Earth from space - Apollo 8/Flickr

Gaia bats last – interdependencies in a troubled world

By Pete Haug

For his 100th birthday last year, James Lovelock published a book. This year, nearing 101, he wryly commented, “The biosphere and I are both in the last one percent of our lives.”

Readers may recognize Lovelock as the creator of the Gaia Hypothesis, which postulates that Earth functions as a self-regulating system. His recent book, “Novacene: The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence,” discusses interactions between Gaia and burgeoning artificial intelligence. Gaia, birthed in the 1970s, has been attacked since its inception, but it refuses to die. Perhaps this is because of its relevance in these troubled times. Lovelock’s work is important because it encourages us to think in terms of natural systems, which, in turn, nudges us to recognize interconnections among living and non-living components of our biosphere.

Another book of the 70s, “Living Systems,”offers an organizational framework that could complement Gaia: Each of eight levels of systems, from single cells through supranational systems, contains 20 “critical” subsystems that process information, matter, and energy. At each level, subsystems perform analogous functions to maintain viability. For example, each subsystem controls what enters and leaves the larger system.  

Biological and physical interdependencies associated with climate change epitomize Gaia’s problems. Life was simpler when Joseph Fourier wrote about global warming in 1837. Human society produced “variations in the mean temperature” over extensive regions. In 1856, Eunice Foote warned, “an atmosphere” of CO2 “would give to our earth a high temperature.” A male colleague presented her research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science because women weren’t allowed to present.

Climate change is a “wicked problem,”not evil in the theological sense, but “wicked” because incomplete data, contradictory and changing characteristics, and complex interdependencies complicate things. Wicked problems are inherently societal problems.

Climate change used to be the poster child for wicked problems. COVID-19 has eclipsed that. It’s unmasked health-care inadequacies, economic inequities, and systemic racism. Some folks now exercise “inalienable rights” to go bare-faced, thus endangering others — even though, like seat belts, masks are legally required.

From pandemics to carbon footprints, environmental health issues plague humanity — and vice-versa. Ecosystems have been a concern at least since the Dustbowl Days of the 1930s. Seven decades ago Aldo Leopold’s classic essay, “A Land Ethic,” explored, from a holistic perspective, the roots of our behavior toward soil. Leopold mentions the “Mosaic Decalogue,” commonly known as the Ten Commandments, as an example of a code of ethics – an ethos. He invokes it and the Golden Rule, another ethos found in most world religions, to develop his concept of a land ethic.

 Leopold’s essay is not “scientific” in the modern sense. He didn’t have the technical know-how 70 years ago. But that essay, like the Gaia Hypothesis, might be more relevant now than when it first appeared. Leopold was a forester, college professor, and scientist. His essay explores relationships between humans and soil. He describes soil as a living organism, a system with amazing properties. Even today our knowledge about relationships among living and nonliving components of the soil ecosystem remains limited. Ecosystems provide us with services – clean air and water, crop pollination, and production of food, to name a few. Changing a climate disrupts and damages ecosystems, assaulting the foundations of civilization.

Gaia posits a qualitative model of Earth’s biosphere. Planetary boundaries, “environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate,”offer a quantitative paradigm for managing that biosphere. That paradigm establishes limits for humankind’s insults to the environment, from climate change to loss of biodiversity. The approach has proven useful for developing global sustainability policies. Operating beyond boundaries increases risk of irreversible and abrupt environmental change, possibly making the planet less habitable for humans.

Many religions are starting to recognize these interconnections. Pope Francis called Earth “Our common home…a sister with whom we share our life…a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Can we do less than reciprocate? How we respond to “wicked” challenges is up to us. Outcomes are not predetermined. They depend on conscious decisions.

We need to solve Gaia’s wicked problems while choice remains. Rushing to capitalize on diminishing natural resources, generations have monetized short- term gains while foreclosing  future options.

Is the biosphere really in the last one percent of its life, as Lovelock suggests? The zero-sum contest between man and his environment is on.

In that game, Gaia bats last.

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