Gaia Theory & Economics

by Jacqueline Lim 7 April 2014

Conclusions from the dinner and debate focusing on “Gaia Theory and Economics” organised by two members of the Friends of the Lovelock Archive, John Gilbert and John Elkington (Chairman, Volans), and held at the Science Museum’s Smith Centre on 3 February 2014

By John Elkington

Interviewed for the forthcoming Science Museum exhibition of his life’s work, Professor James Lovelock pondered which of his many scientific contributions he was proudest of.

Many who know his work might have expected him to spotlight the electron capture detector, one of which can be seen in the Science Museum—a seemingly innocuous instrument that helped inform Rachel Carson’s work on her landmark book Silent Spring, revealing that new types of synthetic insecticide (including DDT) were damaging the health of wildlife and people around the world. It also helped identify the root causes of the Antarctic Ozone Hole, with major implications for key parts of the global chemical industry, this time incriminating CFCs.

Instead, Lovelock flagged his work on Gaia Theory as his most important achievement.

Against a backdrop showing Michael Gaskell’s extraordinary 2011 portrait of Lovelock, now housed in the National Portrait Gallery, a carefully selected group of leading figures from the worlds of science, business, finance and the media gathered on 3 February 2014 to consider how Lovelock’s Gaia Theory—and the wider emerging discipline of Earth System Science—can inform the interlinked worlds of business, finance, economics and capitalism.

Subject to The Chatham House Rule, which anonymises discussions, the event was organised by two members of the Friends of the Lovelock Archive, John Gilbert and John Elkington (Chairman, Volans), and kicked off with a panel session moderated by Martin Wolf (Chief economics Commentator, Financial Times) and featuring Trevor Maynard (Head of Exposure Management & Reinsurance, Lloyd’s of London), Saker Nusseibeh (CEO, Hermes Fund Managers) and Chris Rapley (Professor of Climate Science, UCL, and former Director of the Science Museum).

During the dinner, participants heard from the current Science Museum Director, Ian Blatchford, about how his team came to acquire the extraordinary Lovelock Archive, a treasure trove of 60 years worth of documents, equipment and assorted artefacts, and from Alexandra Johnson, who described the process of developing the forthcoming exhibition (which opens on April 9th  and runs through to 2015). Among other participants with strong links to the Science Museum were Howard Covington (a Museum Trustee) and Sir Martin Smith, who of the Oxford School of Enterprise and the Environment, after whom the Smith Centre is named.


The Friends of the Lovelock Archive believe that history will see Jim Lovelock’s greatest contribution as his multiple contributions to shifting the prevailing scientific and business paradigms—in favour of a one-Earth worldview fit for the twenty-first century. Paradigm shifts are long drawn out contests between old and emergent new orders. But they can have profound consequences for markets, business and investors.

Think of Charles Darwin and his new thinking on evolutionary biology. There were periods where Darwinism was on the back foot, even apparently in retreat, but ultimately the new areas of science would help transform our understanding of biology, creating the foundations for key parts of the UK health and pharmaceutical industries. You could make a similar case for other great British scientists and technologists, among them Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

In very much the same way, James Lovelock and other earth system scientists are laying the foundations of new areas of science, technology and business—and, in the process, powerfully shaping the long-term prospects of both our national and international economies.

The Smith Centre Consultation produced the following conclusions:

  1. The current economic system and the discipline of Economics are obsolete—and lead political and market actors to priorities, choices and decisions that are damaging to People, Planet and, of key interest to many participants, both immediate Profits and longer term Prosperity. As one speaker put it: “The economy is a subsystem of the planet.” That insight is still lost on many economists.
  2. The “collective action” dynamics of the challenge we now face mean that we are doing way too little, way too late. This is not simply the fault of politicians and business leaders: ordinary people are not persuaded of the urgency of the problem, an issue aggravated by the aggressive (and often highly professional) activities of climate skeptics. There is a huge behavioural change agenda at the heart of all this—and, as one speaker put it, too many people still understand the potential solutions in terms of “hair-shirt” austerity.
  3. There is a need for breakthrough solutions, with science positioned to play a leading role—though the unwillingness of most scientists to speak out in public remains a major constraint on progress. Participants spoke of the need for break through in science, business and finance.
  4. Jim Lovelock has attracted a good deal of media interest over the years, but as a result Gaia Theory has often been misunderstood, sometimes willfully, both by those worried about the implications for current economic and business models, and by scientists with a different take on their role and responsibilities in society.
  5. There was a consensus, even so, that earth system science is now pushing into the mainstream—whatever labels people may apply to the field.
  6. Media participants noted that this is “a big story—and likely to get much bigger.” New initiatives, among them CarbonTracker, whose new CEO Anthony Hobley was among the participants, and Culture|Futures, whose co-founder Peter Head also attended, are working in this space.
  7. The Two Cultures challenge identified by novelist C.P. Snow persists, with economists not knowing much about science, for example, and scientists not knowing much about economics. But one scientist noted after the event: “I was especially encouraged to hear members of the finance community showing clearly that they ‘get it’.” The cultural aspects of the challenge were flagged repeatedly. As one financial sector participant put it: “My only slightly scientific hunch is that we have about 15 years to run with business-as-usual emissions before the onset of unprecedented climate-induced political, economic and financial volatility that will show us more clearly where we are headed.”
  8. Jim Lovelock’s historic contributions were celebrated—although some saw a growing need to distinguish between Jim Lovelock’s corpus of work, Gaia Theory and the climate change agenda. The Science Museum was encouraged to use the forthcoming exhibition as a magnet for other events designed to extend the reach of the agenda, particularly targeting the worlds of business and finance. A key part of the challenge will be to get the right narrative, to appeal to a number of critical audiences, from Gen Y to CFOs. And a key part of the task will be to develop a simpler, consistent explanation of the systems component of Gaia Theory that can underpin wider communication.
  9. Participants celebrated some of the growing number of pre-competitive collaborations now emerging, with examples including ClimateWise, with over 40 insurance industry players now having signed up to the ClimateWise principles, and the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals initiative formed by companies in the apparel and footwear sectors.
  10. As the final session wound down, the mood that had tended to become pessimistic at times, on the basis that the political will to act is conspicuously absent—and even declining in the EU—flipped to a more positive approach. A number of participants spoke of the growing number of innovators and entrepreneurs now playing into this space. We are seeing a thousand flowers bloom, said one celebrated entrepreneur—and must do our very best to help them evolve, replicate and scale.

The challenge for us all, the Science Museum, the Friends of the Lovelock Archive, the participants and their organisations, and the wider world is how to align our efforts around breakthrough solutions and trajectories. The Lovelock Archive and the Science Museum Exhibition are potentially wonderful stepping-stones in this direction.

List of participants

Paul Abberley, Former Acting Global CEO Aviva Investors

Andrea Abrahams,  Global Director, BP Target Neutral

Ian Blatchford, Director, Science Museum Group

Camilla Cavendish, Associate Editor, The Sunday Times

Howard Covington, Trustee Science Museum, Chair Isaac Newton Institute Mathematical Sciences

John Elkington, Executive Chairman, Volans

John Gilbert,  Co-founder, Friends of the Lovelock Archive

Peter Head, Executive Chairman, The Ecological Sequestration Trust

Anthony Hobley,  CEO, Carbon Tracker Initiative

Alexandra Johnson, Project Leader, Lovelock Exhibition

Richard Lewis, Head of Global Equities, Fidelity Worldwide Investment

Trevor Maynard, Head of Lloyd’s Exposure Management and Reinsurance, Lloyds of London

Saker Nusseibeh, Chief Executive, Hermes Fund Managers

Paula Oliveira, Director, Valuation and Analytics, Interbrand

Prof. Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science, University College London

Prof. Nilay Shah, Director of the Centre for Process Systems Engineering, Imperial College London

Ian Simm,  Chief Executive, Impax Asset Management

Sir Martin Smith,  Founder of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE), University of Oxford

Tessa Tennant, Non Executive Director, Green Investment Bank 

Martin Wolf,  Chief Economics Commentator, The Financial Times

@volansjohn:Highly recommend this BBC podcast on future of World Ocean, with @jimalkhalili interviewing oceanographer……
@volansjohn:Was thrilled to have an on-air conversation with Christophe Jospe (@cjospe), @paulgambill and Ross Kenyon of Nori (……
@volansjohn:Enjoyed the Nori process!…


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