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Fifty years after the Gaia hypothesis was first published, understanding it is more vital than ever

The Gaia hypothesis explains how the human race has for survived for so long – and points at what we need to do to stop the climate crisis.

In 1972, the Scottish chemist and inventor James Lovelock published a theory that profoundly changed our understanding of where humans had come from and where we might be heading. 

The Gaia hypothesis, which Lovelock developed alongside microbiologist Lynn Margulis, emphasised the symbiotic relationship people have with our planet. We evolved together, organic organisms and inorganic matter, developing a self-regulating system that sustains all life. 

The Gaia theory is the key to understanding how humans got here. How we have survived and thrived for thousands of years. And why we might not survive much longer…

Gaia Vince was named after the Greek goddess of the Earth rather than the hypothesis. She is an environmental author and broadcaster, and an expert on how human and planetary systems interact. 

“Gaia theory is this idea that the planet’s biology – the plants, animals and ecosystems – interact in such a way that they affect the earth systems,” Vince explains. “Things like the climate, the paths that rivers flow, all of those sorts of things, and it becomes an almost self-regulating system. When forests need more carbon dioxide, they manufacture it, if you like. They produce more oxygen, which then produces the life forms that produce the carbon dioxide.” 

But the delicate balance has been tipped by… guess who. 

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“What’s happened at the moment is that humans have this outsize effect,” Vince says. “Instead of behaving like just another part of the ecosystem, we’ve become a dominant force. We are pushing everything out of whack. We’re making it hotter, changing erosion patterns, acidifying the oceans, making species go extinct. So it can’t self-regulate any more.” 

Vince believes the Gaia theory has its limitations. 

“I don’t think that we’re ever in this complete balance, I think that things are a lot more dynamic than that. Nothing in life is ever in stasis. But the speed of change has generally been around the sort of speed that evolution can adapt to. And what’s happened now is we’re having this change that is much too rapid. 

“We’re in the Anthropocene, which is the age dominated by human activity. With industrialisation, wildlands being converted to farmland, massive urban infrastructure being built – ecosystems can’t respond.” 

Environmental expert Gaia Vince. Photo: courtesy of Gaia Vince
Environmental expert Gaia Vince. Photo: courtesy of Gaia Vince

There is some good news. The planet can catch up again. As has happened for millions of years, a new equilibrium will be found. The adaptation the planet might require, however, is the eradication of ourselves. 

“Eventually some sort of balance would come out of this,” Vince continues. “Perhaps humans will go extinct. What we’re doing at the moment is creating a planetary environment that threatens not just natural ecosystems but human life as well, because we rely on natural ecosystems to survive. Largely, life will go on in the tens of thousands and millions of years after we’ve gone.

“So the planet itself isn’t in any danger, but it is threatening humans. There are more than seven billion of us on the planet, and already there’s massive inequality of who has enough to eat.” 

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Humans are the cause of, and solution to, most of these problems. Unlike all other life on Earth, we have developed a culture that can accelerate or stop damage being done. Vince explains, “We have very different characteristics to most other plants and animals in that our adaptation is cultural as well. So when things get tricky for us, we don’t just move or die out, we adapt the environment to suit us. 

“That’s been really useful for our survival. That’s what’s made us this dominant species. But the problem is, there’s only so far you can take it and we’ve basically adapted the entire planet in one way or another. A lot of that is now threatening our own health and our own survival. 

“We’re going to look back on these years with absolute horror. We won’t be able to believe that we used to walk down streets that were full of pollutants and think nothing of it. Extreme weather events are now so regular that calling them extreme seems extreme. They’re normal now. My aunt is in Australia, in New South Wales. She had terrible bushfires, where half her community had to be evacuated, then she’s had these appalling floods, where half the community had to be evacuated.  

“The Met Office has just announced that they’re raising the threshold for what they’re going to call a heatwave in the UK. It used to be 27 degrees. Now it’ll be 28 degrees because we keep hitting 27 degrees. The regularity of these things is not ignorable any more.” 

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The solutions are simple and well-known. We should adopt a more plant-based diet instead of using enormous amounts for livestock. We need to reduce our energy consumption and move to renewable sources. We need to vote for leaders who will take the issue seriously and create legislation on a national and international level. 

Vince does have some hope though. “We are starting to act on this,” she says. “But of course, the pace is much too slow. The time for incremental change has been and gone decades ago. Now we need to leap ahead in bringing the temperature down otherwise it’s absolutely calamitous.” 

The best time to tackle climate change was probably around the time James Lovelock was working on his hypothesis in 1972. Lovelock is now aged 102. It was hoped he could take part in this year’s Edinburgh Science Festival, which was themed (like this magazine) around the 50th anniversary of Gaia but he wasn’t feeling up to it, understandably. 

James Lovelock Photo: NEIL SPENCE / Alamy Stock Photo
James Lovelock Photo: NEIL SPENCE / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2020 he shared his thoughts on the climate crisis with The Guardian, managing not to gloat about predicting the increase in extreme weather events and wildfires. “I would say the biosphere and I are both in the last one per cent of our lives,” he said. 

Lovelock also identified the pandemic as being an example of Gaia’s self-regulation: “I could easily make you a model and demonstrate that as the human population on the planet grew larger and larger, the probability of a virus evolving that would cut back the population is quite marked. We’re not exactly a desirable animal to let loose in unlimited numbers on the planet.” 

He did have some message of hope. “We learn,” he said, “but slowly.”

Gaia Vince is author of Transcendence and Adventures in the Anthropocene. Follow @WanderingGaia

Follow Steven MacKenzie on Twitter

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