Novacene - James Lovelock's positive vision of the future

Novacene is a unicorn; a short, infinitely readable and strikingly optimistic projection of the next chapter of life on Earth written by a visionary with world-class credentials. In the context of the impotent dread and foreboding surrounding both climate change and the coming of artificial intelligence, Lovelock’s predictions are coolly rational. He observes, for example, that “our need for energy should be treated as a practical problem of engineering and economics, not politics”, and advocates a move to embrace nuclear power, both in the form of nuclear fission and - when science permits - fusion. To Lovelock, “our act of avoiding nuclear power generation is one of auto-genocide”.

Indeed, as global natural disasters unfold it seems undeniable that sealed (and somewhat controllable) nuclear waste might be preferable to the near 40 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted globally from fossil fuels and industry in 2019. Lovelock’s frustration on this matter is evident, he “tried for more than forty years to persuade [his] colleagues that the risk of drawing energy from trans-uranic elements is trivial compared with that of burning fossil fuels”. Novacene’s science is compelling, but its vision and philosophy - even spirituality - set it apart. Lovelock is renowned as the creator of “Gaia theory”, which, on the surface, seems simple to understand. The theory posits that “the Earth is a single living organism” within which life has “worked to modify its environment”. This work is self-fulfilling; without it, the planet would have heated to a temperature prompting the extinction of life forever. The consequences of our existence are, on some level, a cause for celebration because they indicate our ability to affect our environment and to “make globally significant decisions”.

With this power comes a responsibility to act in the interests of Gaia. For example, the burning of fossil fuels is flagged as “wholly undesirable because it accelerates the heating of the Earth’s atmosphere”, but this heating process is much more inevitable and ancient than us; a consequence of the expansion of the Sun over billions of years. It is only Gaia, the planetary system and grande dame of equilibrium, that has been able to save us from this brute force. Our planet, we are reminded, is growing increasingly ancient and fragile and thereby susceptible to destruction from catastrophic events, such as rogue asteroids, which would obliterate us all in a heartbeat. So far, so worrisome. However, the “Novacene” (the successor of the Anthropocene) is characterised by the birth of a new generation of life, cyborgs - yes, but not as we know them.

Lovelock neatly sidesteps the inevitable disappointment of describing our descendants’ appearances by reminding us that “cyborgs would start again; like Alpha Zero they would start from a blank slate”. Instead, he tantalises us with some choice facts; cyborgs will think 10,000 times faster than us, giving them “access to the mysteries that baffle us, such as the apparent ability of particles … to be in two places at once”. 

Crucially, however, as a result of the upper heat limits governing both organic and electronic life being practically the same (50°C), they will be reliant on us, and Gaia, for survival, for they will remain “obliged to join us in the project to keep the planet cool”. This fact of science seems to be at the heart of Lovelock’s underlying optimism; the cyborgs will - at least for a while - need us as much as we need them.