Orellana’s Robots

In 2009, the New Scientist interviewed James Lovelock, the originator, with Lynn Margulis, of the Gaia Hypothesis, that all Earth was a great living organism. At 90, Lovelock’s outlook for the human future was dim.

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2°C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4°C, we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population.

What about work to sequester carbon dioxide?

That is a waste of time. It’s a crazy idea — and dangerous. It would take so long and use so much energy that it will not be done.

Do you still advocate nuclear power as a solution to climate change?

It is a way for the UK to solve its energy problems, but it is not a global cure for climate change. It is too late for emissions reduction measures.

So are we doomed?

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste — which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering — into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine percent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes, and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then plows into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few percent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it. http://bit.ly/2Hd9kh0

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