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Gaia: A new look at life on Earth by J.E Lovelock

This may turn out to be one of the epochal insights of the 20th century:  that the entire life of Earth, through its atmosphere and ocean, functions effectively as one self-regulated organism:  Gaia (named by William Golding after the Greek Earth goddess).

Free-lance British scientist James Lovelock is the originator of the hypothesis (along with American microbiologist Lynn Margulis).  As might be expected from a mind with the range to encompass the material requisite for the Gaian recognition. Lovelock writes a winning prose.   This is a brief, personal, convincing performance. It even overcomes my lifelong aversion to chemistry, making fascinating sense of the difference between the chemical equilibrium of a dead planet and the chemical steady state of a live one.

Along the way Lovelock has astute criticism for some of the simplistic thinking that goes on in the environmental movement — as, for example, the premature hysteria over the effect of aerosol sprays on the ozone layer (a problem Lovelock helped discover).  He notes that from Gaian perspective we are over-concerned with industrial pollution and under-concerned with protecting the integrity of the all-important tropical Jungles and continental shelves of the sea.   The health of Gaia is far more endangered by our agriculture than our industry.

As science and as poetry, Gaia (pronounced "guy - a") is a major planetary self-discovery.  It's likely that all our thinking will be re-oriented to accommodate the goddess.


It would require only an increase of about 4 per cent in the atmospheric level of oxygen to bring the world into danger of conflagration. At 25 per cent oxygen level even damp vegetation will continue to burn once combustion has started, so that a forest fire started by a lightning flash would burn fiercely till all combustible material was consumed.  Those science fiction stories of other worlds with bracing atmospheres due to the richer oxygen content are fiction indeed. A landing of the heroes' spaceship would have destroyed the planet.

About half of the mass of the living matter in the world is to be found in the sea.

The start of the Gaia hypothesis was the view of the Earth from space, revealing the planet as a whole but not in detail.  Ecology is rooted in down-to-Earth natural history and the detailed study of habitats and ecosystems without taking in the whole picture. The one cannot see the trees in the wood. The other cannot see the wood for the trees.
By now a planet-sized entity, albeit hypothetical, had been born, with properties which could not be predicted from the sum of its parts. It needed a name. Fortunately the author William Golding was a fellow-villager. Without hesitation he recommended that this creature be called Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess also known as Ge, from which root the sciences of geography and geology derive their names.  In spite of my ignorance of the classics, the suitability of this choice was obvious.  It was a real four-lettered word and would thus forestall the creation of barbarous acronyms, such as Biocybernetic Universal System Tencency/Homoeostasis.  I felt also that in the days of Ancient Greece the concept itself was probably a familiar aspect of life, even if not formally expressed. Scientists are usually condemned to lead urban lives, but I find that country people still living close to the earth often seem puzzled that anyone should need to make a formal proposition of anything as obvious as the Gaia hypothesis.  For them it is true and always has been.

No one yet knows what is the optimum number for the human species. The analytic equipment needed to provide the answer is not yet assembled. Assuming the present per capita use of energy, we can guess that at less than 10,000 million we should still be in a Gaian world. But somewhere beyond this figure, especially if the consumption of energy increases, lies the final choice of permanent enslavement on the prison hulk of the spaceship Earth, or gigadeath to enable the survivors to restore a Gaian world.


ISBN: 0192862189

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