly to the stars with the materials that we can still dig up from our planet, what can we possibly hope to use? If SF could potentially save the planet, and the kind of thinking involved with reading and writing SF, exactly how could it happen with the resources we have now? What kinds of SF perspectives will do the trick?