In deciding what to write this blog post about, I found myself looking at notes from a course I took last semester called “Introduction to Environmental Studies”. The course, taught by Professor Stephen Sharper, provided me with a brief but widely spread representation of many of the theories and treatments for our current environmental problem. Some of these ideas shape the way we approach this dilemma so I think it is important to keep them in mind in the approach to any of the environmental problems we face. Out of the several theories we learned about, there was one that stuck the most. It is the one that I felt the closest connection to and the one I will speak to you about for the next little bit.
Out of everything I’ve learned and theories I’ve studied so far, my favorite is the Gaia theory. Originally developed by John Lovelock in the 60s, this theory was developed in an attempt to find ways to identify life in other planets. Working under NASA, Lovelock was assigned to come up with a series of life defining characteristics that scientist could use to look for life in outer space. In this process, Lovelock discovered we know a lot about everything in life, but barely anything about life itself, what it is and how it forms.
The following link is a great video with David Suzuki and James Lovelock that will help you understand how the theory came about: The Sacred Balance – Gaia Hypothesis
In modern science, not too many scientists had set out to define life, but the ones that did all came to the same vague conclusion;
“A rough paraphrase might be that life is one of those processes which are found whenever there is an abundant flow of energy. It is characterized by a tendency to shape or form itself as it consumes, but to do so it must always excrete low-grade products to the surroundings.”
Along with Dian Hitchcock, another scientist trying do discover the potential for life in o other planets, Lovelock realized that the main characteristics of what we call life are very clearly present in our own atmosphere. In his book, “Gaia” Lovelock describes this discovery very simply.
“Earth’s highly improbable atmosphere was that it was being manipulated on a day-to-day basis from the surface, and that the manipulator was life itself. The significant decrease in entropy-or, as a chemist would put it, the persistent state of disequilibrium among the atmospheric gases-was on its own clear proof of life’s activity”
That is, our planet is a living organism. The planet itself as well as the atmosphere around it is a self adjusting combination of gasses and other elements that is able to maintain the perfect conditions for all of the organism within it (all life on earth) to survive.
A good way to picture this is to imagine the word as a body. The body adjust to the environment it’s in to maintain conditions inside it at a stage where the organs can work to sustain the body itself. Without well functioning organs the body cannot function properly and it begins to break down. Without a chemically balanced atmosphere or solid screen from the suns radiation, the earth begins to get sick.
This make you wonder, what is our position in this body? If we continue to deteriorate the earth’s main organs – the oceans, ozone layer, etc – like we are, we will become like a parasite to the worldly body. We are sickening the earth in a way that it cannot maintain its conditions, something like a fever, if it’s not controlled, the body will eventually cease to function.
At its origin, the Gaia hypothesis was a huge mess of long scientific words that not a lot of people understood or agreed with, however, like other useful theories, it has proven it’s theoretical value and it is now shaping the way leaders in environmental sustainability act. With the help of author William Golding, Lovelock was able to express his idea in a way we could all understand, and also changed the name from “the hypothesis that the biosphere is a self regulatory entity with capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment” to “Gaia” as we refer to it today, the ancient Greek word for Mother Earth.
Like any other theory going through criticism and development it has changed since it’s original form, in Lovelocks words;
“We have since defined Gaia as a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. The maintenance of relatively constant conditions by active control may be conveniently described by the term ‘homoeostasis’.”
Since I first hear about Gaia last semester I’ve noticed how applicable the theory really is. Analyzing the world around me it seems very real to me that we are part of something bigger. However, our potential to destroy it is bigger than ever. I think it is important to understand this in order to appreciate what we have and want to preserve it. We must apply the same laws we do to any living organism onto the earth. Think of it as an animal at the verge of extinction; we must protect it and let it grow strong, however we cannot regenerate it. All we can do is provide it with the right conditions and shelter it from danger to allow it to grow strong on its own. After all that is what life seems to be, a self reliant self adjusting organism.
At last, I’d like to leave you with one last quote found at the end of the first chapter in “Gaia”. Mother Nature is everything we rely on, we must change our idea of humans as the mean dominant special that must conquer all to a more open minded concept that allows us to understand that we must accept and communicate with our surroundings in order to survive. We need to understand that the earth is not something disconnected to us. We are a part of it as it is a part of us and that is why we must love it like we do ourselves, nurture it and connect with it. I’m not suggesting we all become tree huger fanatics, but simply that we take a little time each day to appreciate the beauty of it and help maintain it.
“If Gaia exists, the relationship between her and man, a dominant animal species in the complex living system, and the possibly shifting balance of power between them, are questions of obvious importance… The Gaia hypothesis is for those who like to walk or simply stand and stare, to wonder about the Earth and the life it bears, and to speculate about the consequences of our own presence here. It is an alternative to that pessimistic view which sees nature as a primitive force to be subdued and conquered. It is also an alternative to that equally depressing picture of our planet as a demented spaceship, forever traveling, driverless and purposeless, around an inner circle of the sun.”
For a more in depth analysis and explanation of Gaia theory follow this link to Dr. Stephan Harding YouTube channel and watch the 10 part series of videos named Gaia Theory & Deep Ecology. Also, you can follow this link for a 5 part series of videos of a presentation by Lovelock himself where he gives some suggestions as to ways we can help our planet.
For those interested in more information about the Gaia theory you can visit these sites:
This was the reading we had about Gaia in my Environmental class: Gaia, A New Look at Life