Burning questions: What is the Gaia hypothesis? (Opinion)
Rupert, our family’s favorite backyard Aspen, was standing listlessly in the melting snow the other day, enduring my conversation with the cat, who was stalking some poor small creature along the concrete pad next to the house (where — finally — there is no more snow), when something about his movement in the warm spring breeze stopped my chattering for a moment. I leaned in closer to his slender branches and listened. But he was still and quiet and said nothing … at least nothing I could understand.
But that’s the problem right there: a human leaning into a tree, waiting for spoken English to emerge. Trees communicate, but not in any of our human languages. Why do we expect, always, to be met where we are, whether by other people or by other creatures that we may not understand? Like Rupert, for instance.
Which brings me to the second of two innovative thinkers featured in this column so far (Timothy Morton and his hyperobjects being the first): the late British chemist James Lovelock, who produced the Gaia Hypothesis in the 1970s, and expanded on it over the ensuing decades. A 2022 Economist article about Lovelock shortly after he died at age 103 described the hypothesis as capturing “the imaginations of the scientifically minded and mystically inclined alike with its proposal that life on Earth behaves like a mega-organism…. Researchers now know that bacteria on land and the oceans alter the chemistry of the atmosphere and the soil, regulating global temperatures. Algae produce airborne, cloud-seeding chemicals. Forests generate atmospheric rivers, and their own rain.” (Farewell to James Lovelock | The Economist)
Lovelock’s hypothesis was –and remains—controversial; in a 2013 article in New Scientist, Michael Bond wrote, “Gaia may have been rooted in genuine science, and its originator a well-regarded chemist, but when the public lapped it up with the enthusiasm they had shown for mysticism or faith healing, many scientists pulled up the drawbridge.” (Exploring our love/hate relationship with Gaia | New Scientist)
As with Morton’s hyperobjects, much of the argument supporting the Gaia Hypothesis is over my head and much of it is controversial, but I am fascinated by the groundbreaking –and at the same time, strangely intuitive—worldview that both concepts present. And there is similarity between the two; I suspect a Venn diagram would reveal quite a fair amount of overlap. Both concern themselves with entities, or systems of entities, that are vast in scope, beyond humans’ conventional realm of understanding, and at the same time powerfully interconnected with human life.
In a 2022 article about Lovelock after his death, Australian scientist Tim Flannery wrote about Lovelock’s first book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) in The Conversation, (Inspiration, mentor and a truly great man: Tim Flannery farewells scientist James Lovelock, who has returned to Gaia at 103 (theconversation.com)) “Portrayed as a sort of hippy, flower-power view of the world, the book is in fact a rigorous, numbers-heavy analysis of Earth function at the highest level.”
The concept of Gaia –an integrated view of the Earth and all the creatures on it—is foreign to the way most of us were raised to view our planet, and ourselves. But we are seeing, more with each passing day it seems, how interconnected we are: Global supply chains, our food systems’ reliance on honeybees, the increasingly complicated chemical interplay of heat and moisture in our weather… the list goes on. I think we could benefit from exploring different ways of understanding ourselves and the world. Innovative thinkers like Morton, Lovelock, and others may well be onto something important… possibly transformative.
Rupert knows this, I think. He’s just waiting for us to learn his language, so he can tell us.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. To learn more visit http://www.jaenabloomquist.com.
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