Human Industry and Human Responsibility in the Life of Gaia

James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, that the Earth is a single living organism, has been invoked countless times by environmentalists. In their uses (and abuses) of it, the theory becomes evidence for humanity’s connection with nature and so our responsibility to treat nature with care.

In fact, Lovelock is anything but an “environmentalist” in the traditional sense. Nor is he a staunch advocate for rigorous conservation and “dehumanization” of the planet, at least in his first book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979). He quite often criticizes as fatuous and downright silly many environmentalists’ claims, using evidence gathered from his work in the sciences.

One passage in Gaia struck me as extremely provocative despite being written nearly thirty years ago. Discussing the atmospheric gases, specifically those produced by human industry, Lovelock writes,

In our persistent self-imposed alienation from nature, we tend to think that our industrial products are not ‘natural’. In fact, they are just as natural as all the other chemicals of the Earth, for they have been made by us, who surely are living creatures. They may of course be aggressive and dangerous, like nerve gases, but no more so than the toxin manufactured by the botulinus bacillus.1

My first reaction to this was strong opposition, even though Lovelock by no means condones treating the Earth with complete, careless abandon. How can any industrial product be compared to, say, a beaver’s dam, a bird’s nest, a beehive, or even a mud-brick adobe, all of which are made from natural materials in their natural states?

But pondering Lovelock’s point a bit more, I am not so quick to reject his statement and his larger argument. I mean, many of our industrial concoctions include, altered and not, many natural components. Plastic starts with petroleum, which is a natural substance. Even computers, cell phones, and similar devices consist of natural metals with plastic and rubber and glass.

On top of these facts, I recall the many arguments (mostly from anti-environmentalists) that humans are part of nature (which is true), and so whatever we do is natural and thus good for nature (which may or may not be true). Combined with Lovelock’s convincing claims, I found myself wondering if the typical environmentalist’s argument against industrial products that appear to damage the Earth might be…wrong. Or at least short-sighted.

If Lovelock is right and Earth/Gaia is a self-regulating (or “cybernetic”) organism, than maybe our “damaging” and “unnatural” industrial products are not really all that problematic in the long run. Maybe Gaia can and will adjust everything to keep herself alive, even if it takes a long time and does not include our perpetual presence.

Yet I just cannot find peace with the idea that poisonous, destructive, or nearly immortal human creations are perfectly “natural” and hence perfectly safe. First off, those natural components are usually combined with, or even the base for, fundamentally altered synthetic products that are hardly “natural” by any stretch of the imagination. More importantly, though, it just seems irresponsible–and downright selfish–for us to keep sending things into the environment that are almost certainly dangerous simply because we made them in all our naturalness. Lovelock, too, is much more concerned about the human impact on Gaia in recent works, such as The Revenge of Gaia (2006).

Even as I write all of that, I still hear the counterclaims echoing in my mind. Am I, and other environmentalists with me, completely wrong about the impact of human industry on nature–despite all the evidence on the degradation unleashed by the Industrial Revolution? Is all of this human impact just a natural part of the Gaian life cycle, no more significant than cow farts? Is Gaia strong enough to regulate her living systems in order to accommodate our various doings and so keep life going?

I cannot answer these questions, yet, with as firm conviction as I would like. But my heart tells me that we need to live responsibly and do our best to do no harm. And my heart also tells me that, whatever we do or do not do, life will go on.

Image credit: Summ at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Lovelock, J. E. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979. 80.

  1. Bobby B.

    Since the world will go on with or without humanity, one must ask whether environmentalists are truly concerned about the state of the planet or actually concerned about the state of their individual lives and souls? Could environmentalism simply be a religion that clings to what it believes is unbiased science? Is salvation for greens gained by adapting a lifestyle that seeks to save the planet and proselytizing to others to do the same?

  2. Ed

    “Environmentalists” (a broad term, including myself) are for the status quo, if you consider the time period containing modern man. We don’t care about any Gaia, we care about a sustainable present. Some of us may care about what happens to other organisms for the sake of the organism or community as a whole, while others are only concerned with the impacts of environmental degradation on humans. Under virtually any forseeable outcome, the world will keep turning and life will be sustained on this planet long after we are gone. If we choose, we may have some influence over the form of that community of life, and may prolong our existence in it.

  3. Chris Schille

    I would venture to say that all species have positive and negative impacts on our common environment. For example, light grazing of grasslands increases soil productivity and fertility, while heavy grazing destroys it. We take other species’ impact at face value. If they are doing environmental damage, we say it’s simply because their numbers are too great.

    Strangely enough, not so with our species. That there is a population level for humanity that can do the planet no lasting damage doesn’t get much play as a potential solution to the alarming ways we are changing the planet, probably because that population level was a number we passed centuries ago.

    Is it really reasonable to expect to strongly influence the behavior of six (or nine, or twelve) billion people? Is this easier (or more practical) to achieve than striving for a sustainable human population?

    I guess I’m bothered by the fact that the concept of “sustainability” has come to posit that manipulating human behavior on a grand scale is not just a viable solution, but the only one. We’re putting all our eggs in one basket. Maybe the saying “Necessity is the mother of invention” applies to individuals and groups, but does it really guarantee the eternal growth of a species? Are we really that clever?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *