By Robert Verkerk PhD
Founder, executive and scientific director, ANH-Intl
Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia.
- James Lovelock
The more objectively you look at life on planet Earth, the easier it is to allow what you see and understand to persuade you that we’ve lost our way. This becomes particularly apparent when you look at the many ways in which recent human activity has impacted plants and animals. The general acceptance that managing human health using chemistries that have never existed at any point during human evolution is a similar case in point.
It was an extreme form of objectivity view that allowed the British scientist and subsequent environmentalist, James Lovelock, to develop the Gaia theory, a notion that has, in many circles, become synonymous with his name. After developing an international reputation for developing highly sensitive, compact devices for measuring atmospheric gases in the 1950s, Lovelock’s expertise was exported to the US in the late to help in the space race against the Soviets. While in the employ of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, helping to develop instrumentation that would assist the American quest to detect life on Mars, Lovelock became convinced that the equilibrium state of gases in Mars’ atmosphere meant there was no likelihood of life being present. He was of course later proven right.
Dr James Lovelock, architect of the Gaia Hypothesis
It is the way in which living organisms appear to manipulate their environment for the benefit of life on Earth, so creating stable conditions favourable to life, that really caught Lovelock’s attention. His ideas were so revolutionary because ecologists, based on theories of giants in the field of evolutionary biology like John Maynard Smith, widely viewed life as evolving to adapt to a changing environment. Lovelock coupled two processes, suggesting that life regulates the environment and evolves in the process — as part of the same system. Initial focus was particularly on the regulation of the environment for life, specifically things like global temperatures, atmospheric gas concentrations, and ocean salinity and pH. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis.
He proposed that it was the regulation of the environment by life on Earth, living things acting in a connected way, yet seemingly unconsciously, through a cybernetic feedback system. When Lovelock first proposed the Gaia hypothesis, named after the ancient Greek goddess and personification of Earth, he was ridiculed, but as various elements of the hypothesis were put to scientific tests, the hypothesis grew in stature. Today, it is widely considered the Gaia theory or principle, having lost the tag of hypothesis.
In fact, if one is prepared to lose the Gaia tag, and use the less controversial Earth System tag, one can quite easily consider the Gaia theory to have traversed from the theoretical domain to the generally accepted, proven science domain. How do we jump to this conclusion? The scientific communities of four international global change research programmes, in the form of the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change, accept the basic premise of Gaia. The declaration tells us this much in its first bullet point:
The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components.
It has been Lovelock’s unashamed objectivity, even today in his 93rd year of life, that has also meant that some of his other ideas have been challenged by the very people that were among the first to accept the significance of the Gaia theory. His despise of wind power and his support for nuclear fission, are among his views that are born out of objectivity. But like with so many areas of science, Lovelock’s views are only as good as the data to which he has available to him. From his non-anthropocentric viewpoint, wouldn’t Lovelock’s view about nuclear fission, for example, change rapidly if another, very much safer form of nuclear energy became available, such as muon-catalysed fusion was on the energy-generating options list? I sense, Lovelock would be among the first to support such technologies once validated and demonstrated to be commercially viable.
Lovelock remains passionate about the way in which human activity is damaging the planet. He regards human–induced climate change as one of the single greatest challenges for life on Earth, especially humanity. Gaia, the super-organism, will respond, or is responding, claims Lovelock, but not necessarily in the time frame we might like or expect, and certainly not by putting human interest at the top of its priority list. Looking at the issue objectively, why would Gaia work preferentially to preserve one species out of many million, when this one species is causing so much damage to her face?
It would be remiss to suggest Lovelock is one of the only scientists to have applied a strongly objective, multi-disciplinary view on the interconnectedness of life and its mutualistic function. In a very different vein, Gregory Bateson, the British-born, naturalised American 20th century anthropologist, was another important whole-system thinker. He saw life on Earth as being divided into three interconnected systems containing individuals, societies and ecosystems. Like Lovelock, Bateson posed the central importance of homeostasis to the survival and evolution of the whole system, also suggesting that living things worked together to regulate their environment for their own benefit. A much-lauded documentary on Bateson, An Ecology of Mind, seen from the perspective of his daughter, has recently been released and is a must-see for Batesonistas.
The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.
- Gregory Bateson
Now, let’s cut to the chase. I hope I’ve given enough background in the preceding section for those of you who are less familiar with Lovelock’s Gaia theory, and for those already familiar, this is where you need to stop speed reading.
I can see three distinct scenarios that could be posed if the Gaia principle is applied to humans and human health. Speaking personally as a representative of the human species, I should add that the first two don’t make me feel particularly comfortable. However, I’ll happily play and continue to play a part in one of the myriad of cybernetic feedback loops within Scenario 3.
I will leave it to the reader to decide which of these scenarios appeals most. I personally feel that we have a choice, and Gaia probably doesn’t care too much which road we choose. But I do feel, should we choose Scenario 3, the Greek Goddess might give us a little wink of the eye, acknowledging that our actions have bought us a little more time to enjoy the fruits of life available to us on this fantastic planet we call Earth.
Updated: 23 May 2012
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