The central – and most important – organizing principle in my program is the concept of Gaia, which I prefer to call Ge — formalized scientifically during the last few decades by Drs. James Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Stephan Harding and others.
As described and explained on this site, Gaia is not a new age idea, philosophy or religion. It is a scientific theory – namely, Gaia theory, originally a hypothesis proposed by Lovelock offering a number of testable predictions which have been verified by evidence and models, thus elevating it to a theory. It is studied by a relatively new branch of science, a subset of the systems sciences, called geophysiology – that is, planetary physiology.
Simply put, Ge or Gaia is Earth’s planetary-scale metabolism and homeostasis that has automatically maintained the temperature and chemical composition composed of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans at conditions suitable for life for over 3,500 million years. I stress the word ‘automatically’ to note that Ge is not a rational, thinking entity. If it is cognate at all, it is only to the degree of bacteria (which also maintain chemostasis). It is composed of linked atmosphere, oceans, freshwater, surface rocks and all life forms, from the simplest bacteria to the largest whale or tree. It has a metabolism and homeostasis – similar to your own, but much more complex.
In fact, that’s the simplest description of what Ge is: it is Earth’s metabolism and homeostasis. My acronym for that is ErMAH, part of the name of my educational collective and learning community, Ermah Ge. Our tagline is, teaching you what our name means, and why it’s important for the future of Earth, especially our species.
Like you, Ge “breathes” (the concentration of at least some atmospheric gases — notably CO2 — change rhythmically during the year), processes energy from the sun, and regulates the temperature and chemical composition of atmosphere and oceans at states that cannot be explained by physics and chemistry alone. It dissipates waste heat into space and recycles its material waste. It is effectively alive though it is far more complex than an organism, and it is not “conscious” like humans. It is in a class of planetary-scale living systems, probably alone in our solar system, but almost certainly not the universe.
Geophysiology is more common in Britain and Europe than in the US, in part because of politically-motivated academic opposition to Gaia theory in the US early on, and because most US biologists are trained in the mechanistic, reductionist sciences but not in the complexity or system sciences.
And therein lies the problem: Gaia can only be fully understood via complexity sciences; it cannot be understood using classical, mechanistic sciences alone even though they contributed much useful information to our understanding.
Ge is also Earth’s climate regulation system that has automatically – without conscious planning, like your body’s homeostasis – kept Earth’s climate suitable for life for almost 4 billion years, not too hot, not too cold.
But Ge is — at least, metaphorically — ill, running a planetary “fever” – Lovelock’s metaphor for global warming – driven largely by human activities, especially ecosystem degradation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but exacerbated by natural positive feedback processes that threaten the very existence of civilization and even our species. It is highly likely that Earth will be a fundamentally different planet by mid-century, as different from now as a forest is from a desert. The transition for humans and civilization will be very challenging and more difficult than most yet understand.
Understanding that bold assertion requires knowledge of geophysiology.
If our species does not become familiar with Ge as an everyday concept taught in schools, discussed around the water cooler, and at dinner with friends with as much enthusiasm as politics, sports, economics, clothing and smart phones, then our survival beyond this century will be significantly more challenging. That is because the dominant western science view of the last two centuries – and worldview that it motivated – has incorrectly portrayed nature as a well-behaved “machine” that humans can control, leading to our reckless behavior that is destroying the support systems required for life on Earth.
If we are to successfully navigate the challenges ahead, we must understand the true nature of nature and life at scales ranging from cellular to planetary.
My Earth Studies Program — offered through the organization that I founded called Ermah Ge — is dedicated to helping promote that understanding, the importance of which is the premise of Diane Dumanoski’s quotes about “a creative, dynamic, living Earth”:
“A sober look at the radical uncertainty of the human future … gives reason for real fear, the kind of primal fear that drives to the bone. But fear can be, must be, faced down rather than repressed or denied. The times are too dangerous to do otherwise.
“If the machine world is crumbling, where is the organizing image, the guiding vision to help us at this critical turning point in the relationship between humans and Earth? The planetary era will be shaped by the image of a creative, dynamic, living Earth – a deep metaphor that is archetypal and ancient and at the same time new.
“Like all grand organizing ideas, Gaia is not just another scientific hypothesis to be tested, but rather a whole new way of looking at life on Earth … Gaia’s most lasting impact, however, may lie beyond science….
“Through Gaia as metaphor, it is possible to glimpse the organic unity of the Earth and be awed by our own existence within this rich, complex, and wondrous whole. And in both its scientific & metaphoric aspects, this new view of the Earth provides the foundation for a new cultural map that can guide us in the planetary era.”
Diane Dumanoski, The End of the Long Summer:
Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on a Volatile Earth
Ermah Ge’s entry level seminar about Ge, Geophysiology 101, part of our Earth 101 series, is available in live (in person) version, and by the end of 2016, an online version. Here is part 1 of a video introduction.