As 1999 gets underway, many people around the globe will be wondering what this year's weather will bring. Even before 1998 came to a close, it was clearly one for the record books. Average global temperatures broke all records. China was swept by its worst floods in three decades, two thirds of Bangladesh was underwater for most of the summer. At least 54 countries including the UK were hit by severe floods and another 45 were stricken by droughts. Although it is impossible to connect any single weather event to global climate change, the past year has been marked by a global pattern of very unusual weather. How on earth can we tell what's going on?
Over the past two decades there has been a quiet revolution brewing. A change in the way we see the world as significant as when we discovered the earth was round. As the evidence emerges, it is looking increasingly unlikely that our atmosphere's mix of highly reactive gasses, occurring in just the right proportions for life, happens through the laws of chance alone. The old notion that life simply adapts to a randomly changing environment is about to go out the window. Life fundamentally influences its own environment; the mix of gases in the atmosphere, the global temperature, even the salinity of the oceans. What's more life's influence seems to be strong enough to maintain these stable conditions over hundreds of million years, despite the sun warming up by over a quarter - we're talking Gaia Theory.
Is There Life On Mars?
Gaia Theory was developed some twenty years ago by Professor James Lovelock whilst he was employed by NASA to develop experiments for detecting life on Mars. Lovelock realised that if the Earth's atmosphere was made up of gases in chemical equilibrium, like the atmospheres of Mars and Venus, it would consist of about 99% carbon dioxide. Instead, it contains only 0.03% carbon dioxide, 78% nitrogen and 21% of the very reactive gas oxygen - a combination which cannot be maintained by 'chemical equilibrium' alone. This reactive and highly unlikely composition could only have arisen through the activities of living organisms, and could only be maintained through their continuing activity. This of course was the last thing NASA wanted to hear, it meant that we could determine if there was life on Mars by looking at its atmospheric signature - a reactive mix of gasses out of chemical equilibrium. Unfortunately, this removed the need for a NASA Mars mission as telescopes on earth could easily do the job at a fraction of the cost. Also Lovelock was predicting Mars would be lifeless, so not surprisingly, before long he found himself surplus to requirements - but Gaia Theory had been born.
How On Earth Did We Miss The Point?
Gaia is not a recent concept. It is only in the last few centuries that an 'educated' minority in the West began to believe that our planet is dead, just a misty sphere of inanimate rock hurtling around the sun in accordance with mechanical laws. This is a very eccentric opinion when seen in a larger human context. Throughout history, practically all humanity, and the majority even today, have taken it for granted that the Earth is alive. Yet as western science evolved towards the end of the last century, it split the planet in two. The 'Earth' scientists looked at non-living things like climate, atmosphere and geology, whilst the 'Life' scientists looked at all the living, crawling, grunting things. Problems really set in when these two distinct disciplines drifted to opposite ends of the academic campus and dialogue between them all but ceased; for example how many meteorology departments employ a resident biologist? Virtually none.
Send In The Clouds
The reconnecting of meteorology and biology has proved fruitful in our search to understand the climate. Almost a decade ago Lovelock published a paper recognising marine algae are part of a massive global regulatory system. Algae produce a gas 'dimethyl sulphide' which reacts with oxygen in the air, to produce tiny particles, providing the vital 'seeds' which water vapour needs to form clouds. Once formed these clouds reflect the sun's heat back out into space, before it even reaches the surface - regulating the planetary climate. Basically the hotter it gets, the more algae you get. The more algae you get, the more clouds you get. The more clouds you get, the cooler it gets. It's the planetary equivalent of sweating or shivering. Micro-organisms are part of climatology, one of a spectrum of vital clues missed by the earth / life science divide. Lovelock seeks his answers not in the conventional scientific way, by breaking things down into bits to see how they work, but by exploring the connections, revealing the grander whole.
Is Gaia Theory Any Use?
Amid growing fears of an environmental crisis, we are compelled to ask if our 'dead-world' models might be partly to blame, and whether it is high time we examined more 'life-like' models of how the planet works. Alongside Gaia Theory, there is now emerging a class of scientific frameworks which challenge mechanistic linearity and move us towards a subtler, livelier realm. It started with quantum theory and its radical indeterminacy. Lately we've added dissipative processes, chaos, complexity - order emerging out of complex chaotic systems. They threaten the old deterministic order by revitalising science - suddenly Gaia theory doesn't seem quite so weird.
Just as we developed medical theory to understand how our bodies work, we can develop Gaia theory to help understand how our planet works. By 2010 the British government aims to reduce our fossil fuel emissions to 20% below what they were in 1990; how do we know if this is too much or too little? As we try to determine the severity of our impacts, in global summits such as Rio, Kyoto and Buenos Aires, we must be sure we are using the right model for how the planet behaves. Perhaps we should not expect the Earth to respond proportionally to the changes we inflict on it, as a system without any regulating feedback would. Regulated systems tend to hold their status quo for as long as possible, before changing in a more sudden and unpredictable manner.
Basically, the planet works like our bodies; if we measure our internal temperature in the sauna and in the snow, there is little change - because we self-regulate by sweating or shivering. If the earth possesses climate regulating systems capable of reacting on a fast enough time scale - such as the marine algae perhaps, these may be buffering us from the worst effects of our emissions. If the models we use to assess the damage do not recognise this self regulation, we may misinterpret the data, underestimate the seriousness of the problem, and react far too slowly. With global carbon emissions and deforestation still on the increase, we may well be approaching the end of the buffered period, after which climate change will become much more severe and, more importantly, considerably less reversible.
As in medicine, we must look for symptoms. Only by understanding the mechanism can we begin to identify the planets 'vital signs' - the planet's equivalent of our sweating and shivering. Only then can we consider any diagnosis. It may turn out that global warming is the wrong thing to be looking out for - warming suggests a gradual linear process. The mathematics behind self-regulating systems indicate that climate change may appear much more random and turbulent. Vital clues may lie in the 'texture' of climatic data. Exploring patterns of the hottest, coldest, driest, windiest or the most 'out of season' climate data might yield important information obscured by considering long term averages alone. For example El Nino's 3,5,7 periodicity, may offer vital indicators.
Gaia Theory does more than tell us how the physical world works, it reorientates the way we see ourselves in the context of our environment. We progress from our old place at the 'top of the pyramid' to find a new role as a part of a much larger and much older organism or ecosystem, without which we would have no life. Gaia Theory's implications extend throughout all the other disciplines, from geo-psychology to geo-philosophy. These must however be respectfully defined as being distinct from the strict physical science of 'geo-physiology' described by Professor Lovelock. Geo-philosophy, and the 're-orientation' it provides, may turn out to be one of the theory's most important and powerful contributions, catalysing a multi-disciplinary reawakening of the way we relate to our environment.
Although it is sometimes useful to draw a distinction between humanity and nature, as it can be between the earth and life sciences, in a Gaian context both humanity and nature are now so 'tightly coupled' that to all intents and purposes they can be considered as a single system. Once we recognise this 'tight coupling', a reorientation of our relationship with Nature occurs as a matter of course. Recognising this may give rise to a new emergent self-regulation which also incorporates human behaviour, transforming our impact from that of a planetary cancer into an integrated part of the 'Gaian system'.
What's The Diagnosis?
We have now recognised environmental impacts in almost every aspect of modern life. To tackle these problems, we are developing technologies and techniques which reconcile human and natural systems. In some cases we must redefine our needs, integrating them into what nature can provide. In others we must protect nature by creating very distinct human systems which run in parallel. For each problem we must determine which response Gaia 'prefers'. Does it do more damage to grow cotton or wool for textiles (Aral Sea, Highland clearances), or to make textiles out of oil? The petrochemical deposits are an ancient part of the Gaian system (oddly, we owe our oxygen to the fossil fuels). Perhaps pulling some of it out and using it, then burying it in the ground again has little effect (pro rata) on the long term health of the planet.
Even if we had all the solutions, dealing with this vast array of environmental problems all at once would not prove economically sustainable, and few would accept the massive social upheaval. It is only through a genuine understanding of how the planet functions, that we can 'diagnose' the correct priority for environmental change. If we do not prioritise change from the planet's perspective, it will be done according to political or multinational agendas. Prioritisation is the key to success. Just like 'First Aid' - it is important to avoid wasting huge amounts of time and effort on solutions to minor planetary ailments whilst the serious conditions go unchecked. Although Gaia Theory doesn't yet hold all the answers, it is certainly helping us take a fresh look at our questions, and ourselves.
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