by Whit Gibbons

June 21, 2015

Want to get into a nasty political debate without even mentioning who is running for president? State your opinion, in the right setting, about climate change, aka global warming.

You'll find someone who does not agree with you, maybe even about the terms themselves. The topic should be a debate of what the geological and climatological facts are and how to interpret them. But the discussion will likely not stay on scientific grounds, and in the end nobody's mind will be changed.

But consider a different approach. State that climate change needs to be viewed from the perspective of the controversial Gaia concept. In Greek mythology, the goddess Gaia was what we think of as Mother Earth, encompassing earth, sea and sky.

The controversy stems from modern references to Gaia as a self-regulating superorganism that maintains its health by responding to changes that affect it, the way our body responds to illness physiologically with fever or white blood cell production to ward off a bacterial infection.

The idea was formulated by James Lovelock in 1979. It persists as a doctrine of some environmentalists and is endorsed by some respected scientists. Other scientists however, dispute the idea as having no biological foundation.

A proponent of the "Gaia theory," as its advocates call it, asserts that the physical and chemical conditions on Earth, which include our atmosphere, oceans and land masses, are held in equilibrium by the living inhabitants of the planet. This means that all living things, not just humans, are operating in concert to maintain environmental stability on the planet.

The Gaia concept presents a world in which life itself maintains a worldwide ecological balance. The idea is in contrast to the generally held assumption that life on Earth has adapted and adjusted through the evolution of individual species, each to its own particular environmental circumstances.

I have previously used an example of how Gaia works in relationship to the salinity level in the ocean. Salts are constantly added by physical and chemical processes, yet the ocean remains in a state that can support life.

According to Lovelock, seas left strictly to nonbiological forces would eventually reach an unlivable state. The Gaia hypothesis proposes that ocean salinity is under biological control, in contrast to strictly physical or chemical mechanisms, through a cooperative action of marine organisms, a process ongoing since the beginning of life on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.

The idea is that a constant shower of dead microorganisms falls to the ocean floor, removing salt from the water and depositing it on the bottom.

As salinity levels begin to rise, plankton incorporate salt into their outer coverings. When they die and sink to the ocean depths, they remove the increased salt load from the oceans. That is, living creatures in the sea, primarily algae and protozoa, collectively serve a salt-removal role, maintaining the oceans in a viable state.

According to the Gaia hypothesis, the organisms of the world work together to sustain a world that supports life.

Because the Gaia hypothesis does not place human beings in a central role, some people may perceive a Gaia advocate as being an extreme environmentalist.

The sort of person who might go to great lengths to protect plants, animals and their habitats. Or as I once heard someone say, "Gaia supporters have the granola mentality that animals are more important than people."

On the other hand, one could make the argument that a true Gaia believer should not be concerned about whether global warming is being exacerbated by human activities because Gaia herself will make the adjustments necessary to stabilize Earth's ecosystems. There's irony for you.

A belief in Gaia, seemingly a staunch environmental stance, might offer justification for humans to behave in an environmentally irresponsible manner. If Mother Earth is going to take care of herself, humans don't need to intercede. Maybe so, but what if she isn't able to take care of herself?

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