Rediscovering the Vanishing Face of Gaia

Vanishing FaceUltimately, one of the most important cultural changes needed is an understanding that we are part of and completely dependent on a living planetary system. This holiday season, I’m busy reading James Lovelock’s most recent volume The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Not the merriest holiday reading, I admit, but I did not encounter Earthscan’s new Christmas line up in time).

No, these aren't real books, but funny nonetheless!

No, these aren't real books–but funny nonetheless!

As Lovelock notes, our current understanding of climate regulation is shaped by our view that Earth is but a ball of rock rather than “a live planet that regulates itself.” Once we understand Earth in systems terms, we see just how dire the climate situation really is.

The idea that temperature will slowly and uniformly inch up—as is described in IPCC consensus models—is inaccurate according to Lovelock. Rather, we’ll hit a discontinuity where the system shifts rapidly from its current state to a “hot state.” As Lovelock explains:

“The atmosphere, whose physics [climate scientists] model, is not some simple gift of the Earth’s geological past; it is, apart from the 1 percent of the so-called rare or noble gases, entirely the product of living organisms at the surface. Much worse, these organisms, and that includes humans, are able to change their inputs and outputs of gases without letting [scientists] know. Today’s allies, the microorganisms of the soil and ocean who help to cool the climate, can become tomorrow’s enemies and add carbon dioxide instead of removing it.”

Lovelock’s ideas—perhaps because they’re complex and not reductionist like today’s science and because they’re outside the dominant cultural mythos (e.g. that man is separate from and above nature and not a mere organ of a larger entity)—barely penetrate the discussions even within the environmental community and have not been pulled into climate modeling on which IPCC projections are made.

So this is bad news to end 2009 with–even worse than the collapse of climate talks in Copenhagen. According to Lovelock, we’re dramatically underestimating what is necessary to “save” the planet (and by “save” Lovelock reminds us that we actually mean simply maintain the state which humanity has adapted to. Earth will do fine in a hot state; it is we and the countless other species that evolved for this climatic state that will decline or perish.) And worse, according to Lovelock, we may already have hit the point where this climate shift will occur and once it does it will be nearly impossible to shift it back to our current state—another complex idea made impressively approachable in this excellent animation by Leo Murray.

But Vanishing Face also reminds us that embedded in a culture of sustainability will necessarily be an understanding of our utter dependence on Earth and an understanding of it as a living complex system. What this specifically looks like will certainly vary across cultures—some may deify Earth as in millennia past, others may revere but not worship the planet, and others still may describe this dependence in purely intellectual and scientific terms—in “geophysiological terms” as Lovelock is fond of saying. But this is one cultural evolution that will surely be central to our survival as a flourishing part of Earth—whether in its current state or in a hotter one.

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