The myth of Gaia is one of the oldest myths of creation known to humankind. The Greek Origins story goes like this: Gaia, the Great Mother Goddess, birthed the creation of the universe from within Herself. And so every living thing she birthed is a child of the universe, made from Her substance, and therefore they are all connected to Her and to each other (Cashford, 2012). In ancient perception and in modern thinking, myths are regarded as stories to derive important meaning from (Cashford, 2012). Think of Helen of Troy or the story of Prometheus, whether it is a story on the tragedy of love, or the arrogance of humanity, we use legends to this day to attain moral lessons from to inform human decision-making. So what can we learn from the myth of Gaia?
In ancient Greece, ‘Gaia’ was used to refer both to the Great Mother Goddess and Earth itself, ground and globe (Cashford, 2012). The two terms were used interchangeably, marking Earth as something almost holy, and most certainly, a living, breathing entity. In the 1970s, scientist James Lovelock revitalised this image of Earth when he proposed his Gaia theory, which postulated that the Earth is a living organism capable of homeostasis; that is, of self-regulation and the continuous internal adjustment from outside forces (Lovelock & Margulis, 1974). Since then, Gaia has operated in the background through time, permeating various discourses from Romanticism to environmentalism (Cerroni, 2022), and is ecologically relevant to this day.
Essentially, the Gaia Hypothesis attributes to Earth a lifelike quality, similar to all life on Earth, both human and non-human (Harding, 2010). This lifelike quality is characteristic of the Earth’s tendency towards self-regulating key characteristics of its surface to accommodate the habitation of life, for example in the composition of atmospheric gasses in the atmosphere, the average temperature, and the pH and salinity of the oceans (Harding, 2010). Like how our hearts would, for example, regulate the heartbeats in our body to stay alive, Lovelock (2003) proposed that organisms and their material environment evolve as a single system, and within that system exists the sustained self-regulation of Nature within the narrow limits of what life can tolerate.
But, if the Gaia hypothesis was true, how does this explain mass extinctions? If Earth is constantly self-regulating to maintain the narrow limits that life can tolerate, why do some species show a preferential tendency to die out in response to internal or external pressures? There is a massive literature on mass extinctions discussing this topic, but we won’t be getting into that today. Lovelock (2003) has provided his own explanation, maintaining that Gaia works a lot like natural selection. In Gaia theory, organisms adapt to their material environment as well as have the ability to change it. The evolution of favourable traits selectively favours the fittest, and the expansion of these traits in the environment creates local improvement, which can have a knock-on global effect. It is inevitable that there will be those who go extinct, and the fittest may benefit only in the short-term. The only long-term winner is life itself, shown through its continued persistence through the evolution of time (Lovelock, 2003).
Additionally, for Earth to be Gaian, it does not necessarily need to regulate perfectly (Lovelock, 2003). Gaian regulation is very similar to the physiological regulation within humans. Our physiological systems perform only to the extent necessary to keep us alive. For us to maintain thermostasis, our core body temperatures fluctuate between 35 to 40 degrees celsius. In the same way, Earth regulates its average surface temperature between 11 to 16 degrees celsius, staying within a range that is sufficient to maintain life over long evolutionary timescales (Lovelock, 2003).
“I have never intended the powerful metaphor ‘the living Earth’ more seriously than the metaphor of ‘the selfish gene’. I have used it…to draw attention to the similarity between Gaian and physiological regulation.” Quote by Lovelock (2003) in his revision of ‘the living Earth’ in Nature
Despite the development of this robust hypothesis, it sparked outrage within scientific orthodoxy and is still heavily disputed to this day. Because of its poetic name, his radical theory might have been perceived as revolutionary, but ultimately lacking substance. The term ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ was, after all, coined by classicist William Golding, who was Lovelock’s friend but who we might recognise as author of the popular novel Lord of the Flies (Lovelock, 2000). But more likely, Gaia theory remains contentious because of the way it destabilises the power dynamics between humankind and Earth.
The Gaia hypothesis unprecedently reframes Earth as a living organism, an autonomous being capable of rebuilding its own parts down to the molecular level. This takes away from the predictability with which we associate our Earth system, where we view our planet almost like it is a dead machine, one that lacks agency and is therefore fundamentally susceptible to human control (Harding, 2010). Gaia theory emplaces humankind as just another cog within the natural world, on the same level as the flora and fauna we continue to exploit. Our human rights can then become inhibited by the requirements of our planetary partners, not just the other way around (Lovelock, 2003). Understandably, this would have been a tough pill to swallow in the scientific community at the time, considering we struggle with this notion to this day.
Nowadays, we can see Gaia theory in scientific orthodoxy when we consider how scientific disciplines regarding the Earth system have become more interdisciplinary, what is formally referred to as ‘systems theory’ or ‘complexity theory’ (Capra, 2012; Cashford, 2012). In Gaia, Earth becomes an organic whole that humans are a tiny part of, and greater emphasis is placed on the synchrony and interconnectedness of Nature (Harding, 2010). This sacred perception can be traced back to Gaia the Great Mother Goddess Herself. Gaia humbly teaches us that our influence on Earth is inconsequential to its functioning, despite the intelligent nature of our species and our continuous technological advancements that continue to disrupt it. We are in fact not better in any way than the other life she birthed — whether it be the grass under our feet, or the birds over our heads, or even the worms burrowed deep underground. Gaia reminds us that we are part of a greater whole, and in the words of Aristotle, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore, we have an ethical obligation to take greater care in how we treat Mother Earth as a tiny part of Her (Lovelock, 2012). Our role in this system should go towards working with each other to help Her, because that inherently means we would be helping ourselves, and the generations to come.
Capra, Fritjof. “Systems Thinking and the State of the World: Knowing How to Connect the Dots.” In Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephan Harding. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2012.
Cashford, Jules. “Gaia: Story of Origin to Universe Story.” In Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephan Harding. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2012.
Cerroni, Andrea. “Chapter 2: Pathos and Harmony: Community within the Gaia-Hypothesis.” In Contemporary Sociological Theology: The Imagination That Rules the World, 41–54. Sociology, Social Policy and Education 2022. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2022. https://doi.org/10.4337/9781800882904
Harding, Stephan. “Gaia Theory and Deep Ecology.” In GreenSpirit: Path to a New Consciousness, edited by Marian Van Eyk McCain. Winchester: John Hunt Publishing, 2010.
Lovelock, James E, Margulis, Lynn. Homeostatic Tendencies of the Earth’s Atmosphere. In Cosmochemical Evolution and the Origins of Life, edited by John Oró, Sharon L. Miller, Cyril Ponnamperuma, Robert S. Young, pp.93-103. Dordrecht: Springer, 1974. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-010-2239-2_8
Lovelock, James E. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Lovelock, James. “Gaia: The Living Earth.” Nature 426, no. 6968 (December 18, 2003): 769–70. https://doi.org/10.1038/426769a.
Lovelock, James. “In Service to Gaia.” In Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College, edited by Stephan Harding. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2012.