Next Up: Gaianism

Preamble Environmentalism has had its day and I myself have been privileged to see it come and go. I was there during its heyday in the early 1970s and I was still there in the 2010s after its expiry date had long since passed. Now the world has entered the Pandoracene and it’s time for at least some of us to leave Environmentalism aside and take up Gaianism in its stead.

First Approximation


et’s face it. Environmentalism tried to save humanity from itself but failed. There are as many reasons for this as there are environmentalists; but certainly high on the list is cognitive dissonance, that is, a general failure on the part of environmentalists to practice in their private lives what they preached from the public podium, namely, responsible engagement with the Living World That Sustains Us, that is, as measured by the only yardstick that really counts these days, greenhouse gas emissions.

I make this point not to cast aspersions but simply to set up a necessary contrast with Gaianism, about which more in a moment.

Upper Clearwater Valley’s Canyonlands in spring by Trevor Goward 2017

There are two things about environmentalism that made it easy prey to cognitive dissonance. The first is its name, environmentalism which, as many have noted, roots it in the external environment, hence an extracurricular concern secondary, by and large, to the unfolding of our busy lives. Enough said.

The second thing about environmentalism is its timing. Environmentalism didn’t really hit it big until the early 70s, when the buzz word wasn’t yet Gaia, but ecology, which is a different thing altogether. Consistent with this, the primary concerns of environmentalism have continued to be ecological, that is, it labours primarily to sustain local ecosystem health – a focus, incidentally, that absorbed a considerable portion of my own adult life.

Now enter Gaia, the brainchild of James Lovelock. According to Merriam-Webster, Gaia is the hypothesis that the living and nonliving components of Earth function as a single system in such a way that the living component regulates and maintains conditions (such as the temperature of the ocean or composition of the atmosphere) so as to be suitable for life. This will do, except that Gaia, in a related sense, is also an all-encompassing metaphor, a metaphor tailor-made for our time, an accessible heuristic by which to hold, as it were, the whole world and all its parts in your hand, or head at any rate.

What’s critical here is that whereas environmentalism focusses piecemeal on the parts, Gaianism (about which more later) focusses holistically on the whole; and that between these two approaches is a world of difference. To begin, ecological thinking is very different from Gaian thinking. Whereas the first contemplates ecosystems, the second contemplates Gaia, which, as an emergent entity beyond the sum of its parts, is of a different order altogether, call it a “unified, complex system comprised of the tightly linked atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere”. Or better, much better actually, put it this way: that Gaia is to the living things of this world (our own modest selves included) precisely what the lichen is to the fungus and the algal that comprise it.

At the same time, the status of Gaia as an entity complete unto itself brings out a second axis of distinction with environmentalism. Thus, whereas environmentalists generally identify themselves with the parts, the environment, Gainists swear allegiance to the whole which, when you stop to think about it, is not far off from a quasi-religious belief in something other than/greater than yourself. You take my point: If Gaianism is here, can mysticism be far behind?

For my part, I like to define Gianism as the practice of aligning ourselves with Gaian imperatives for the maintenance of organized human civilization. Seen in this light, Gaianists commit not just to the external environment, as environmentalist do, but to the Living World itself, which is of course both within and without at one and the same time; that is to say, you can’t have the whole without the parts, can you.

More than that, Gaianists commit to something more like a life force than an ecosystem, call it the mystery by which that has sustained life on Earth for close on four billion years – a mystique that comes, therefore, and in a way the environment never can, with a creation story of its own, call it Gaia or call it God. To sum up, Gaianism is environmentalism taken to a new level, it’s Environmentalism 2.0 – a necessary response to the deepening existential imperatives called forth by these Pandoracenean times.

Finally, a few words about the prevailing response of western science to the Gaia hypothesis itself. For if Gaia – an emergent entity if there ever was one – pushes hard against the totalizing reductionism at the heart of western science, then it shouldn’t be too surprising if science itself pushes back at Gaia with equal and opposing force. In 2013, earth system scientist Toby Tyrrell published a book-length evaluation of the Gaia hypothesis, in which he concludes, 218 pages later, that Gaia, as a hypothesis, “is a dead end.”

There’s much that could be said here, but for now consider this: that it has been known for some time that life on Earth has continued to exist during a period of the Earth’s history when the sun’s energy output increased by 25–30% – a thing impossible, says the Gaia hypothesis, unless life itself had a finger on the global thermostat setting. Nor can there be many earth system scientists who doubt this. The fact that science hasn’t yet figured out how life contrived to keep the Earth’s climate within limits suitable to its own thriving doesn’t mean that Gaia is a dead end. It means simply that science hasn’t yet figured out how life contrived to keep the Earth’s climate within limits suitable to its own thriving.

This returns me to a point raised elsewhere on this website, namely that the top-down view can in many cases yield more satisfying insights than the opposing bottom-up view. Gaia is not only a scientific hypothesis but also a metaphor for the Earth. Whether Gaia does or does not work as a theory, yet as a metaphor it alone gestures to a holistic understanding of the Living World much needed in these terrifying Pandoracenean times. Scientists should avoid needlessly poo-pooing the hypothesis, at risk of unnecessarily tarnishing the metaphor.

Next up: Island Earth