Developed by James Lovelock in his 1979 work, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, the Gaia hypothesis offers an understanding of the earth as a living thing, capable of change and transgression. Lovelock named his theory Gaia after the Greek goddess responsible for drawing the living world forth from chaos.
The Gaia hypothesis suggests that the Earth, or Gaia, is more complex and mystical than anything imaginable. The enormity of the planetary system is something that we can never fully understand and we should acknowledge that when conducting planetary scientific research. The hypothesis also includes an explanation of life systems that exist on Earth. Gaia is not just the biota or the biosphere, but the conjunction of these systems. Gaia as the living planet refers to all parts of the earth: the rocks, the air, and the oceans. Atmospheric and hydraulic systems on the earth are constantly working in balance to maintain conditions necessary for its own continuation.
Because of this process, Lovelock argues that the Earth, similar to a human body, comprises systems that work in conjunction with one another to maintain the whole. If one part of one system is not functional, the others must react to sustain the whole. Lovelock also proposes that if we challenge Gaia and force a different set of conditions, because of clear-cutting forests, for example, the system will regulate itself but not necessarily in a way to support comfortable life for human and animal inhabitants of the Earth.
In essence, the Gaia hypothesis emerged from Lovelock’s work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to detect life on Mars. Through this work, he began to recognize planetary changes that suggested that planets are not simply stable environments, but living, changing organisms. Its purpose is to offer an understanding of the Earth as an organic system, one that is vulnerable, as any living thing is. Lovelock proposed the existence of a controlling mechanism on earth, one that keeps reactive gases in check, therefore keeping atmospheric and hydraulic conditions relatively constant. The Gaia hypothesis says that when the temperature, oxidation, state, acidity, and aspects of the rocks and waters are kept constant, this homeostasis is maintained by active feedback processes operated automatically and unconsciously by the biota. Many have debated this finding over the years and simply do not see the support for Lovelock’s argument that classifies the earth as alive.
For others, the Gaia hypothesis is yet another proposition for how the earth emerged and why it remains the only planet on which life is found. In addition, characterizing the earth as alive recognizes that it is vulnerable. In doing this, one is forced to come to terms with the effects of human actions on a living, breathing planet. However, Lovelock proposes that although Gaia is vulnerable to human activity, it is not fragile. He offers clarification of this point by acknowledging the past devastation that has occurred on the planet and its ability to sustain life despite of this. Gaia is not in jeopardy of collapsing, but changing.
What is the relevance of the Gaia hypothesis today? It offers a holistic approach to understanding the earth as a system. We are not so much interested in the opportunity to prove the hypothesis correct or incorrect, but instead, what it may mean to see the earth as alive. One could argue that weather and natural disasters are examples of Gaia regulating herself in an effort to redirect balance from human impact. As Lovelock stated in 1979, Gaia has changed in the past to restore the imbalance of human activity. There is no doubt that she will create planetary conditions necessary for the maintenance of her survival.
- Lovelock, J. (1979). Gaia: A new look at life on earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Lovelock, J. (1995). The ages of Gaia: A biography of our living earth (Commonwealth Fund Book Program Series). New York: Norton.
- Primavesi, A. (2000). Sacred Gaia: Holistic theology and earth system science. New York: Routledge.