Contending with Gaia

Feb 2015 Pulse

In the past five decades, debates on the environment have seen a notable shift from anthropocentric to biocentric thinking. Theologians, philosophers and ethicists generally acknowledge that the traditional human-centric approach cannot adequately address concerns about the welfare of animals and the environment. This shift is further precipitated by the current concerns about climate change.

In his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life, James Lovelock, an independent scientist and futurist proposed a theory that provided the basis for philosophers and scientists to think about humans and their environment. ‘The Gaia Hypothesis’, Lovelock writes, ‘states that Earth’s surface conditions are regulated by the activities of life … This environmental maintenance is effected by the growth and metabolic activities of the sum of organisms, i.e., the biota’.

Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is based on a number of assumptions, not every one of which can be said to be in agreement with current scientific understanding.

The first assumption is that every living organism in the planet in some ways influences the external environment. Gaia works on a grand vision of organic harmony, where the myriads of different species that populate the earth act in concert to produce and maintain the necessary conditions for life.

In other words, according to Lovelock, the biosphere is self-regulating and is therefore capable of preserving the conditions conducive for life. The Gaian earth is a single organism that has evolved precisely in the way that it has to ensure the preservation of life.

Most scientists are critical of Lovelock’s hypothesis, and some have even called it a pseudoscience. They maintain that Lovelock’s understanding of evolution is antithetical to the Darwinian theory. While Darwin postulates the competitive model with his idea of ‘survival of the fittest’, Lovelock advocates the cooperation model.

Be that as it may, many people are attracted to the sheer elegance of Lovelock’s hypothesis because it presents a geo-physiological way of understanding our planet and the life it supports. The hypothesis urges us to look beyond the purpose or telos of individual organisms, and to consider their collective contribution to the survival of the planet.

When we evaluate the Gaia hypothesis in light of the Christian understanding of God, the creation and human beings several serious problems present themselves.

At the outset, it is important to note that Gaia is a hypothesis about the nature of living organisms and how they relate to one another. Although it is in part based on current scientific knowledge, it is by-and-large a philosophical construct. In fact, Gaia hypothesis can be even said to be a kind of myth, quite similar to the myth of evolutionism.

One fundamental problem with Gaia is that it fails to make the distinction between organisms. There appears to be no ontological difference between human beings and algae. Every living organism is blended into what proponents of ‘deep ecology’ call ‘a single life force’. The distinction between self and non-self is obliterated: human and bacteria share the same ‘consciousness’.

Although Gaia wishes to address the stubborn anthropocentrism that continues to lurk in the way we think of nature, it has swung to the other extreme. In failing to acknowledge the ontological distinction between human beings and other creatures, it has also failed to give an account of human uniqueness.

This is at odds with the Christian understanding of human beings as bearers of the divine image, that are at once continuous and discontinuous with the rest of God’s creation. And in failing to recognise human uniqueness, Gaia is unable to conceive of the proper relationship between man and the natural order.

Theologians rightly saw that the peculiar naturalism of Gaia has subjected human behaviour to its own brand of biological determinism. The atheist Richard Dawkins has famously asserted that ‘We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’.

Although Lovelace would not put it in quite the same way, he would have no quarrels with Dawkin’s general intuition. Such a view, if taken seriously, would spell the end of any meaningful way of thinking about human freedom and morality.

As it stands Gaia does not in principle encourage responsible human behaviour towards the natural order. For if nature has an intrinsic ability to adjust and achieve equilibrium, why is there a real need for human beings to take care of the natural environment?

In fact, Lovelock explicitly rejects the idea of ‘resource management’ because it implies that human beings have the ability to somehow ‘manage’ the earth. Lovelock believes that human beings do not have this ability, despite the great achievements of science and technology.

Stewardship, for Lovelock, bespeaks of a certain kind of arrogance. It is perhaps another instantiation of anthropocentrism.

Both Christian and secular conservationists, who stress the importance of responsible stewardship, have great difficulties with the implications of Gaian theory on environmental ethics.

Finally, Gaia postulates that nature is the fundamental reality. In fact, according to the hypothesis, the biosphere is what is ultimately real.

One on level, then, we could say that Gaia presents a new version of naturalism. But in its attempt to sacralise reality by portraying the earth as one living and conscious organism, Gaia may also be accused of promoting a form of pantheism. And with its allusions to teleology or purpose, Gaia may also be said to be implicitly reviving a version of the anima mundi, the mothering earth.

That is why Gaia is so popular among New Age enthusiasts. It inspires what has been described as eco-paganism. Modern theosophists like Alice Bailey and David Spangler have associated Gaia with the theosophical Earth Logos. And New Age leaders like Otter and Morning Glory G’Zell of the Church of All Worlds have described themselves as priest and priestess of Gaia.

How did Gaia, which started life as a unifying theory about living organisms, become a religious symbol? Gaia has inspired the imagination of a culture that is at once dissatisfied with a stifling individualism and a suffocating secularism. It has provided our postmodern culture with a sense of community and inter-connectedness as well as a re-enchanted nature.

Gaia is therefore more than simply a hypothesis about biota or organic life on this planet. It provides with an insight into the restlessness that characterises a culture that is on a quest for a more profound vision of reality than the one science and technology are able to offer.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.