Stuffed it up or not, we certainly have left prominent mark on the Earth. The human factor in shaping our planet on a global scale is now widely recognised. As a formal acknowledgement of this recent impact, scientists want baptising of a new geological time scale unit — Anthropocene epoch. The problem lies in the scale. A few hundred years don’t quite make up the thinnest of bars to properly stand out on a displayable chart depicting the Earth’s 4.6 billion years of history. There are some who want the entire Holocene (the official latest epoch starting 11,700 years ago) to be called Anthropocene because of the global impact of agriculture which began roughly around the same time as the Holocene. Other oft cited contributors to planet-wide impact of humans include generation of nuclear waste, plastic pollution and even domestication of chickens. Post industrial revolution impact of human activities on global climate is particularly implicated. Lovelock agrees. He puts the start date of Anthropocene at some 300 years ago when Thomas Newcomen first demonstrated the use of steam power. That’s “when humans first began to convert stored solar energy into useful work”, says Lovelock. Of course, he meant solar energy trapped for millions of years in underground coal seams.
He proposes an approximate end date of Anthropocene too. And, lo and behold, it is perhaps already over. Very recently. So, according to Lovelock, we are already into a new geological epoch that he wants to call ‘Novacene’. The Age of Hyperintelligence. But wait, he forecasts that this epoch is going to only last 100 years. To the uninitiated, all this may sound utter nonsense. Unless, of course, one knows who is talking.
People call him a scientist. He prefers the label of an engineer. James Lovelock to me is an eternal optimist visionary in this age of climate doomsayers. He took a view of the Earth and the life it supports like no one before him did. He almost suggested that the Earth is alive. It was so radical that he wouldn’t want to refer to the Earth the way others did. He coined a new term — Gaia. He put forward an entirely new way of looking at our planet through the minds of a biologist, a chemist, an oceanographer, a geologist, a microbiologist, an atmosphere scientist and a physicist – all at once. Such broad perspectives invariably encompass many disciplines which the academia, where specialization rules, is still struggling to come to terms with, increasing popularity of the term ‘inter-disciplinary’ notwithstanding. The situation was much less favourable when Lovelock proposed his Gaia hypothesis. Yet the world took note. It may still not be espoused as widely as his friend Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiosis hypothesis, but it has been referred to a lot in high profile journals.
Essentially Lovelock believes that the Earth (or Gaia as he would say) is a complex system which self-regulates its environment to sustain life. The organisms and the inorganic world are tightly coupled and are evolving forever to maintain life. Photosynthesis, which brought oxygen into the atmosphere midway through the Earth’s life journey till now, is cited as an example.
With Novacene, he extends his vision of Gaia for another 100 years. Incidentally he has just completed living 100 years on this planet. The high voltage proposition is that in the Novacene we humans are not going to be controlling the planet as we did in the Anthropocene. The new rulers will be the members of an emerging “highest” species — the AI-powered cyborgs — and we humans will midwife them. His optimism shows up when he proposes that the cyborgs and humans will have a collaborative relationship and not a hostile one. So, having achieved the goal of converting solar energy to work, the next target for Gaia is to convert solar energy into information, says Lovelock.
Gaia lives on.