The Gaia Hypothesis

Read this page, which discusses the Gaia hypothesis. Do you believe that the theory holds weight, and that we could observe some of impacts as outlined in the hypothesis?

This teaching unit begins with a conceptual sketch of the Gaia Hypothesis, followed by a way of thinking about teaching found in John Dewey's philosophy of education that meets the challenge of Gaia in the classroom. There follows an outline of how Dewey unites scientific and moral problem solving for developing social policy which is, in turn, made applicable to solving problems in the environment. These ideas are translated into lesson plans, a course outline to integrate the unit into a course in ecology and biodiversity, and finally, analytical scoring rubrics.


1. The Gaia Hypothesis

Up until the last decade, few had thought of planet earth as in any sense alive. True in ancient Greece, Gaia was worshipped as the Goddess of the earth and pantheistic tribes had comparable deities of the earth that magically controlled their lives. An important step in this direction came from ecology where self-sustaining systems were discovered in which energy flowed and a delicate balance was maintained between all the organisms in the local environment. A meadow, a pond, or a forest were described as ecosystems. The abiotic factors were the inorganic or nonliving entities essential to the biotic factors or community of life that sustained each other – the producers, the consumers, and decomposers. Subseguently, James Lovelock in his Gaia Hypothesis suggests that the entire earth is one large ecosystem, homeostatically controlled. Furthermore, he shows that the environment was both created to meet life's needs as much as it has adapted to the conditions of the environment. Indeed life and the non-living are inseparable entities rather as the mind is to the body (1). It was more correct to say that the earth as a whole is self-sustaining, self-renewing, and self-creating. The earth is a living planet. Since life is sacred and encompasses both the biotic and the abiotic, the term Gaia seemed appropriate for the living earth.

We are used to the adage "think globally and act locally". Gaian thinking is really this idea in the fullest sense of its meaning. It is thinking through policies of management of the earth as a whole and to look at all other problems as subsets of this. It is a cybernetic approach to global village management where the problem is basically humans and culture, not nature. It is recognition that in our rape of mother earth, Gaia may dispose of us in the process of a planetary self-correcting homeostatic mechanism before we get to destroy Gaia.

As James Lovelock points out in 'Ages of Gaia', the central concept in the Gaia Hypothesis is homeostasis in which microbes, plants, soil organisms, and aquatic life play an integrated role. They control the flow of carbon, nitrogen, water, and other elements that go to make up life – with the sun turning the cycles at the homeostatically corrected temperature for life and by life. Life started taking control of the environment with the development of the double-helical nucleotides and these genes have driven the experiment of life with the environment as its encompassing cloak. (2)

The key example worked out by Lovelock was thermostatic control of the earth's surface temperature. He used the 'Daisy World' model as theoretical construct to demonstrate his theory. In simple outline, Gaia Hypothesis attributes the creation of earth's peculiar atmosphere to

(A) the stratospheric Carbon Dioxide blanket. When thick temperatures rise; when thin it cools. The ocean acts as a sink for Carbon Dioxide along with the rocks. Trees and cyanobacteria also absorb the gas and generate moisture. The Carbon Dioxide blanket above the stratosphere also keeps the oceans from evaporating away.

(B) For surface temperature to be around 13 degrees Celcius, the preferred average temperature for planetary life, it is necessary to have a correct mix of atmospheric gases. Air has the correct balance of 79% Nitrogen, 20% Oxygen and 0.003% Carbon Dioxide (all other planets have very high Carbon Dioxide and minimal Nitrogen and Oxygen). The Oxygen content comes from photosynthetic activity, the Nitrogen from decomposers (protists, fungi and bacteria). Oxygen forms ozone in the ionosphere and neutralizes ultraviolet radiation to protect life.
(C) The luminosity of the earth is lower and controlled by forest and vegetation (micro/macroflora) on land and in the oceans. When darker the temperature cools and when light the temperature rises (the Albedo factor). (3)

The gene flow of information that we call life, to an evolving experimentation problem-solving creation and adaptation to the environment, has an exponential history of development. It is Gaia's own self-development leading from the origin of the universe as bare energy leading up to higher levels of awareness. The levels of Gaia may be represented in powers of 10 from 4.5 billion years ago to the present generation born 45 years ago. The boxes are different by x10 to the power of 2 years. In the final box we have the highest level of self-awareness, a level that has the power to destroy Gaia – see the diagram opposite and the graph above it describing another exponential development, the human population explosion. We humans, though having evolved to an unprecedented level of self-awareness, have become a cancerous growth – a part of Gaia that is reproducing itself uncontrollably and fast killing its living host – Gaia.

It is the point of view of this teaching unit that Gaia protection is the fundamental starting point for all problem-solving in the environment. Norman Myers points out in "Atlas of Future Worlds", that protection of Gaia needs to be embedded in international law and all human behavior subjected to such a law (4). All other environmental and human problems pale by comparison. Accepting the axiom of the inviolability of Gaia would also help prioritize and suggest acceptable solutions to environmental problems, many of which are being sidetracked because of lack of agreement about what constitutes environmental moral culpability. The following unit then takes this as its a priori and seeks to involve students in the Gaia principle in any and every environmental problem that concerns them. Before developing the practicalities of such an undertaking, it seems necessary that we rethink our pedagogy to make sure that it is adequate to deal with the holistic mode of thinking required by the Gaia hypothesis, and rethinking John Dewey's educational philosophy is our place to begin.


2. Gaia and Education

John Dewey has had a profound influence on American education. The present reforms in science education are almost pure Deweyan. Those earlier reforms instituted in his name were not as successful as hoped but with research and creativity, the integrity of his ideas have been practically realized. However, the fundamentals of his philosophy of education have far-reaching implications that this unit seeks to include.

The first significant relevance is Dewey's own all-encompassing metaphor that he carried to all his ideas about education i.e. the metaphor of life itself. Life is self-renewing, self-adaptive, systemic, and social; hence education must have these characteristics to be effective.

"The most notable distinction between living things and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal".(5) Education is such a process of renewal and transmission of resources that also includes ideas, skills, and so forth for the purpose of continuing life in the environment. Education communicates habits (skills) in doing, thinking, and feeling from generation to generation. The whole range of life's experience is passed on to individuals that enlarges their private experience. The individual 'goes out' of the self to find points of contact with that wider experience, the life of the species. (6)

Education manipulates meanings that have been called for by the need to interact and solve problems, those problems given by history, the present, and the challenge of the future. The ability to respond is natural to us – not an extrinsic capacity to be forced on the unwilling. It is not an act of conditioning but learning to see how ideas come together in a dynamic interplay to achieve some goal. The example Dewey gives to make his point is a baseball game. The game cannot be taught by memorizing rules or sequences of events. These may be used in the process of learning the game, but nothing is learned until the idea of the game is learned. Each of the parts have to come together so that it all makes sense. The test is whether the information works for the individual and they can be creatively used. When this is achieved the individual can demonstrate it and see how all the parts of the game are systemically interconnected to achieve the goal of winning and so forth. In this unit, problems will be thought through in such a 'feedback' loop.

At the heart of education is the idea of growth and this is equally characteristic of life as it moves from inception to death. Dewey's key ideas in this respect are 'reorganizing, reconstructing and transformation'.

Education by contrast is not static and not extrinsic. It is about taking the past into the future with thought, inventiveness and initiative.(7) Gaia problem solving challenges us all to break out of the static 'business as usual' ways of thinking.

The relevance to Gaian thought is that education must be taken out of its abstract and past orientation so as to apply past knowledge to the present and future. We need to move out of the Newtonian universe and move into the contemporary world of nonlinear physics, holistic math, creative chaos, and global cultural dialogue. Education must transcend meeting the interests of the status quo, class (business) privilege, or nationalist self-interest, for the purposes of all life, all of humanity, and for responding creatively to the environment. (8)

As Gaia is sacred and has its own ends and meanings, so also education provides its own interests, its own intrinsic ends. What is intrinsic, however, is open-ended, flexible, responsive, a shared activity, personal, and problem-solving. It is intelligent and springs from the student's own natural intelligence. It is its own discipline.

Dewey does not equate education with mere biological life but with reflective thought within the biological process of living in the environment. The essence of education is thinking within experience. Intelligence is not limited to humans. Humans are more adapted to finding a reflective solution to an environmental problem. Reflective experience or intelligent thought may be summarized as follows and is clearly a generalized scientific way of thinking that can be applied to any kind of experience of any kind.

  1. perplexity, doubt, confusion in a situation (a problem/question)
  2. a tentative interpretation (hypothesis, projected answer)
  3. a careful detailed survey or examination of the experience (observations to clarify the problem)
  4. hypothesis (rational explanation) stated with independent variables (causes) and dependent variables (effects)
  5. test the explanation by effecting a cause to produce an effect or in other words, live the thought within an experience to see if it gives integrity or coherence to the event. (9)

Methodology in teaching is then no more nor less than the method of intelligent thinking. Students cannot learn this unless they participate in an event that requires active reflection. It cannot be isolated from the world but part and parcel of an action that becomes part of a growing world of experience. Books bring that accumulation of global experience to the student but it has to become a direct experience to become meaningful. The task of the teacher is to help mediate 'universal' and private experience.

In Dewey's major opus 'Democracy and Education', he elaborates the above in terms of the various disciplines – geography, history, humanities, science, and so forth (10). He also apples it to the social spirit, the essence of morality. In the following teaching unit, we will focus more of the implication of his educational theory to ethics and problem solving, particularly as they relate to environmental crises of Gaian proportions. The relevance of Dewey's pedagogy above will be highlighted too.


3. Developing a Social Policy

From the reasoning above, a teaching methodology will develop out of the steps needed to think intelligently when confronted by some aspect of the environment that we experience or live in. It is essentially scientific but since we are developing social policy we are also operating at a moral level of reasoning. Can such a methodology work for moral reasoning? In my teaching unit on genetics (YNHTI 1996), I set out Dewey's arguments for the appropriateness of scientific reasoning when making ethical judgments. His key justifications are as follows:

  1. Moral judgments, as science, deals with time and space since both concern antecedents and consequences.
  2. In both science and morality, universals are abstracted out of particular events and actual contexts. Both concern universal 'laws' that only mean anything as predicators in actual situations.
  3. Science and morality both concern judgments on experiences that require reflection and then action to test theoretical understandings. These are tested as events involving some action, the results of which are used to confirm or deny the validity of the prior reflections and judgments.
  4. Science demands that reason be subjected to the hard knocks of experience. Similarly morality must justify itself in terms of actual experienced problems. Neither can hide behind appeals to transcendence independent of experience if they are to claim to be true.
  5. Both science and morality involve feeling awareness, rational cognition and action to test validity of the relationship between feeling and thought. Feeling awareness in both science and morality is attention to some aspect of the immediacy of experience that calls forth sentient interest, goals and vision of possibilities (in morality, love is an example of this). Cognition consists of logical connections in experience based on cause and effect. Objective thought in morality and science comes from acting out this reasoning within the environment (in morality, moral principles are reasoning within an experience such as love). If the consequences of action meet those expected by reason and those desired by the original feeling awareness (that drew one's attention to this aspect of the environment in the first place) then both science and morality have reasonable grounds for objectivity.
  6. Since methodology of making scientific and moral judgments are analogous, then the use of the following scientific or intelligent method of making social policies to solve problems in the environment are legitimated.

To simplify the above, we may use the life-skills problem-solving schema described below that all teachers in New Haven Public Schools are expected to use, where applicable, across all academic disciplines. What follows is a practical application of this applied to the population crisis.

(i) Defining the Problem

a. Population is the root cause of pollution and since population increases exponentially so pollution is increasing exponentially and so necessarily uncontrollably.

b. Pollution of air, water, and soil means loss of available resources for the expanding population.

c. Population drives consumption that depletes resources and prevents a balanced or sustainable economy with the environment. It drives the need for synthetics and the need for garbage disposal that further pollutes and cuts back on available land and resources.

d. Population increase drives the need to use mass farming techniques such as mono-genetic crops and pesticides that only increases productivity of crop production in the short term. It increases the risk of loss of protection from pests in the future and toxicity to life in general. In the process, further environmental damage threatens the existing level of human population.

e. Population increase means reduction of forests to provide fuel and more cultivated land, more houses and recreational space, etc. Loss of forests threatens global homeostatic control of global temperature.

If the temperature goes up there is flooding and increased rate of desertification, if the temperature goes down, there is a movement towards a glacial age. In either case, there is more land lost to farming.

f. Increase in population means increased dependence upon oil and other imported goods that decreases national security and so increases military expenditure that reduces resources available for feeding the population etc

g. Increase in population ultimately threatens all environmental treaties because the struggle for survival will justify governments to abandon them, that then in turn may lead to qualitative leaps in environmental destruction, and as such possibly lead to death of Gaia or devastating loss of human life to levels below existing population.

(ii) Hypothetical Solutions

a) Give tax and social benefits as incentives to 2 children families and penalties for exceeding this number.

b) Require all synthetics to be either biodegradable or able to be recycled on a sustainable basis.

c) Agribusiness must justify all management and farming policies based upon long term sustainable policies, organic solutions to pest and preservation of genetic diversity in the environment.

d) Enforcement of 'greenbelts' around all forest and woodlands. Cutting of trees must not threaten a complex ecosystem in which they live.

e) Reduce dependence upon foreign imports to reduce military expenditure. Reduce foreign debt by limiting profits that can be made on loans.

f) Support an international economic order that requires foreign trade to be based upon the best use of natural resources consistent with local climate or distinctive biome needs.

g) Give priority to all plans that address issues solving systemic problems.

(iii) Determine what criteria would be used to deem plans/solutions as good/bad or better/worse. (controlling variables).

The task is now to anticipate consequences of the hypothetical solutions that have been imagined. In this case, we are interested in:

  1. outcomes for the government, state or wider community material or nonmaterial.
  2. outcomes for those immediately involved.
  3. outcomes for extended family and others directly affected.
  4. anticipated outcomes based upon research into comparable situations, for example China.
  5. anticipate costs to different sectors of the economy and ways to deal with this.

(iv) Procedure/Materials/Presentation of Data.

Choose the best hypothetical plan and fully write out how it would be implemented with list of resources and costs incurred. Plan data tables, graphs, and so forth to determine how outcomes can be measured and presented.

(v) Conclusion

Recommend implementing the plan that appears to offer the best outcomes. Point out limitations and expected arrears for refinement.

Source: Stephen Beasley-Murray,
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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 6:45 PM