Despite the recent advancements in environmental science, the essence of many environmental processes is still an enigma for professionals and the public. The growing environmental awareness challenges established beliefs about the earth’s biology and, at the same time, gives rise to new theories, metaphors, and myths. Not all metaphors and beliefs are scientifically testable, but some of them have caused serious mental shifts and generated numerous environmental and ethical hypotheses. The Gaia hypothesis represents one of the turning points in the evolution of modern environmental thinking. “The Gaia hypothesis states that the lower atmosphere of the earth is an integral, regulated, and necessary part of life itself” (Margulis & Lovelock 1976, p.86). In other words, the Gaia hypothesis stipulates that the earth and its environment make up a collective entity that has enough resources and effective feedback mechanisms to sustain homeostasis in a long-term perspective. The ethical implications of Gaia should not be disregarded. The Gaia hypothesis generates numerous ethical interpretations, many of which are contradictory and mutually exclusive; as a result, it can be easily manipulated to achieve the most ominous goals that do not contribute to environmental protection and human wellbeing.
The Gaia Hypothesis
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In his book, The Revenge of Gaia, James Lovelock (2007) provides a comprehensive review of the Gaia idea and its main premises. Lovelock (2007) is confident that the modern view of the earth’s ecology is severely limited. Most scientists, when they talk about the planet’s living part, mean the earth’s biosphere. According to Lovelock (2007), the biosphere is merely a small geographical region with life; for this reason, the meaning of the earth and its environment has to be expanded. Lovelock (2007) asserts that, going outwards from the planet’s centre, the Earth is made of metal and molten rock. Thus, Gaia is
a thin spherical shell of matter that surrounds the incandescent interior; it begins where the crustal rocks meet the magma of the Earth’s hot interior, about 100 miles below the surface, and proceeds another 100 miles outwards through the ocean and air to the even hotter thermosphere at the edge of space. (Lovelock 2007, p.19).
Gaia is something bigger than the biosphere as it includes a larger physiological system that has been helping to sustain life on the Earth for the past three billion years (Lovelock 2007). Lovelock (2007) describes Gaia as a physiological system, because its key goal is to regulate the chemistry and climate on the planet in ways that make life on it comfortable.
In Lovelock’s (2007) view, Gaia includes both inanimate and animate elements. The concept of Gaia is inseparable from the concept of natural selection. Gaia is a system that reproduces and corrects itself by natural selection (Lovelock 2007). In many instances, Gaia can be compared to a huge camel that regulates its body temperature and can maintain a stable state under different weather conditions (Lovelock 2007). Gaia is a metaphor that helps realize the complexity of the environmental phenomena and processes and verbalize the principles and values that could not be expressed earlier. The fundamental mechanisms of Gaia operation are not limited to temperature but also include maintenance of a stable chemical composition (Lovelock 2007). Gaia exemplifies and reflects a sophisticated connection between the chemical substances generated by the ocean algae, the production of sulphur gas, atmospheric chemistry, the physics of clouds, and climate on the planet (Lovelock 2007). These animate and inanimate species provide feedbacks to the changes in various ecosystems so that the long-term homeostasis is easily maintained.
A whole taxonomy of various Gaia hypotheses has been developed. Actually, each of these hypotheses reflects on one of the most essential themes of the basic theory about Gaia. This taxonomy was created by James W. Kirchner (1989) and provides a better understanding of the Gaia philosophy. The importance of such taxonomy is justified by the complexity of the logically distinct theories and concepts that eventually make up Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis (Kirchner 1989). The first in this taxonomy is the Coevolutionary Gaia hypothesis, which holds that the biota and abiotic environment influence each other by means of natural selection (Kirchner 1989). The Homeostatic Gaia hypothesis suggests that the biota influences the abiotic world in a manner that is stabilizing (Kirchner 1989). The theme of homeostasis is the most important in the Gaia hypothesis since the entire philosophy of Gaia relies on the premise that it is an adaptive system that keeps the earth in the state of homeostasis (Lovelock 2007). The Geophysiological Gaia hypothesis compares the biosphere to an immense organism that can be either stable or unstable (Kirchner 1989). The Optimizing Gaia hypothesis assumes that the biota manipulate their environment in ways that help maintain favorable conditions of life (Kirchner 1989).
Much more interesting is the division of the Gaia hypothesis into a weak and strong version. This division is believed to be related to the Homeostatic part of the Gaia theory. As previously mentioned, the Homeostatic Gaia hypothesis suggests that the biota and abiotic environment influence each other in a manner, which is stabilizing (Kirchner 1989). According to Bauman (1988), the weak Gaia maintains that the most essential interactions between the abiotic and biotic forms are stabilizing. The strong Gaia claims that “these dominant interactions make the Earth’s physical environment significantly more stable than it would have been without life” (Bauman 1988, p.227). Both the weak Gaia and strong Gaia create a good basis for grounded criticism. Bauman (1988) uses this weak-strong division to argue that it is not possible to determine whether various biological processes stabilize the biosphere, or the biosphere is homeostatic regardless of these processes. Bauman (1988) also suggests that it is not clear whether various biological processes are homeostatic or destabilizing. Objectively, the Gaia hypothesis has many weaknesses and adds to the existing environmental controversies.
The main problems inherent in the Gaia hypothesis have been summarized by Kirchner (2002). First, the Gaia hypothesis assumes that all processes and feedbacks generated within the Gaia system are always positive and intended to maintain the entire system in homeostasis. In reality, many biological processes that occur on the planet do not contribute but, on the contrary, undermine the stability of the environmental system. Certain types of natural feedbacks may further amplify the scope of the global warming phenomena and worsen the ecological situation on the planet. Kirchner (2002) refers to the process of drying, which results in sparser vegetation and increases planetary albedo, leading to the growing concentrations of atmospheric dust. Second, natural selection does not always enhance the organisms and the environment; rather, it helps enhance the environment in which these organisms live, but not the whole biosphere (Kirchner 2002). Finally, natural selection by itself is not pro-Gaian. In other words, natural selection simply favors the survival of the strongest genetic traits and gives a reproductive advantage to the carriers of these traits (Kirchner 2002). These traits do not necessarily help maintain the planet’s ecosystem in homeostasis, but may readily degrade the environment. For instance, the rapid expansion of certain types of trees creates shade and reduces the amount of sunlight available to other trees and species in the same area; some tree species also learn to capture moisture before it reaches other trees (Kirchner 2002). Therefore, it is wrong to say that everything that happens within Gaia always benefits its stability.
The Gaia hypothesis has far-reaching ethical implications. The complexity of the Gaia metaphor leads to the emergence of contradictory and, at times, mutually exclusive ethical interpretations. On the one hand, environmentalists claim that the Gaia hypothesis confirms the intricacy of the complex relationships among all elements of the earth’s biosphere. As a result, any damage caused to a single organism may have profound consequences for the entire planet (Kirchner 1989). On the other hand, industrialists embrace the Gaia hypothesis – if the planet has enough resources and capabilities to maintain itself in homeostasis, then any pollution control becomes unnecessary (Kirchner 1989). The Gaia hypothesis generates even more radical interpretations. Some environmental ethicists assume that the Gaia philosophy represents a shift towards seeing the planet as a collective entity – a move that is likely to have many positive impacts on individual perceptions of nature. Still, it is difficult to imagine that individuals will sacrifice their individuality to become part of the Gaia holistic entity and merge themselves with every aspect of the natural environment. At the same time, Lovelock (2007) states that Gaia is not as positive and open to humans as they would want it to be. Gaia can be warm to those who follow its rules and destroy those who transgress (Lovelock 2007). Furthermore, Gaia ignores the role of the human and, at times, even implies that the human is nothing but a parasite on the face of the planet. The Gaia hypothesis leaves many ethical controversies unresolved. It favors ethical relativism and ambiguity. The Gaia hypothesis does not help create a balanced view of the human and the environment. Despite its potential contribution to environmental ethics, it is difficult to imagine that, by diminishing the role of humans in environmental regulation, the Gaia hypothesis will foster better relationships between humanity and the earth’s biosphere.
Homeostasis is the leading theme of the Gaia hypothesis. Both weak and strong versions of the Gaia hypothesis depict the planet’s biosphere as a complex mechanism with enough capacity to regulate itself and maintain a long-term balance. However, while the weak Gaia maintains that the relationship between the biota and abiotic environment is simply stabilizing, the strong Gaia hypothesizes that life makes the earth’s system significantly more stable. The Gaia hypothesis has far-reaching implications for environmental ethics but, due to its complexity, the number of contradictory and mutually exclusive Gaia interpretations continues to increase. The Gaia hypothesis diminishes the role of humans in regulating the environment and does not create a balanced view of the planet, where humans and the rest of the biosphere could successfully coexist.