Speaking Sustainability: The Gaia Hypothesis

Speaking Sustainability: The Gaia Hypothesis

As we head into a new economic era, one thing that remains at the forefront of plans for the future is that of sustainability. Short-term priorities and lack of corporate responsibility have for too long, contributed to a changing climate that is increasingly cause for concern.

Could changing the way we consume, create and cultivate start with changing our perspective of our place in the world? The Gaia Hypothesis could hold the answer.


What is The Gaia Hypothesis?

The Gaia Hypothesis was first proposed by British independent scientist, environmentalist and futurist James Lovelock. It postulates that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.

Lovelock named the idea after Gaia – the primordial goddess who personified the earth in Greek mythology. In the 1970s the theory was co-developed by microbiologist Lynn Margulis, and the pair were awarded the Wollaston Medal for their work in 2006, courtesy of the Geological Society of London.


A holistic symbiosis

Gaia hypothesis suggests that organisms co-evolve with their environment: “they influence their abiotic environment, and that environment in turn influences the biota by Darwinian process”.

In 1995 Lovelock’s second book gave evidence of this by illustrating the evolution of early microorgnisms to more complex life forms, in tandem with the trajectory towards an oxygen-enriched environment. Photosynthetic activity by bacteria during Precambrian times completely modified the Earth atmosphere to turn it aerobic. According to a collective of scientific research, this co-evolution is believed to be brought about by “micro-forces” and biogeochemical processes.

This is different from the prevailing view that the factors which stabilise the characteristics of a period are an undirected emergent property, or entelechy of the system. For example, as each species pursues its own interest, their combined actions may have counterbalancing effects on environmental change. The overarching Gaia hypothesis has given birth to various differing branches. In some versions of Gaia philosophy, all lifeforms are considered part of one single living emergent entity – namely the planet Earth.

At the core of the concept is the idea that Gaia is a complex, self-regulating system involving the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrospheres, and pedosphere – which seek a physical and chemical environment optimal for contemporary life. Gaia evolves through a cybernetic feedback system operated unconsciously by plants and animals, leading to homeostasis.

This kind of relationship has previously been observed in fields such as biogeochemistry and Earth system science. The originality of the Gaia hypothesis relies on the assessment that this homeostatic balance is actively pursued with the goal of keeping the optimal conditions for life, even when terrestrial or external events menace them.


Evaluating the evidence

As with most paradigm-shifting propositions, the hypothesis has caused controversy in environmental science. It was initially criticised for being teleological, and against the principles of natural selection. The theory of evolution is commonly misunderstood to be about competition over collaboration.

Darwin understood that evolution is the story of how different species developed increasingly better methods of collaborating. However it is a perspective that has become slightly lost amongst the cut-throat ethos of a competitive market place, corrupt political landscape, and a culture that worships individual success.

In response to some of the criticism, Lovelock developed a virtual simulation of the system called Daisy World. This was based on a mathematical model in which ecological competition underpinnned planetary temperature regulation. This looked at the energy budget of a planet populated by two different types of plant – black daisies and white daisies.

The daisies had different properties owing to their colours. White daisies reflected the light and had the effect of cooling the planet, while black daisies absorbed light and warmed the planet. The black daisies grew best at lower temperatures, while the white daisies grew best at higher temperatures.

As the climate naturally rose closer to the levels that white daisies preferred, they out-produced the black daisies, leading to a larger % surface area and increased reflection of light – which eventually led to a cooling of the planet. As the temperature then fell backwards, the black daisies began to out-prodce the white daisies, absorbing more sunlight and warming the planet. Demonstrating that the temperature will thus converge to the value at which the reproductive rates of the plants are equal.

As is the case within the systems of living organisms themselves, a process of positive and negative feedback is at play in homeostasis -self-regulated balance. The virtual model also showed that if the energy output of the sun changes, the percentage of white and black daisies would continually change to keep the temperature at the value at which the plants’ reproductive rates are equal, allowing both life forms to continue to thrive.

This is of course an oversimplified version of the system. Lovelock’s book poses 3 main arguments for Gaia on a greater scale: 1) that earth is an extremely favourable habitat for life 2) that life has greatly altered the planetary environment, including the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the sea; and 3) that Earth’s environment has remained fairly stable over geological time.


Shifting symbiosis

There’s no denying that technological advancement has vastly improved our overall standards of living, but somewhere along the way, we have forgotten, and become increasingly disconnected from our roots. We do not exist in isolation as a species, biologically sharing a symbiotic relationship with the wider world, from the bacteria that inhabit our gut, to the constant air exchange with the foliage around us.

Symbiotic relationships take 3 main forms: Mutualism where both parties benefit, Commensalism where only one species benefits while the other is neither helped nor harmed, and Parasitism where one organism gains while the host is suffers.

Humans are arguably at a stage where our symbiosis with the environment, and occasionally each-other, has become Parasitic, we have reduced mortality not just with antibiotics (which microbes eventually develop resistance against), but also by drawing down on natural resources at rates exceeding those of natural replenishment.

Resilience theorists would say we are entering the ‘release phase’ of the adaptive cycle that characterises systemic development: ‘a rapid, chaotic period during which capitals (natural, human, socials, built and financial) tend to be lost and novelty can succeed.’

Forgoing out-dated systems that no longer serve us and switching to models of better business and innovation can benefit us, but we need to act fast. One of the main challenges to this restructure and the relatively slow pace of change, considering that such suggestions have been on the table for over a decade, is overcoming the feeling of powerlessness and processes that cement the status quo.

Laying the groundwork for reorganisation will require building resilience and purpose into all our social structures and infrastructures in the decades ahead. Re-designing how we do business requires placing a common goal before our individual needs and becoming a part of something greater than ourselves.

This mind-set shift is described in ‘The Infinite Game’ by Simon Sinek, which details the need to define the cause, build trusting teams, and continually make courageous decisions as part of this process. Businesses such as those in the B Corp movement, find themselves at the forefront of such change, by nurturing an environment that brings like-minded spirits and enterprise under one roof, inspiring and enhancing creativity, as well as legitimising efforts to adhere to strong social and environmental standards.

Changes at the individual level are of equal importance. When there are two main means of survival on the collaboration-competition spectrum: to react with fear, separation, malice and selfishness in times of scarcity, or to get to know our neighbours, share the sacrifice, remember our place as organisms that are part of a larger whole, and to collectively work towards a better future for all, the choice is ours to make.

Up until recently, competition in the face of scarcity was one of few viable options. Today’s technology allows us to innovate and create new ones – abundance is an option. We have the potential to be a regenerative presence in ecosystems and the biosphere; the remedy could start with something as simple and profound as hope.

Cover art by Sara Shakeel