Bruce Clarke reviews Stephan Harding’s Animate Earth and James Lovelock’s recent book on Gaia, the mother of all systems.
Systems theory often seems counter-intuitive. The problem is not with the behavior of systems, but with the conceptually antiquated nature of our intuitions. For instance, typically, “negative” stands to “positive” as deleterious stands to desirable. In the operation of systems, however, negative functions can be desirable and positive ones deleterious. Take feedback: negative feedback generally produces beneficial self-regulation, positive feedback destructive runaway amplification. Closely related to circular functions like feedback is a distinction between “openness” and “closure.” Most of us are politically programmed to laud all things “open” and shun that which is “closed.” But when it comes to the self-regulation of systems through negative feedback, only a “closed loop” will do. Again, “top-down” typically connotes a dictatorial, hierarchical, or undemocratic power structure, whereas “bottom-up” connotes participatory and egalitarian arrangements. However, in a wider analysis of systems, “top-down” names a holistic perspective attuned to emergent behaviors and protective of the integrity of what is being observed, whereas “bottom-up” names a reductionist perspective that takes things to pieces and considers them to be nothing more than the sum of their parts.
At 87, James Lovelock is hale enough to deliver vigorous public addresses, such as his lectures this fall at Stanford University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, drawn from his most recent book, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. The originator of the Gaia hypothesis in the early 1970s, which by now has unfolded into the vigorous research program of Gaia theory and its mainstream variant, Earth System Science, Lovelock’s life work promotes a major change in the way we think about the relationship of life on Earth to the Earth. Regrettably, as a systems theorist of global proportions, too much of what Lovelock says is still misperceived as erroneous because counter-intuitive.
“At last, but maybe too late,” Lovelock writes, “we begin to see that the top-down holistic view, which views a thing from outside and asks it questions while it works, is just as important as taking the thing to pieces and reconstituting it from the bottom up” (8). Gaia theory gathers biology, geology, geochemistry, geophysics, and meteorology into a mature systems science that contains while surpassing the reductivist programs dominant since the 17th century. It is not that Lovelock is responsible for the rise of the systems paradigm, which has its roots in multiple developments that coalesced in the emergence of cybernetics at mid-20th century. But Gaia theory draws systems theory to a millennial head with global environmental consequences.
Perhaps you’ve heard, and may even believe, as Lovelock does, that our civilization is in peril unless we deal with global heating effectively and punctually while time remains to mitigate the damage already done - not to the planetary environment alone, nor to biodiversity alone - but to the current set of geobiological conditions, which have for so long (in human if not geological reckoning) been so favorable for the flourishing of our species. Gaia - the global system that so beautifully emerges from the inextricable interpenetration of the biota with the seas, the skies, and the rocks - will survive us, but not in her present form. Her “revenge” will be to shake us off for having perturbed her into a steamier state, one that we will be able to abide only by migrating in much diminished numbers to the poles. While The Revenge of Gaia is not the best source for a full grounding in Gaian science - for that one can now refer to Stephan Harding’s Animate Earth, which I discuss later - what Lovelock’s latest book does provide is the most pressing explanation for why one should educate oneself about Gaia theory.
In this text Lovelock reviews how the systems perspective of Gaian science leads to a physiological sense of the Earth’s self-regulation. Gaia theory teaches that “We have to think of Gaia as the whole system of animate and inanimate parts” (15), that from the co-evolution of living systems with the totality of their terrestrial environment, Gaia emerged as a meta-system of planetary self-regulation maintaining viable conditions of atmospheric composition, temperature, oceanic pH and salinity, and of the global distribution of organic nutrients such as nitrogen, sulfur, and potassium. The biosphere performs like any living organism with a complement of homeostatic feedback mechanisms for maintaining geophysiological functions at healthy levels. Gaia theory is an indispensable framework for thinking about global climate change because it is only by recognizing Gaia’s multi-systemic self-regulation that we can fully understand what we are now facing - the imminent failure of those regulating systems.
Gaia theory takes one beyond engrained and unhelpful modes of linear thinking. The Goldilocks notion that the temperate conditions we have enjoyed for millennia are the passive abiotic outcome of an Earth at a “just right” distance from the sun is seriously naïve. According to Lovelock, those conditions are the ongoing homeostatic product of Gaian negative feedback over three billion years maintaining cooling mechanisms against the sun’s inexorable physical evolution so far producing a 37 per cent increase in solar luminosity since the formation of the planet, and a 25 per cent increase since the appearance of life. Moreover, the ice ages preceding the rise of human civilization were not climatic aberrations, but just the opposite: “The usual state of the Earth at present is an ice age. The recent crop of glaciations the geologists call the Pleistocene is, I think, a last desperate effort by the Earth system to meet the needs of its present life forms” (45). Lovelock reads the sequence of interglacial periods during the Pleistocene as oscillations indicating a regulating system already under considerable stress.
Similarly, additional CO2 and methane in the atmosphere will produce not merely a proportional amount of greenhouse warming. Rather, “The great Earth system, Gaia, when in an interglacial period as it is now, is trapped in a vicious cycle of positive feedback, and this is what makes global heating so serious and so urgent… . Nearly all the systems known to effect climate are now in positive feedback. Any addition of heat from any source will be amplified, not resisted” (7, 34). In other words, with the loss of the global cooling effects (negative feedback) of reflective (high-albedo) environments such as the polar ice caps, if the infusions of solar heating retained within the biosphere due to the gain of greenhouse gases were vocalists on a world stage and Gaia were the operator of the sound system, there would now be an increasingly painful screeching coming out of the loudspeakers. So how do we dial the volume down?
Here is where The Revenge of Gaia offers cold comfort, relative for instance to the manageable inconveniences of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Lovelock’s current outlook is grim: “Our aim now should be to try for the least hot future world” (74). The chill begins with the first sentence of the Preface: “One of the hardest tasks we face in life is to be the bearer of seriously bad news” (xiii). But seriously, after all the rest of the mayhem we’ve merrily wreaked over the centuries upon ourselves and our planetmates, what else should we expect? Anthropogenic global heating is a perfect storm. Out of myopic fear of monetary losses, multinational corporations and their industries will not voluntarily change their ways. Rotten with corporate influence over uninformed populations, megapolluting industrial Western democracies will not push for policies perceived as unduly burdensome. Add to that Lovelock’s withering critiques of standard green solutions, “sustainable developments” that persist in destroying rural habitats to service unmodified urban habits, such as biofuel agribusiness and wind farms: “We have to realize that cutting back emissions of greenhouse gases is only part of what we have to do; we have also to stop using the land surface as if it was ours alone. It is not: it belongs to the community of ecosystems that serve all life by regulating the climate and chemical compositions of the Earth” (109).
Lovelock confesses that his particular antipathy to wind farms stems from personal concerns over the destruction such installations would wreak in his backyard, an already cramped and fragmented South English landscape. This instance of special pleading aside, however, his larger arguments about the pervasive misplacement of environmental concerns and misguidedness of many current green policies are sobering to say the least. Lovelock skewers cancer panics and environmental overreactions - for instance, the harm done to third-world hygiene by banning DDT altogether rather than just its first-world agricultural abuse. “The irony of it all is that we in the developed world are the prime polluters, the most destructive of people on the planet, yet although we have the money and the means to prevent the Earth crossing the deadly threshold that will make global change irreversible, we are hampered by fear” (99). Lovelock drops his most iconoclastic H-bomb directly on green pieties regarding nuclear energy: “deterring nuclear warfare between the superpowers … was a twentieth-century problem… . What we now face is much more deadly: the return to a new hot age. Ironically, if this happens, anti-nuclear advocacy will have hastened it” (96-97). Shortsighted fears of localized radioactive contamination are preventing environmental lobbies from acquiescing to the best available short-term option for saving the global environment from greenhouse Armageddon, “while looking for a future when, having served our need, it can be replaced by clean energy from other sources” (104).
If nothing else, The Revenge of Gaia should generate serious debate over the merit of Lovelock’s contentions, while we otherwise rise from our various dogmatic slumbers and get real about leaving a world fit for our children to survive in. “Religious and humanist beliefs which regard the Earth as there to be exploited for the good of humankind” (3) will need to be left aside if our other vaunted human accomplishments are to remain in Gaia’s good graces. Toward the end of his book, Lovelock reflects on how effective change in our ways of life will depend on a change of heart toward the world we inhabit:
If it should be that we have already passed the threshold of irreversible heating, then perhaps we should listen to the deep ecologists and let them be our guide. One of them that I know well as a friend is the biologist Stephan Harding, and I am indebted to him for making me aware of deep ecology. This small band of deep ecologists seem to realize more than other green thinkers the magnitude of the change of mind needed to bring us back to peace within Gaia, the living Earth. (154)
Harding holds a doctorate in ecology from Oxford. His own treatment of Gaia theory, Animate Earth: Science, Intuition, and Gaia, has recently been published in the U.K. by Green Books and in the U.S. by Chelsea Green under the new imprint of Sciencewriters Books, co-directed by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. The laudatory foreword in the U.S. edition by renowned microbiologist Margulis provides important scientific ratification for a work that aims to “give the more-than-human world a status equal to that of human beings and to the works of the best human creative genius.” Harding continues: “I cannot prove the equivalence; my intuition and my deep experience of awe and wonder tell me that this is the case. Unless you have had similar insights, no amount of rational argument will convince you, for we are not talking about utility, but about sanctity” (224).
Lovelock’s books consistently express astonishment and perhaps some embarrassment that his Gaia ideas, born from the secular coupling of hard cybernetics to the natural sciences, should have been met with an immediate and sustained chorus of moral if not always intellectual support from spiritually-oriented readers, from orthodox Anglicans to neopagan Goddess worshippers. This extra-scientific nimbus radiated by the rhetorical ambience of “Gaia” is a fascinating component of its total cultural history, but it predictably stirred up skepticism among its critics and gave fits to its scientific supporters. Speaking to geneticist and broadcaster David Suzuki in “Lovelock’s Gaia,” a Canadian TV documentary, Lovelock commented that even Margulis, early in their crucial collaboration on the Gaia hypothesis, tried to talk him out of hanging that unnecessary burden on his scientific initiative.
But he was not to be dissuaded from his mythological gambit, and one might see in his younger colleague Harding’s scientifically-informed deep-ecological “new animism” an important resolution of the cultural tensions that persist between scientific rationalism and sacral intuition. For Harding earns his Gaia discourse of panpsychic sanctity precisely by deriving it through the science he narrates. Harding bears a strong incipient glimmer of a development Margulis and Sagan limn at the end of their magisterial work of popular biological exposition, What is Life?: “The facts of life, the stories of evolution, have the power to unite all peoples… . The most meaningful story of existence for future humanity is more likely to come from the evolutionary worldview of science than from Hinduism, Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, or Islam. The dual understanding of scientific enquiry and creation myth could become a single view: a science tale rich both in verifiable fact and personal meaning” (218).
But even as recently as 1995, when these sentiments were first published, one was not unduly uncertain whether there would even be a “future humanity” to worry about such things. Like The Revenge of Gaia, Harding’s Animate Earth is composed in full confrontation with the dire climate trends that have been confirmed beyond reasonable doubt only in the last five years. In this context, as I have already argued, Gaia theory becomes much more than a systems-theoretical curiosity, it becomes a lifeline to the very possibility of a future. Despite such pressures, Harding introduces himself as a reluctant narrator: “The translation from the oral to the written mode of communication has been a challenging task.”
Harding’s comfort zone would be the university classroom and environs of Schumacher College in Devon, England, where he directs the MSc program in Holistic Science. “Gaia awakens for me when I dance her complex cycles and feedback loops into life, when I write her chemistry on a board with adoring hands.” Some readers will have already begun to resist, skeptical that an author professing himself more at home with the animated choreography of Gaian adoration will have much of “objective” value to impart. But Harding puts his cards directly on the table: his concern throughout Animate Earth is to balance the explanation of scientific information, “cycles and feedback loops,” with the ethical understanding born of “intimacy and connection with what has been explained” (13).
Harding is a seasoned science teacher; at times his figures and anecdotes may strike an unsympathetic ear as classroom gimmicks. “Hydrogen is an airy, flippant creature which would love nothing better than to escape our planet altogether… . Oxygen is the passionate Italian of the chemical world” (93-94). He parcels out these corny tropes with enough regularity to keep vivid his deeper theses about “chemical beings,” the distribution of non-human sentience in the material universe and terrestrial biosphere, but not, in my estimation, to the point of a counter-productive preciousness. Rather, one eventually gets into the swing of the ethos it implies. Thanks to Harding’s pedagogy I have a much better grasp and enhanced intuition of what’s objectively involved in the chemical bonding of organic molecules than before reading his book, over and above a deeper openness to the ethical personhood of the non-human world.
Animate Earth is important because Harding walks its swaying rhetorical tightrope with grace and poise to spare, at many moments with moving poetic force, and brings the narrative to his destination, the mutual enhancement of vital scientific ideas and crucial ethical recognitions. The success of his discursive gamble (above and beyond Lovelock’s Gaia gambit, which he has absorbed and transformed) is all the more important because, with global ecological disaster closer than anyone had thought up till the end of the last millennium, it seems beside the point to quibble about pedagogical methodology and ontological niceties. Yes, in order to diagram the sort of holism involved in “holistic science,” Harding elicits the “mandala” of Jungian wholeness, with its compass points of thinking, sensing, feeling, and intuition. This is not science; it is another serviceable heuristic device, and Harding’s discussion does not commit one to the further armatures of Jungian archetypalism. Rather, it prompts one to admit that there may be something to be said for the vision of a culture in better psychological balance.
And yes, more troubling for myself personally, Harding does invest in a corresponding “phenomenological” rhetoric of immediacy, whereby “sensation and intuition are perceptive in that they make us aware of what is happening without interpretation or evaluation” (30). I imagine that many readers coming from the intellectual wings of cultural theory would consider this formulation epistemologically suspect. Devotees of second-order systems theory would point out that key developments in the same systems sciences that provide access to Gaian insights also indicates the operational closure of any observing system (there’s the closure idea again). Sensation, perception, intuition: these are in all cases internal constructions of psychic systems for which the only possible kinds of relations to their environments and to the other systems they contain are mediated ones, and the structure of those mediations is such as ineluctably to “interpret or evaluate” whatever noumena manage to arise in our awareness as phenomenological constructions.
Take the italicized sections that occur throughout Animate Earth. Harding explains that they “contain text that embodies an intuitive, experiential approach to Gaia. Some are contemplative, other give you things to think about, others relate my own personal deep experiences of the natural world, and yet other encourage you to be reflective about Gaia” (14). Essentially, they are textbook exercises in active imagination. Here’s an example:
Journey to the Mitochondria
Find a quiet place to relax - your Gaia place perhaps - and spend some time breathing quietly. When you are ready, tune into the feeling of your own body… . Be aware of what you see, hear, taste, and smell as you relax.
Now shrink yourself down smaller and smaller, until you become small enough to pass easily through one of the pores in the multitude of cells that make up your liver. You are inside a liver cell, looking around at the stunning complexity and intricacy of the structures surrounding you… . (167)
On the facing page is “Figure 38: A nucleated cell showing its complex organization, including mitochondria, the descendents of ancient free-living bacteria” (166). In charming sections such as these, Harding is using meditative and literary techniques to embody and enrich the cognitive absorption of scientific information. Breathe deeply, and then imagine how many more scientifically-literate citizens there would be if all mainstream textbooks did the same. In my theoretical idiom, I call it a confluence of astute social communication and guided epistemological construction, for which the crucial consideration is not the absence (which is not possible) but the quality of the mediations at work
So I think that Harding’s radical materialism - its paradoxical blend of the elemental and the psychical - would be better served by the epistemological constructivism developed in the second-order systems theories associated with Gregory Bateson, Heinz von Foerster, and Niklas Luhmann. But let us set that debate aside for another time. For the crisis we’re already in right now, only a formidable cultural change of heart will do. While the right kind of science is indispensable, it is also not enough just to know it. We have to feel it, and for that, Harding’s particular constructions of ecological epiphany do have the merit of a certain traditional familiarity. Deep in our pitiful evangelical or postmodern, theistic and/or humanistic souls, we need to be Gaia’ed, as Harding winningly puts it. We need to be interpenetrated spiritually with the more-than-human geological and biological “cycles and feedback loops” that keep the Earth fit for life. Perhaps then we will accept the discomforts of fitting our ways of life to the environmental conditions we have created, enough to salvage a sustainable piece of the modern world. Otherwise, stick a fork in it - we’re cooked.
Through solid systems science Harding argues to a “new animism,” the reconstruction of a vision of our place on earth that binds us to the apprehension of a living, and hence potentially dying, world. One is to read the term “animate” in his title as both adjective and verb. Gaia theory gives us to understand both the literal propriety of the adjective and the ethical imperative of the verb. “Gaia is Earth personified” (39), not merely rhetorically but in the infinitely complex reality of its self-regulatory geobiological metabolism. Why haggle over whether the biosphere as a systemic totality of the biota, rocks, air, and seas is literally “alive” or figuratively “life-like”? With Margulis I prefer to call it “autopoietic.” In any event, see it as deeply “animate” and so worthy of love and protection, and move on to the more important issues of how to enact that moral relationship. Or, if you prefer a hard “extramoral” construction, use Nietzsche’s idiom to call the Gaian imperative the pursuit of a necessary fiction. In either case, Gaian science provides the both the explanation and the understanding of systematic global interconnectedness through which the grim predictions of current climate models gain both rational conviction and persuasive force.
A key success of Animate Earth is its powerful and sustained presentation of the specifics of Gaian systems science. Gaia is precisely, like any individual organism but more so, a super-system, a system of systems of systems. This is both hard-headed natural science and the key to the way that all things human - from individual minds and feelings to every artifact of social commerce and communication - are always already more than human, are looped into the global and cosmic whole. Harding meticulously expounds and brilliantly illuminates the science of emergence - cycles, feedback loops, structural couplings, emergent behaviors arising out of nested interdependencies - specifically as that science is exemplified by Gaian interrelationships - the carbon cycle, the sulfur cycle, the phosphorus cycle, the atmospheric and oceanic loops that course through the geological continents and play upon the tectonic currents. He provides meditative instructions guiding the Gaian imagination through every loop of each complex cycle, and as a result, systems science comes out of discursive abstraction and takes on flesh and blood. Throughout this book Harding tells “science tales rich both in verifiable fact and personal meaning,” and it is around campfires such as this one that we just might find our way out of the gathering climatic darkness.
Harding, Stephan. Animate Earth: Science, Intuition, and Gaia. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2006.
Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. What is Life? Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
In a general introduction to Critical Ecologies circa 2006, thread editor Andrew McMurray offers a similar reversal, when he asks readers of this journal whether they fit the profile of the ‘new physiocrat,’ the present embodiment of positivism in critical writing.
Carolyn Merchant’s treatment of Gaia in Earthcare was discussed by Stacy Alaimo in the initial 1997 Critical Ecologies.
Clarke discusses media theory, a distinct but related facet of systems theory, in his review of Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.