The Planet is Angry

The planet is sick, and Humanity is to blame – James Lovelock and the Gaia hypothesis
(The revenge of Gaia – Penguin: Allen Lane, London 2006)
Gaia represents the combination of geosphere and biosphere. The biosphere represents the living material of all kinds which exists on the surface of the planet. The geosphere is the non-living material that makes up all the rest of the material on and beneath the surface – the hard material of the planet. James Lovelock uses Gaia as a metaphor for these two spheres and considers them as a single entity, almost alive, building on historic classical associations coming from ancient ideas about the earth as a god, to more geological associations made by James Hutton and T H Huxley in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It is important to note that Lovelock’s theory does not require a belief that earth is some sort of mystical being. He argues that the only way in which Human beings are likely to pay attention to the ethical obligations thrown up by the bio-geosphere, is by thinking of it in terms of and treating it as if it were such a being. Much ethical debate is either person centred or God centred, so thinking about planet earth in its totality as a quasi god-person is a tool more likely to bring about the kind of moral responses necessary.

The principle message of his latest book is that the earth has reached a tipping point. It is as if humankind was on a boat near the edge of a waterfall and the motor is about to fail. The actions of humankind have degraded the survival system upon which we depend. We need to live sympathetically with our surrounds but we have grown and polluted far beyond the stage which the planet can sustain us and itself and we are reaching a point where catastrophic change is inevitable. That is the grim message of Lovelock’s new book, The revenge of Gaia (Penguin: Allen Lane, London 2006). Lovelock writes as a planetary physician. Gaia’s health is declining and our lives depend upon an improvement in Gaia’s health. Lovelock argues that we need to think about the planet as a person because it is only then that we really appreciate the extent to which our activity harms the planet. Lovelock is critical of two common positions. On the one hand is sustainable development, the idea that we can continue more or less as we are if we change the way we develop and the way in which we develop. Lovelock argues that this does not account for the real fundamental nature of the crises we face and that continuing development is simply not possible. Sustainable development might have been an option a century or two back but not now – managed, sustained retreat is more realistic. On the other hand there is the view that global warming claims are a fiction and that morality should be focussed on people not the environment. Traditionally Christian ethics has been focussed on people, rather than the natural world, and this remains prominent in some Christian thinking though there has been a considerable shift in recent years.

Humanity has become so obsessed with the idea of progress and betterment of society that it rarely looks beyond human beings to consider anything else. The love affair with the city must end and the love affair with nature must be rekindled. While there are one or two sceptics, the vast majority of all scientists are now convinced. There is virtual unanimity. The extent of change required will demand a massive investment. Windfarms and using clean forms of transport are only tinkering at the edges. The degree of change is far more fundamental and will require going nuclear, at least temporarily, while other methods of a controlled reduction in our rate of development is found.

This makes a powerful claim for the centrality of environmental ethics as the centre of all ethics, if not the only ethic that really matters; it is the totality of all ethics. If Gaia is not allowed to recover, and sustain the human civilisation, there may be no more ethics of any kind because human civilisation as we know it may no longer exist. It is as if any ethical system or issue which does not account for Gaia is no ethical system at all.

This environmental ethic then situates itself on a scientific and historic premise. The human species is dependent on planet earth. Unchecked, humanity will bring about events which will lead to the diminishment or destruction of human civilization, if not the species itself. The Gaia ethic is the ultimate ethical trump card that displaces all other considerations. The possibility of goodness and rightness cannot exist without sentient moral creatures. The revenge of Gaia and the destruction of a habitat that humanity can survive in, destroys those moral creatures, excepting the possibility of intelligent moral life elsewhere within or beyond the confines of our universe, and excepting the possible existence of angels or human beings beyond this world.

Of course some religions may interpret the cataclysmic disaster as punishment for the unrighteous, a second flood to wipe the slate clean, or a method of allowing only a select few to survive. There are possible religious ethics which can offer an alternative priority list. However non-religious ethical systems or values systems will not have this option and mainstream religions seem to be tending towards embracing the environmental ethic, rather than rejecting it. In Roman Catholic Christianity, for example, there has been the development of a notion of the value of creation in its own right because of its sacred status as made by God, rather than the more traditional notion of humanity having dominion over all. There is also a backlash in the American evangelical association with a fast growing group among the leadership of the Evangelical Churches being influenced by the notion that the destruction of the environment directly harms the young and the generations to come so conflicts with the ethic of love of others.

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