Gaia

 

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ . . . the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1 Corinthians 12

Gaia and climate change


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. The word ‘Gaia’ is now applied to a variety of ideas and concepts, many of which are linked to various New Age and Eco-Feminist followers, as seen in this image at the top of this page.

Many of the concepts behind Gaia are useful and important, but others could be a spiritual distraction. Therefore, it is important to consider what the term means now, and how it might be used in the future.

Earth as an Entity

The basic idea behind modern 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 (see Ezekiel 37).

 

In the 1960s atmospheric chemist, James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis and Carl Sagan developed the ‘Gaia Hypothesis/Theory’. Lovelock described it as follows,

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.

 

Key items in this phrase are.

 

  • There is a relationship between all living creatures and with inorganic matter.

  • Gaia is a self-regulating system in which each component helps achieve the overall goal, even though it is not aware of the role that it is playing.
  • Therefore, although each part of Gaia acts individually to benefit itself, together all the parts create a self-sustaining system.

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 Gaia hypothesis is used to explain why some of the Earth’s systems remain so stable. Atmospheric temperatures, for example, stay within a narrow range, in spite of the fact that the sun is getting bigger and hotter. Also, the salt content of the oceans remains within a narrow range, even though minerals are being added to the ocean all the time.

Limits

There are limits to a system’s self-regulating capability. The control mechanisms can be overwhelmed. For example, if a person’s 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.

Evolution

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. 

Holobionts

Another term that has the same general meaning as Gaia, without the New Age imagery, is holobiont. Margulis used this word to describe a host organism and the many other species living in or around it; together they 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.

 

Ugo Bardi has created a web site with the name Proud Holobionts.
 

Le Chatelier’s Principle

Henry Louis Le Chatelier (1850-1936)

Henry Louis Le Chatelier (1850-1936)

The rationalist or deterministic 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 purpose or consciousness.

 

The French scientist Henry Louis Le Chatelier 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 Foundation Series

Isaac Asimov and Gaia

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

The science fiction author, Isaac Asimov, wrote a series of books as part of the 'Foundation Series'. As is often the case, a fictional work describes an idea better than a technical paper or article.

 

One of the characters in the story sequence is Gaia; she takes the form of a young lady, but she is actually an integral part of the planet Gaia on which she lives. She is the planet, the planet, and all other entities on it, are her. Not only living creatures, but inanimate objects such as rocks, are a part of 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.) 

 

Because of the size of the consciousness created in this way, Gaia  has tremendous mental powers. Her /its influence is spread throughout the Galaxy, using a web of agents who are capable of instantaneous communication via hyperspace with the group mind as a whole.

This way of thinking is in line with the following words from Lovelock,

. . . 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.

Natural Carbon Sequestration

White cliffs of dover carbon sequestration

Virtually all programs to do with managing global warming incorporate some form of Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CC&S). The principle is that CO2 is removed from the air using carbon capture technology, and then injected into an underground location where it will reside safety for thousands of years. Alternatively, the captured CO2 is reacted with a suitable mineral to form rock.

Given enough time — as in millions of years — Gaia will carry out this CC&S process without human help. When atmospheric concentrations of CO2 concentrations are high the CO2 is slowly (the operative word here is ‘slowly’) sequestered by rocks at or near the earth's surface to form carbonates; the famous White Cliffs of Dover are an example.

The process is temperature dependent. As CO2 levels increase the atmospheric temperature also increases (which is what we are observing now as a result of human activity). Hence carbonates are formed at an increased rate. Hence CO2 concentrations go down. Also, once the CO2 has been captured and sequestered temperatures go down and the rate of sequestration also declines.

(The reverse operation also applies. The carbonate rocks that have been created are 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.

Teleological Gaia

To this point of the discussion the Gaia hypothesis can be seen as just another way of expressing mechanisms such as Le Chatelier’s Principle. However, another interpretation is that Gaia is truly a living entity with its own purpose and goals, as in Asimov's story. People of faith may find themselves attracted to this point of view. They generally believe that individual human lives have purpose and meaning. ​Therefore, they are able to accept that the Earth also has its own purpose and reason for being, and 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.

There are likely to be lively theological discussions on this point in the coming years.