Is our planet alive? Some who call our earth “Gaia” seem to think so. After all, something keeps the earth habitable for us. British chemist James Lovelock gave a lot of thought to the idea of “a single giant living system … with the capacity to keep the Earth always at a state most favorable for the life upon it.” Wondering what to call that idea, Lovelock turned to novelist William Golding, who lived in the same English village. Golding suggested “Gaia,” the ancient Greek name for the goddess of the earth.
In the 1970s, Lovelock and the late American biologist Lynn Margulis developed the “Gaia hypothesis.” According to them, Gaia is a term for the interactions of all living things on earth with their non-living surroundings. Together, these interactions form a self-regulating system that makes life possible. For example, Gaia is what keeps the temperature of our atmosphere, the salt in our oceans, and the oxygen levels in the air stable, making it optimal for life to continue. But the Gaia hypothesis is controversial.
Critics worry that some might consider Gaia to be an actual living organism. And as the name “Gaia” became popular, some took it to mean that the earth is a sort of mother goddess. Neither idea was what Lovelock and Margulis had in mind. For one thing, unlike other organisms, Gaia doesn’t have parents or produce offspring. And unlike a deity, Gaia doesn’t make plans for life on earth. Although Gaia keeps the earth in a state that makes life possible, it doesn’t think about it at all. And to make matters a bit scarier, Gaia doesn’t care about us humans.
In this age of drastic climate change, this gives us something to worry about. Doubtless we humans are causing great damage to the environment. But can we really destroy those interactions called Gaia? Margulis didn’t think we were nearly that powerful, and she didn’t put it politely. “Gaia is a tough bitch,” she used to say. But this doesn’t mean that we’re free to pollute the environment and wipe out species and get away with it. If we do, Gaia will eventually fix the earth by getting rid of us to make room for other forms of life. As Margulis said, the result will be “a world devoid of people.”
So whether Gaia is real or not, isn’t the point. Ultimately, Gaia is a metaphor, giving us new ways to think about ourselves and our planet. And hopefully through the Gaia hypothesis, we can gain insight into important issues like climate change and environmental destruction.