From the very beginning, great, fertile, beautiful Mother Earth has provided everything needed for the comfort and luxury of humanity. Her bounteous breasts provide the fruits, grains and the flowers, in their season. She gives birth to and sustains all life., Springtime is green with abundant gasses and trees which spring from her soil and derive their existence from her vitality. In her womb are found the useful and valuable minerals. Hers are the seas which swarm with life. Hers the rivers that furnish food and irrigation, and the mountains which send down the streams which swell these rivers. Hers the rain-forests that give home to millions and millions of life forms and that act as her lungs, cleansing the air and providing needed oxygen.
In the Bible, Adam Kadmon, the first creation of God, calls his wife Eve (Hebrew for “life”) saying, “She is the mother of all life.”
The words mother and matter (or earthly material substance) are the same word in ancient languages.
The myths of the pelican which is said to feed its young from a self-inflicted wound in its own breast, and the phoenix which burns itself alive to provide for its young, are examples of maternal love. In the same way Mother Earth gives birth to all of us, and to all life in general, and sustains us daily with nourishment from her own body.
This great scientific and spiritual truth has been celebrated by religion from the very beginning of time. But, during the fourth century, orthodox Christianity totally embraced the teaching of misogynic religion and the Holy Ghost changed gender from female to male, and Mother Earth ceased to be reverenced, except in the form of the Virgin Mary.
New Agers believe that (as the Bible teaches) the Earth is the Mother of All Life, that all life is one, that all life on the planet is interdependent, and that only in love does life flourish and have meaning.
New Agers believe that the Earth must be kept pure, that the pollution which has taken place is error, and that we have a duty to cleanse the Earth. We also believe that natural foods and medicines are healthier than those which have been processed and manufactured. And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the Earth and he heard a voice from her bowels, saying “Wo, wo, is me, the mother of men. 1 am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest and be cleansed from the filthiness ch is gone forth upon me? When will my creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?”
And when Enoch heard the Earth moum, he wept and cried unto the Lord saying.
0 Lord, wilt thou not have compassion upon the Earth? Wilt thou not bless the children of Noah with righteous understanding?” - The Book of Moses 7.48-49
Gaia was Mother Earth, an ancient primeval goddess who emerged at the creation of the universe, second only to Logos (the primal order). She was depicted as a buxom, matronly woman, shown half risen from the earth, unable to completely separate herself from her element.
The Earth, in the ancient cosmology, was a disk surrounded by the river Oceanos. It was called the foundation of all, because not only trees, men, and animals, but even the hills, sea and the solid dome of the sky were supported by it.
In the early 1960's, James Lovelock was invited by NASA to participate in the scientific research for evidence of life on Mars. This job led him to think about what constitutes life, and how it can be detected. He decided that the most general characteristic of life was that it takes in energy and matter and discards waste products. He also reasoned that organisms would use the planet's atmosphere as a medium for this cyclic exchange, just as we breathe in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. He speculated that life would therefore leave a detectable chemical signature in the Martian atmosphere.
To test his idea, he and a colleague, Dian Hitchcock, began to analyze the chemical makeup of Mars, and compare it with that of the Earth. The results showed a strong contrast. The atmosphere of Mars, like Venus, was about 95% carbon dioxide, with some oxygen and no methane. The Earth was 77% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and a relatively large amount of methane. Mars was chemically dead; all the reactions that were going to take place had already done so. The Earth, however, was far from chemical equilibrium. For example, methane and oxygen will react with each other very easily, and yet they are both present in the atmosphere. Lovelock concluded that for this to be the case the gases must be in constant circulation, and that the pump driving this circulation was life.
About three billion years ago, bacteria and photosynthetic algae started to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, producing oxygen as a waste product. Over enormous time periods, this process changed the chemical content of the atmosphere - to the point where organisms began to suffer from oxygen poisoning! The situation was only relieved with the advent of organisms absorbed this oxygen.
It was life processes, the cumulative actions of countless organisms, that were controlling the atmosphere. And viewed from outer space, the mass effect of these processes was that the Earth itself appeared as a living entity - especially in comparison with its dead neighbors. Lovelock had a sudden realization that the Earth could best be described as an organism:
"For me, the personal revelation of Gaia came quite suddenly - like a flash of enlightenment. I glimpsed Gaia. An awesome thought came to me. The Earth's atmosphere was an extraordinary and unstable mixture of gases, yet I knew that it was constant in composition over quite long periods of time. Could it be that life on Earth not only made the atmosphere, but also regulated it - keeping it at a constant composition, and at a level favorable for organisms?"
Author William Golding suggested the theory should be called Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess. The Gaia Hypothesis was born.
In 1979, Lovelock published his idea.
Key to Lovelock's idea
was his observation that the planet is self-regulating. He knew, for
example, that the heat of the sun has increased by 25% since life began on
Earth, yet the temperature has remained more or less constant. However he
didn't know precisely what mechanisms were behind the regulation. It was
when he began to collaborate with the American microbiologist Lynn
Margulis that the full theory began to take shape. Margulis was studying
the processes by which living organisms produce and remove gases from the
atmosphere. In particular she was examining the role of microbes which
live in the Earth's soil. Working together, they
An example is the carbon dioxide cycle. Volcanoes constantly produce massive quantities of carbon dioxide. Since carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, it tends to warm the planet. If left unchecked, it would make the Earth too warm to support life. While plants and animals take in and expel carbon dioxide through life processes such as photosynthesis, respiration and decay, these processes remain in balance and don't affect the net amount of the gas. Therefore there must be another mechanism.
One process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere is rock weathering, where rainwater and carbon dioxide combine with rocks to form carbonates. Lovelock, Margulis and others discovered that the process is greatly accelerated by the presence of soil bacteria. The carbonates are washed away into the ocean, where microscopic algae use them to make tiny shells. When the algae die, their shells sink to the bottom of the ocean, forming limestone sediments. Limestone is so heavy that it gradually sinks underneath the Earth's mantle, where it melts. Eventually some of the carbon dioxide contained in the limestone will be fed back into the atmosphere through another volcano.
Since the soil bacteria are more active in high temperatures, the removal of carbon dioxide is accelerated when the planet is hot. This has the effect of cooling the planet. Therefore the whole massive cycle forms a feedback loop. Lovelock and Margulis identified a number of other feedback loops which operate in a similar way. An interesting feature of these loops is that, like the carbon dioxide cycle, they often combine living and non-living components.
The importance of biological processes on the planet was pointed out by the Russian scientist Vernadsky, who as early as 1929 said:
"Life appears as a great, permanent and continuous infringer on the chemical 'dead-hardness' of our planet's surface ... Life therefore is not an external and accidental development on the terrestrial surface. Rather, it is intimately related to the constitution of the Earth's crust, forms part of its mechanism, and performs in this mechanism functions of paramount importance, without which it would not be able to exist."
The Gaia Hypothesis immediately created a lot of interest. The idea that the Earth was alive had been expressed several times before, but it gained special resonance in the early 60's because of the space flights which allowed the Earth to be viewed for the first time as a complete entity from outer space. In a way these photographs were to the Gaia idea what computers were to chaos theory—they allowed one to see what was going on, and therefore brought the subject alive to a great many people.
While the Gaia Hypothesis attracted a lot of interest, it also received a great deal of criticism. Lovelock had attached great weight to the idea that the Earth seemed to regulate itself. Some took this to imply that the Earth was behaving with a sense of purpose, that it was a teleological being
Teleology, from the Greek word telos (purpose), asserts that there is an element of purpose or design behind the workings of nature. It is part of a very old debate between mechanists who believe that nature essentially behaves like a machine, and vitalists who believe there is a non-causal life force.
The Gaia Hypothesis is controversial because it touches on the definition of what constitutes life. If we think that life is about the selfish gene, competition, and survival of the fittest, then it is hard to see where the Earth fits in. However, it isn't necessary to think that the Earth is alive in order to appreciate that it is a highly complex system. And, if we say it is alive, why is that so threatening? No one doubts that plants are alive, but they don't do anything nearly as complicated as the Earth does.
Of course, plants are clearly individuals, which go through specific lifecycles. Paradoxically, the organisms which behave most like the Earth are the very smallest - the bacteria. They are potentially immortal, in that they can reproduce for ever. They happily swap genes back and forth. They tend to form communities, such as bacterial mats. Viewed as a single super-organism, they run most of the planet.
Gaia theory has already had a huge impact on science, and has changed the way we view our place in the world. By making us more aware of the damage we are doing to the eco-system, it may also help us to survive. Our experiment with global warming cannot be halted when we are uncomfortable with the effects; by then it may be too late. And once a species is extinct, it cannot be restored. We are just one part of a larger system, and are reliant on that system for our continued existence. We harm it at our peril.
Science is establishing that New Agers are right when they speak of the Earth as an organism, as our mother—the Goddess of Nature, Eve.