Up until the last decade, few had thought of planet earth as in any sense alive. True in ancient Greece, Gaia was worshipped as the Goddess of the earth and pantheistic tribes had comparable deities of the earth that magically controlled their lives. An important step in this direction came from ecology where self-sustaining systems were discovered in which energy flowed and a delicate balance was maintained between all the organisms in the local environment. A meadow, a pond or forest were described as ecosystems. The abiotic factors were the inorganic or nonliving entities essential to the biotic factors or community of life that sustained each other—the producers, the consumers and decomposers. Subseguently, James Lovelock in his Gaia Hypothesis suggests that the entire earth is one large ecosystem, homeostatically controlled. Furthermore, he shows that the environment was both created to meet life’s needs as much as it has adapted to the conditions of the environment. Indeed life and the non-living are inseparable entities rather as the mind is to the body (1). It was more correct to say that the earth as a whole is self sustaining, self-renewing and self-creating. The earth is a living planet. Since life is sacred and encompasses both the biotic and the abiotic, the term Gaia seemed appropriate for the living earth.
We are used to the adage, think globally and act locally. Gaian thinking is really this idea in the fullest sense of its meaning. It is thinking through policies of management of the earth as a whole and to look at all other problems as sub sets of this. It is a cybernetic approach to global village management where the problem is basically humans and culture, not nature. It is recognition that in our rape of mother earth, Gaia may dispose of us in the process of a planetary selfcorrecting homeostatic mechanism before we get to destroy Gaia.
As James Lovelock points out in ‘Ages of Gaia’, the central concept in the Gaia Hypothesis is homeostasis in which microbes, plants, soil organisms and aquatic life play an integrated role. They control the flow of carbon, nitrogen, water and other elements that go to make up life—with the sun turning the cycles at the homeostatically corrected temperature for life and by life. Life started taking control of the environment with the development of the double helical nucleotides and these genes have driven the experiment of life with the environment as its encompassing cloak. (2)
The key example worked out by Lovelock was thermostatic control of the earth’s surface temperature. He used the ‘Daisy World’ model as theoretical construct to demonstrate his theory. In simple outline Gaia Hypothesis attributes the creation of earth’s peculiar atmosphere to (A) the stratospheric Carbon Dioxide blanket. When thick temperatures rise; when thin it cools. The ocean acts as a sink for Carbon Dioxide along with the rocks. Trees and cyanobacteria also absorb the gas and generate moisture. The Carbon Dioxide blanket above the stratosphere also keeps the oceans from evaporating away.
(B) For surface temperature to be around 13 degrees Celcius, the preferred average temperature for planetary life, it is necessary to have a correct mix of atmospheric gases. Air has the correct balance of 79% Nitrogen, 20% Oxygen and 0.003% Carbon Dioxide (all other planets have very high Carbon Dioxide and minimal Nitrogen and Oxygen). The Oxygen content comes from photosynthetic activity, the Nitrogen from decomposers (protists, fungi and bacteria). Oxygen forms ozone in the ionosphere and neutralizes ultraviolet radiation to protect life.
(C) The luminosity of the earth is lower and controlled by forest and vegetation (micro/macroflora) on land and in the oceans. When darker the temperature cools and when light the temperature rises (the Albedo factor). (3)
The gene flow of information that we call life, to an evolving experimentation problem solving creation and adaptation to the environment, has an exponential history of development. It is Gaia’s own self-development leading from the origin of the universe as bare energy leading up to higher levels of awareness. The levels of Gaia may be represented in powers of 10 from 4.5 billion years ago to the present generation born 45 years ago. The boxes are different by x10 to the power of 2 years. In the final box we have the highest level of self awareness, a level that has the power to destroy Gaia—see the diagram opposite and the graph above it describing another exponential development, the human population explosion. We humans, though having evolved to an unprecedented level of selfawareness, have become a cancerous growth—a part of Gaia that is reproducing itself uncontrollably and fast killing its living host—Gaia.
It is the point of view of this teaching unit that Gaia protection is the fundamental starting point for all problem solving in the environment. Norman Myers points out in “Atlas of Future Worlds”, that protection of Gaia needs to be embedded in international law and all human behavior subjected to such a law (4). All other environmental and human problems pale by comparison. Accepting the axiom of the inviolability of Gaia would also help prioritize and suggest acceptable solutions to environmental problems, many of which are being sidetracked because of lack of agreement about what constitutes environmental moral culpability. The following unit then takes this as its a priori and seeks to involve students in the Gaia principle in any and every environmental problem that concerns them. Before developing the practicalities of such an undertaking, it seems necessary that we rethink our pedagogy to make sure that it is adequate to deal with the holistic mode of thinking required by the Gaia hypothesis, and rethinking John Dewey’s educational philosophy is our place to begin.
(figure available in print form)