OBITUARY I James Lovelock’s New Ecology: Gaia Theory and His Radical Scientific Vision of Earth and Life

It is difficult to assess the work and legacy of James Lovelock, who died on July 26. One of his first contributions to global environmental understanding was providing scientific evidence for what Rachel Carson called silent spring; the effects of bioaccumulation of toxic compounds at different levels of the ecosystem food chain until they reach humans. This thanks to his brilliant invention, the electron capture detector (ECD), which also allowed us to see the interaction between the atmospheric accumulation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the increase in the ozone hole, which is a major part of what will be the Montreal Protocol , which regulates the release of these gases and the subsequent reduction of the hole. This became the first positive example of joint human action with an effect on a planetary scale. Lovelock was one of the first British scientists to warn of the growing risk of climate change, even taking part in the first scientific delegation to warn Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s of the dangers of inaction.

There are several other important aspects of Lovelock’s scientific legacy, but without doubt the theory of Gaia is his main contribution to humanity. Participating in a NASA program to detect life on Mars and already heavily influenced by the systems sciences, Lovelock discovered that the composition of the gases in Earth’s atmosphere defied thermodynamic equilibrium (or entropic equilibrium; what should its composition be if it were only physico- chemical acting variables). Moreover, if the Earth’s atmosphere were in such thermodynamic equilibrium as on Mars or Venus, the temperature of the planet today could exceed 250 °C. What force managed to change this balance?: clearly the biosphere (all living things on earth). For example, the concentration of the main greenhouse gases, which to this day determine the global temperature since the beginning of the Earth, namely: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide and water vapor, are mainly determined by the biological activity of the planet. So it is not absurd, on the contrary, to think that life has determined the planetary temperature and even more controlled it, since that temperature has continued to fluctuate over a range of values ​​over millions of years and, go random, the fluctuation is averaged about 15°C, which is optimal for life itself.

James Lovelock

Gaia would be a complex system that arises from the connection between the biosphere and the environment of the earth’s surface (rivers and oceans, atmosphere and rocks of the earth’s crust), capable of regulating by itself the physicochemical conditions of the planet (temperature and concentration of gases that make up the atmosphere, among other parameters). Why the theory was christened Gaia is still tragicomic, as it elicited almost immediate rejection by the firmest hand of science. Like any revolutionary theory, like any great awakening to a new paradigm or a new consciousness, it was rejected for nearly three decades by the scientific community for being supposedly esoteric or teleological. Today this scientific approach is called earth system science and has an important impact on the numerical modeling used to calculate current and future global climate. Despite the fact that it is now conventional science, the basis is still what Gaia proposed:

– The biosphere is equivalent to a geological force because it has a huge influence on the environmental conditions of the planet.

– The earth system itself has resilience and is able to react and adapt to certain events.

-Mechanisms of self-organization are given by countless feedbacks between life and the planetary environment.

Regardless of the relevance of this approach to a better understanding of the planetary ecosystem, Lovelock’s vision implies a paradigm shift at the level of what would be the theory of relativity in physics. Until recently, we believed that the earth was dead, that it was just a sphere of rock with living organisms on the surface.

When I first read the Gaia theory, something immediately made deep sense to me. I have always found it suspicious that out of fiercely competitive organisms, nature takes care of itself and shows some degree of profound intelligence: “nature knows what it’s doing, I was told on the ground. The ecological services themselves cannot be explained by a classical approach: provision and purification of water, protection and formation of the soil, recycling of nutrients. Isn’t it too much “benevolence” from biochemical processes or natural selection? I was wondering. Even less could he believe what we had been taught so far: that life on earth was the miracle of countless coincidences coming together at the same time: ideal solar radiation along with just the right distance from the earth to the sun, balanced cycles of carbon, water and other items. And what’s more, this delicate balance remains favorable to life for billions of years. For me, what was offered in Gaia was not only not a mystical trick, but it freed me from the incredible leap of faith that involved seeing life on earth as a mere coincidence of biophysical accidents. The natural order which Hutton and von Humboldt professed seemed to me visible at a glance.

Today we know thatnature-based solutions they are always safer, simpler and more sustainable than technological solutions, probably given their systemic (rather than mechanical) nature. We also accept that ecosystems are connected at the planetary level, but we have just opened up to the change that Gaia implies in evolution: it is true that organisms adapt to a pre-existing environment. But it is also true that all organisms change their environment, so that through feedback life must adapt to its own effects on the environment, resulting in the co-evolution of life and its environment as an integrated living system.

James Lovelock @New Scientist

By the way, Gaia is not in danger, far from it. We are the organisms living in the current environmental conditions on earth, this momentary quiescent state of Gaia, who are truly in danger. The more complex the organism, the more fragile it is because it depends on more specific environmental conditions to live. Paradoxically, we humans and our evolutionary relatives, who until recently were considered the pinnacle of evolution, are the most vulnerable and most dependent on other, simpler life forms.

A great reluctance to the theory was expected from the most reductionist scientific approaches, because by proposing a planet that regulates itself as a living system, it implicitly refers to the ancient and universal animistic vision of the Earth as a whole. With the theory, the Earth goddess Gaia (or Gea), the animated world (animated, living world) of the Middle Ages and the vision of life as a single integrated phenomenon shared by the majority of indigenous peoples on different continents. On a psychic level, Westerners are particularly affected by this vision, as it reconnects us to an ancestral vision common to all humanity, including the West itself: the world is not a collection of assembled particles, but rather is alive, it is an entity extremely complex and therefore incomprehensible, beyond our control, mysterious. With Gaia theory, it is more intuitive to imagine what our role as a species is on the planet, and among other things how to circumvent the Anthropocene: Gaia’s lesson is not so obvious, but we know that regulation on a planetary scale comes from connecting the joint work of different ecosystems. So a huge effort must be made to strengthen Gaia. That is, to restore and protect natural ecosystems so that they regain their ability to control the planetary environment.

Given the current critical conditions, this must go hand-in-hand with technological solutions and above all with profound changes in our behavior that mitigate our impacts and adapt us to the inevitable changes that many scientists and Lovelock himself say can be extremely hard. The truth is that the greatest potential for planetary self-regulation lies in the relationship between humans and nature. And the complexity of Gaia is such that, given its unpredictability, it is difficult to know exactly how things will turn out; there may also be big surprises from the regeneration era. Gaia, life, is not only our mother, but we are Gaia. Union makes strength. Life united will never be defeated.

Alfredo Erlwein MSc., PhD.

Professor and researcher,

Transdisciplinary Center for Environmental Studies CEAM,

Southern University of Chile

Manfred Max-Neef Foundation

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