The largest living system on Earth…is Earth. That is a simplified version of the Gaia hypothesis, first posited by scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. The idea is that both organic beings and inorganic matter have evolved to operate together as a single, living system that self-regulates, with the goal of allowing life to persist and thrive.
The Gaia hypothesis has gained credence with scientists in the intervening decades, and it has been “upgraded” from “hypothesis” to “theory,” i.e., other scientists have conducted research and experiments to verify or extend its tenets. Whether Theory or Hypothesis, it’s a beautiful idea with some hard-edged consequences. Lovelock’s theory challenges the world view, propagated by some faiths, that the Earth was put here for humans’ use.
Lovelock writes, “The concept of Gaia, a living planet, is for me the essential basis of a coherent and practical environmentalism; it counters the persistent belief that the Earth is a property, an estate, there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind. This false belief that we own the Earth, or are its stewards, allows us to pay lip service to environmental policies and programs but then continue with business as usual.” (Revenge of Gaia, Chapter 8)
Can Technology Save Us and Gaia?
In 2006, Lovelock warned that we had passed the point of no return for global warming. He wrote in a famous article in The Independent that the Earth was ill and that human activity is the cause: “We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years.” Needless to say, the human species would have trouble lasting 1,000 centuries while the system rights itself.
Lovelock’s positions force us to look at how we define environmentalism, and whether the principal solutions to environmental crises lie with technology or human behavior change. A firm believer in human-caused climate change, Lovelock is also in favor of nuclear energy. He largely dismisses the possibility that renewable energy can be developed quickly and in such a way as to not make matters worse.
Unwavering Support of Nuclear
For years James Lovelock has been a strong proponent of nuclear energy as humanity’s best hope to curb global warming. When interviewed after the nuclear incident at Fukushima, Japan last month, Lovelock remained firmly pro-nuclear, touting it as “very safe” and stating that people were unreasonably prejudiced against nuclear power.
Can we make peace with Gaia?
Lovelock concluded his widely quoted 2006 article: “We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.”
Answers At Hand?
This striking video made for Greenpeace drives home the point that while human needs can be overwhelming, we can also have a hand, with our actions every day, in creating a positive future for people and planet:
Happy Earth Day!
It is easier to imagine earth as a single living system when we contemplate it from space.