As a tribute to James Lovelock, British scientist, ecological mastermind and founder of the Gaia theory, which has significantly influenced, among other things, modern climatology, we publish the following essay by Fred Hageneder. Lovelock was a remarkable chemist, physician and biophysicist whose work has led to the acknowledgement of Earth’s ecosphere as the complex inter-connected system that it is. Modern climatology can no longer be separated from the Gaia perspective which defines our planet as a self-regulating entity. We all owe Lovelock a great deal and his legacy is of utmost importance now and in the coming years in the fight against climate disruption, species extinction and biodiversity loss.

By Fred Hageneder

In the 1960s, independent British scientist James E. Lovelock was commissioned by NASA to develop instruments to analyse the atmospheres of alien planets. But his knowledge of atmospheres then benefited our own planet in 1971, when Lovelock invented the electron capture detector, which was instrumental in assessing and mitigating the terrestrial ozone hole, whose worrying growth could then be slowed by the international ban on CFCs (in spray cans and refrigeration units).

But his greatest service to the Earth and all its human and more-than-human inhabitants was the development of the Gaia hypothesis with biologist Lynn Margulis. Also developed in the early 1970s, it initially met with very strong opposition, but has since become scientifically established and, since the 2000s, has matured into Gaia Theory through many third-party scientific papers. “Theory” sounds weak in colloquial language, but it is a high predicate in scientific discourse; consider: the Big Bang is also just a theory.

The Gaia theory states that the Earth as a whole is a self-regulating system, in which biomes such as ocean areas, forests, steppes – and even deserts and ice caps – with all the ecosystems and living beings they contain, form an organic whole in which everything is ultimately interconnected.

Such a large-scale picture was admittedly a major challenge for modern science, which has long been lost in ever-smaller viewpoints of specialisation. Lovelock himself lamented that biology, for example, as the “science of life”, has over twenty branches in which the scientists of the different branches hardly understand each other, and that no single branch has a clear definition of what “life” actually is.

All the less do biologists, chemists and physicists come to a common denominator. And now Lovelock and Margulis proposed that the planet is a geobiophysical entity in which not only physical conditions such as soil composition, weather and climate determine the flora and fauna, but that living things have a feedback effect on their environment and shape it in the long term. Three examples:

  • Chalk and limestone rocks consist entirely of the remains of microorganisms (e.g. mussel shells) that have been deposited over millions of years.
  • 99 per cent of the gases that make up our atmosphere were brought into their atmospheric state by living organisms (the oxygen by plants and algae, the nitrogen by microbes).
  • Marine life has a significant part in the acid and also the salt regulation of the oceans.

Gaia Theory broke with the old paradigm that “life” was weak and only sought niches. It shows that life creates, maintains, and even continuously improves its habitats, making them more benevolent for future generations. (The only exception, however, is humans, who have been on a course of Earth-system-destroying self-extinction at least since the “Enlightenment” some four hundred years ago, a global ecological crisis now increasing exponentially and beginning to take its toll.)

Lovelock saw this danger from the beginning and accordingly has been a luminary and inspiration for conservationists since the 1970s. Like all of us, he has had to watch for decades as those in power and decision-making have continued to exploit the Earth and decompose the living world until it is now on its knees. Life on Earth is still strong, but how long it will take to recover from the damage of the industrial predatory society, and whether humans will be part of Earth’s future, will become clear in this decade (the 2020s). Lovelock’s last two Gaia books have been appropriately blunt warnings:

– 2006’s The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity; and

– The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, from 2009.

The only controversy surrounding Lovelock was nuclear energy. In view of the global danger posed by the huge amounts of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by the use of fossil fuels (cue: the climate crisis), Lovelock came out in favour of nuclear energy from 2004 onwards. To the great shock of many conservation movements. For Lovelock, however, as an astronomically thinking explorer of planetary systems, radioactivity was only one of many – natural – forms of energy; and life could always cope with mild background radiation. Personally, however, I think he cancelled out the many photos and fates of horribly mutated young animals and babies from the Chernobyl area.

In any case, he knew that humanity needed a rethink if it wants to continue to exist. In 2000, on the subject of global deforestation, he wrote:

“We are failing to recognize the true value of the forest as a self-regulating sub-system that keeps the climate of the region, and to some extent the Earth, comfortable for life. Without the trees there is no rain, and without the rain there are no trees. … By letting the forest grow and sustain itself we shall have acknowledged our debt to the rest of life on Earth.”

What is somewhat encouraging is the fact that Gaia has finally entered the mainstream. This is particularly evident in climate science, which now thinks in terms of interconnected feedback systems. Until around 2012, things were still different, when climatology saw, for example, the Earth’s forests only as passive victims of global heating and increasing droughts. Now forests are accounted for as active players in the climate systems of our planet.

Or in zoology. Today we know that an animal cannot be separated from its habitat. A bear, for example, includes not only the biological organism, but also its territory of forest, meadows and river. The salmon is part of the bear’s life. And through the protein-rich remains of the fish that bears leave under trees, salmon and bear are also part of the life of the forest. Our thinking has changed; it is no longer exclusively reductionist.

Lovelock and Margulis’ realisation that the Earth is an interconnected system did not come entirely out of the blue, however. Already a century earlier, nobody less than Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed the theory of evolution together with Charles Darwin, said:

“Complex regulations and mutual interdependence link together every animal and vegetable form, with the everchanging Earth which supports them, into one grand organic whole.” (Alfred Russel Wallace, 1876)

At that time, Western science was greatly advanced by broad-thinking universalists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt. I see James Ephraim Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the ranks of these great explorers who had a lasting impact on the intellectual history of humanity. Like the Copernican turn (the Earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa), I think the “Gaian turn” also represents a milestone. And not only in the history of science, but also in human evolution.

It is now up to all of us to drive the necessary change in consciousness. Towards an ecocentric worldview that respects all life and grants all life the right to develop freely. A new humanity can only flourish when Gaia flourishes again.

James Ephraim Lovelock died on his 103rd birthday on 26 July 2022 as a result of a fall.