While Earth is indeed in constant flux, it does oscillate amongst oddly suitable
conditions for life that we do not find on other planets. As James Lovelock describes,
“the climate and chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout its history seem
always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to
survive unscathed a drive blindfold through rush-hour traffic…”[i]
The Gaia Hypothesis, Lovelock’s theory attempting to explain this strange balance, claims that “the only feasible explanation of the Earth’s highly improbable atmosphere was that it was being manipulated on a day-to-day basis from the surface, and that the manipulator was life itself.”[ii]
Many scientists are beginning to discover that the intricate, interconnected biosphere perhaps does more than just serve the fitness of the individuals within it — it may work to keep Earth habitable. Lovelock proposes that “the biosphere is a self-regulating entity with the capacity to keep our planet healthy by controlling the chemical and physical environment.”[iii] Through a complex network of feedbacks between its biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soils, Earth maintains its
own homeostasis. This self-sustaining network he calls Gaia.
Gaia: Are We Something More?
These kinds of findings suggest that life “modifies Earth to its advantage.”[vii] Earth’s self-regulating biological activities, such as those cultivating our oceans, atmosphere, and crust, may not just be coincidence, but perhaps cybernetic processes, constantly working to correct error and maintain planetary
homeostasis amongst Earth’s flux. Intricate biological networks operate
this system, through the nuanced ability of living organisms to respond to
changes in their environment and “restore or adapt to conditions which
favor their own survival.”[viii] We, then, and all other organisms, are
perhaps part of Gaia’s self-sustaining operations — not just random
individuals messing around on a conveniently rich and
Lovelock describes how the atmosphere’s chemical composition “violates the rules of equilibrium chemistry,” yet is perfectly suited to life's needs, due to various
biological processes that contribute critical gasses necessary for life, such as oxygen,
nitrogen, and ozone.[iv] He does the same with the ocean’s salinity, which,
without an intricate set of biological processes in charge of salt removal, would
resemble a “brine” lethal to any living cell[v]. Even plate tectonics, a process that
appears to be “a giant mechanical system”, is likely enabled by microbiota and
burrowing animals who keep Earth’s crust soft and malleable by oxygenating rock into
soft clay minerals[vi]. (Plate tectonics are essential to Earth’s habitability, as they cycle critical elements for life from Earth’s mantle, such as carbon and ammonia, to the surface. “Nonliving” worlds, such as Venus and Mars, have much harder, drier crusts.)
Perhaps this is our true story. Earth evolved in a vigorous cosmic frenzy, eventually merging with life, who found its key sources of strength and took the reins, steering this dynamic world into a more habitable environment. Out of this self-sustaining system emerged humanity, which, with its sheer numbers, wit, and relentless imagination, has had more impact than most on Earth’s operations. Humans are no longer nuanced nor balanced as a species, and have begun to hinder Gaia’s ability to protect its biological networks.
With this in mind, we can perhaps attempt to understand the star of 2020 – the coronavirus – as a signal from Gaia, an attempt to correct an increasingly disruptive species. Maybe, in a seemingly twisted way, this pandemic is a Gaian effort to keep us, and many other species, alive. By forcing us to remember and act upon our humanity, to work together in desperate circumstances, and to protect our most vulnerable, perhaps this painful experience is a wake-up call, reminding us what we must do to renew Earth’s balance. For if we can reconnect to our planet and each other, we will discover an immense capacity to solve our current existential crises. Our history shows that we've done it before.
“Are you an organism? You probably like to think so, but
like Earth, you're also essentially a community of interacting
parts, many of which are themselves organisms and some of
which are not made of living cells… think of parasites living their whole
life in the body of their host, or bacteria living in your gut, unaware that their
“world” is living organism and that their survival depends on the maintenance of an environment that is synonymous with the health of that organism. Are we not like such dependent bacteria living within our host, Gaia?”[ix]
David Grinspoon, Earth in Human Hands, 2016
[i] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 10. Oxford University Press.
[ii] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 6. Oxford University Press.
[iii] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 9. Oxford University Press.
[iv] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 64 - 83. Oxford University Press.
[v] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 84 - 106. Oxford University Press.
[vi] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 74. Grand Central Publishing.
[vii] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 73. Grand Central Publishing.
[viii] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 97. Oxford University Press.
[ix] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 69. Grand Central Publishing.