Looking for Gaia (Part 1)

With the IPCC’s recent report on climate change and the seeming inevitability of further temperature rises I thought it might be worth revisiting some of my earlier writing on environmentalism. Whilst I don’t actually mention it that much these days radical ecology is actually of the things that’s at the keystone of my political philosophy. I’ve somewhat moved away from the more utopian ideas I had, partly due to an acknowledgement of the fact that there’s a certain amount privilege that’s required to consider divesting from certain forms of technological innovation and production. However, I thought I’d post some of the ideas which I’m still working through that are perhaps are slightly more relevant.

In the wake of James Lovelock’s latest interview with The Guardian which appeared to go back on several of the claims made in his, by now classic book on climate change ‘Revenge of Gaia’, it could be said that many of the theories put forward in the book now faced an uncertain future. Particularly in the face of critics who had already struggled with Lovelock’s hypothesis of the Earth as a self-regulating organism.

However, despite these latest revelations, I believe there’s still much that can be learnt from Lovelock’s teachings and in my article for contributors week I hope to explore some of the theories put forward by Lovelock that still could have relevance when we think about the future, and our time on Earth.

Much of the original criticism levelled at Gaia appeared to come from scientists who believed Lovelock’s descriptions appeared to hold more in common with neo-pagan religion than biological science and indeed, the term Gaia has its roots in Greek mythology. However, the key element of the Gaia hypothesis is the idea of self-regulation and not as many suspected mere personification\defication of the planet and there were several key scientific observations which backed this particular concept. 

Scientific inquiry into the nature of the carbon cycle has revealed several organisms which aid in the precipitation, solution and fixation of carbon dioxide. Just last year the Max Planck Institute published a paper detailing lichens, mosses and algae contribution to carbon fixation. They found that algae, moss and lichen were responsible for removing approximately 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the environment and approximate 50 million tons of nitrogen per year1. The main factor in the growth of these plants is carbon dioxide, and early last year a study was published in the natural geographic which illustrated how high C02 levels lead to a rapid upsurge in moss growth and a subsequent fall in global temperatures2. A report from 2007, suggested the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the current environment was causing a similar effect in algal blooms3.

Oceanic salinity has also remained at a constant level, of around 3.4%4, and this has been maintained despite the influx of salt from rivers. A stable level of salinity is important as most organisms cannot tolerate a salinity above 5%. Determining an exact process for the regulation of oceanic salinity has been a focus of marine biogeochemists for years and whilst the substantial role that biological process plays, has previously been acknowledged the possibility that the biota, or the plant and animal life of a particular region, is part of a self-regulation process has not previously been explicitly stated. Professor Lee Kump, delved into this theory in his paper ‘Self Regulation of Oceanic Composition By The Biosphere’. This discussed the settling of biogenic particles from surface waters and the subsequent remineralization of deep water as the biogenic particle absorbs nutrients and trace metals from the surface, a mechanism described as the ‘biological pump’. 

Gaia Theory also stated that Earth’s atmospheric composition, that is the various elements that make up the composition of the atmosphere including Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon and other minor constituents5, has remained roughly the same due to the presence of living entities. This differs from planets that do not contain life forms as they rely on chemical equilibrium to maintain a stable atmosphere. With oxygen being one of the most reactive elements after fluorine, in most circumstances, it should combine with all of the abiotic components of the earth’s ecosystem. Instead, minute trace gases such as methane exist as part of the Earth’s atmosphere instead of combining with oxygen6 to form other gases.

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