Lovelock’s Gaia machine

“Only absolute totality can renew itself out of itself and generate itself anew.”1 Here Jung was talking about the Self—the internal reality. But the Earth is our external reality and the Earth and the Self are one and the same. They are both self-regulating entities. In 1979 James Lovelock published the Gaia “hypothesis” which has risen up the science rankings and is now begrudgingly accorded the status of a theory. He said, “The entire range of living matter on Earth from whales to viruses and from oaks to algae could be regarded as constituting a single living entity capable of maintaining the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.”2

Great stuff but not new at all. And it’s a marginal upgrade for science. Most indigenous cultures have known this for millennia, and it was about 2,000 years too late for Western culture. The cognitive understanding may have change, slightly, but the feeling attitude remains developmentally delayed. Its tardiness and “Look at us, we’ve discovered something new!” are not the only problems with the Gaia theory.

Lovelock trained as a chemist and has impeccable credentials. But he is an unregenerate empiricist. He still looks for technological solutions like vertical pipes to mix oceanic waters. saying “If we can’t heal the planet directly, we may be able to help the planet heal itself.”3 Medical ethics would require, and common courtesy would suggest, that you first ask the Earth if she wants your help. But the attitude remains mechanical and theoretical. As the Earth is regarded as a mechanical apparatus, albeit self-regulating, it still works by mechanical means subject to the known laws of science. So there is no need for, indeed no thought given to, relationship.

It been forty years now since Lovelock first put forward the groundbreaking idea that the planet itself was a self-organising system. But how could this be? It’s just rocks and stuff and Darwin has already explained that chance mutations and natural selection take care of the rest. And groundbreaking to whom? Most of the planet’s indigenous cultures already knew this. But it has been groundbreakingly ignored. However, Lovelock did bring attention to the Earth as organism in itself, that surprisingly could regulate itself just like us really intelligent humans. We were fine with our bodies being able to homeostatically regulate pH, temperature, blood pressure and so on. But the Earth?

East to understand that the human body has its limits—our kidneys cannot handle too much acidity, or we can die of too much cold or too much heat. But the Earth? Yes, its self-regulation may not be absolute.

She may be able save herself so that, as the youngest planet, she can become a member of the sisterhood of planets in this universe. But the Earth’s self-care capacities don’t necessarily extend to us. Her children, including humans, may live and die, just like the cells in our bodies, but the greater whole remains. Civilisation, narcissistic little thing, wants to be first in line to be rescued, its needs to take priority—Me First! Like the joke, or true story, about the 1989 California earthquake. Under the pancaked freeways, a shrill voice was heard by the rescuers. “Rescue me first! I’m from New York!” The boys who come home in a box are heroes who have sacrificed their lives so that others may live in freedom. Could we think about some lesser sacrifice, some deconstruction of our civilisation so that the Earth may live.

Since 1979 Lovelock has become increasingly realistic and pessimistic.4 In 2008 he said, “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky, it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.” He was predicting imminent and irreversible global warming and the fashionable hope that windfarms or recycling could prevent global famine and mass migration was a fantasy and it was too late for ethical consumption to save us. And before the end of this century, 80% of the world’s population would be wiped out.

But all is not lost. Science will save us! Lovelock has returned to his scientific, mechanistic roots. In an interview on his 100th birthday the Guardian wrote, “If humanity can avoid death by asteroid, Lovelock sees a new dawn for life on Earth. Never mind the anthropocene, the epoch defined by human influence on the planet. Lovelock talks of the Novacene, a future explored in his latest book, where artificial intelligence rules the world. “This, I think, opens a doorway for the evolution of new species or organisms which are entirely running on information,” he said. In this future of digital beings, humans may still have a place. Writing in Novacene, Lovelock noted that our bit-based overlords may put organic life to good use – to keep the planet cool.5

So much for an alive, self-regulating being whose names are many.

  1. Jung, 9ii, Aion, para. 221.
  2. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 1979, p. 9.
  3. Ocean pipes could help the Earth to cure itself. Letter to Nature from James Lovelock and Chris Rapley, 26 September 2007.
  4. James Lovelock (2007) The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back — and How We Can Still Save Humanity.
    James Lovelock (2009) The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning.
    James Lovelock “We should give up on saving the planet”.

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