Gaia theory: academic mysticism

James Lovelock’s Gaia theory started life as an interesting scientific hypothesis. A new book shows that it has since morphed into a mystical creed that sees Mother Earth as vulnerable and humans as wicked.

Josie Appleton

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As a scientific hypothesis, James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is worth serious consideration. He suggests that it is possible to view the Earth as a self-regulating system: that organisms do not merely ‘adapt’ to the environment, selected by the blind hand of evolution, but rather play a role in creating that environment.

Lovelock also suggests that Earth’s planetary systems, including temperature, water and gases, are connected by a series of feedback loops, which have the function of keeping the Earth in a state that is suitable for life. A ‘dead’ planet will experience rapid and extreme fluctuations in conditions; a living planet such as Earth will not, since its feedbacks will tend to keep conditions more stable. If carbon dioxide increases, for example, plants will absorb more by photosynthesis; if it decreases, they will absorb less.

Yet this scientific hypothesis has been blighted by the peculiar moral climate that has prevailed since the 1960s, when it was first proposed (and Lovelock himself has been responsible for much of this distortion). Gaia has become an intermediary in human beings’ spiritual crises; and, unfortunately, this has meant that an interesting theory has been taken in increasingly wacky directions.

This much is shown by the pieces in Earthy Realism: The Meaning of Gaia, a collection edited by the philosopher Mary Midgley. The book is produced by the ‘Gaia Network’, a multidisciplinary group set up to discuss the meaning and purpose of Gaia.

Midgley claims to be opposing a ‘mechanistic ideology’, which apparently regards ‘matter as inert – dead – and thus something to which we should be indifferent’. Going beyond Descartes’ clockwork model of nature, she insists that the Earth system can be ‘injured; it is vulnerable’. Some of the other contributors go further, suggesting that we should all learn to heal the rift and connect with the Earth mother.

Stephan Harding offers his favoured method: ‘Lie on your back on the ground outside in as peaceful a place as you can find, in the forest perhaps, or by the roaring sea…. Feel her [Earth’s] great continents, her mountain ranges, her oceans.’ In summary, he says, ‘Let yourself be “Gaia’ed” by the great round sentience of our living world. Deeply experience what it feels like to meld with the great wild body of our animate Earth…’

Now, Midgley might be right that seventeenth-century science was overly mechanistic: the first studiers of nature viewed animals as working by purely physical principles. But the reason for that was that biology had not yet developed as a science (neither, for that matter, had chemistry), and people could not yet view animals as organisms, as a self-regulating whole. Science made its first gains in the areas of mechanics and astronomy, and for a while applied these tentative successes to every area of life.

Biology was another level of scientific sophistication, such that scientists could perceive another of nature’s dimensions. Gaia theory should perhaps be part of the corpus of biological science. But it is anyone’s guess how we got from studying carbon dioxide regulation to lying on your back and letting yourself be ‘Gaia’ed’.

Gaia stops being a theory, and becomes merely the projection of human hopes and anxieties. The Earth system ends up with a series of contradictory characteristics, each of which answers particular human needs.

First, on the one hand, Gaia is cast as a wise figure, an Earth guardian, which somehow knows what is best for the planet. This guardian Gaia is an answer for the human search for moral guidance. Lovelock has talked of ‘Gaia’s revenge’, and says that we are engaging in an unwitting ‘war’ against the Earth system. ‘Can Gaia forgive us?’, asks Anne Primavesi in Earthy Realism, considering ‘who am I to grant myself the right to forgive in Gaia’s name?’

Yet second, Gaia is also cast as a fragile edifice vulnerable to ‘human impact’, and which might crumble at our very touch. This fragile Gaia is an expression of our anxiety about the consequence of our actions. In Earthy Realism, Brian Goodwin laments the ‘toxic and damaging technologies that are destroying natural abundance through greedy harvesting techniques and pollution of natural ecosystems. Once these dangerous technologies are reduced and replaced, natural cycles can be restored and the Earth can regenerate a healthy condition.’ We are viewed as an exile from Gaia, the presumptuous species that does not understand nature’s ways.

The more that we look to nature to answer our existential concerns, the less we will be able to grasp the real interconnections of natural systems. We stand in danger of forgetting some of the lessons learnt in the history of the sciences.

For most of human history, people have observed nature to answer human concerns – they looked for omens in the flight of birds, or in the patterns in animals’ livers; they studied the path of Mars in order to issue commendations for the conduct of a war. Similarly, for most of history, people have seen nature as animated by some kind of spiritual impulse, akin to that they experienced in their own inner lives – objects fell to Earth, they thought, because they were ‘rushing’ to ‘reunite’ with their home; the blood was moved around the body because it was animated by a vital substance.

Biological science moved beyond this by seeing nature as a self-regulating system – neither a messenger for human beings, nor animated with a soul-like substance. Gaia theory shows most dramatically how the subjective turn is leading academics into mysticism.

If scientists could keep their feet on the ground, then they’d stand a much better chance of unraveling the complex interactions of that most complex system, the climate. The more they use Earth as a counsellor for our crises, though, the more its workings will remain obscure.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club, a pro-human campaigning network. She is speaking at the session Child protection: Has adult paranoia gone to far? at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Earthy Realism: The Meaning of Gaia by Mary Midgley is published by Imprint Academic. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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