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.