Remembering James Lovelock

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

To mark the recent death of the brilliant James Lovelock, here is an edited version of the text on Gaia that Paul Vare and I wrote for our book: The World we'll Leave Behind: grasping the sustainability challenge


In ancient Greek mythology, Gaia was the god of the Earth who created herself out of chaos at the dawn of creation. She was viewed as the mother of everything including all the other Greek gods, with all mortal creatures being born of her flesh.  The ancient Greeks saw the Earth as a flat disk surrounded by a river with the solid dome of heaven above.  The disk rested on, and was inseparable from, Gaia’s breast.

This idea of Mother Earth or Earth Mother is very old and is widespread across the world’s cultures.  Mother Earth embodies nature, motherhood, fertility, bounty and creation (and, it has to be said, sometimes also destruction).  The Mother Earth idea still appeals to people now, and is especially beloved by many environmentalists who, whilst they might otherwise be quite irreligious, can find in the Earth a spiritual quality missing from their lives.  Their argument goes: if the Earth is literally the source of all goodness and nourishment (both spiritually and materially), should she not be respected, nurtured and generally looked after?  Well indeed she should, although this is not the only way of thinking about such things as James Lovelock illustrated when he developed his Gaia hypothesis with Lynn Margulis in the late 1960s.  They argued that the earth is a single organism that actively maintains the conditions necessary for its survival.

In a 1975 article for New Scientist, Lovelock (with Sidney Epton) posed two questions: [i] do the Earth’s living matter, air, oceans and land surface form part of a giant system which could be seen as a single organism?  And [ii] could human activities reduce such a system’s options so that it is no longer able to exert sufficient control to stay viable?

The first of these lies at the heart of the Gaia hypothesis; the second is the existential threat we pose to each other and to life itself.  In their New Scientist article, Lovelock and Epton contrasted two propositions:

[1] Life exists only because material conditions on earth happen to be just right for its existence.

[2] Life defines the material conditions needed for its survival and makes sure that they stay there.

Proposition 1 – Lovelock and Epton say, is the conventional view that temperature, oxygen levels, humidity, ocean acidity and sanility, etc, fall within limits that means that they are right for life to exist.  Proposition 2 is the Gaia view which implies that “living matter is not passive in the face of threats to its existence.  It has found means … of forcing conditions to stay within the permissible range.”

Proposition 2 – Inherent in this is the idea that the components of the biosphere (air, oceans, ice, land) are in a kind of dynamic balance which maintains the sort of homeostatic condition that the human body manages with respect to temperature, blood pH, glucose levels, salinity, etc.  For example, our temperature is controlled very close to 37 °C even though it might be –20 or +45 outside.  For Gaia, this means controlling within a narrow range atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, ocean and soil pH, surface temperature, etc.

In many ways the idea of Gaia, with its proposition that what most of us regard as inanimate could in fact be thought of as somehow alive, remains as provocative as it was in the 1970s.  Since that time, the hypothesis has given rise to many new areas of research about the Earth’s physical, chemical, geological and biological processes, and these continue today.  However, although it’s useful to think of the Earth in systems terms, that doesn’t mean it has to be the sort of living system that Lovelock first outlined, and many might now agree with Toby Tyrrell, a professor of Earth system science, when he says that the Gaia hypothesis is not an accurate picture of how our world works.

That said, the idea and image of Gaia remains in the popular imagination with, for example, suggestions that we might view it in physiological terms: the Earth’s oceans and rivers being its blood, the atmosphere its lungs, the land its bones, and living organisms its senses.  Although this sort of imagery seems too literal a view of what is a sophisticated idea, Lovelock and Epton did end their New Scientist article with this:

“Now for one more speculation.  We are sure than man needs Gaia, but could Gaia do without man?  In man, Gaia has the equivalent of a central nervous system and an awareness of herself and the rest of the universe.  Through man, she has a rudimentary capacity, capable of development, to anticipate and guard against threats to her existence.  For example, man can command just enough capacity to ward off a collision with a planetoid [asteroid] the size of Icarus. Can it then be that in the course of man’s evolution within Gaia he has been acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure her survival?”

Well, perhaps.  But this leads us to wonder whether, if we are Gaia’s central nervous system, we might be in the grip of a serious meningitis-like viral infection.  It was William Golding the author of Lord of the Flies, (who lived in the same Wiltshire village as Lovelock), who suggested the name Gaia, and we wonder whether he had in mind that she had a reputation as something of a trouble-maker amongst the gods.  We certainly think that it’s by no means clear that a living Gaia would be eternally tolerant of a species – we humans – that constantly defied her both by its brute carelessness, and its hubris.  More reasons, if we needed them, to mend our ways.



Gaia the God

New Scientist (1975) The Quest for Gaia

Lovelock J (1979) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press

Lovelock J (1991) Healing Gaia: Practical Medicine for the Planet, Harmony Books

Lovelock J (2005) Gaia: Medicine for an Ailing Planet. Gaia Books

Lovelock J (2006) The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity. Santa Barbara (California): Allen Lane.

Lovelock J (2009) The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning: Enjoy It While You Can. Allen Lane.

Lovelock J (2014) A Rough Ride to the Future. Allen Lane

Tyrrell, Toby (2013) On Gaia: A critical investigation of the relationship between life and Earth. Princeton University Press

Tyrrell, Toby (26 October 2013), "Gaia: the verdict is in", New Scientist, 220: 30–31, doi:10.1016/s0262-4079(13)62532-4

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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