Reflections on the Life of James Lovelock


When I heard the news, recently, that James Lovelock had died on his 103rd Birthday, I experienced an expected rush of sadness and also joyful reflection of an incredible life.  He was one of the most remarkable men to emerge from this planet!  Images and memories from how Lovelock’s life intersected with my own then came flooding in as well:  my first encounter with Lovelock’s “Gaia concept,” an exchange I had with the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute about Lovelock’s work; a severe sunburn I got in Chile, and so much more!

Then came ruminations on how human societies might rise to the great challenges that confront us.  In his later years, Lovelock made some dire predictions about the future of the human species.  However, I think he would still encourage us to face our challenges in a clear-eyed way.  We can take some lessons from the sense of humor that he displayed throughout his life, but would also do well to see things for how they are.

Most who read this essay will know of James Lovelock, but for those who may not, he was “best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system.”  (from Wikipedia listing on Lovelock, a reasonable introduction to Lovelock’s life).


Vignette One

I discovered James Lovelock and the Gaia Hypothesis in 1986 at one of my first professional conferences – the annual conference of the North American Association for Environmental Education, held in Eugene Oregon.  The Gaia Hypothesis had a huge impact on me, addressing many unanswered questions and paradoxes in my life and schooling to that point.

As a young man, having grown up in both the United States and Korea, I was frequently struck by commonalities and differences between cultures.  As a biologist/ecologist emerging from wildlife biology programs at Colorado State and Virginia Tech, I was searching for some framework that could be used to explore the stated first tenet of ecology – “everything is interrelated.”  In the 1980s, different disciplines, even within the natural sciences, were incredibly “stovepiped,” and the idea that human beings (especially our cultures, thinking and behavior) were a part of ecological systems was hardly considered at all.   My trip to Oregon was a revelation from start to finish.

The first ascent of my flight out of National Airport took us over marshes on the Potomac River where I had been leading a canoe trip just the day before.  The curved, convoluted tangle of water and vegetation suddenly struck me as eerily similar to an image in a biology textbook that I had recently taken notice of – a cross section of a human intestine!  Folds upon folds; maximal surface area that exchanged gasses and nutrients.  This image and comparison were dancing around in my head as I arrived in Oregon.

The conference was a whirlwind of new ideas and people.  As sessions were about to start one day, I had just finished a long conversation in a hallway and, based simply on expediency, decided to attend a talk in the nearest room.   As luck would have it, this was a program about the Gaia Hypothesis.  The experience was transformative.  My mind was opened to a scientific view of Earth that showed that everything is, indeed, interrelated.  The sense that I came away with was described in one of Lovelock’s future books, “Healing Gaia; Practical medicine for the planet”

“Gaia is the Earth seen as a single physiological system, an entity that is alive at least to the extent that, like other living organisms, its chemistry and temperature are self-regulated at a state favourable for life.” 

The significance of intestines and marshes came into sharp focus and the presenter made many other comparisons between the physiology of a body and that of Earth as a whole.  In this session, I found that Earth’s temperature, its atmospheric makeup, ocean salinity and many other factors were self-regulated within very narrow limits over vast periods of geologic time, in ways analogous to self-regulation within an organism’s body.  The images of marshes and intestines joined a family of other such images evoked by the presenter at this session.   And, when I later discovered why the name “Gaia” had been chosen for Lovelock’s hypothesis, I was further inspired.   Through the metaphor, Gaia, Lovelock’s science was connected to the ageless understanding of most if not all of our ancestors on Earth.  Indigenous cultures, although astoundingly varied across our planet, all reflect that Earth is alive and that we are a part of that life.

On my trip back to Virginia, more coincidences further imbedded the Gaia concept in my mind.  A cancelled connecting flight from Denver to D.C. resulted in my being able to spend a couple days in Colorado.   I had a wonderful hike in the high country, where I realized that, thus far, my education had obscured the reality of a living planet.   I had, for instance, been taught biology and geology in separate classes, as if they had little to do with each other.  It was now becoming evident that, on Earth, Geology and Biology were two faces of one living system.   It wasn’t just that the lichens I hiked past and over were enmeshed with and changed the nature of the rocks on which they grew. It was that living things, rocks, air and water were co-evolving as one being.

Then, on the way back to Denver, I stopped in Boulder and took a walk on the Boulder pedestrian mall.  I found myself in front of the Boulder Bookstore where, featured in an entrance display was the book, “Gaia; The human journey from Chaos to Cosmos” by Elisabet Sahtouris.   The book was republished as “Earthdance” in 2000.   In Lovelock’s foreword to the book, he wrote that Sahtouris  , “comfortably integrates the traditionally separated domains of biology, geology, and atmospheric science to show us the evolution of our living planet and our own roots within it. She then inspires us on ethical grounds to learn from this planetary organism of which we are part, showing us how we can mature as a species well integrated into the larger dance of life.” 

It seemed that the universe was conspiring to implant the idea of Gaia firmly in my head.  I was thus introduced to James Lovelock during that fall of 1986 and the influence that he and his idea of Gaia exerted upon my entire life, personal and professional, only grew with the years.

Vignette Two

In its early years (1970s – 1980s), Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis was much criticized by some prominent scientists.  The main criticisms centered around the around the idea of “control.” For a living system the size and scope of a planet to show long periods of equilibrium (say, the maintenance of oxygen in the atmosphere at 21% or the maintenance of ocean salinity at 35 parts per thousand over vast geologic time) seemed to require the presence of an outside force.  Some scientists charged that Lovelock was suggesting a teleological explanation – a god that controlled everything from the outside.  Lovelock meant no such thing.   He and colleagues proceeded to show how systemic self-regulation is an automatic, emergent property (see Daisyworld, for instance) and how the evolution of a living system was entirely compatible with natural selection (see Gaia and natural selection | Nature or see Lenton’s chapter in Gaia in Turmoil, to be mentioned later).

Ultimately, most of the findings and predictions that Lovelock and colleagues made were proven true.  The idea of Earth as a single living system was the organizing principle of the emergence of “Earth System Science” which blended the previously separated disciplines of biology, geology, meteorology, ecology, oceanography and others and even “Earth science” itself.   Earth system science is how we now understand climate change, let alone most other planetary phenomena.

My initial resonance with and confidence in the Gaia Hypothesis grew in the coming decades through a never-ending set of corroborating insights and peer-reviewed science by Lovelock and colleagues.  One anecdotal reason for my confidence came when, after a mere 30 minutes on a park bench in the city of Puerto Montt, Chile, I was chagrinned to receive the worst sunburn I could remember.  There, at 41 degrees south in the southern hemisphere, where Earth’s ozone shield had recently been compromised to a greater degree than in the northern hemisphere, I received way too much ultraviolet light on my face.  In the midst of my pain, though, I realized not only the cause of my burn, but also that I should have known and been much more careful.

The depletion of ozone had not only been prevalent in the news; it was James Lovelock who had invented the means by which to prove that the culprit was the refrigerant chemical , chlorofluorocarbon (or CFC).   He had invented an electron capture device decades earlier and used it to show the presence of CFCs in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.   I was familiar with this aspect of Lovelock’s work and yet had blithely succumbed to that sunburn.   It was an unpleasant yet memorable lesson.   For more on this story of Lovelock’s electron capture device, CFCs and the ozone hole, see  Something in the air: James Lovelock and atmospheric pollution | Science Museum

Earth system science is an almost complete reflection of Lovelock’s ideas.   Almost, but not quite.   Earth system science still mostly neglects that human minds and behavior (and elements like metaphor that affect our behavior) are part of the living system.   Every aspect of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (now Theory) has deserved and still deserves to be taken seriously.   This includes his choice of names for the overall idea – “Gaia” – that can serve as a lens through which we can see every aspect of our humanity as part of Earth’s life.

Vignette Three

Why did James Lovelock name his hypothesis “Gaia?”   I’ll posit that the story is a good one, worthy of dissemination in and of itself:    Lovelock was hired by NASA in the 1960s to help determine whether or not there was life on Mars.  At the time, a Martian mission was not yet possible, but Lovelock thought the question could be settled simply by determining the composition of the Martian atmosphere (something that could be ascertained from Earth).  Based on the composition of Mars’ atmosphere –almost entirely carbon dioxide and and showing no signs of active exchange  – Lovelock came to the conclusion that there was no life on the planet.  The atmosphere was inert – nothing was being conveyed in or out of the planet’s gaseous blanket.   If there was life on the planet, one would expect the atmosphere would be a place of great exchange between gasses from different life processes (photosynthesis and respiration, for instance).

This conclusion has withstood the test of time, but, as Lovelock was to remark to me when I had the opportunity to meet him in the early 2000s, ‘at least we proved there was life on Earth.’  His shoulders rose and fell in a mostly silent chuckle with this remark because he said this was his big moment of insight.  He realized in a flash that measuring the atmosphere of a planet wasn’t really a test of whether or not there was life on a planet, but, rather, whether a living system was present.  Just as taking a blood sample from a person’s finger wouldn’t be done to determine whether or not their finger was alive, but to determine the health of the whole body, so too, the makeup of an atmosphere shows the state of an entire living system of a planet.

From this initial insight, an increasingly sophisticated scientific view of Earth as a single living system unfolded.   In the mid-1960s, he returned to his home in England , developed the idea more and shared it with friends and colleagues.    One of those people was William Golding, the well-known author of “Lord of the Flies.”  Upon hearing Lovelock’s ruminations about a living Earth, Golding urged his friend to call his scientific idea “Gaia,” after the Greek Goddess of Earth, to honor the fact that Western science was now rediscovering what ancient Western Culture had sensed mythically – that Earth was alive and that we are a part of her life.

For Golding, the idea evoked by Lovelock’s science was also transformational.  Golding had been a naval officer in World War II, battled alcoholism (quite openly) and wrote many novels that reflected a dark view of human nature.  But although he struggled with these experiences all his life, he developed an optimism in his later years that stemmed from his immersion in the metaphor of “Gaia.”  When he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1983, he wrote:

“Now we, if not in the spirit, have been caught up to see our earth, our mother, Gaia Mater, set like a jewel in space. We have no excuse now for supposing her riches inexhaustible nor the area we have to live on limitless because unbounded. We are the children of that great blue white jewel. Through our mother we are part of the solar system and part through that of the whole universe. In the blazing poetry of the fact we are children of the stars.”  William Golding – Nobel Lecture (

Gaia is great science and a great metaphor! Today, in the midst of myriad challenges we face, the intersection of science and metaphor must guide us. We need something to inspire us, to keep us inspired and to serve as a “clutch” to make a smooth transitions.  Just as a manual-shift car sputters and dies if the clutch is not employed, our efforts towards living sustainably on Earth stall out when the ideas we need do not mesh well with current thinking.   The Gaia metaphor can enable a smooth transition between today’s destructive perspectives and practices and those by which we can live well within the natural limits of our world. As this transition takes place, both science and metaphors will, themselves, co-evolve as we ask new questions pertinent to our survival and wellbeing.

Perhaps it will help to know that “ge“ of “geology” comes from the same root as “Gaia.” Yes, both are the ancient Greek Goddess of Earth! During the 18th and 19th centuries, when early scientists were establishing and naming disciplines, such as Biology, Astronomy and Geology, Western Society was in the midst of a “Greek revival” in which the wisdom of ancient Greek culture was being rediscovered.  Now, it is time to re-discover the wisdom of most, if not all, indigenous cultures that powerfully sensed that humanity is a child of a living Earth.    This is not to say that we should view these cultures through rose-colored glasses, perhaps seeing something utopian in the perspectives of these very human beings. We should, however, be open to those great truths of our existence that most, if not all, of our ancestors knew even without Western science.  The metaphor “Gaia” allows us to see those truths along with those yielded by Western science.

Vignette Four

Lovelock sometimes characterized the threats to Earth’s living system as “cars, cows and chainsaws.”  He realized that the scale and type of human transportation, agriculture and development were changing the nature of the entire living system to an extent that it could cause great human suffering.  But, he was also greatly concerned with the enormous use of fossil fuels that powered these activities because he knew the carbon they released was changing the nature of the atmosphere and causing climate change.  In 2001, Lovelock came out in favor of nuclear energy as necessary to avert this catastrophe.    This announcement compelled me to pay a pilgrimage to visit with this mentor of mine.    With assistance from Schumacher College, it was my great delight to be able to arrange a visit with Dr. Lovelock during the summer of 2003.

Lovelock and his wife, Sandy, were gracious and kind hosts.   We enjoyed some far-ranging conversation as we enjoyed lunch and walked around their property.   Lovelock showed me his electron capture device, his laboratory and the sculpture of the Greek Goddess, Gaia, which he was often photographed with.  One could sense his pride in all of these, especially his lab, which was among the means by which he was able to practice science independently over the years without influence from institutions and big funders.

My big question was, of course, about his support for nuclear energy vis a vis the hard work of conservation implicit in “cars, cows and chainsaws.”  The answer he gave was much as I suspected:  to him, the technical challenges of making nuclear energy safe enough were less than the social challenges of conservation.  And, since we were, even then, in need of cutting carbon emissions immediately, he considered nuclear energy as the only way forward.

But, what about the need for conservation on the living planet that he so eloquently had described scientifically and metaphorically?    Could continued growth in transportation, agriculture and overall development be sustained on a living planet regardless of what energy sources are used as inputs?  Even if we somehow were able to keep climate change in check, wouldn’t the change in other aspects of Earth’s physiology imperil humans?

His answer to me was much the same as a line from his 2006 book, “The Revenge of Gaia” – “I am not recommending nuclear fission energy as the long-term panacea for our ailing planet or as the answer to all our problems.  I see it as the only effective medicine we have now . . . We will have to do much more than just rely on nuclear energy if we are to avoid a new Dark Age in this century.”   His stance was that continued use of fossil fuels would most definitely doom our civilization and that an immediate transition to a lower carbon fuel source was necessary.   But, he reiterated that a different kind of economy that did not rely on continued growth of “cars, cows and chainsaws” was our only final hope.

I urged Dr. Lovelock to voice his thoughts about the need for conservation concurrent with his support for nuclear energy.  Unfortunately, in ensuing years, it seemed to me that Dr. Lovelock’s own message became dominated by his stance on nuclear energy and his dire messages about the future of the planet.  In this process, his important message of conservation got left mostly behind.   Not only that, supporters of nuclear energy used Lovelock’s stance to further their cause with what appeared to be no thought to conservation.

Consider an exchange I had with Admiral Skip Bowman, the CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Bowman spoke at the “Energy Conversation” (sponsored by the Department of Defense) in about 2005 and shared plans that the nuclear industry would build about 40 new reactors in the United States in coming years.  During this talk, he included reference to Lovelock’s support of nuclear energy.  At the conclusion of the talk, I was able to jump up and ask the first question: ‘what share of the total amount of electricity generated in the U.S. would nuclear energy provide after those 40 nuclear plants were built?’  Without skipping a beat, Bowman replied that the percentage of electricity supplied by nuclear energy at that point would be about the same as it was in 2005 (and now) – about 20%.   He believed that the electricity provided by fossil fuels would rise in equal measure to nuclear during the period in question.

The implications of this should be immediately clear: the nuclear industry did not consider (or perhaps notice) that the amounts of electricity supplied by fossil fuels would continue to soar. In a paradigm of unmitigated growth, climate change would continue unabated whether or not nuclear energy could provide increasing amounts of low carbon energy.

I don’t doubt that Admiral Bowman cared and cares deeply about climate change (see page 40 of this 2007 paper on climate change and national security, for example).   But our whole society seems to disregard the underlying assumption of growth for growth’s sake and the terrible consequences it brings.  Perpetual growth of our economy – no matter what it is fueled by – will keep changing the living system in ways that will make it horribly difficult or impossible for human beings to live.    It will.

Vignette Five

After returning from my visit with James Lovelock, my view of Gaia theory as the best paradigm for understanding life was as strong as ever.  It was, and still is, the most complete, interdisciplinary ecological perspective and the best context for understanding human life as part of Earth’s living system.   I considered it an opportunity – almost a responsibility – to apply it in my work at Potomac Overlook Regional Park and nature center I managed.   The park staff and I incorporated Gaia Theory into our programs, displays, written materials and other work as appropriate (where ecology might naturally be used, for instance).   I gave presentations about Gaia Theory and its practical application at our center, at local libraries and even at conferences and other places where I was invited to speak.  We integrated Gaia Theory into our long-standing energy education efforts.   (Some of the meaningful links with energy education include the primacy of photosynthesis [which Lovelock referred to as “the birth of Gaia”] and the importance of including the ways we humans think and behave as an integral part of the living system.)   In a subtle, yet meaningful way, Gaia “aka” Geo, became a unifying principle of our education efforts at the park.

Thus, by 2005, it became a natural extension of our work to find ways to bring Gaia Theory to a wider audience.   Because of my existing relationship with the co-founder of the Gaia Hypothesis, Lynn Margulis, the idea and planning for a conference came together in almost no time.  Lynn quickly agreed to be the keynote speaker (at a small fraction of her usual speaking fee) and additional support followed with little effort.

We formed a steering committee of local teachers, scientists and naturalists, and attracted an amazing array of speakers from many disciplines.   We sponsored a sculpture contest to reflect the scientific principles of Gaia Theory with help from staff at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. (the winning entry, “Gaian Energy,” is still in place at Potomac Overlook Regional Park, today).   We even arranged for a concert for conference attendees by Paul Winter, the famed saxophonist and lead musician of the album, “Missa Gaia.”  Although James Lovelock could not attend the conference in person, he did send opening remarks via video and established a tone of serious contemplation and discovery.

Chris Zimmerman, then Chairman of the Arlington County Board, wrote a letter in advance of the conference thanking the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority for bringing the event to Arlington and thanking co-sponsors for suggesting that the County co-sponsor the event.  He pointed out that two county departments as well as Arlington Public Schools were also co-sponsors and suggested the event would be important for addressing climate and other environmental issues.    Arlington Public Schools paid for teachers to attend the conference. The impressive list of sponsors for the conference (see end of conference webpage, below) was a powerful statement of the potential for the event.

See information on this conference, “Gaia Theory; Model and metaphor for the 21st century,” at 2006 Conference, including Conference Speakers.

Vignette Six  

The 2006 conference was a big success.   Over 300 attendees enjoyed sessions from world-class scientists, historians, artists, and others over a weekend.   After the event, e-mails and letters of appreciation from attendees, sponsors and speakers poured in.   The energy generated by the conference spawned the compilation of a book published by MIT Press entitled Gaia in Turmoil.   Many conference speakers and others (including James Lovelock) contributed to this volume which was edited by conference attendees Eileen Crist and Bruce Rinker.

Potomac Overlook Regional Park staff continued to emphasize the connection and application of environmental knowledge to sustainable directions for our society.   We fully integrated our longstanding energy education program, demonstration organic vegetable gardens and compost area into our traditional environmental education.   For instance, we converted the first floor of our education center into the “Energerium” which viewed energy through the lens of nature and nature through the lens of energy in the overall context of Earth as a living system.  We also began to work with local schools and businesses to make connections between environmental literacy and any and all careers that young people might be considering.

The conference and subsequent work were perceived as successful and worthy of building upon by our community, but it proved to be controversial with and was considered tangential to the park system for which I worked.     The use of Gaia Theory, even though it had been in our repertoire for almost two decades was met with great resistance. For this and related reasons, it became evident that I would need to leave my 27-year job as Chief Naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority if I were to use my life’s energy in productive ways.  It was a difficult decision and made with some regrets because it seemed to me that there were some big opportunities being lost.   I had very much wanted to make further progress on discovering sustainable solutions for our world grounded in firm understandings of humanity’s relationship with the rest of life.    But, in 2012, my family and I moved to Colorado, where I had gone to school and had family, and I formed Entrepreneurial Earth LLC.

Through Entrepreneurial Earth, I have been able to work in a variety of ways to try and fulfill the tag line of “Promoting Sustainable & Thriving Human Culture on Planet Earth.”  For instance, my work with Lafayette Open Space has been very satisfying.   I started and still run the Open Space education program and have been encouraged by my employers to connect traditional environmental education with local history, local arts, and local sustainability.  This is, indeed, a significant “Gaian approach” one driven by an underlying assumption that human society is a seamless continuum of Earth’s living system.

On the other hand, the overall receptivity in Boulder County to what I now call the “Gaia Paradigm” has been muted.  Although Earth Systems Science forms the basis for scientific work of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other scientific institutions in Boulder, the metaphor of Gaia is viewed with far more skepticism than I experienced even in the D.C. area which is usually characterized by tradition and conservative caution).   Unfortunately, this correlates with Earth systems not being well understood in other scientific disciplines, let alone the public.   Without a metaphor to connect the science to our humanity, science remains in those proverbial “ivory towers” where it does not inform and influence our human behavior, ways of thinking and ideas of value.  That the Gaia metaphor (which science has used for centuries as “Geo”) is perceived as “fringe” or “mystical” or is otherwise relegated to the periphery is, in my estimation, an unfortunate cultural blind spot.


Final Vignette   Role for the Gaia Idea?

In the previous vignette, one can sense some personal sense of missed opportunities and a bit of disappointment that I experienced in not having been able to advance an understanding of Gaia Theory – a Gaia “Paradigm” – more fully.   But, of course, the question of what role the idea of Gaia might play at a larger scale, far beyond my personal sphere, is not clear either.  More importantly:  it is not clear whether there is sufficient will or ability in our society to address our imbalance with living systems in a way that will be up to the task.  All of the trends and indicators of human society’s ability to live in balance with Earth’s living systems are blinking red.  In the midst of this, though, I believe James Lovelock’s scientific and metaphoric view of humanity can be an important catalyst for addressing our massive challenges.

A good place to start might be to explore our individual and collective frame of mind.  There are ways to reframe our mindset and how we assess our challenges.  James Lovelock’s life offers us great insights.

According to the article in The Guardian about Lovelock’s recent death, By the time he died he did not believe there was hope of avoiding some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”  Obviously, it could be interpreted from this that Lovelock, himself, had a pessimistic view at the end of his life.   But I don’t think this was the case.

In the same article, we read that Lovelock said in 2011 “My main reason for not relaxing into contented retirement is that like most of you I am deeply concerned about the probability of massively harmful climate change and the need to do something about it now [my emphasis].”  From this, we could interpret that Lovelock was more of a realist than a pessimist.   Indeed, one description of his 2015 book, “A Rough Ride to the Future” includes: But instead of feeling guilty, we should recognize what is happening, prepare for change, and ensure that we survive as a species so we can contribute to—perhaps even guide—the next evolution of Gaia. The road will be rough, but if we are smart enough, life will continue on earth in some form far into the future.”

Perhaps optimism is more an ability to ‘not relax into contented retirement’ than it is a rosy feeling that everything will turn out OK.    The kind of pessimism, then, that is most harmful is the act of withdrawing and trying to avoid reality.  William Golding’s metaphor of Gaia may allow us to collectively pursue the former way of being.   We must not fall prey to the latter, regardless of our fears, worries or superstitions.

Recall from Vignette 3, the sentiments expressed by William Golding during the course of his life, including at the end – “Now we, if not in the spirit, have been caught up to see our earth, our mother, Gaia Mater, set like a jewel in space. We have no excuse now for supposing her riches inexhaustible nor the area we have to live on limitless because unbounded.”  I believe that if we adopt a “matter of a fact” understanding of the world and how we fit in, we can transcend optimism and pessimism and just start doing things differently.

Let’s take a clear-eyed view of why we are in our present predicaments.    In an earlier vignette, we discussed Lovelock’s reference to “cars, cows and chainsaws” as emblematic of the threat to Earth’s living system as it presently supports us.  In his book, “The Revenge of Gaia,” he characterized our impacts this way: We are in our present mess because the luxuries of whole-house heating and private transport by car have become necessities and far beyond the Earth’s capacity to provide.”   The point is that we cannot continue living in the same ways if we expect to thrive, perhaps even survive.  Period.   Can we find ways of doing this?   Yes. Absolutely.    Will we be able to find ways of living in ways that allow living system to persist in a manner that will support us?  Yes, but we must not get bogged down in discussions over whether we are optimistic or pessimistic or something else.  One of our biggest needs, then, is to simply act in ways we know we need to.

A second, but simultaneous, need is to be inspired. Saying that our first need is to act does not imply that our state of mind is not important, only that we can’t be so negative or so distracted that inaction is the natural outcome.   In this regard, Lovelock’s science, and especially the metaphor, Gaia, is a font of inspiration that appeals to mind and heart.  Consider this from Lovelock’s Foreword to Elisabet Sahtouris aforementioned book “Earth Dance”:

“The optimistic view this book radiates, that despite our errors and immaturities we can still become a healthy species within a healthy planet, is much needed in this age of doomsday predictions. Though time is growing short in our continued destruction of forests, atmospheres, and other critical Gaian systems, nothing would make me happier personally than to see Gaia theory useful in bringing about a better world for Gaia and her people.”  

Then Sahtouris’ own words from the same book: Once we truly grasp the scientific reality of the Gaian organism . . .  our entire world-view and practice are bound to change profoundly, revealing the way to solving what now appear to be our greatest and most insoluble problems.”    

I take inspiration – a great sense of profundity – from both of these sentiments.   What if our ability to survive and thrive on this planet really is increased by – or even dependent on – our ability to see ourselves as a part of a living world of which we are a seamless continuum?   What if this view is not one among many, but an overall view that will allow us to live well and well into the future?

There are a multitude of ways of living on Earth.  Indeed, different ways of living will be necessary in each biome on Earth just as they were before the advent of ghastly levels of energy use that allowed us to believe that one way of living was good and correct.  But, what if varied cultures of Earth are affirmed or spawned anew by a central understanding of human beings as part of Nature, not apart from it?   The culture of growth for growth’s sake is not the only basis for human culture.

This was the view of Czech president, Vaclav Havel when he gave an acceptance speech for the Liberty Medal presented to him in 1994.   The ceremony took place at Independence Hall, the site not only of America’s Declaration of Independence but where the independence of Czechoslovakia was declared 76 years earlier!   In the acceptance speech, Havel credited the Gaia Hypothesis as one of the reasons for hope in the world because:

“This theory brings together proof that the dense network of mutual interactions between the organic and inorganic portions of the Earth’s surface form a single system, a kind of mega-organism, a living planet -Gaia – named after an ancient goddess who is recognizable as an archetype of the Earth Mother in perhaps all religions. According to the Gaia Hypothesis we are parts of a greater whole. Our destiny is not dependent merely on what we do for ourselves but also on what we do for Gaia as a whole. If we endanger her, she will dispense with us in the interests of a higher value – that is, life itself.

What makes the Anthropic Principle and the Gaia Hypothesis so inspiring? One simple thing: Both remind us, in modern language, of what we have long suspected, of what we have long projected into our forgotten myths and what perhaps has always lain dormant within us as archetypes. That is, the awareness of our being anchored in the Earth and the universe, the awareness that we are not here alone nor for ourselves alone, but that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme. This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions. All cultures anticipate it in various forms. It is one of the things that form the basis of man’s understanding of himself, of his place in the world, and ultimately of the world as such.

A modem philosopher once said: “Only a God can save us now.”

Yes, the only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.

It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies or sympathies: it must be rooted in self-transcendence.”    Vaclav Havel – National Constitution Center

Havel’s comments portend the significance that James Lovelock’s idea of Gaia provides in 2023 and beyond:  The science that Lovelock brought to the world and the metaphor he chose to represent it offer people across the world a way to rediscover and re-legitimize the wisdom of all of our ancestors.  Lovelock’s science did not just rediscover what our Western ancestors knew at a mythological/cultural level, it rediscovered what essentially all indigenous cultures knew:  that we are a seamless continuum of a living world.   It’s not that any or all of these cultural views needs science to find validation.  It’s that science essentially proves that these cultural insights were and are right, after all!

Gaia Theory has influenced many people and Lovelock will be remembered as a fiercely independent thinker who added immensely to our understanding of the world.  The quintessential question for me is whether his ideas will contribute to humanity’s ability to survive and maybe thrive in the future.   In a nutshell, as captured by his chapter in “Gaia in Turmoil,” Lovelock would urge a Sustainable Retreat,” in which we find ways of living that are more conducive to our long term well-being with Gaia.

Finding ways to live with Gaia will not happen so long as our economic policy is based on unrelenting growth that is coupled in any way to consumption of energy and materials.   Lovelock knew that if our retreat is not intentional and well-envisioned, it will be chaotic and deadly. But, I think he’d urge us not retire from the need to act.   Our optimism is synonymous with discovering new ways of living that put us back in balance with Earth’s life.    

James Lovelock, creator of Gaia hypothesis, dies on 103rd birthday | The Guardian 


How can we discover ways of living that put us back in balance with Earth’s life?  That’s our most important task.   Here’s my quick take on it via sharing a “5-step program for what ails us” – a series of “musings” (periodic blogs) on my website, Entrepreneurial Earth  (