Gaia

A Sense of Direction

Contradictory road signs — a sense of direction

Those of us who are concerned about Age of Limits issues such as climate change, resource depletion and population overshoot are faced with a challenge. Should we concentrate our time and effort on “spreading the word” with books, blogs and web pages? Or should we focus on our personal lifestyle and working with others in our community?

Ideally, of course, we do both, but time, energy and money are all in limited supply. This year I have spent most of my time on home and community activities, and have slowed down on writing activities. But communicating with the larger world is important. I consistently say that the dilemmas that we face provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. Which means that we need to figure out a theology that is appropriate for our times. That is not something that can be done just at the local level. This week’s post to do with theology in the broadest sense is called ‘Gaia’ — details below.

As time permits, I will attempt to publish two blogs — one on Wednesdays and the other on Fridays. The first blog will consider “big picture” issues, with a particular focus on theology. The second blog, which may actually be a vlog (video log), will be to do with local activities. Since I have been doing a lot of gardening this year, most of these videos will be to do with the lessons learned to do with growing and storing food.

This is an ambitious agenda, but these are important topics, so we will see how it works out. The first blog in this series will be to do with Gaia.

Book Status

Front cover for book Faith in a Changing Climate: A New City of God

I continue to work on the book Faith in a Changing Climate. The current Table of Contents can be downloaded here.

I added a new Chapter 1 a couple of months ago. Its title is ‘Dress Rehearsal’. The current pandemic has given us some insights as to how we might react to the long-term crises that we face. Further discussion to do with the ‘New Normal’ is provided in the following posts.

Gaia

The following material is extracted from Chapter 7 of Faith in a Changing Climate. It discusses the topic of the ‘Earth Mother’. Although the Gaia Hypothesis provides some interesting insights as to how evolution works (it is more cooperative and less competitive than normally considered). or example, the components of a forest (such as trees, bushes, animals, earth and streams) all evolve with one another to benefit the survival and success of the forest. However, I see no need to add a spiritual component; the Gaia effect can be explained by reductionist reasoning.

Earth rise taken from the moon
Earthrise

One topic that is likely to draw theological attention in coming years is the concept of Gaia — a goddess in Greek mythology who was seen as the mother of all life. Her name has been applied to the ‘Gaia Hypothesis/Theory’, articulated by the atmospheric chemist, James Lovelock, in the 1960s, and also by Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan.

The hypothesis or theory has many variations and interpretations. It has also attracted various New Age and Eco-Feminist followers, as seen in this image.

Gaia — Earth Mother

Earth as an Entity

The basic idea behind the Gaia hypothesis/theory is that the Earth, in its entirety, is composed of organs such as forests, wetlands and inorganic materials and life (including human life). Gaia is also composed of all living creatures, including humanity. This way of looking at the Earth is analogous to the human body that is made up organs, sinews, blood vessels and millions of cells, each making a contribution to the overall person.

In the words of Lovelock,

The Gaia Theory proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.

In the year 2001 the European Geophysical Union meeting signed the Declaration of Amsterdam, starting with the statement,

The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological, and human components.

The human body is goal-directed — it is teleological. The goal is to sustain the life of the body and to create offspring. For example, if a person is too hot, he or she sweats in order to cool down, and then drinks water to replace what was lost in the sweat. Without these corrective actions the heat could lead to the death of the body. All the components of that body operate so as to achieve that goal. They act not just to optimize their own conditions, but also the health of the overall organism.

The Gaia theory suggests that the Earth operates in a similar manner. So, for example, if the earth’s surface temperatures rise, Gaia takes the actions needed to reduce those temperatures. This idea explains why the Earth’s surface temperature has stayed within quite a narrow range for millions of years, even though the sun is getting steadily hotter. The same line of thought explains why the ocean salinity has remained at roughly the same concentration for millions of years, in spite of the fact that salts are being added to the oceans all the time. According to this way of thinking, the damage that humans have done to the planet will eventually be corrected, just as the human body will heal damage caused to it.

In Chapter 5 the Foundation series of science fiction books written by Isaac Asimov is introduced. One of the “characters” in his story sequence is Gaia; she takes the form of a young lady, but she actually represents the planet on which she lives. Not only living creatures, but inanimate objects, such as rocks, are a part of her Gaia. (Asimov poses the interesting question as to the nature of food in such a place — after all if someone eats another creature, either animal or vegetable, she is, in effect, eating herself.)

One way in which the Earth control mechanisms work is through evolution. Margulis and Sagan suggested that evolution is not a process in which species develop in a competitive manner, and in which the most successful drive out those which fail to adapt to changing conditions. Instead, they postulate that evolution is a symbiotic process in which species develop together to ensure the health of Gaia.

. . . life is not surrounded by a passive environment to which it has accustomed itself. Rather, life creates and reshapes its own environment.

Margulis defined the term holobiont as an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it, which together form a discrete ecological unit. The components of a holobiont are individual species or bionts, while the combined genome of all bionts is the hologenome. Human beings, forests and reefs are all examples of holobionts. Gaia can be considered to be a planetary holobiont. Its component parts evolve together in cooperation, rather than in competition, to keep the planet healthy.

With regard to the human body, it is possible to overwhelm the control mechanisms. For example, if the body is subject to high temperatures and high humidity for too long a time, the person will die of heat stroke. Similarly, the Gaia control mechanisms will finally be overwhelmed. There will come a time when the sun’s heat becomes so intense that the Earth’ temperature control mechanism will break down, and the oceans will boil away. But that fate lies millions of years in the future.

Earth on fire after climate change

Teleological Gaia

With regard to the Gaia Hypothesis, Lovelock wrote,

. . . the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.

People of faith may find themselves attracted to this point of view. They generally believe that individual human lives have purpose and meaning. The idea that the Earth, as an overall entity can have purpose and meaning, fits their way of thinking.

It is at this point that debate starts. Does the Earth maintain its parameters such as surface temperature and ocean salinity merely as a consequence of the laws of science? Or does the Earth have a consciousness, a will to survive, that directs the actions of its component parts? In the limit, Gaia becomes a person-like entity, hence the link to New Age philosophies.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

. . .

that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27

Deterministic Response

Henry Louis Le Chatelier (1850-1936)
Henry Louis Le Chatelier (1850-1936)

The alternative approach to the Gaia hypothesis is to assume that the Earth follows deterministic scientific laws. Like the human body, the Earth is a complex super-organism, just like the human body. But there is no need for the Earth to have a will or a consciousness. Indeed, there is no need for the Gaia Hypothesis at all.

The French scientist Le Chatelier developed a principle to explain how systems that are already in a state of equilibrium respond to disturbances such as to reach a new equilibrium. A simple example is provided by the following chemical reaction.

Two chemicals, A and B, are dissolved in a flask of water. The chemicals react to form C and D, as shown in the following equation.

A + B ↔ C + D

The reaction is reversible, which means that C and D also react with one another to form A and B. The system settles into an equilibrium. If more of chemical A is then added to the solution, some of chemical B is used, and more C and D are created. Eventually, a new equilibrium is established.

When this principle applied more broadly, it can be stated as,

When a settled system is disturbed, it will adjust to diminish the change that has been made to it.

In other words, most systems exhibit negative feedback; they react to a change by adjusting the system so as to return toward the initial conditions.

The self-regulation of the Earth’s temperature can be explained by the same principle. In Chapter 6 we saw how the earth’s systems have responded in previous times when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were high. The CO2 was slowly (and the operative word here is ‘slowly’) was sequestered to form that form carbonates, including the chalk that makes up the white cliffs of Dover. These carbonates are then subsumed at the intersection of tectonic plates. Under the earth’s crust the carbonates break down to form CO2, which enters the atmosphere from volcanoes. The earth’s temperature is regulated by the CO2 concentration. High concentrations increase the surface temperature, which speed up the rate at which carbonates are formed, which results in the CO2 concentration going down. Low temperatures cause the rate of carbonate formation to slow down.

This reductionist approach, one in which evolution is seen as involving both cooperation and competition between species, and in which Le Chatelier’s Principle explains how systems reach equilibrium, is sufficient to explain the Gaia Hypothesis — the idea that the earth is a single entity. There is no need to involve teleological or spiritual philosophies.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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