Staying in control

Global change will be the defining question of the 21st Century. How does the Earth work and are we now capable of altering major global processes? The upcoming Copenhagen conference will continue that international dialog. The outcomes of these discusssions, resolutions, and international agreements depend on many political, social, economic, and ethical perspectives, but at some levels it come down to what do we believe about the Earth.


What evidence would you want to have, to believe in “strong Gaia” (see the Wikipedia article for strong vs. weak Gaia). What would that belief mean to responding to global climate change? Now think about homeostasis at the ecosystem-level. If we had strong evidence of ecosystem homeostasis relative to, for example, nitrogen deposition on forests (acid rain), what might that lead us to do about acid rain? Would we be more or less upset about the current situation?

4 Responses to “Staying in control”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    The Strong Gaia theory says that the biota on the planet is responsible for creating biologically favorable conditions. Considering the current peril of a percentage of the life on this earth, that does not seem to be the case here. Yes, we, as the biota have conspired to mess with the global climate, but it is not doing us any favors in relation to making things more conducive to life, unless of course our human population has surpassed the carrying capacity of the planet and this is the means of culling our population and making life better on the planet through our mass extinction or extreme reduction in our capitalization of the planet’s resources. In that case, we should do nothing about global climate change and let Gaia wipe us out wholesale to solve the problem we are too immature to resolve ourselves with our big brains and advanced knowledge. One way or another we are going to have to cut it out if WE want to survive comfortably.

    In support of the Strong Gaia theory I am thinking of the model of my rear lawn again. The ground covers became extinct or minimal in the changed environment created by the saplings. The saplings were happy, but the ground cover was wiped out, both are life, but the environments they are happy in or that they create are different enough to exclude one of them. That is still life winning and in this case supporting the Strong Gaia theory as well.

    If we believe in homeostasis it would mean that the forest is part of and connected to an over riding mechanism that can adapt to and handle the onslaught of acid rain or whatever else gets thrown at it and the forest will continue based on complex symbiotic relationships, life will win. We would not worry about the current situation, because the planet takes care of itself. The thing is that homeostasis and Gaia are the same ideas, so just because the forest would thrive, does not mean WE would. We are not guaranteed comfort and happiness or even a place in this life, the only guarantee is that life, the life of the planet, will continue and the homeostasis will be restored. It could be a different homeostasis to the one we have become accustomed to based on the overall well-being of the planet and the best environment for life. What if environmental homeostasis is screwed up because something is wrong in the system? My mother has end stage renal failure, so the illustration I read in Wikipedia of homeostasis showed me exactly why my mother’s kidney failure is a problem in the homeostasis of her own physical body. If there is nothing to filter the toxins out of her blood, then her blood can not get to her bone marrow to complete the renewal process, without the artificial filtration of dialysis she would die.

  2. Ian Raphael says:

    The strong Gaia hypotheses presented in the reading was very interesting. It seems to me the two main perspectives of strong Gaia are more philosophical in nature than anything else. I think the idea of whether there is or isn’t some universal consciousness or that all plants and animal deliberately manipulate their environments will always be debated just like all other philosophical or religious beliefs since the beginning of human history. To me, the evidence I need to confirm these strong Gaia hypotheses is something akin to a miracle. Will we ever know if the entire “Earth is a single unified organism that is consciously manipulating the climate in order to make conditions more conducive to life”? Or “The Earth’s atmosphere is more than merely anomalous; it appears to be a contrivance specifically constituted for a set of purposes”? I doubt it. Scientists and philosophers have yet to confirm many concepts much simpler than these. Both concepts are saying there is some predetermined mechanism in the evolution of the Earth biosphere. To a degree I believe this is true in the sense that there are limited amounts of particles in the universe that obviously can spawn life. But were these particles “created” for this purpose? I don’t know. Anyways, I’m getting on a tangent.

    The bottom line for me is if “biota manipulates their physical environment for the purpose of creating biologically favorable, or even optimal, conditions for themselves” then why have there been mass extinctions and pronounced climatic and geologic periods in earth’s history?

    The weak Gaia principles work much better for me. Co-evolution, adaptation, etc. are more logical and present some realistic approaches in understanding how global systems function and to potential find ways to mitigate negative human impacts.

    If we had information about ecosystem homeostasis for things like acid rain I’m not sure what humans would do. I have a feeling if for example we knew that we have yet to reach a point that would disrupt the homeostasis, we might just keep on going and polluting. While I would love to use the precautionary principle in approaching human impacts on the environment, I rarely see it being put into practice at a societal scale. I am hopeful for the future as we make technological advancement that reduces our overall impact on the environment. By understanding homeostatic processes humans will be better equipped to develop technology that works for rather than against them.

  3. Matt Sayre says:

    Minimally today I believe in “Weak Gaia”. The evidence for this can be provided through analysis of most any specific ecosystem you identify. Analysis of one specific ecosystem will certainly lead to identification of interconnections with other ecosystems which then will lead to an acknowledgement of global interconnectedness. Through analysis of this interconnectedness one will recognize co-evolution and be able to identify the impacts living and non-living elements have on each other. This interconnectedness and individual and cumulative impact are affecting the Earth System and altering its composition. What I question is whether this Earth System is exerting energy to maintain an optimal state or balance. Until recently humans haven’t even acknowledged their impacts on the global system and we haven’t yet begun to exert a significant amount of energy to achieve what we might identify as the optimal state of the Earth and we’re one of the “organs” of Gaia that could potentially have the most significant impact on the system we’re part of. For me to fully believe in “Strong Gaia” I would need to review a summary of evidence of independent interconnected living and non-living elements intentionally exerting energy to maintain optimal conditions for their sustainability. If some self-correcting emergent phenomena will result through Gaia’s homeostasis then maybe humans can continue having a disproportionate impact on the system, but maybe that emergent phenomena will be to quell or enthusiastic waste by eliminating the size of our human population. We just don’t know, so we should embrace the precautionary principle. Sure, we could ignore the acid rain situation and just assume the Earth system’s homeostasis will address that concern, but what if the system’s way of reestablishing balance kills some of our neighbors. It might, we just don’t know. We’re part of a complex system and the interactions among the diversity within that system will result in unpredictable outcomes, but in the face of uncertainty our best option is to proceed with caution. Without being convinced of “Strong Gaia” it is still clear to me that it is in my enlightened self-interest to promote a healthy Earth system. People might find my positions to be anthropocentric, but I just think of them as ecological. I’m alive. I want to stay that way. If I’m alive, I want to be as well off as I can be. Systems are most stable when they are complex and co-evolve with a diversity of elements. I believe it is in my self-interest to co-evolve in a collaborative way that promotes diversity, health, and balance throughout the system I am part of and maximizes the productivity community members of all forms within the system derive from energy inputs into the system while limiting waste outputs that are not utilized productively as an input for another part of the system. I know part of being healthy means being happy and that I will be happiest if I know that my actions are not causing others to suffer, especially other people. This leads me to conclude that it is desirable to share resources and to limit my consumption and the waste I produce so others can have their “fair share” too. That being said, I want to stay alive and if resources become so limited that I do not have enough to keep myself and my loved ones alive then like most other living things I will compete to the death to secure access to those minimally necessary resources. Thankfully as a planet we’re not there yet and hopefully we will never be, but we still have starving people today and that’s inexcusable. To ensure that things don’t get any worse we need to exercise the precautionary principle and invest energy to achieve our system’s “optimal” state as identified using the best information available to us today and the most conservative estimates, even if we don’t believe in “Strong Gaia” theory.

  4. Monika Derrien says:

    Organisms do expend energy in order to manipulate their physical environments in order to improve their living conditions. When birds build nests, people plant vegetables, and groundhog burrows into his hole, they are manipulating their surroundings to serve them better. But what is not agreed upon, is the extent to which organisms can substantially alter their less immediate environments, beyond the local alterations they make on the everyday basis. To what degree can organisms alter the pH of their environments and the chemical and nutrient make up of soils, waters, and the air?

    A belief in “Strong Gaia” would mean that humans (in addition to all other organism) are able to substantially alter (mold, even) global systems. Since humans have burned huge amounts of fossil fuels and raised enormous populations of livestock, contributing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, they have, in fact, been working against the purpose the Gaia theory’s gives humans: “improving living conditions.” But the strong Gaia hypothesis also means that we are capable of altering it “back” to a way that was more conducive to our life on earth. But the processes whereby we can change our global environments are slow – and it is probably less efficient to “undo” changes, especially when those processes now mean extracting and lessening, rather than mindlessly adding.

    In order for me, personally, to believe in “Strong Gaia,” I would want to be able to observe something similar happen on a much smaller scale – an experiment that shows a small parts of the theory, and connects how the small parts can create the big picture. But the strong Gaia hypothesis seems so huge in scale that it would be impossible to tease apart all the cause and effect relationships. This is why the weaker form of the theory is easier to accept – through co-evolution, organisms adapt to their environments, and vice verse. Thinking about it on a small scale, people can’t completely alter their environments; there are limits to our influences, since we also rely on the environment to fulfill all our needs. Our environments alter us as much as we alter them. As pleasing as it would be to accept the all-encompassing view, it seems like too many un-understood leaps would have to be taken in order to fully accept the “Strong Gaia” theory. But, at the same time, even if it does seem far-fetched, the complex interactions between parts of an ecosystem would also seem far-fetched for someone not well acquainted with them.

    The better our understanding of these global processes and the extent to which individual processes affect them, the better we can address the places in which we can improve them (or at least not damage them through human activities). The danger is to become to anthropocentric, and believe that our “power” to change environments is not counter balanced, to a certain degree, by the power of greater ecosystem services. If we had strong evidence of ecosystem homeostasis relative to nitrogen deposition on forests, then we could better gauge what amount of acid rain a forest can compensate for, with its own internal fluctuations, adaptations, and processes. But, in the meantime, it makes sense to err on the side of caution – because even if damage is reversible eventually, the costs of repair and remediation outweigh the costs of caution now.

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