In the entire universe, the presence of life and a planet that supports life is so rare that we are literally living on an incredibly complex and mysterious miracle. Or rather, we are part of the miracle.
Life is not only rare – life is fussy and demanding. The temperature, amount of oxygen, the alkalinity, the formation of clouds and salinity of oceans, have all to be regulated within a narrow range on earth, so that life on it can be supported. A mind-boggling balancing act indeed which we take for granted in our daily lives.
Gaia is the idea of the earth as a self-regulating, single, unified, cooperating and living system – a super organism that regulates its physical conditions to make the world a place where life has continued to be possible over three billion years. Many cultures have understood Gaia, intuitively, perhaps with more than a dash of reason. Also many are the civilizations which have overlooked Gaia’s unstated demands and paid a price with their very survival.
According to Ayurveda, everything in the universe, every cell, object and creature is composed in an infinite variety of ways, of the Panchamahabhutas – Akash (Space), Vayu (Air), Jal (Water), Agni (Fire) and Prithvi (Earth). Constantly changing and interacting with each other, they create a situation of dynamic flux that keeps the world going – another way of looking at Gaia.
The Red-Indian Chief Seattle in his famous letter to the white man said, “We do not own the web of life, we are merely a strand in it...”
Perhaps it would have been a ‘better’ world if human ‘progress’ could have been governed by such an intuitive understanding of Gaia and through living harmoniously with all the zillions of other elements and creatures of Gaia. But from where we are today, living in an age of reason as we do, a scientific view is essential, in addition to a poetic or spiritual understanding of Gaia, which by themselves just won’t do.
Such a scientific view is what James Lovelock provides in his book ‘Gaia’ written originally in 1979 – and since then the idea of Gaia has become a great way to express one’s wonder and caring for the incredible complexities and ‘being’ of our planet earth.
Gaia became one of the most hotly-debated topics within the scientific community – which is understandable, since Lovelock goes far beyond reductionist science – you need your chemistry, physics, geology, oceanography, geography, history and much more to get a deeper understanding of Gaia.
In Lovelock’s words, "The entire range of living matter on Earth from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of maintaining the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts...” Gaia can be defined as a complex entity involving the Earth's biosphere, which includes the atmosphere, oceans, and soil including all life and all its inter-relationships, forming a self regulating or cybernetic system, which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. Evolution, therefore is the result much more of cooperative rather than competitive processes.
What does this optimal physical and chemical environment and self-regulation really mean?
Cybernetics and Holistic Science
Lovelock writes of the need to go beyond reductionist science and linear thinking. While he rues the then scientific establishment’s dismissal of his work as fiction and myth, he emphasizes the need to use science to make the argument for the Gaia hypothesis more compelling.
He explains the way Gaia creates an optimal environment for life using holistic thinking and the circular logic of cybernetics – the branch of science concerned with self-regulating systems of communication and control in living systems and machines. One of the many examples he gives to illustrate cybernetics is the simple thermostat – which controls the heat exceeding a set level, when the electric current is cut off; and when the temperature is cooler than the set level, the current is switched on to make the heat increase again. But such a thermostat is not an external intervention – it is in-built in Gaia as it is in the human body.
Several micro-organisms as well as gases in the atmosphere, chemicals in the soil and ocean, etc. are in a perpetual cybernetic dance to ensure that critical variables of oxygen, temperature, alkalinity, etc., which are essential to sustain life are maintained.
Amazingly, or perhaps quite naturally, there are significant similarities between optimal physical and chemical environment for the earth and for our own bodies (and other organisms as well). We are Gaia, not only in the sense of being part of Gaia, but also in being similar to Gaia.
Let us look at some of the similarities – in self-regulation of temperature, oxygen, acid - alkaline balance, the salinity of its oceans and balance of iodine.
Our bodies maintain a certain temperature – usually around 98.4°Fahrenheit. When the temperature outside is very high, the body sweats and brings down the temperature. Where the temperature outside is low, the shivering that ensues increases muscular activity to generate more heat by burning more body fuels. This self-regulating property of the body is called homeostasis.
Similarly, the Gaia hypothesis sees life regulating the surface temperature of Earth, using a far more complex process of homeostasis.
The earth began its existence 4.5 billion years ago and life on earth began about 3.5 billion years ago. After organic life began, the earth’s temperature has been maintained between a narrow range of 10 and 20°C, even when the sun’s heat has increased by 25 degrees over the last 3.5 billion years. 3 billion years ago, a mere 2 degree decrease in temperature would have been enough to establish an Ice age and wipe out most of life.
And this regulation of temperature has taken place for over three billion years – else life could not have evolved at temperatures lower or higher than this range. How did this happen? Unlike a planet like Mars where there is great variation in temperature, the earth’s average surface temperature is kept constant in multiple ways including by varying the amount of carbon dioxide and methane – now made notorious through the climate change crisis. And these gases were cycled through the atmosphere by the ceaseless activity of life – of predators and prey and of diverse food chains.
Another form of temperature control is through dimethyl sulphide (DMS). A group of microscopic algae called coccolithophorids that thrive in warm seas, release DMS into the air, which become nuclei for cloud condensation. These nuclei help to produce thicker clouds, blocking more of the sun, and cooling the oceans. This in turn reduces the coccolithophorids, which reduces the DMS released. We then have fewer clouds blocking the sun, and the temperature rises. How little do we know of microscopic organisms that keep the earth a liveable place for us!
An all important and ceaseless regulation required by Gaia is of oxygen. Oxygen in the atmosphere has to be high enough to keep oxygen-breathing animals alive. But instead of around 21%, if the atmosphere had about 25% oxygen, life on earth would be wiped out because with such a level of oxygen even green leaves would burn and all forests would soon go up in flames.
The atmospheres of our two nearest neighbours, Venus and Mars, contain 0.00 percent and 0.13 percent respectively, of free Gaia oxygen. On Earth, however, Dr Lovelock suggests that Gaia is at work to keep the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere within a narrow range. Through the Oxygen cycle, photosynthesis and innumerable yet to be understood processes, the oxygen in the atmosphere is maintained to support life.
3. Acid – Alkali Balance
The troposphere i.e. the denser layers of the atmosphere near the surface of the earth are “a curious mixture of reactive gases forever in flux and chemical disarray, yet never losing their balance”. Hydrogen, oxygen, ozone, water vapour, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, ammonia and much more are constantly in movement or transformation, between themselves and with the biosphere. A simple example known to a school child is of plants absorbing carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen which is then absorbed by other organisms.
The biosphere produces a great deal of ammonia, which seems to be just sufficient to sustain a rainfall pH of 8, i.e. ammonia helps the biosphere be alkaline enough for life. Without ammonia, the pH of rain will be close to 3 – creating highly acidic rain which can kill life.
Gaia’s cybernetic control system keeps the ammonia production and acids in balance – but this balance is beginning to be disturbed in parts of the world such as North America. As fossil fuel-burning releases sulphur into the atmosphere, it is brought down as sulphuric acid; the rains, known as ‘acid rain’ deters the growth of life.
4. Oceanic Salinity
Natural geological weathering releases salts washed off from the lands into the oceans too fast for life to adapt at the same rate. At the same time, geological evidence indicates that the oceans have remained at a constant salinity of less than 3.4% saturation for millions of years. Salt flats, which are hosts to dense patches of bacteria, may be removing the salt from the oceans. The bacteria, surviving in water too salty for any other life, trap salts and other minerals to form a sheath within which the bacterial colonies live. As for own bodies, like Gaia we too need just the right amount of salt – not too much and not too little.
The Mystery of Life
It seems almost as if our galaxy were a giant warehouse containing the spare parts needed for life… If we can imagine a planet made of nothing but the component parts of watches, we may reasonably assume that in the fullness of time – perhaps 1000 million years – gravitational forces and the restless motion of the wind would assemble at least one working watch. Life was thus an utterly improbable event with almost infinite opportunities of happening.
Lovelock goes on to liken life to a sandcastle built on the beach and says that if Gaia’s “partners in life were not there, continually repairing and recreating, as children build fresh castles in the beach, all Gaia’s traces would soon vanish.” Life then can be called a distribution of molecules, which is sufficiently different from the background state to be recognizable as an entity.
But now that life has been established, another affirmation of Gaia is that life would be very difficult to end! The partial or complete removal of the ozone layer, or the simultaneous explosion of all the nuclear weapons on earth, may destroy the larger animals and plants. But it is doubtful if unicellular organisms which are the most essential parts of life would even notice such an event.
In fact Lovelock’s passion and eloquence about microorganisms will change the way you look at life forever. He takes digs at various human propensities – for instance, at many being revolted by the violence of hunting but with no concern for the death and dispossession wrought by the bulldozer or the plough in destroying habitats of our partners in Gaia.
About 70% of the Earth’s surface is water. The oceans and the myriad self-regulatory chemical reactions in them play a major part in keeping the Earth habitable for life. The drama of the sulphur cycle, the iodine cycle, the role of other elements important for life such as selenium and phosphorus all require the great oceans with various algae and other life forms. Also, the oceans have more to them than the dazzling variety of life forms that they hold – about half of all living matter. The oceans are a reservoir of dissolved gases which help regulate the air we breathe.
Gathering information about the seas, their chemistry, physics and biology and their interacting mechanisms should come right on top of mankind’s priorities.
About Gaia Theory
“Gaia is related to the Earth’s biosphere as a person is related to her body”
The idea of Gaia presented a new and radically different model of our planet. In contrast to conventional belief that non-living matter is merely a backdrop for life, Gaia theory argues that the rocks, the air, and the oceans are part of Gaia just as the shell is part of a snail. Gaia has continuity with the past back to the origins of life, and extends into the future as long as life persists. Gaia, as a total planetary being, has properties that are not necessarily discernible by just knowing individual species or populations of organisms living together. Lovelock says elegantly, differentiating between Gaia and the biosphere: Gaia is related to the earth’s biosphere as a person is related to her body.
While ‘Gaia’ is considered a classic work, certain of his statements do not seem very credible. He exonerates multinational companies of any major role in the fast degradation of our world, and holds tropical agriculture more culpable. Lovelock believed that industrial pollution was no great problem – it only needed to be put to good use. Prohibiting pollution to him was as idiotic as legislating against the emission of dung from cows.
He certainly does not mention any understanding of the political-corporate nexus or how the compulsions for profit making and expanding markets seem to lead corporations to completely sweep aside ethical considerations, and pollute the earth with impunity. Only a Gaian perspective of long-term life seemed to matter for him.
What is most unacceptable to thinkers and environmentalists is his enthusiastic and unambiguous encouragement of nuclear power. While he recognized the problems of fossil fuel burning and climate change, he saw no need to change humankind’s present development path.
Overall, there are many messages for us. An important lesson for the world of education and economics is that Gaia theory poses an argument against Darwinian hypotheses of survival of the fittest and competition. If we look at all the self-regulative processes of Gaia, evolution is primarily a result of cooperative not competitive processes.
According to the Gaia theory, humankind is the most powerful species in this web and is also its biggest threat. We need to establish a right relationship with the planet as a living entity in which we are embedded – and to which, in the final analysis, we are all accountable. We are persuaded to drop the western belief that only the good of mankind mattered…he says, “I began to see us all, as part of the community of living things that unconsciously keep the Earth a comfortable home, and that we humans have no special rights, only obligations to the community of Gaia.”
The book inspires the reader to connect with a profound sense of the value of the Earth, and to discover what it means to live as harmoniously as possible as sentient creatures of planetary proportions. We need to love and respect the Earth with the same intensity that we give to our families and our tribes.
To quote The New Scientist, Lovelock “is to science what Gandhi was to politics. And his central notion that the planet behaves as a living organism is as radical, profound, and far reaching in its impact as any of Gandhi's ideas.”
This article was first published in Eternal Bhoomi Magazine, VOLUME 2, ISSUE - 2, APRIL - JUNE, 2011