An essay by John Williamson and John Burkitt





The wave of extinctions that has swept through the last centuries of man’s history has profoundly distressed the Gaia, threatening the very heart of life on Earth.  A mere century ago we viewed our planet as a boundless, unshakable foundation for unrestrained human growth.  We are starting to realize there are limits to our growth set by Earth’s natural resources, but the implications of our destructiveness are far greater.


We can no longer treat the world as if it were merely a stage for our sweeping human drama.  From the viewpoint of the Gaia model, the Earth has always been our home, but never our possession.  To know why, we must understand what Gaia is and frame the problem of species loss in a very different perspective.  We must return to Ancient Greek thought around 1400 BC and rebuild our historical viewpoint back to the present along an alternative, less human-centered path.




Even without our modern tools and scientific methodology, early Hellenistic culture made huge contributions to western civilization, not least of which was a cosmology based on rational deductions of cause and effect.  The Ancient Greeks were an inquisitive people who sought to understand the natural world. While they were good observers of empirical truth, they relied on a pantheon of immortals to explain the origin and significance of what they saw.  To a large degree our modern cultures often rely on the same methods to explain what it cannot understand, and the explanation almost always works to the benefit of man and the sorrow of nature.  Considering we are overrunning nature, and that history is always written by the victor, this is hardly surprising.


The Greek earth goddess Demeter was said to bring forth the fruits of the earth and it was she that taught men agriculture so they could end their nomadic existence. As the giver of stability, prosperity and safety, Demeter was also the goddess of social architecture and was revered by the rural population as a fertility goddess.  In more modern times she has also become known as Gaia.


The daughter of Gaia was abducted by the lord of the underworld.  Gaia neglected the world as she searched for her lost child and it sank into the bleak depression of winter.  Finally Zeus ordered the child restored to her mother.  Before young Persephone left, the lord of the underworld gave her a pomegranate.  Because she ate from it, she was bound to spend a third of the year with him in the underworld.  Gaia spreads life through the world when her daughter is near but grieves through the loneliness of winter.  Thus the Ancient Greeks linked the death and rebirth of nature with Gaia.




Here is a brief introduction to Gaia theory as developed by Lovelock, Margullis and others.  It appears courtesy of David Orrell’s insightful overview in Gaia Theory: Science of the Living Earth.


In the early 1960's, James Lovelock was invited by NASA to participate in the scientific research for evidence of life on Mars. His job was to design instruments to detect life. This was not straightforward since it was hard to know what to test for: any life forms on Mars might be radically different from those on Earth.


That led him to think about what constituted life, and how it could 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 on the Martian atmosphere. Maybe it could be detected from Earth, so it wouldn't even be necessary to send a spaceship.


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.


Lovelock began to look back at the history of life's interaction with the atmosphere. He noted that 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 powered by aerobic consumption.


"For me, the personal revelation of Gaia came quite suddenly - like a flash of enlightenment. I was in a small room on the top floor of a building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It was the autumn of 1965 ... and I was talking with a colleague, Dian Hitchcock, about a paper we were preparing. It was at that moment that 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?"


On a stroll with his novelist neighbor William Golding, Lovelock described his idea, and asked advice for a name. Golding suggested Gaia, after the Greek Earth Goddess. The Gaia Hypothesis was born.




In 1979, Lovelock wrote the book "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth", which developed his ideas. He stated:


"The physical and chemical condition of the surface of the Earth, of the atmosphere, and of the oceans has been and is actively made fit and comfortable by the presence of life itself. This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom which held that life adapted to the planetary conditions as it and they evolved their separate ways."


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 managed to uncover a number of feedback loops which could act as regulatory influences.


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."


Vernadsky showed, for example, that living organisms are the primary transformer of solar energy to chemical energy, and stressed the importance of biotransport systems. An example of a biotransport system is birds which feed on marine life, hence transferring an enormous amount of matter from the oceans back to the land. In order to understand how the planet works, one has to take into account the effect of life -- exactly what Lovelock says.




Life is a dynamic biological system, whether it be a simple cell, a tiger, or the entire life mass of a planet. Very complex controls exist to guide energy transactions among the myriad members of the life community of Earth to prevent both degenerative and runaway conditions. We know enough details of many of these systems to be increasingly concerned of a biological tsunami in the making.


The biodiversity system, Gaia, can be defined as "The sum total of all the plants, animals (including humans), fungi and microorganisms, along with their individual variations and the interactions between them. It is the set of living organisms and their genetic basis that make up the fabric of the planet earth and allow it to function as it does, by capturing energy from the sun and using it to drive all of life's processes."


We know the system is in trouble because of the rapidly increasing loss of entire species – and we don’t have all the answers, or the power to change the fact. We know that urbanization is a major problem.


Recent analyses, for example, suggest that 83 percent of the earth's land surface has been affected by human settlements and activities, leaving only 17 percent in wilderness. According to one set of estimates, urban built-up areas, with average population densities of approximately 200 persons per square km., probably comprise around four percent of all land uses worldwide. A joint project by CIESIN, IFPRI and the World Bank is currently testing and implementing methodologies for measuring the extent of urban built-up areas. Urban areas are expanding, particularly in the developing world. The UN Population Division estimates suggest that the world's population will become majority urban by 2010; in contrast the world was only 37 percent urban in 1970.


Though the extent of urban areas is not that large when compared with other land uses such as agriculture or forestry, their environmental impact is significant. This is due not only to the large concentrations of population that are found in cities, but because they are centers of political, cultural and economic influence, and are often the location of significant industrial activity. In the era of economic globalization, so-called "megacities" like New York, London, Sao Paulo and Singapore draw on resources and economic activities around the world to build their wealth and prominence.


The most significant historical change in land cover, however, has been the expansion of agricultural lands. Today close to a third of the earth's land surface is devoted to pastures or cropland, which amounts to approximately one-half of all lands suitable for agriculture. Since the dawn of plant domestication the progression of cropland was relatively slow. The past century witnessed over half of the worldwide increase in agricultural lands, and in the developing world half the land cover conversion occurred in just the past 50 years.


Today, roughly 39 million square kilometers (29 percent) of the world's land surface is under forest cover, and of that 28 million square kilometers is in so-called "closed forests." Since the end of the last ice age, approximately half the world's forest cover has been lost, most of it due to the expansion of human activities and settlements.  In terms of primary forest, in contrast to secondary or other successional forests, much less remains. The World Resources Institute estimates that only one-fifth of the world's original forest cover remains. No other species has affected the biological foundations of Earth so profoundly as we humans.


What does our future hold? Have we already lost the one or more interlocked species crucial to the life web? There are no answers yet to these questions, but there are things we can individually and collectively do to stem our population explosion and save our genetic wealth. They may be difficult things to effect but certainly doable.


The very least we can do is follow the instincts of our conservation minded communities. And for the purpose of this essay, this is a call to the great cat owners and their detractors, the animal rights industry.


In our lifetime, on the record, we have already witnessed great losses among feline species in the wild. And daily we see further depredations wrought by the animal rights industry in their effort to eliminate great cats in private care throughout the world. Let us see why this is a foolish, dangerous plan from the Gaia point of view and a threat to us all. As John Burkitt has so succinctly put it:


“Life on Earth is very complex.  The interplay of predator and prey, growth and decay, is so intricate we can only grasp the basic principles.


Plants turn light from the sun into life energy animals can harness.  But it takes time to build plants from sunshine, and without some limits on the rate animals eat plants, disaster would follow.  Predators like the tiger insure a fair share of earth’s limited resources to all plants and animals.”


Or, in so many words, within the bounds of Gaia, the great cats and other predators are a necessary part of the vital business of life. They are master regulators of a delicately balanced biosphere we all depend on for our very lives.




The existence of humans within the earth’s biosphere does not confer upon them a favored ranking. Clearly, humans have lost their niche in a dispersed, tightly cooperative biosphere as a result of their destructive activities.


The wave of ban laws breaking over private owners should be re-thought in terms of considered science. Politically inspired agendas to end life on earth should be reversed. There is a serious risk they may work.


As many knowledgeable people over the years have suggested, we all need to think in terms of working with nature instead of destroying it. A good start would be to begin to relate to Gaia as what we are; a big brained, misinformed species of regulator quite able to use our minds to support Gaia’s clear destiny to continue this magnificent experiment of life on Earth -- with or without us.


We need to communicate more with our elected officials and need to assert our views, or otherwise the chaos will reign. After all, as the front line keepers and companions of great cats, it truly is our fundamental obligation. So, without seeming maudlin, the lessons of Gaia may help unify us as we look into the eyes of a great cat and read its plea.





















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