Mis-applications of Gaia theory

I often encounter a sort of frustrating combination of Gaia theory plus bad philosophy of language, which goes something like this:

Earth is not sick, earth has been around for billions of years, and underwent many catastrophes before us, and will undergo many catastrophes afterwards. Everything will be fine. Human activity is barely a blip on the radar of the earth’s lifespan, and we can have no serious, long term detrimental impacts. It is merely another form of human hubris to think that we can have so serious an impact on the earth.

I admit to not being totally clear as to what people who say things like this are saying. Given the global scale at which Gaia theories consider things (life, physical processes), do they consider earth to be special, or do they suppose that earth itself is just another tiny little, basically irrelevant microcosm within what is surely a Universe teeming with life? If this is so, then presumably we shouldn’t care if the Earth is destroyed altogether at any point, because life will go on elsewhere. Man’s time on earth is to Earth as a whole, as Gaia/Earth is to Gaia/Universe.

I don’t suppose the people who say that sort of thing would accept this. If it’s because they think Earth really is special, and the likelihood of life elsewhere is very low, then that’s consistent enough. If not, I’m not sure what reason they could give thinking the destruction of Earth matters.

I’m also not clear as to what they think would constitute a genuine threat to Earth. Presuming that the destruction of Earth is a bad thing (maybe that’s an invalid assumption), how severe would the threat posed by humans have to be in order for Gaia theorists to really take it seriously?

If it wiped out life for 1 million years, is that okay? What about 10 million years, or 100 millions years? It seems like my Gaia theorist (who I hope is just a strawman, but I fear is not) is committed to there being some amount of destruction that would be intolerable, and just thinks it it unlikely that we will attain that level of impact. Let’s say the sun becomes a red giant in 7.5 billion years, and the earth is wiped out in 8 billion years. And let’s say that humans succeed in destroying life for the next 7 billion years in the year 2500 (improbable but not impossible), so that Earth only has about 500 million more years where it supports life. Is that acceptable, or is that “too little life”? And how would we decide? What if life is not totally wiped out, but all we have for 6 billion years is protozoa and cockroaches, acidic oceans, sulfur skies, etc. Is that bad? Is anything bad, or is that just a category that humans impose onto the world, and whether there is life or not, and what kind of life is there, and how much life there is, doesn’t matter?

If we are committed to there being a specific amount of destruction that is “too much,” as it seems my Gaia theorist is, how might we decide what that level is?

My problem is not with the idea that the Earth is a resilient system, capable of surviving great stresses, and regenerating a system capable of supporting flourishing life.

My problem is the incoherence of holding both that

  1. it is possible for something to happen to the Earth that we could legitimately call “bad”, or at least an undesirable outcome, i.e. it is conceivable that under some circumstances too much life might be destroyed; and
  2. the earth is currently just fine, and we shouldn’t worry about it, because we humans are totally incapable of causing any serious amount of damage

I would be happy if any Gaia theorist would be able to explain my confusion.

I say it is a combination of Gaia theory and bad philosophy of language because however it is put, it seems to trade on ambiguous use of words like “fine,” “sick,” “actual damage,” that the speaker wants to be able to apply both in their normal contexts (as in, we can say someone is sick even if they aren’t going to die, or were injured even if they only have a cut and will be fine), and in a sort of vague Gaia theory sense that attempts to apply them to very different contexts (large scales of space and time) without providing any sense as to how we could know whether we were using them well or badly. My point is that people who talk like my Gaia theorist does, don’t actually know what they’re saying.

1 thought on “Mis-applications of Gaia theory”

  1. I think to be fair you have to place those statements in the context of the claims and rhetoric of the environmentalists to which they appear to be responding. Some environmentalists do make claims like “the Earth is dying,” “man’s pollution threatens all life on Earth” and other such dire warnings of total global doom.

    So it does not seem to me to be a claim for special significance for life on Earth as a whole, as opposed to smaller subsections of life. Rather they agree (perhaps only for the sake of argument) with the environmentalist who says it would be bad if the Earth dies, but then deny the other premise of the environmentalist that the Earth would (literally) die without whatever measures proposed being enacted. I am not clear Gaia theory in any strict technical sense comes into the argument you have paraphrased/sketched.

    Now the argument you mention could mean several things (the broader context of it would decide what if anything it means), the interpretation you take seems unlikely to me. Off hand I think one of two senses: (A) Look this “the Earth is dying” rhetoric is hyperbolic. Even if pollution and other destructive human activity continues unabated the worst you might expect is a mass extinction on the scale seen with the Dinosaurs (65 million years ago) not the complete extinction of all life as your over heated rhetoric implies. (B) Your rhetoric is not only overblown but most of your claims are just wrong. Other than perhaps a few extinctions here and there life continues on Earth as it has since time immemorial. Humans could not even induce a mass extinction on the scale of the dinosaurs if they wanted to much less wipe out all life on Earth.

    People making the argument in the (A) sense might still be concerned about environmental degradation and even be an activist on such issues but just oppose what they find to be hyperbolic rhetoric. The argument you laid out is consistent with saying everything is fine on some global scale (i.e. the Earth is not literally dying), but on more local scales things are indeed not fine rather the very opposite. Similarly I don’t think environmentalists who claim the Earth is dying are denying that singly ecosystems dying would be bad.

    People making the argument in the (B) sense are clearly denying much or all of the claims made by modern environmental movement. The mistake here is to argue from the global robustness of the Earth to its robustness of its component, not the claim that only the Earth in total matters.

    It does seem that some people may make the argument in the (A) sense but intend people to conflate it with the (B) sense trading on the sort of ambiguity you mention.

    The (A) sense of the argument seems plausible but open to dispute. The Earth has recovered from past mass extinction events, apparently induced by or involving rather severe shocks to the Earth on a scale similar to that claimed for human action, but surely there is some question as to whether that recovery was a sure thing as the (A) sense claims.

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