“This, in essence, is the hypothesis that Lovelock and his close collaborator Lynn Margulis were to call “Gaia.” The idea significantly modifies the central Darwinian paradigm of modern biology. Competition – natural selection at the species level – becomes much less important than the overall integration of living things within a symbiotic global network. The basic unit of evolutionary survival becomes the biomass as a whole, which may select species for their capacity to enhance the liveability of the planet.” Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth

There can be said to be three interpretations of Gaia; scientific, theistic and philosophical. The science, which I have described briefly, is basically about looking at the Earth physiologically, as a body, and the practical implications of that. But I’m not a scientist, so although I take an interest I can only explain it up to a point. Theistic Gaia is the view that the Earth is sentient, and is literally seen as a single living being. Not something I believe in, but the image is interesting and certainly useful in a poetic sense.

What really interests me is a Gaian-based philosophy. This stands somewhere between science and theism, using scientific ideas and mythological images as a model that we use to view the world and as an ethical guide.

For a while we have had a view of evolution as something competitive and the Earth as an arena in which this biological struggle is played out. Although science is not meant as a tool to give us meaning or ethics, anything that gives us a view of the world, whether myth or science, also gives us a sense of meaning and ethics. Sometimes it is obvious though mostly it is subtle.

The view of competitive evolution has become a tool to legitimise a “dog eat dog” or “every man for himself” attitude. In this view the Earth is a resource and the world is seen as a hierarchy of power where the strongest preys on the weakest. And to some extent this is true, if you see the relationship between some species, and individual organisms of the same species, you will see there is a competitive, even violent, relationship. However, in the same way the classical view of physics breaks down in quantum mechanics, the localised competition of species breaks down in the broader ecological view. Each species fulfills a role in the bigger ecological system; any competition is just one aspect of a cooperative network.

Can the body’s major organs compete with each other? Can the heart win or lose against the lungs? Of course not, they are major organs and are completely and utterly interdependent with one another. However, minor organs or biological features can compete. A species of fish whose ancestors got trapped in a cave system lost their eyes because there was no need for them. The digits and claws of whale ancestors have eventually receded to be replaced by more useful flippers. The long grasping digits on the feet of our tree climbing ancestors have been reduced to small stumps on the end of our feet. But these minor “competitive” adaptations are relative compared to what is going on in the whole body.

We can use this analogy to look at the Earth. It too has major organs, species or certain groups of species that cannot be replaced. For instance, I remember in a biology class being taken out by my teacher with the class and being asked “Can plants live without animals or can animals live without plants?” No one answered plants, and yet that was the answer. Most plants, because they get energy directly from the sun, are self-sufficient, so if the animal kingdom inexplicably disappeared many photosynthesisers would be able to survive. Not so with animals.

There is, what I consider, to be a myth about humanity as the “dominant species”. We might have become very powerful and intelligent but that’s a very superficial dominance. Let’s put it this way, prey do not depend on predators but predators depend on prey, the foundation of a building does not depend on the upper floors but the upper floors depend on the foundation. This echoes a fairly Taoist principle and gives a different spin on Jesus’ “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

We owe our existence to the almost omnipresent microbial lifeforms, like bacteria, that were the first life-forms to exist and surely will be the last ones to exist. When Gaia was young this was, and still is, the basic components, “major organs” or major organisms, that sustain her existence. Without them nothing larger, like humans, could exist.  So it really does turn the concept of dominance on its head. We owe our existence to life-forms that are smaller, simpler and far less intelligent than us, which is humbling really.

We are left with an image that humanity is an interesting but unimportant contribution to the Earth’s evolution. We are left with the principles of respect, humility and cooperation. A good starting point for how we might conceive a Gaia-based philosophy. But this philosophy isn’t just for individuals to choose, as one philosophy amongst so many to pick and choose from; it is the context of all other philosophies. In a sense all organisms are gaian by default. All organisms derive their evolution from a long history where biological traits are developed within an ecological context. To defy this context is to upset the balance and threaten your own existence. Only humans need to make a mental effort to align with gaian-based principles.

This philosophy is something that has to be built into the structure of society itself, a structure that operates with respect, humility and cooperation to the home it depends on for its existence. We cannot go on thinking and acting the way we do, seeing Earth as a resource to be used and abused in service of commercial consumerist philosophy, and other humans and other nations to be viewed as opponents to be beaten in some never-ending economical and fashion-driven race. This cannot work anymore, there needs to be a reform in human civilisation and I think we are waking up to realise it now.

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“If life on Earth were suddenly to cease, all the hundred-plus elements that make up the surface, oceans, and atmosphere would react until no more reactions were possible, and a state close to chemical equilibrium was reached. The planet would become a hot, waterless, and inhospitable place.” James Lovelock

One thing that I often use for tag in my blog is the word Gaia. This is a loaded word so it’s best to really be clear in the way I use it. I don’t mean a conscious entity that is embodied in the Earth itself that so many people associate with Gaia. Rather I think of the scientific idea that was first set out by James Lovelock in his Gaia Hypothesis and later explored in the Earth System Sciences.

Let’s start with an experiment. Find a small object, say a penny, and hold it between your fingers above the ground. It is now in an energy rich state. Now drop that penny and watch it fall to the ground where it bounces, rolls, flips and/or slides to the ground and finally stops any movement. It is now in an energy poor state, no more energy is able to be extracted from it, unless the floor develops a hole where the penny can continue falling.

Here’s another image of energy rich and energy poor. Think of a car; the fuel that goes into it and the exhaust fumes that come out of it. The fuel is energy rich, ready to be transformed into kinetic energy. The exhaust fumes are energy poor, no more energy is able to be extracted for the car’s movement.

James Lovelock once worked with NASA to investigate if there was life on Mars. At some point he came up with the idea that perhaps the atmosphere of Mars could show signs of life by virtue of interacting with it. Mars’ atmosphere is energy poor, with chemicals comparable to a car’s exhaust fumes, whilst the Earth’s atmosphere has an energy rich chemistry. If the Earth had not developed lifeforms it would have fallen (like the penny) to the same fate as Mars, a dead, lifeless rock incapable of supporting or even developing life.

Somehow the collective action of life on Earth stops entropy from make the Earth irreversibly lifeless and keeps it inhabitable. Free energy from the Sun’s own entropic decay is “collected” by life through photosynthesis. This energy is exchanged with the environment, like the atmosphere, and with other organisms, where it takes on energy rich qualities in a balancing way that means that life can live on the Earth.

In a way it’s like having a system of organisms attached to your exhaust fumes that aborb those chemicals and, using the Sun’s energy, turn them into energy rich fuel that goes back into the car to power it, or another system of organisms that use the Sun’s energy to keep that penny in the air to stop it from falling to the ground, with the added bonus that by doing so it makes the existence of life possible.

That is a very simplistic explanation leaving out many details, which doesn’t do the theory any justice at all. I could talk about homeostasis, chemical equlibrium, disequilibrium, Daisyworld, the albedo effect, glacials, interglacials, the Milankovich effect, global warming, climate change, greenhouse gases,  defining life, neo-darwin evolution, Gaian evolution and other facts and theories that James Lovelock has woven together to create a compelling picture of the Earth’s life. All I want to do is introduce one aspect of it from which other aspects can be explored. My reference for this is James Lovelock’s Healing Gaia, though there’s plenty of other books about it, and lots of information on the internet. Just do a search of any of the terms I used above.

Gaia theory as a whole is just scientific theory, yet it is gaining credibility all the time, especially within Earth Systems Sciences. Parts of it have been proved and parts of it have yet to be proved.  So far it is the best image we have of the Earth as a self-sustaining system, an image that is being confirmed, modified and updated all the time by scientific research. But from this theory we can grasp a feeling of the world around us and how we fit in with it. Personally I have no doubts that Gaia Theory has something to it, that somehow the Earth is alive in some sense, that somehow it is an interdependent system and that there definately are consequences to our actions within it.