October 1, 2018, by Tim Radford
Phosphate rock: Humans extract it unnaturally fast. Image: By David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons
Time for new thinking? Researchers want an upgrade of the Gaia Theory of life on Earth, in an epoch when humans have power, but not understanding.
LONDON, 2 October, 2018 – Two scientists have proposed a revised version of the Gaia Theory of life on Earth in the light of a new epoch: the Anthropocene.
They want to reapply a sometimes controversial argument – originally introduced as the Gaia hypothesis – to the way humans manage the planet’s climate and resources: this time deliberately and with full awareness of the consequences of human action.
The Gaia Theory, as it is now known, proposes that the sum of life on Earth, over the last three billion years or so, could be thought of as a super-organism that has unconsciously moderated the temperature of the planet and the chemistry of its atmosphere for the greater good: that is, for the long-term survival of living things.
The idea was introduced by the British scientist James Lovelock in 1972, and given the name Gaia, after the ancient Greek goddess of Mother Earth. The choice of name was a metaphor: researchers have also labelled the reasoning as biogeophysiology, and they teach it as Earth System Science.
In the Gaia Theory, microbes, plants, fungi and animals on the planet collectively manage and recycle air and water, and traffic in rock and soil chemistry, in ways that sustain life’s collective.
“If in politics the blind lead the blind, then hope rests on finding the best way to activate the white cane to fumble in the dark”
Now Tim Lenton, director of the global systems institute at the University of Exeter in the UK, and Bruno Latour, the Parisian philosopher and anthropologist, think it is time for an upgrade: they propose Gaia 2.0, in which one aware, sentient and vulnerable lifeform becomes part of the planet’s self-regulatory system.
They argue, in the journal Science, that Gaia 2.0 could become an effective framework for fostering a sustainable planet.
“If we are to create a better world for the growing human population this century we need to regulate our impacts on our life support system, and deliberately create a more circular economy that relies – like the biosphere – on the recycling of materials powered by sustainable energy,” Professor Lenton said.
The two scientists make the case that, with the onset of the Anthropocene – an era in which humankind increasingly shapes the landscape and the atmosphere – and the hectic exploitation of the planet’s resources, it is time for humans deliberately to follow the unwitting example set by all the other creatures in the biosphere and adjust the conditions for survival.
“Humans currently extract fossil energy, rock phosphate and other raw materials from the Earth’s crust far faster than they would normally come to the surface, and then dump the waste products on the land, in the atmosphere, and in the ocean. Compared to Gaia, this is a very poorly coupled and unsustainable set of inventions.”
And, they argue, it can be done. “The input of solar energy has the capacity to far outstrip current fossil energy consumption, and renewables are currently becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuel energy for electricity generation,” they write. Fossil fuel use has already increased atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels last seen 3 or even 5 million years ago.
“A central goal for this century is surely to achieve a flourishing future for all life on this planet, including a projected 9 to 11 billion people. Human flourishing is not possible without a biodiverse, life-sustaining system.”
The catch is that humans still do not have the data, the understanding or the will to change course. But the challenge for science would be to deliver the knowhow to make a success of Gaia 2.0. Human technology could add another more “self-aware” layer to the management of the planet, they say.
“If in politics the blind lead the blind, then hope rests on finding the best way to activate the white cane to fumble in the dark.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.