Creation myths often follow the logic of organisms giving birth to each other back to the beginning of life, at which point there must have been a creative event of some kind. The Ancient Greeks imagined the original mother and named her Gaia. In the 1970s, William Golding (the poet) suggested to James Lovelock (the Earth systems scientist) that he revive Gaia as a name for the self-regulating planetary ecosystem known as the biosphere.
The need for a name arose because Lovelock had described a global system that behaved like a living organism. For example, it somehow managed to maintain for very long periods the salt concentration of the oceans, at about the same as our own blood. Also, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere was fairly constant, despite oxygen being a reactive gas that should quickly vanish into rocks, and there has long been an abundance of liquid water (as opposed to ice and vapour), regardless of huge environmental disturbances.
So the Golding solution was to name the spirit of the biosphere, different from the sum of its parts, which emerges from innumerable events each second and reveals itself in the behaviour of the system as a whole over hundreds of millions of years. In this sense, Gaia had become more of a symbol of the tree of life and its planetary home, than of the origin of life as such, but this would probably have made as much sense in antiquity as it does today, by naming a living goddess for a living world.
As a word, ‘Gaia’ is handy for two reasons. It stands for what would otherwise have to be a paragraph full of top-end technical words like ecosystem, regulation, feedback, evolution, homeostasis, cybernetics and biosphere, all resting on a lot of scientific knowledge about physical, chemical, and biological systems, and concepts of deep time (billions of years), all of them still difficult for many. And it also flags the notion that there are mysteries of some deep and important kind involved.
As a word representing ‘the world herself’, Gaia has two other advantages. First, it makes ‘living world’ the right meaning of the term ‘biosphere’ – much better than ‘planet’, which implies a lump of rock – and unites it with everything else we mean by ‘world’, which is a place that we experience and are part of in all its social and living complexity. Second, it makes the world inherently female, and therefore creative, nurturing, and lawful (even if those laws are sometimes incomprehensible to children like us).
And as a thing itself, the idea of ‘importance’ depends on the scale or level at which one is living and thinking. For humans, as relatively large-bodied mammals who as individuals and smallish groups inhabit landscapes (rather than, say, the undersides of rotting logs, like woodlice, or flyways stretching over thousands of kilometres, like migrant birds), the most important things tend to be what goes on at the landscape level. These determine factors like the fertility of the soils, the abundance of game, and the availability of fresh water, which sustain our livelihoods, and the local languages and traditions that define and maintain our societies.
The biosphere is the nested set (one inside another) of all landscapes, up to a whole world of which we have only recently become fully aware. We know that what goes on at a biosphere level affects what happens at a landscape level, so the idea of Gaia was needed to express this. And it has become very important to us in practical terms, as the consequences of runaway climate change are about to make clear.
Valid candidates for the most important things are found amongst the pre-conditions of existence (from gravity to God), the ways of thinking that make things make sense (from curiosity to foresight), the feelings that make life worth living (from hope to serenity), the things that we need day to day (from water to plants), and the things that keep our societies going (from justice to music). But it is Gaia: the world herself that best captures the all-important relationships among places and peoples that make everything both habitable and meaningful.
© Julian Caldecott