History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Lecture: 1985 to Now


The Gaia Hypothesis, noted in Havel's document, sees the planet as a life form.

James Lovelock
Statue of Gaia and James Lovelock

This was the idea of James Lovelock, who helped NASA look for life on Mars. He became more interested in earth, and developed a theory that the Earth was itself a living being. In his 1989 book, The Ages of Gaia, he wrote:

The name of the living planet, Gaia, is not a synonym for the biosphere-that part of the Earth where living things are seen normally to exist. Still less is Gaia the same as the biota, which is simply the collection of all individual living organisms. The biota and the biosphere taken together form a part but not all of Gaia. Just as the shell is part of the snail, so the rocks, the air, and the oceans are part of Gaia. Gaia, as we shall see, has continuity with the past back to the origins of life, and in the future as long as life persists. Gaia, as a total planetary being, has properties that are not necesarily discernable by just knowing individual species or populations of organisms living together... Specifically, the Gaia hypothesis says that the temperature, oxidation, state, acidity, and certain aspects of the rocks and waters are kept constant, and that this homeostasis is maintained by active feedback processes operated automatically and Redwood Tree unconsciously by the biota....

You may find it hard to swallow the notion that anything as large and apparently inanimate as the Earth is alive. Surely, you may say, the Earth is almost wholly rock, and nearly all incandescent with heat. The difficulty can be lessened if you let the image of a giant redwood tree enter your mind. The tree undoubtedly is alive, yet 99% of it is dead.The great tree is an ancient spire of dead wood,made of lignin and cellulose by the ancestors of the thin layer of living cells which constitute its bark. How like the Earth, and more so when we realize that many of the atoms of the rocks far down into the magma were once part of the ancestral life of which we all have come.

His work was part of new developments in science, and synthesis with non-scientific elements which before would not have been considered science. During the 1980s, science went beyond Einstein's and even quantum physics into chaos theory and complex systems research. If you're new to this (I am) check out the University of Michigan's Center for The Study of Complex Systems. Although in systems theory no long-term equilibrium is implied, you can see above that Lovelock believed the earth did have such a self-regulated equilibrium. Unpredictability, as in postmodern thinking, has been accepted in science and developed into theoretical constructs.

Complex systems thinking did not create modern environmentalism, but the popularity of works like The Ages of Gaia helped bring ecology into the postindustrial world. But the Gaia hypothesis is also reminiscent of some work from the 1920s conducted by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and scientist who had combined spirituality with modern science. He created a spirituality of science that he called Anthroposophy. He had extraordinary impacts on education (Waldorf schools are founded on his educational principles, which were similar to Rousseau's) and agriculture (his biodynamic system was completely organic and tied to the earth's cycles). Thus in combining spiritual/philosophical constructs with scientific data, contemporary science is now getting closer to what Steiner envisioned.

Agriculture was an important area to Steiner, and it is of great significance today in understanding the environment. The modern ecology movement began with a book published in the U.S., Rachel Carson's

Monsanto ad
Monsanto, producer of many toxic chemicals for agriculture, would have you believe they're keeping us healthy.

Silent Spring (1962). Carson, a biologist, noted the long life and cancer-causing effects of DDT, a pesticide used against mosquitos in the wartime South Pacific, and later used on crops. Scientific investigations into pesticides followed, and the Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970. But in the United States, caplitalistic practices encouraged chemical companies to compete against each other, developing pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals upon which farmers could become dependent. American agribusiness was tied to chemicals, as was the agricultural advice the U.S. exported to Third World countries and to Europe. The concept of ecology, according to the EPA, values "esthetics and biology over efficiency and commerce". As corporations continued to expand in political influence, efficiency and commerce were clearly winning the day.

In Europe in the 1970s, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement was created, mirrored by organic agriculture groups (and radical activists like Greenpeace) in the U.S. But the pro-corporate environment of the 1980s permitted many environmental regulations from the 1970s to languish, and they are now being reversed in the U.S.

Europe has pulled ahead of the U.S. in instituting sustainable practices in agriculture. In Austria, Sweden and Switzerland, at least 10% of agricultural production is organic, and such practices Veggiesare expanding all over Europe. The EU currently has a ban on genetically-modified food, which is now prevalent in the U.S. despite the fact that it is untested in its long-term health effects. (If you eat most of your food from American supermarkets, about 70% of what you eat is genetically modified.) This is one of several areas (war is another) where the U.S. is diverging from the other western nations. Everyone else is instituting greater protection of Gaia, and of people's health. Only in the U.S., where corporations dominate so much political life, is environmental protection such a low priority.



To European Union -->