I Am Gaia
A Sermon by The Rev. Peter Connolly
Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky, on August 29, 2010
When we met here last week for our annual Ingathering, we celebrated that coming together through a “water communion.” Many of us brought containers of water that we carried with us from places as near as the taps of our kitchen sinks; from the Barren River and Barren River Lake, from the Green River, from Colorado, from Puget Sound, from the New England beaches of the Atlantic, from Michigan and Wisconsin and half a world away in New Zealand.
It was a symbolic coming together, we from our travels, the water from its various sources and locales. We could not exist without water, and so it was a good place to mark our coming together and our beginning again—to bring together one of those essential things that holds us together.
In his 1979 book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock quotes Arthur C. Clarke: “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.” Almost three-fourths of the planet’s surface is sea. And this, Lovelock says quite reasonably, is why the photographs of the planet first taken from space in 1969 were so profoundly touching—the beauty of a blue planet enlivened by touches of white in the clouds and the polar regions showed us a planet full of life, a lively planet in high contrast to the “drab uniformity of our lifeless neighbors, Mars and Venus.”
So this may be the place to suggest a jump. A jump from the way we usually see ourselves: from what Alan Watts called our “skin-encapsulated egos” to something larger— or at least as integral parts of something larger, that thing that James Lovelock calls “Gaia.”
The name “Gaia” has an ancient history, Ancient Greek to be precise—Gaia is the primal goddess personifying the Earth, the basis of our idea of Mother Earth. In the Greek concept, the Earth is seen as a person. In the theory of Gaia, as developed by Lovelock and promoted by him and Lynn Margulis of Boston University, Gaia is not a person, but either has or approaches having the characteristics of an organism.
This theory “proposes that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shapes the Earth’s biosphere, and maintains the Earth as a fit environment for life” (Wikipedia). What was proposed as the “Gaia hypothesis” is now referred to as the “Gaia theory.” Will we ever refer to the “fact” of Gaia? I think that perhaps some of us will. Technically, we still refer to evolution as a theory: the distinction is small in one way: if we are convinced that the theory makes sense, we will act in a certain way, the way we act when dealing with facts.
So, without further ado, I introduce to you our speaker for the day, Gaia herself. She is used to “speaking” in movements and waves, flows of energy and in chemical constitution. I speak her confession today through my interpretation of those who have testified to her reality as the primal reality that has meaning for us as organic beings on this dynamic planet through the investigations of scientists such as James Lovelock, in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
Gaia expresses herself in poetry for some people. When human beings saw the magnificence of Gaia as beautiful blue orb against a black background of what could only seem to them an empty, never-ending universe, some said that their souls were touched. Some see the vision of Gaia as a work of art, something that expresses truths in terms of aesthetics, the nature of art.
Perhaps. That’s a human understanding, yes— not an ultimate understanding. But who can speak for the Ultimate? Certainly not I. Can you? We will be content with human understandings here today, shall we?
But Dr. Lovelock did not propose my Gaian existence as an art project. His analysis is based on facts—just the facts, Ma’am—and yet those facts somehow elide into poetry. Something to think about, yes?
And what are the facts? I confess myself ignorant of the circumstances of my birth. I was as yet unformed, you see, had no capacity for self-expression, self-conception, self itself, you see. Anyway, you’ve heard the story of the drama—go back far enough and it’s the same story for all of us, yes?
All the energy of the universe was at the same time all the matter of the universe as it is now and ever shall be—except that in the beginning it all shared the same infinitesimal place where stability was impossible you see, so out we blasted, all of us in all the atoms that there are.
It’s a bit preposterous, isn’t it? But it’s the best we have to go on. It’s our working hypothesis from which all else derives. And what does it mean to you that the best term that anyone has come up with to describe the enormity of this primal explosion beyond conceptualizing or imagining is: “The Big Bang.”
Kind of like a story for the nursery, isn’t it? Well, perhaps it will help if you smile when you say it: “The Big Bang”—it will help you put it in perspective: a fact of such enormity that all words will fail, so let’s admit that at the start, using words that even the smallest child will understand.
So stars were formed as their energies coalesced into globes and globules— a messy process during which some of them cast off fragments of themselves— call them births if you have a mind to. And these fragments themselves coalesced over time and cooled off and became what we call planets.
“Our solar system,” says Lovelock, “must have been formed in close conjunction with a supernova (explosion). There is no other credible explanation of the great quantity of exploding atoms still present on the Earth” (p. 16). But what scales of time are we talking about? And what degrees of heat? Ah, we don’t even want to get into that—that’s prehistory —too traumatic, anyway.
As a separate body in space, here’s the speculation: You know what an eon is? It’s 1,000 million years— a billion years to you Americans, but a thousand million gets the idea to you a little better, yes? Scientists measure age by the radioactivity of rocks. They’ve got me pegged at four and a half eons— or four thousand, five hundred million years. You can chew on that for a while.
And when did life on Earth begin? That’s always the next question. Human beings have very little interest in the history of inorganic matter, have you noticed that?
Well, no one knows when life on Gaia began. My memory is hazy after all these years. And as for investigations, look at it this way (as Lovelock does): “Untold millions of early life-forms and their more complex but still soft-bodied descendents may have lived and flourished and passed away without putting anything by for the future, or— to change the simile— without leaving any traces, let alone skeletons for the geological cupboard” (Gaia, p. 13).
How did life on Gaia start? You didn’t really think that you were going to get an answer to that one here today, did you? Certainly not with our liberal admission policy No charge. It’s all speculation, though some claim that they know. I’m still entertaining offers.
Dr. Lovelock speculates, too: “Life on Earth: the countless number and variety of random encounters between individual molecular components of life may have eventually resulted in a chance association of parts which together could perform a life-like task, such as gathering sunlight and using its energy to contrive some further action which would otherwise have been impossible or forbidden by the laws of physics. The odds against such a sequence of encounters leading to the first living entity are enormous. On the other hand, the number of random encounters between the component molecules of the Earth’s primeval substance must have been incalculable. Life was thus an almost utterly improbable event with almost infinite opportunities of happening. So it did” (Gaia, p.14).
What happened to my primeval atmosphere? Dr. Lovelock cites Dr. Urey: it probably got blown away during the early stages when the sun was settling down. (I) may have been for a while as bare as the moon is now. Later, the pressure of (my) own mass and the pent-up energy of (my) highly radioactive contents heated up the interior until gases and water vapour escaped to form the air and the oceans.
“But when life began the gases in my interior were richer in hydrogen than those which now vent from volcanoes.” So don’t set me off. “The organic compounds, component parts of life, require that some hydrogen is available in the environment both for their formation and their survival.” I’ll take Dr. Lovelock’s word for that one (Gaia, p. 17).
So, don’t forget hydrogen—it’s everywhere; most of the universe is made of it and it occurs in all living matter. Here are some other elements to keep in mind when you are thinking about the chemical ingredients of life: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus, and trace elements (too): iron, zinc, and calcium.
Now, as you ponder the evidence for my existence, think about this: “If (I) were simply a solid inanimate object, (my) surface temperature would follow the variations in solar output. No amount of insulating clothing, (says Dr. Lovelock) will indefinitely protect a stone statue from winter cold or summer heat. Through three and a half eons, (my) surface temperature has remained constant and favorable for life, much as (your) body temperatures remain constant whether it is summer or winter and whether (you find yourselves) in a polar or tropical environment.
You have clothing. I have gases to keep me warm—warm enough to keep the conditions for life going. “Carbon dioxide” (and ammonia, for that matter) “absorbs infra-red heat radiation from the Earth’s surface and delays its escape to outer space.” There are other theories, too, having to do with a planet which was once darker than it is now, but you are on your own for that.
All of this leads up to the formation of the first biosphere, yes? I have to say, I love that word. It’s a sphere, it supports life: It’s a biosphere. I’m tempted to say that Gaia is a biosphere, plain and simple, but I’d be oversimplifying— and being “biocentric”— and I’d probably just be in love with myself— and we all know how that turns out.
“Life…established itself in the sea, in the shallow waters, the estuaries, the river banks, and wet lands.” And then “spread to encircle the world.” That’s the theory— I’m going with it. And as the biosphere came into being, it evolved, right? And in its evolution, the chemical environment began to change, yes? Because life makes things happen. Life changes things.
(We’re still using Dr. Lovelock as our interpreter, right? Do I need to keep saying that to make sure that you don’t accuse me of plagiarism? If it isn’t Lovelock, I’ll let you know).
Now here’s a key piece and yet we’re going to skim over it: Why does life insist on predator and prey? Why can’t we just get along peaceably, lion and lamb, dandelion and sheep? First, it looks like Gaia values “diversification, independence and sturdiness” in “the expanding biosphere” (p. 22).
“The natural death and decay of organisms would have released key materials to the community at large, but some species may have found it more convenient to gather their essential components by feeding on the living” (p. 22). Anyway, Dr. Lovelock says, “numerical models and computers” demonstrate “that a diverse chain of predators and prey is a more stable and stronger ecosystem than a single self-contained species, or a small group of very limited mix.” It looks like “the biosphere diversified rapidly as it evolved” (p. 22).
Now, you can read this Gaia book and get all kinds of information about chemical interactions. I’d like to say that it’s fascinating, but I find gases somewhat limited in their poetic appeal. Let’s just say that if we have a “ceaseless activity of life,” then gases such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane will be cycling through the atmosphere.
These gases can supply some life-essential elements: carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen. And these elements would increase in places like the sea floor as they decreased in places like the atmosphere, right? Organic detritus, Dr. Lovelock calls it. Charming. But in this organic detritus may also be such chemicals and compounds as calcium and magnesium carbonate. Little soft-bodied organisms might be attracted to chemicals that would provide them a little protection. Who knows? Speculation.
So, it makes sense, anyway, that the composition of the atmosphere was changing, right? “Climates are inherently unstable,” the good doctor says. I’ll grant him that. So how was a status quo maintained? Get this: “The biosphere may have “learned” to synthesize and replace the ammonia that it removed as food. (This time it’s Carl Sagan and George Mullen who are providing the theory.)
Anyway, it seems that the biosphere had to learn, like the rest of us, by trial and error (p. 24) to control its environment. Clouds form for some reason, right? They are a consequence, and the consequence may become a cause in the chain of cause and effect.
Now, I’m going to quote you a sentence, almost at random, from this Gaia book: “Eventually, perhaps two aeons ago, all the reducing materials of the (crustal rock) were oxidized more rapidly than they were exposed geologically, and the continued activity of aerobic photosynthesizers led to the accumulation of oxygen in the air.”
Gaia has lots of sentences like this in it. They all make sense, if you give them close study, but we won’t be able to deconstruct them all in the time we have here together today. Some books take the better part of a minister’s study leave to read, and you are just going to have to carve out that time for yourself from somewhere to get the full story with all the details.
Ironically, or suitably, of the information contained in the sentence just quoted, Dr. Lovelock says “This was probably the most critical period of all in the history of life on Earth. Oxygen was introduced into a world that could not breathe oxygen. In this kind of a world, oxygen is an air pollutant.
Dr. Lovelock says that “Oxygen gas in the air of an anaerobic world must have been the worst atmospheric pollution incident this planet has ever known.” Here’s his analysis: “The first appearance of oxygen in the air heralded an almost fatal catastrophe for early life. To have avoided by blind chance death from freezing or boiling, from starvation, acidity, or grave metabolic disturbance, and finally from poisoning, seems too much to ask; but if the early biosphere was already evolving into more than just a catalogue of species and was assuming the capacity for planetary control, our survival through those hazardous times is less difficult to comprehend.”
Well, now it’s time to introduce a term essential to this presentation. We’ll ease into it through a general statement from Jim Lovelock— we know him well enough by now, don’t you think? “The attainment of any skill, whether it be in cooking, painting, writing, talking, or playing tennis, is all a matter of cybernetics. We aim at doing our best and making as few mistakes as possible; we compare our efforts with this goal and learn by experience; and we polish and refine our performance by constant endeavor until we are satisfied that we are as near to optimum achievement as we can ever reach. This process is well called trial and error” (p. 52).
The American mathematician Norbert Wiener first gave common use to the word ‘cybernetics'” (p.48). It is “concerned with self-regulating systems of communication and control in living organisms and machines.” Dr. Lovelock opines “the derivation seems apt, since the primary function of many cybernetic systems is to steer an optimum course through changing conditions towards a predetermined goal” (p. 48).
Well, here the going gets a bit sketchy. Scientists usually avoid teleology in the same way that theologians avoid apostasy. “Teleology” has to do with end-points. Theology is vitally interested in where we are going. Science is more often interested in causes and effects that fall short of the idea of “destination.”
The key to the word “cybernetics,” though is in this: “Cybernetic systems employ a circular logic” (50). Lovelock uses homely examples: “a cooking oven, an electric iron, a heating system for the house. In each of these devices, the goal is to maintain the desired and appropriate temperature” (50). These devices are designed to maintain an optimal temperature— or something approaching optimal— for achieving the ends they were designed for. Not too hot— not too cold— just right.
The difference, as Lovelock sees it, is that the devices have been designed towards their ends, Gaia has evolved to design that end. I can’t take all the credit— there were a lot of life forms, not to mention a lot of gases of various chemical compositions that made my presence here today possible.
That leads us to the final term you need to know: “homoeostasis.” This word “was invented by the American physiologist, Walter Cannon. It refers to “that…state of constancy in which living things hold themselves when their environment is changing” (p. 152). Each of you is moving to homoeostasis whether entering a nice air-conditioned building or the baking heat of one of these south Kentucky summer days.
You, if you don’t mind my getting too personal here, are an organism. The theory called “Gaia” states that I, too, behave like an organism. It is an exciting idea, isn’t it? And full of vitality. But it does imply a certain responsibility for you human being types— you movers and shakers and ecological manipulators— to behave in such a way as to promote rather than to damage the self-regulating function.
Gaia will adjust; I always have. But it could be rough going for the human species for ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years or so. Of course, that’s just a fraction of an aeon, so maybe you are fine with that.
And now, I conclude my presentation with one term for you to take home with you: Self-regulation. As individuals, you all self-regulate physically. But you are going to have to figure out how to self-regulate as societies, cultures and, ultimately, as a species if you want Gaia to optimize the conditions for life as it has evolved. If you all pledge yourselves to that, I will do so as well— and you’ll find yourself satisfied with your progress. My best wishes to you all.
- www.gaiatheory.org (This website was originally set up for the October 2006 conference: “The Gaia Theory: Model and Metaphor for the 21st Century.” It now provides resources and information on Gaia Theory and related topics).
- wikipedia.org: “Gaia”; “Gaia Theory”; “James Lovelock”
- Lovelock, J. E., 1979. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Lovelock, J. E., 2006. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity (book excerpts at amazon.com)
Sermon prepared for the web by Jan Garrett.