Ian Sutton — Faith in a Changing Climate

Gaia

 

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.

1 Corinthians 12


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.

Earth as an Entity

The basic idea behind the Gaia theory is that the Earth, in its entirety, is composed of organs such as forests, wetlands, inorganic materials and all forms of life (including human life). This way of looking at the Earth is analogous to seeing the human body as being made up organs such as the heart, 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.

 

Margulis used the term 'holobiont' to describe the host organism and the many other species living in or around it; together they form a discrete ecological unit.

 

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.

This view of an organism, whether it be the human body or the planet Earth is goal-directed, sometimes referred to as 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 the body to do with temperature control operate in coordination with one another so as to achieve that goal. They act not to optimize their own conditions, but the health and survival 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. Moreover, 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.

The question then becomes, “Can the Earth’s control measures be explained by science, or do they involve some type of external entity or spirituality?”

The science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, wrote a series of books entitled The Foundation Series. One of the “characters” in his story sequence is Gaia; she takes the form of a young lady, but she is actually a piece of 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's 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 overall 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.  

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 eventually 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’s temperature control mechanism will break down, and the oceans will boil away. But that fate lies millions of years in the future.

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.  (One thinks of the dry bones story in Ezekiel 37.)

 

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? When this way of thinking is pushed hard enough Gaia becomes a person-like entity, hence the link to New Age philosophies.

 

Deterministic Response

Henry Louis Le Chatelier

 

The rationalist explanation of the Gaia hypothesis is to assume that the Earth follows deterministic scientific laws. Like the human body, the Earth is a complex super-organism. But there is no need for the Earth to have a will or a consciousness. Indeed, this point of view suggests that there is no need for the Gaia Hypothesis at all.

 

The French scientist Henry Louis Le Chatelier (1850-1936) developed a principle to explain how systems that are already in a state of equilibrium respond to disturbances so 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 a state similar to the initial conditions.

 

The self-regulation of the Earth’s temperature can be explained by the same principle. When atmospheric concentrations of CO2 concentrations are high the CO2 is slowly (and the operative word here is ‘slowly’) sequestered by rocks at or near the earth's surface to form carbonates, including the chalk that makes up the white cliffs of Dover. These carbonates are then eventually subsumed (driven under the earth's crust) at the intersection of tectonic plates. Under the extreme conditions of high temperature and pressure within the earth’s crust, the carbonates break down to form CO2, which eventually enters the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions. This is a self-regulating mechanism that works as follows.

  • Increased CO2  concentrations in the atmosphere increase the earth’s surface temperature.

  • Hence, carbonates are formed at an increased rate.

  • Hence CO2  concentrations go down.

(Low temperatures have the opposite effect.)

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.

Live Within The Biosphere

Whether or not one views the Earth as being a living organism with a purpose that is spiritually guided, it is our responsibility to live as part of nature. It is this thought that lies behind the third theological statement, Live within the biosphere.

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