Gaia in turmoil

By Bryan Walker 04/01/2010

Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of CrisisThe title attracted my attention: Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. Plus the fact that it was a collection of writings, not another hammer blow from the father of Gaian science James Lovelock. The comforting name of Bill McKibben was there as writer of the foreword. I don’t mean to disparage Lovelock, whose early book on the Gaia understanding of Earth I read with appreciation a good many years ago. But his more recent climate-focused books, The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia , the latter reviewed here, have been relentless in conclusions which I find hard to bear. 

Not that this book, edited by Eileen Crist and Bruce Rinker, is soothing, but its warnings are not quite so inexorable.  Also it has a wider focus that takes in more than the global warming issue.  Wide enough to make me wonder whether it was really suited for review on a climate change website, but I have persevered because it contains some climate change messages which I’ll concentrate on.

The Gaian perspective, which if you don’t respond to literary metaphor can be described as viewing Earth as a single organism, has been helpful in underscoring how the actions of humans in releasing the stored carbon of fossil fuels have caused a disturbance of the Earth system far greater than can easily be comprehended.  In the chapter on global warming Donald Aitken stresses that slight mismatches in the balance of energy flows can cause great destabilisation effects. Unbalanced flows occur naturally from time to time and are averaged out. But not in the case of the human burning of fossil fuels, which has gone out of bounds and is now leading to increasing destabilisation of the planet’s energy, temperature and climate systems. Evidence is seen in such phenomena as increased hurricane intensity, melting Arctic summer ice, reduced Greenland and West Antarctic ice,  a reduction in primary ocean productivity and ocean acidifcation — the usual suspects.  Aitken is an interrnational expert on renewable energy and considers that a combination of renewable energy resources and energy efficiency, the latter particularly in buildings, may well be enough to avoid the dangerous climate thresholds provided leaps in policies are taken by all nations. He contrasts the inertia of Earth’s physical processes with the capacity of humans to elect to change their social structures and adopt new global responsibilities on much shorter time scales. That’s in our favour, assuming we rise to the responsibility.

Biodiversity depletion figures strongly throughout the book, particularly in a chapter by Stephan Harding.  We are in the throes of a mass extinction entirely due to the economic activities of modern industrial societies.  Species are disappearing at a rate up to 10,000 times the natural rate. This is not all down to global warming, by any means, but it is part of the same heedlessness which treats the natural world as ours to do with as we will. Climate change is exacerbating the biodepletion, with the capacity to transform the Earth into a biological wasteland. It works both ways, for biodiversity also affects the climate.  Harding identifies some of the intricate ways in which this happens. Diverse ecological communities on land can increase the absorption of carbon dioxide. It is almost certain that biodiversity in the ocean also enhances this effect, through the presence of larger phytoplankton more often found in diverse communities.  Transpiration and evaporation are greater when there is diversity of land plants and can enhance cloud-making and energy distribution.  The roughness of mixed vegetation increases air turbulence which may well influence weather patterns. Harding rounds off his biodiversity chapter with the challenging observation that ultimately we may not be able to save what we do not love.

Lovelock himself makes a brief appearance in the book, in which he asks why the science of Gaia is still regarded by many as New Age mysticism and not part of science. He puts it down mainly to the stunning success of the reductionist approach to science, examplified in such triumphs as those in molecular biology and the deconvolution of the code of life.  The slow change to Earth system thinking would not matter so much if we humans had secure tenure on the Earth, but the climate changes we have set in motion appear to be changing the planet radically to one of its hot states. He ponders how Darwinian evolution might have been shaped had Darwin been aware that much of the environment, especially the atmosphere, was the product of living organisms. With such awareness he thinks Darwin would have realised that organisms and their environment form a coupled system and that what evolved was this system. Had Gaia been part of Darwin’s concept of evolution we might have realised sooner the consequences of deforestation and of adding greenhouse gases to the air. 

Lovelock cops some criticism from Karen Liftinin her rough sketch of the principles of Gaian government. She acknowledges his great service in sounding the alarm on global warming but finds his policy prescriptions insensitive to social, ethical, psychological, and smaller scale ecological questions. One-sided engineering panaceas and technocratic elitism won’t do. 

Mitchell Thomashow proposes curriculum development in schools which will train a generation of students who see the biosphere in every habitat and organism, who are equipped to interpret environmental change, who are keen to observe the natural world, and who know that their very survival may depend on it. I thought while reading his chapter of the Enviroschool programme open to New Zealand schools, for which the Minister of Education has unbelievably stoppped funding, but which appears likely to be rescued by funds from other government sources. I have seen the programme in action at a grandchild’s primary school and appreciated its potential for informing the full range of a child’s education. I recall the very sensible call in David Orr’s book Down to the Wire for a shift in education methods so that learning is relative to the biosphere and ecological awareness.

The various contributions to the book cover a wide range Gaian science, ethics and philosophy.  One Grand Organic Whole is the title of the editors’ opening chapter. They acknowledge that the early strong Gaia hypothesis that the biota controls the global environment in an almost purposeful fashion will not stand. The weak hypothesis that life physically and chemically influences the environment is too self-evident. They see the studies in this book as exploring the mid terrain between these two positions. When it comes to action enlightened realism acknowledges the need for preservation and restoration of Gaia’s natural systems. This requires sustainable retreat -— scaling down our consumption, shrinking our ecological footprint, and generously sharing the biosphere with all living beings.