Gaia the rebirth of Nature

In the Greek tragedy attributed to Aeschylus, Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to humans so as to increase their power. Zeus is angry and punishes both man, by sending Pandora with her box, and Prometheus by having him chained to a rock where an eagle eats out his liver, which regenerates each night only to be devoured again the next day. Prometheus, who saw himself as the benefactor of mankind, reveals that he also taught men how to increase their powers with agriculture, metallurgy, medicine, mathematics, architecture and astronomy. Later, Hercules kills the eagle and releases Prometheus. The idea of the 'unbound Prometheus' has been interpreted in modern times as the release of the powers of technology and industry in eighteenth-century Europe.38 But just as Zeus and Prometheus remain estranged, so the unrestrained powers of Prometheus have brought about the modern tension between 'heaven and earth'. In the myth it is only when Prometheus reveals to Zeus a secret that allows him to prevent his downfall that the two are finally reconciled.

Once set in motion it took a couple of centuries for the Promethean powers of science and technology to conquer the world, and it was not until the 1960s that the first stirrings of a political challenge emerged. I have mentioned already the outrage this impudence spurred—the hysterical reaction to Rachel Carson, the angry defensiveness of the 'trio' of physicists, the conservative counter-movement in the United States—but the tide had turned. And the cause of the turn lay in the overreach of the scientific-industrial revolution itself. Humanity is now forced to confront the question of whether a consciousness rooted in a dead Earth subjugated to our material needs can respond adequately to the climate crisis, or whether we need to rediscover some form of consciousness that recognises a living Earth yet remains scientifically credible. Clearly a return to pre-scientific animism is out of the question; we know too much. The development of the science of ecology has helped to point out the intricate interconnectedness of natural systems and our reliance on them for survival. Although ecologists themselves may be motivated by some deeper intuition, as a science ecology remains within the confines of the mechanical philosophy. The notion of 'adaptive complex systems' does not easily translate into any recognisable idea of life.

The closest tenable conception of a living Earth from an 'ecological' perspective that I have come across is from a most unexpected source. In a book published in 1926 Jan Smuts, then between periods as prime minister of South Africa but also a philosopher of note, coined the term 'holism' to describe a relationship between humans and the non-human world. Rejecting all mechanistic conceptions, Smuts wrote that it is the inner character of a whole that makes it more than the sum of its parts:39

The concept of holism . . . dissolves the heterogeneous concepts of matter, life and mind, and then recrystallises them out as polymorphous forms of itself . . . We shall thus be prepared to find more of life in matter, and more of mind in life, because the hard-and-fast demarcations between them have fallen away.

Smuts seemed to have the vision but not the science to justify it.

In more recent times another idea has emerged that promises to combine the best scientific understanding with a conception of the living Earth—James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. While working for NASA on how to detect life on Mars, Lovelock had the intuition that the Earth is a large living organism sustained by energy from the Sun.40 The basis for this is the hypothesis that 'the evolution of the species and the evolution of the environment are tightly coupled together as a single and inseparable process'.41 The Gaia theory maintains that the Earth is a living system in which the biosphere interacts with other physical components of the Earth—the atmosphere, the cryosphere (the frozen parts of the Earth), the hydrosphere and the lithosphere (the Earth's crust)— to maintain conditions suitable for life. 'We live in a world that has been built by our ancestors, ancient and modern, and which is continuously maintained by all things alive today.'42

Life does not simply respond and adapt to the environment around it but modifies that environment for its own ends. In particular, the composition of the atmosphere, the temperature at the Earth's surface and the salinity of the oceans are influenced by the biota so that they are maintained in a stable state suited to life. In the case of temperature, Lovelock argues that the ability of life unconsciously to regulate the Earth's atmosphere has allowed it to maintain a fairly stable temperature, even though the energy provided to the Earth by the Sun has increased 25—30 per cent since life forms emerged. There is now a body of science that lends weight to the Gaia theory by identifying and measuring various feedback mechanisms.

So has Lovelock solved the conundrum of how to marry a conception of a living Earth with the methods of modern science?

Although Gaia theory maintains that the Earth is alive, this only provokes the question of what is meant by 'alive'. An adequate definition of life is notoriously elusive.43 Biochemical definitions centre on the observations that living entities grow, metabolise, respond to stimuli, possess DNA, reproduce, die and evolve across generations. Yet these definitions reduce life to certain of its properties and seem to miss something essential. And they don't work for the idea of a living Earth because it does not do some of these things.

An alternative definition arises from the observation that life forms seem to resist, as long as they live, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that the universe always moves from a state of order to a state of disorder, a process known as entropy. Thus when coal is stored under the ground it forms a dense energy source in a highly useful state. When it is dug up and burned its energy is used up and its physical components are dissipated across the globe. The disorder represents the decline in useful energy after the coal is burned. Living things can forestall the effects of entropy through metabolic processes that create order and organisation within their physical boundaries; they generate order from disorder. Life then can be thought of as a process that for a time resists the relentless dissipation of energy and matter in the universe. However, while directing flows of matter and energy through themselves to defer their own decay, life forms also put waste into the outside environment, thereby accelerating entropy beyond their boundaries.

Lovelock is attracted to this explanation, writing: 'If life is defined as a self-organizing system characterized by an actively sustained low-entropy, then, viewed from outside each of these boundaries [of the living entity or system], what lies within is alive.'44 It's a conception that seems to work for Lovelock's purposes because it fits with the claim that the Earth is a living organism. Yet on closer inspection this notion of life in Gaia theory becomes a stepping stone to rendering the Earth less than alive.

In the early years of the Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock was criticised by fellow scientists for implicitly adopting a teleological explanation, that is, the view that the Earth is evolving purposively towards some goal. To the modern scientific mind teleology is a heresy, and Lovelock was keen to distance himself from it. 'True knowledge can never be gained by attributing "purpose" to phenomena', he wrote.45

To prove that Gaia is not a teleological theory Lovelock developed a simple computer model consisting of a planet dominated by two plant species—white daisies and black daisies.46 White daises reflect a lot of incoming solar radiation, while black daisies reflect little and absorb a lot. If the planet becomes too warm more white daisies grow. The white surfaces reflect more solar radiation and the planet cools. Then when it cools too much, more black daises grow.

The Daisyworld model can be used to show that a planet can be self-regulating with the 'objective' of maintaining the conditions for life. It's a feedback system that has an objective without having a purpose, just like a machine with an automatic governor. Lovelock describes it in cybernetic terms as an unconscious self-regulating system that is constantly brought back to a homoeo-static point (although that point can jump to a new equilibrium), a circulatory system that replaces the usual sequential thinking of the sciences.

It is apparent that in disowning all teleology Lovelock has returned to a mechanical world in which a 'living Earth' can be no more than a metaphor. In the end Lovelock defines Gaia as a 'control system' that 'has the capacity to regulate the temperature and the composition of the Earth's surface and to keep it comfortable for living organisms'.47 Gaia is in truth a mechanical system into which Lovelock has smuggled life. He contrasts the idea of a living Earth with the common one of 'a dead planet bearing life as a mere passenger',48 but Lovelock's Gaia is a dead planet with some organisms living on it, ones that unconsciously modify the lifeless components of the system.

In the end, Lovelock concedes that he talks of the Earth being alive only in a metaphorical sense, arguing that we should 'imagine it as the largest living thing in the solar system'. 'Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive, at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to change.'49 Yet it is difficult to believe that we can be motivated to radically change the way we live just by imagining Gaia to be alive rather than feeling intuitively it to be so.

Lovelock is an intellectual descendent of René Descartes rather than Thomas Aquinas. For him Gaia had to conform to the universe of clarity, distinctness and knowability. If at the core of life there is something indefinable and mysterious then Lovelock's Gaia cannot be alive. Lovelock is more a product of mechanical thinking than he realises. He admits that after the publication of The Ages ofGaia he was mystified by the large number of letters he received from readers who saw his vision in essentially religious or transcendental terms. It is not surprising that many people should have read the book from a different standpoint, one that recognises that being is deeper than how it appears to us and intuits a mysterious foundation for life and the cosmos.

Although formally rejecting teleology, Lovelock frequently anthropomorphises Gaia. In his hands Gaia assumes the character of an Olympian god who alternates between indifference, impatience and hostility towards the human beings who crawl over her surface. For some who care about human suffering, the temptation is strong to defend against the pain it causes by retreating to the cerebral. In his books Lovelock appears to have taken himself to a place in the future where the one million fittest humans who survived have created 'a truly sentient planet',50 a place from which he can declare that the current inhabitants of Earth are of no importance except insofar as they provide the raw material for the evolution of 'a much better animal'.51 It is a consoling vision for the octogenarian Lovelock, but will be of little comfort to future waves of climate refugees as they roam the oceans in search of a new home. A more emotionally honest expression of despair over environmental destruction came from the pen of the Australian poet Judith Wright.52

I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust, the drying creek, the furious animal, that they oppose us still; that we are ruined by the thing we kill.

Although Lovelock has been unable to defend the claim that his Gaia is a living entity, his books have encouraged many readers to have more courage in their intuitive conviction that the Earth is in some sense alive and therefore has interests. His other contributions to the global warming debate have been much less helpful. He is contemptuous of environmentalism, though his reasons are hard to divine. He is implacably opposed to windfarms, especially anywhere near his dwelling in rural England, regarding protection of landscape aesthetics as more important than the promotion of renewable energy.

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Responses

  • rosa cattaneo
    Why did gaia need to be reborn if at all?
    1 year ago

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