THE GAIA HYPOTHESIS:
IMPLICATIONS FOR A CHRISTIAN POLITICAL THEOLOGY OF THE ENVIRONMENT
by Stephen B. Scharper
The Gaia theory offers an inspiring vision of planetary interrelatedness. But it
may also diminish the human by neglecting our ability to build the world -- or destroy it.
STEPHEN B. SCHARPER is faculty lecturer in religious studies at McGill University,
Montreal. Co-author with his wife, Hilary Cunningham, of The Green Bible (Orbis,
1993), he is president of the Religious Education Association of the United States and
Canada. He wishes to thank Hilary Cunningham and Gregory Baum for their critical comments
Most of us sense that the Earth is more than a sphere of rock with a thin layer of air,
ocean, and life covering the surface. We feel that we belong here, as if this planet were
indeed our home. Long ago the Greeks, thinking this way, gave to the Earth the name of
--James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia
As competing definitions or understandings of humanity's role in the patterns of
ecological sustainability emerge, the place of the human in the world becomes increasingly
crucial to explore. The deleterious use of human technology, at the service of industrial
capitalism and socialism as well as militarism and consumerism during the modern era, has
jeopardized many of the life-systems of the planet. Those interested in a Christian
theology of the environment must navigate past the Scylla of an anthropocentric notion of
creation in which humanity is seen as the driving, domineering, and superior species, and
the Charybdis of a completely nonanthropocentric vision, which would leave to other
species the task of cleaning up human environmental destruction, a task for which they
appear ill-equipped. A political theology of the environment that utilizes social,
economic, and cultural analysis in order to show how human agents may advance a society
more in harmony with a gospel vision of a just, peaceful, and sustainable society, thus
becomes an important field of cultivation in light of the cultural and intellectual tumult
spawned by our ecological insensitivity.
There are, of course, myriad frameworks for looking at the role of the human within the
environmental crisis. Ecofeminism, environmental ethics, animal-rights advocacy, deep
ecology, green politics, and sustainable development are but a handful. The Gaia
hypothesis has become another such framework. Gaia is significant because it fuses
scientific insight and religious imagination in a potentially energizing and
transformative way, challenging persons across a broad spectrum of disciplines to deal in
an integrative fashion with the ecological crisis. Moreover, just as the Copernican
revolution forced humanity to alter its self-proclaimed centrality within the universe, so
may Gaia hold the potential for a similarly foundational cultural transition.
The Gaia Hypothesis: What Is It?
First articulated by British atmospheric chemist James Lovelock, the Gaia hypothesis,
succinctly, suggests that the Earth is a self-regulating, self-sustaining entity, which
continually adjusts its environment in order to support life. Though a scientific theory,
the Gaia hypothesis has, since its initial articulation in 1969, sparked a swirl of
religious, New Age, and philosophical reflection, and challenged certain long-held
assumptions about evolution, the importance of the human in determining environmental
change, and the relationship between life and the environment.
While serving as a consultant for NASA during the 1960s, Lovelock worked on the Viking
project, which assayed to determine whether life existed or was even possible on Mars. To
probe these questions, Lovelock examined what sustained life on Earth, and, arguing from
his strength as an atmospheric chemist, found his answer in the composition of the Earth's
atmosphere, with its delicate balance of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, methane, and traces
of other elements.(1) In attempting to answer the
question of life's existence on Mars, Lovelock concentrated on the nature of the Earth's
atmosphere and argued that "the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales
to viruses, from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity,
capable of manipulating the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with
faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts" (Lovelock 1979, 9).
Unlike Mars, with an atmosphere composed mainly of carbon dioxide, the Earth, Lovelock
concluded, had a dynamic and self-regulating atmosphere. Just like an oven thermostat that
maintains a constant temperature, the Earth's atmosphere sustained a stable balance of
gases and temperature supportive of life. Because Mars had no suggestion of such a matrix
or dynamic atmosphere, Lovelock concluded, it is lifeless.
For Lovelock, life is not surrounded by a passive environment to which it has
accustomed itself. Rather, life creates and reshapes its own environment (Margulis and
Sagan 1986, 267). Whereas traditional Earth scientists maintain that the Earth's climatic
pattern is more geological than biological, and is therefore less robust and more
vulnerable to lasting injury, the Gaia thesis purports that the Earth is like a
self-regulating animal, and may have organs that are especially important, such as the
rain forest and wetlands, which are more vital to the global environment than are other
parts of the system (Joseph 1990, 2). In other words, while Gaia may sustain the loss of
its "big toe," i.e., the blue whale, it can ill afford to lose its
"lungs," i.e., the tropical rain forests.
One could argue that historical antecedents of the Gaia theory reside in the work of
G. F. Hegel, Baruch Spinoza, Alfred North Whitehead, and Herbert Spencer, all of whom
spoke of nature in terms of an organism. Moreover, Aldo Leopold, deemed the father of the
modern conservation movement, viewed the Earth as an "organism" possessing a
certain degree of life. As philosopher Anthony Weston also points out, the Gaia theory has
a particular relevance to our time, with its general systems theory and interplanetary
expeditions (Weston 1987, 219). Evolutionary philosopher Elisabet Sahtouris notes that
early in this century, the Russian scientist V. I. Vernadsky viewed the
biogeochemistry of the planet as a unity, but his work was not known to Lovelock until
after the Gaia thesis was proposed (Sahtouris, "The Gaia Controversy," 1989,
57). Lovelock himself points to the nineteenth-century Scottish scientist James Hutton,
the father of geology, as a Gaia forerunner. Hutton spoke of the Earth as a
"superorganism," and was one of the first scientists to conceive of the Earth in
a systems context (Joseph 1990, 83).
With the help of Lynn Margulis, formerly married to Carl Sagan and a microbiologist at
Boston University, Lovelock has refined his thesis, and has been able to reinforce his
ideas scientifically with reference to Margulis's research on microorganisms. Known
amusingly as "The Wizard of Ooze" owing to her investigation of microbes in
swamps, mudflats, and marshes around the world, Margulis maintains that symbiosis and
cooperation have been as central to biological evolution as has the competitive conflict
for survival that marks Darwinian theory (Joseph 1990, 8).
For Margulis and Sagan, interrelation, rather than competition, is the leitmotif of
nature. Like Lovelock, they see the biosphere as "seamless," a grand,
integrated, and living organism. They assert that the first bacteria acquired almost all
the necessary knowledge about living in an integrated schema. "Life did not take over
the globe by combat," they contend, "but by networking" (Margulis and Sagan
1986, 15). Attempting to show the importance of microorganisms for Gaia, Margulis is quick
to demonstrate that life on earth has existed on the planet for 3.5 billion years, and
that for the first 2 billion, only bacterial microorganisms existed. Mammals, including
the human, she goes on to speculate, may exist solely to provide warm homes for such
For Bunyard and Goldsmith, co-editors of the British journal The Ecologist: Journal
of the Post-Industrial Age, the Gaia hypothesis suggests that the biosphere, together
with the atmospheric environment, constitute a unified natural system. This system is the
fruit of organic forces that are highly coordinated by the system itself. Gaia has, in
effect, created herself, not in a random manner, but actually in an objective-seeking
fashion. This is suggested by the fact that the system is highly stable and can maintain
its equilibrium despite internal and external dilemmas. It is actually a
"cybernetic" system and thus must be seen as a grand cooperative project.
Bunyard and Goldsmith aver that if "Gaia is a single natural system that has created
herself in a coordinated and goal-directed way, then Gaia is clearly the unit of
evolution, not the individual living thing as neo-Darwinists insist" (Bunyard and
Goldsmith 1989, 7). In fact, they speculate, Gaia might be evolution itself. Competition
becomes not the primary feature, but a secondary one, and survival of the fittest becomes
not a highly individualistic exercise, but a cooperative attempt to weed out certain
species for the benefit of the organic commonweal. They insist that now there is more
evidence for Gaia as an evolutionary process than there is for neo-Darwinism (1989, 9).(2)
While many environmentalists initially warmed to the Gaia theorists, perceiving them to
be natural allies in the eco-struggle, Lovelock and Margulis proved to be reluctant
eco-partners. One of the reasons for this distancing lies in the minimal place the human
holds in the overall Gaia theory as articulated by Lovelock and Margulis. For the Gaia
theory originators, Gaia is a self-regulating system, a "creature," which moves
forward into the future regardless of what humans do.
In his first full-blown, popular articulation of his theory, Gaia: A New Look at
Life on Earth, Lovelock clearly distinguishes himself from mainstream
environmentalists. In this imaginatively written work, Lovelock asserts that, contrary to
the gloomy forecasts of environmentalists, life on Earth is robust, hardy, and extremely
adaptable, as his analysis of Gaia regulation over the eons intimates. He suggests that
large plants and animals are in fact probably less important than are bacteria deep in
soils and seabeds. He compares "higher species," e.g., trees and mammals, to
glitzy salesmen and show models used to display products; helpful but not essential. He
goes as far as to say that even nuclear war would probably not affect Gaia drastically
(Lovelock 1979, 40-43).
Pollution, for Lovelock, is as natural as are sea and sand, and is therefore not
fulsome, but simply organic, an inevitable byproduct of "life at work." The
early biosphere, he argues, must have experienced pollution and the depletion of
resources, as we do in the modern world. He notes that the first entity to use zinc
beneficially probably also produced mercury as a poisonous waste product. Microorganisms
were later produced to break down the mercury, representing perhaps life's most ancient
toxic waste disposal system (Lovelock 1979, 27-28).
While conceding that the devastation of modern industrial and technological development
may prove "destructive and painful" for our own species, Lovelock doubts that it
threatens the life of Gaia as a whole. (The ethical questions surrounding the
"pain" for the human species are left unexplored.) In fact, he continues,
"the very concept of pollution is anthropocentric and it may even be irrelevant in
the Gaian context" (Lovelock 1979, 110). Acknowledging his lack of concern for the
place of humanity within the Gaia framework, Lovelock admits that his work "is not
primarily about people and livestock and pets; it is about the biosphere and the magic of
Mother Earth" (112).
Yet Lovelock, in ascribing a peripheral role for humanity in the Gaian framework,
neglects to take into account socio-economic factors of pollution. For example, in
discussing Rachel Carson's galvanizing work, Silent Spring, which analyzed how
DDT and other pesticides were destroying birds and other wildlife, Lovelock asserted that
DDT "will probably be more carefully and economically employed in future" (115).
(Lovelock's pollyannish perspective is belied by the increased sale of DDT to the Third
World after its use was banned in North America.)
Contending that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are also "natural," Lovelock
initially dismissed the fears of environmentalists that human-made CFCs resulting from
aerosol cans, refrigerators, and air conditioners could have any sizable impact on ozone
depletion. Methyl chloride, produced by the seas, he countered, breaks down ozone, as do
CFCs, showing that too much ozone is as dangerous as is too little for Gaia (Lovelock
1979, 80; 105). Gaia, he suggests, has the situation under control. Revealingly, however,
Lovelock in 1988 conceded that he may have been wrong to oppose those who wanted to
legislate a reduction in CFCs, saying that he would now support such legislative
restrictions in light of the disturbing evidence of ozone depletion.
Lovelock's dismissal of the important ozone depletion problem, a condition he brought
to light through his own research, is a fascinating case study.(3) It highlights how scientists, enthralled by their own theories, can
ignore data and minimize mammoth problems which belie their visions. It uncovers the
limiting subjectivity of science and its all-too-human dimensions, and demonstrates how
science itself is susceptible to social, political, and psychological pressures. Convinced
that Gaia was robust and all-controlling, Lovelock had difficulty admitting that the pesky
unfeathered bipeds of the human race could significantly injure it.(4)
Philosophical Responses to Gaia
During the 1980s, in addition to sparking debate within the Earth sciences, Gaia served
as a galvanizing concept for New Age persons, globalists, and religious figures concerned
about the environment. Dean James Morton of the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John of
the Divine in New York commissioned a Missa Gaia by the eco-music group, the Paul Winter
Consort. Gaia Books in London, inspired by Lovelock's vision of the Earth as a
single-living organism, prepared Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management (Myers 1984)
and The Gaia Peace Atlas: Survival into the Third Millennium (Barnaby 1988), with
contributions from scientists, church leaders, politicians, population experts, doctors,
and environmentalists, all dedicated to preserving the earth from decimation and arguing
for the need to reharness human energy from war-making to earth-keeping.(5) Books on Buddhism and Gaia, and myriad reflections on Gaia goddess
imagery from an ecofeminist perspective also emerged. These responses, which can be
classified as pragmatic, philosophical, and theological, all discuss the role of the human
within the Gaia framework, but with varying degrees of success.(6)
There are, at present, few sustained philosophical treatments of the Gaia hypothesis.
This is not surprising, given the theory's newness and its scientific focus. Perhaps the
philosophic community is waiting for the scientific community's verdict before embarking
on an enterprise whose subject matter may prove ephemeral. At any rate, William Irwin
Thompson, a philosopher and cultural historian, has made Gaia something of a personal
vocation in recent years. Formerly professor at MIT as well as at York University in
Toronto, Thompson is presently director of the Lindisfarne Association, a relatively
loose-knit concatenation of intellectuals dedicated to engendering what they term a
"global culture." Believing that scientific theory is inevitably grounded in a
grander philosophical and cultural narrative, Thompson sees in Gaia a scientific yarn that
could assist in stitching together a common planetary culture (Thompson 1991, 168).
For Thompson, our common understanding of "nature" is a fiction, a cultural
construct influenced by Sierra Club calendars and the bucolic landscapes of eighteenth-
and nineteenth-century British painters such as Paul Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.
"Nature is the horizon of culture," Thompson avers, and depending on one's
context, one's horizon will vary. Lovelock and Margulis help us to see this, he believes.
Since in the Gaia framework, the division between animal, vegetable, and mineral is
erased, all is "nature," wherever and whenever we look in the Gaian schema. The
Gaia theory focuses on Earth processes, which offer insight into how culture operates and
how we understand interrelationships among created realities (Thompson 1991, 172-73).
Although briefly involved in New Age currents, in the early eighties Thompson began
looking for new avenues to a planetary consciousness and found in Gaia a promising
vehicle. Believing that history is inevitably paradoxical, Thompson claims that humanity
can never know fully what it is about; for the reasoning mind gains insight into one
reality only by casting shadows upon another. The world is thus a structure of unconscious
relations, and the relations of a global culture can only be the product of a process
seemingly motored by avarice and fear. Gaia thus proffers a concrete cosmology within
which these antinomies of history become comprehensible.
What is the role of the human in the Gaian framework? For Thompson, it appears to be
simply to sit back and reconcile itself to a process in which we humans may be nothing
more than a transitory phase. Rather than managing the planet, we are merely passengers on
it, much like ants on a log, Thompson muses, drifting downstream, actively trying to steer
that over which they have no control (Thompson 1991, 182). In promoting Lovelock and
Margulis through his Lindisfarne Association, Thompson, it appears, is also promoting a
limited role for the human in the Gaia process; he appears to be less involved in social
action for the future sustainability of the planet than in "planetary
consciousness-raising" through which we humans might reconcile ourselves to our
microscopic function within the all-embracing Gaia.
Anthony Weston, with the department of philosophy at the State University of New York
at Stony Brook, has a particular interest in environmental ethics, as well as the ethics
of technology and medicine. He has explored what he terms the sundry "Forms of Gaian
Ethics" (Weston 1987). While claiming that Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis is suggestive,
Weston points out that what precisely it "suggests" is nebulous. He notes that
Lovelock and Margulis emphasize Gaia's powers, rather than our human responsibilities, and
that Lovelock has at times characterized ecologists as "misanthropes" and
"Luddites" (220). Weston suggests, however, that there are at least two other
ethical approaches one can adopt with regard to Gaia: one more commensurate with
contemporary philosophical ethics; the other more akin to "deep ecology."
First, Weston postulates, for the sake of argument, that one could regard Gaia not
simply as a living entity but as a person, thereby forcing, not a recasting of our ethical
assumptions, but merely an expansion of our understanding of person to include other
realities. In this manner, we might challenge, not the ethical centrality of persons, but
the presupposition that only humans can be counted as persons (223). While such an
approach appeals to a long ethical history of the rights of persons, Weston finds it
fulsomely anthropocentric in light of our current ecological situation, and also too
facile a maneuver. For Weston, Gaia ultimately is not a person, but a novel locus of
Secondly, noting the correspondence between deep ecology and the Gaia theory, Weston
comments that both view humans merely as just one species among many in the vast sweep of
the Earth's processes, offering what deep ecologist Arne Naess calls a "total
field" conception. In this understanding, we humans can only comprehend ourselves as
elements of a much fuller and older life process. As such we sense the destruction of the
Earth; we feel in our bowels, as it were, the destruction of the rain forest. Hence our
visceral connection to Gaia helps us empathize and therefore resist the destruction of the
Weston counters that such an approach presupposes a level of communication and
identification among the Earth's species that even the Gaia theorists do not detect. The
Gaia metaphor can be stretched too far to claim an intelligence for Gaia, an intelligence
which simply may not exist (228). Weston also argues that such an approach devalues
nonanimate matter, such as rocks and hills, and he worries about the environmental costs
of such a devaluation. "Persons are not the only things that have value," he
notes, "and neither is life itself" (228). For Weston, the answer lies not in
substituting Gaia for another ethical framework, but in assimilating Gaia within the
already existing variety of environmental values. Gaia doesn't necessarily have a single
meaning or interpretation, but in its varied meanings, it could help point us toward the
interrelationship of various value systems.
Theological Responses to Gaia
Douglas John Hall: Reintegrating Creation. In Amsterdam during May 1987, James
Lovelock and Canadian Protestant theologian Douglas Hall, along with a handful of others,
conferred for about a week to discuss the ecological crisis. Invited by the World Council
of Churches as a follow-up to the call from Vancouver in 1983 to engage the churches in a
commitment to "justice, peace, and the integrity of creation," the British
scientist and the Canadian theologian emerged from their huddle with a discussion paper
entitled "Reintegrating God's Creation." Intriguingly, Hall's paper does not
deal with the Gaia hypothesis directly. Rather, he discusses the nature of the term
"integrity of creation" and the human role in it in the light of our destructive
As a Christian theologian, Hall professes that he cannot, as some deep ecologists do,
support those who advocate a human retreat from intervention in the world. Rather, he
proposes a contextual and strategic theology, one which walks the narrow path between what
he terms "prometheanism" (a destructive glorification of human power) and
passivity (Hall 1987, 32).
Hall offers three roles for the Christian: steward (which he further develops in a book
by the same title), priest, and poet. The steward enacts solidarity, accountability, and
responsibility -- all providing caring leadership. The priest represents God before the
"creature" and represents the "creature" before God, acting as an
empathetic and compassionate mediator in reintegrating a world broken by environmental
despoliation. The poet, as rooted in the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, celebrates
the creaturely joys and visceral pain of being part of the created world, speaking not
only for the human, but also for other creatures that inhabit the universe (34-36). For
Hall, then, the role of the human is central to an environmental theology. But, although
he was metaphorically in dialogue with Gaia during his conversations with Lovelock, he
does not use Gaia as an overarching paradigm. In fact, neither he nor Lovelock ever refers
to it in their working paper.
Rosemary Radford Ruether: Gaia and God. By far the most substantial work by a
Christian theologian on some of the implications of the Gaia hypothesis, Ruether's Gaia
and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth-Healing vividly illustrates how the
environmental crisis is forcing a major reexamination of the underpinnings of Western
culture. From the thought of ancient Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Hebraic, Greco-Roman, early
Christian, and Native American cultures, Ruether sifts for golden nuggets that might help
us eschew ecological suicide. Undergirding Ruether's project is an examination of the
underside of Western civilization's treatment of women and nature, showing how deeply
embedded such destruction, domination, and deceit are in our culture.
While providing a helpful and terse overview of the Gaia hypothesis, Ruether does not
tease out its ethical and theological ramifications directly. She notes that it has become
an instrument of ecofeminists who find in an earth goddess a way of avoiding a pernicious
male deity but sagely cautions against such an interchangeable approach to God.
Dedicated to eco-justice, Ruether is critical of militarism, sexism, consumerism, and
systemic poverty and injustice, all of which constitute threats to organic life. Assuming
that the earth forms a living system and averring that we humans are an "inextricable
part" of that system, she opposes the Western conception of nature that is both
nonhuman and nondivine (5) and claims that our ethical standards should reflect the
interdependency proposed by Gaia. Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock have given us a new
vision of the Earth in which cooperation is as important as competition. "Human
ethics should be a more refined and conscious version of the natural interdependency,
mandating humans to imagine and feel the suffering of others, and to find ways in which
interrelation becomes cooperative and mutually life-enhancing for both sides" (57).
For Ruether, both the Gaia theory of Lovelock and Margulis and the new cosmology of
cultural historian Thomas Berry and mathematician Brian Swimme counter the Cartesian
mechanistic view of nature, and help dissolve traditional dualisms that have had such
deleterious consequences for both women and nature.
In this well-researched, encyclopedic study, Ruether accepts the emerging scientific
stories, such as Gaia and the universe story, and unpacks their ethical implications.
Outlining the human agenda in light of such scientific insights, she rehearses ideas that
others in the ecological movement have also advanced: bioregionalism, reduced population,
organic farming, an end to militarism and destructive technologies, global economic
justice, communities of solidarity and alternative lifestyles, and an ability to listen to
nature (a chief feature of Thomas Berry's thought) (265-72). Somewhat surprisingly,
however, she does not squarely address the theological questions posed by Gaia.
Thomas Berry: Gaia in a Cosmological Context. For Thomas Berry, a Passionist
priest and "geologian," the wellsprings of the Gaia theory are part of a
continuum through which a new sense of the sacredness of the cosmos is emanating from
modern science. With his own work deeply influenced by contemporary physics and astronomy,
as evidenced by his recent collaboration with mathematician Brian Swimme on The
Universe Story, Berry argues that theories of relativity, quantum physics, the
uncertainly principle of Heisenberg, the sense of a self-organizing universe, and the more
recent chaos theories have gotten us beyond Cartesian mechanistic thinking and into an
interrelated understanding of our world. Gaia is a part of these developments.
In his article, "The Gaia Theory: Its Religious Implications," Berry claims
that we need a Gaia theory, but we also need a cosmological context in which to place it.
For Berry, the universe is the primary revelatory event: knowing and relating the story of
the universe's unfolding, from the Big Bang or "primordial flaring forth" some
15 billion years ago to the present, becomes of primary religious significance. The human
is now in the driver's seat of geological evolution, moving us out of the Cenozoic Era
into either the "Technozoic" era, in which we continue to plunder the planet, or
the "Ecozoic" era, in which we live within its functioning. For Berry, the
choice is ours. Unlike Lovelock, Berry ascribes a momentous role to the human. Not only
are we now the architects of evolutionary history, but also the beings in whom the
universe becomes self-conscious, and through whom it is able to reflect upon itself. Such
a massive role for the human in the cosmos has caused some to critique Berry's thought for
its potentially dangerous anthropocentrism.
In essence, Berry uses the Gaia theory as a springboard for his own reflections on the
mystical dimensions of the cosmos. More often than not, his religious views are more
connected to the views of animistic or shamanistic faiths than to Christian tradition. As
several commentators have pointed out, Berry's cosmological vision is rarely related to
Christian categories, and his universal story lacks a coherent plan of social action, a
point made by Jon Sobrino, Paul Knitter, and Gregory Baum.
A Christian Political Theology of the Environment
The Gaia theory raises a host of questions for those wishing to engage in a political
theology of the environment. Many of these questions revolve around the role of the human
in the Gaian schema. Are we humans mere blips, a short-lived, destructive species with
little lasting impact on the planet, as Margulis, Lovelock, and William Irwin Thompson
propose? Should we assimilate Gaia into a preexisting set of environmental values,
reconciling ourselves to a pluriform ethical schema, as Anthony Weston suggests? Shall we
take the cooperative model advanced by Gaia as a blueprint for an ethic of earth-healing,
as advanced by Rosemary Ruether? Are we called to be stewards, priests, and poets in light
of the ecological crisis, as proffered by Douglas John Hall? Or are we the
self-consciousness of the universe, as postulated by Thomas Berry?
Beyond these questions, however, are pressing social justice issues and the concerns of
a political theology of the environment. Is Gaia useful for a Christian social justice
perspective on environmental destruction? Does Gaia provide a suitable framework for
articulating the role of the human within such a social justice perspective? From the
perspective of social justice the world is a political economy, a structure of power
relationships in which there are "haves" and "have-nots." Can Gaia be
understood as a political economy in which the poor nations, particularly of the South,
bear the brunt of ecological destruction? A social justice perspective posits a
preferential option for the poor. Is such an option viable within a Gaian framework?
Lastly, a social justice perspective ascribes special responsibilities to persons and
governments of Northern nations in effecting a just global community. Can Gaia sharpen our
insight into North-South differences and help develop a model of action which takes into
account these differences?
Gaia is helpful for a social justice perspective in several ways. As Lovelock
himself comments, Gaia helps us to look at the world, not as a mechanistic Cartesian
engine, but as an interrelated, vital, and cooperative enterprise in which interdependency
rather than competition is the hallmark of life, revealing at the same time that the
context in which human praxis is waged is also one of critical and unavoidable
interconnectedness. Adding to the key insight of European political theology, Third World
liberation theology, and feminist theology that a transformative theology must be
contextual, Gaia forces us to expand our notion of context beyond social, economic, and
political dimensions to include a critical planetary dimension.
Gaia has, however, serious limitations for a social justice perspective. It is
ahistorical -- agnostic in terms of human history. It lacks an analysis of existing power
structures as well as historical patterns of inequality in which political praxis occurs.
Moreover, it underestimates the destructive potency of the human species. By viewing
humans as simply one life form among many, and a largely inessential one at that, Gaia
woefully undervalues the human ability to destroy the life systems of the planet. Hence
Gaia ultimately lacks a framework for critically assessing and challenging exploitative
Perhaps the ultimate value of Gaia lies in the fact that it prompts us to envisage our
world in a novel, challenging, and inspirational way, as the burgeoning literature around
it attests. The question as to whether or not the theory is "true" is, in the
end, secondary to whether it helps us link justice and peace to the integrity of all
creation. Gaia, I believe, can help us forge this still fragile but necessary nexus, as
long as we remain aware of both its evocative power and its grave limitations.
1. [Back to text] Lovelock describes the
provenance of the Gaia hypothesis in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1979), 1-24. Though Lovelock first presented the Gaia hypothesis
at a 1969 scientific conference at Princeton, he did not publish his idea until 1972 in a
letter to Atmospheric Environment.
2. [Back to text] In 1988, the Gaia
hypothesis was subjected to its most sustained scientific scrutiny. In March of that year,
the American Geophysical Union, the international association of geologists and
geochemists, dedicated the entire week of its biannual Chapman conference to Gaia. Leading
scientists from around the globe gathered to debate the premise and details of the
Lovelock and Margulis findings. While it is hard to determine whether the majority of
scientific skeptics were converted, the Gaia hypothesis has, since the conference,
increasingly been called the Gaia theory in scientific circles (Sahtouris,
"The Gaia Controversy," 1989, 55). Lawrence Joseph, the colorful journalistic
chronicler of Gaia, observes that since the 1988 conference, about 100 scientific and
technical articles have been written on the Gaia theory. Many of these articles seem less
concerned with the verity of the theory than with its leading authors to novel questions
and approaches in their respective specializations, some of which challenge the
fundamental orientation of their disciplines (Joseph 1988, 13).
3. [Back to text] Ironically, it was
Lovelock's own research in the Arctic using his important invention, the electron capture
detector, that made the discovery of the first "ozone hole" possible. With the
ability to detect freon and other halogenated compounds in the air, this device helped
trigger ecological concerns over ozone depletion and ultraviolet radiation-engendered
cancers (Margulis and Sagan 1984, 74).
4. [Back to text] On the ecological
sensitivity barometer, Lynn Margulis fares little better than does Lovelock, partially
owing to the minuscule role she also ascribes to the human within Gaia. As suggested
earlier, because animals are "Johnny-come-latelys" to Gaia, Margulis intimates
that animals, including humans, are merely delivery systems or incubators for the
microorganisms that really control Gaia functioning (Margulis and Sagan 1984, 68).
Margulis and Sagan claim that Gaia can still be seen primarily as a microbial production
and that humans are relegated to "a tiny and unessential part of the Gaian
system" (Margulis and Sagan 1984, 71). Not to deny completely a role for the human,
Margulis proposes that humanity has the potential to be an anxious "early warning
system" for Gaia, detecting how Gaia might be injured by various human activities or
other changes. Moreover, we humans might be able to colonize other planets and deflect
oncoming asteroids, thereby protecting Gaia. Such a diminutive role, she maintains, should
not make us "depressed." Rather, "we should rejoice in the new truths of
our essential belonging, our relative unimportance, and our complete dependence upon a
biosphere which has always had a life entirely its own" (Margulis and Sagan 1984,
5. [Back to text] Interestingly, such
volumes don't engage or challenge the Gaia hypothesis per se; they in effect use
it as a springboard to show how humans must tread more respectfully on the planet. For a
delineation of some of these Gaia-inspired religious and New Age developments, see Joseph
6. [Back to text] For a pragmatic response
to Gaia see Kit Pedler: The Quest for Gaia, 1991. Pedler argues that the Gaia
theory is a new revolutionary force that has been unleashed on the world. Technologists,
he argues, have made the egregious blunder of assuming that nature was passive and
neutral, a vast piece of blank paper on which they could draw their dreams. Instead,
Pedler contends, the life process that surrounds us is characterized by an intelligence
capable of self-rectification and regulation, an insight provided by Lovelock (Pedler
1991, 10). Unlike the Gaia theory originators, Pedler ascribes a hefty role to the human
in living within Gaia. Pedler contends that we must reorient ourselves to live in harmony
with Gaia, otherwise we face extinction. For Pedler, we are in Gaia. There is no way to
extricate ourselves from it; we are neither above nor superior to it. He suggests that no
sustainable future for humanity can be attained unless human concerns are placed second to
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