The world needs more James Lovelocks

The eminent scientist and environmentalist died on July 26th at the age of 103

James Lovelock
Original photo by Bruno Comby, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

I remember well meeting James Lovelock for the first time, nearly 14 years ago in Toronto. I had invited Jim (as we called him) and his wife, Sandy, to Canada to speak about his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. By the way, Jim wanted to title the book Enjoy It While You Can, which his editor nixed as being too negative. 

On that first meeting, we had dinner in downtown Toronto: me, my wife, Toby Heaps, Karen Kun (then with Corporate Knights), and Jim and Sandy. Jim was 88 years old; my wife warned me to “keep the conversation light,” as Jim was older and I should not exhaust him. I agreed. 

Then we had dinner. I sat opposite Jim, and as Toby will often recall, Jim and I barely noticed those at our table or in the restaurant for the next four hours. The “conversation light” pact went out the window. As I recall, we covered topics ranging from evolutionary biology, world energy supply, behavioural economics, climate change to, ultimately, global carrying capacity. Sitting across from Jim, more than once I reminded myself that I was speaking with arguably the best-informed person on the planet who truly understood global challenges. At times, I wondered if I was holding up my end of the conversation, which I was probably not, yet Jim indulged me and showed no signs of wanting to lighten things up. 

I spent about a week with Jim and Sandy on their first trip to Toronto, and we became instant friends. During this visit, Jim convinced me that climate change was irreversible (mitigating greenhouse gases would only slow things down) and that we needed to prepare for pending extreme weather risks. Jim’s guidance caused me to switch careers, to focus on climate adaptation. 

From our initial meeting 14 years ago, on an annual or semi-annual basis I would travel to meet with Jim and Sandy at their house. On these one-day pilgrimages, we would spend two to three hours in the morning talking about global issues, break for lunch, and then resume our discussion for another two hours. I would then leave, and Jim would have a sleep – he was now in his 90s. 

I would prepare for weeks for our discussions that were, and remain, the highlights of my professional life. When sitting with Jim in his living room, I always knew that I was meeting with the equivalent of today’s Charles Darwin, in the sense that through his Gaia theory he redefined how to interpret the biological and physical world around us. 

The sphere of Jim’s influence sometimes crept into our conversations, while I attempted to keep cool. Once, he told me of a young undergraduate student who came to his office to discuss the damage pollutants may cause to ecosystems; the student was an unknown Rachel Carson. Another time, he mentioned a young astronomer he had helped, who he said turned out to be a good communicator; he asked me if I knew Carl Sagan. These innocuous mentions would pop up in our conversations, and I knew I had a privileged front-row seat. 

The world needs more Jim Lovelocks. There is a void with his loss, but we have his writings. When he sent me an early copy of his book A Rough Ride to the Future, he wrote below the title, in his best steady hand, “But not if you adapt!” I always have that book on my desk. 

Blair Feltmate is the head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

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