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Climate change solutions: towards ‘Emily’


In November, 2017, the world held a conference in Paris hoping to dress the global, seemingly chronic, wound of  climate change. Perhaps our post-industrial society will slowly point itself in the right direction. So far it has done so shamefacedly, with apology to the purely human artifice of demand and supply economics. Thus, forests are said to be worth preserving because they represent a hitherto undiscovered source of potential drugs, because they serve as carbon dioxide sinks, or because science has not had time to catalogue the utility value of their doomed biota. The same reasoning is applied to many disputed habitats. Preservation in an economic culture demands an economic excuse. Nature must be part of the economic model. Even climate change must be squeezed into the human economic scheme of things.

We have become so successful at taming Nature that we no longer recognize ourselves in Her, or Her in ourselves. To city dwellers—most of us—even the night sky is lost. We are de-Natured and denatured, excluded and disconnected. As long as Nature remains an inventory of economic resources to which no intrinsic values attach, we will continue to know exactly what we have, what we own, and what we are worth in monetary terms—but little of what we are. Recall the Taoist axiom: ‘A man is wealthy who knows that he has enough’.

Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

We have important and positive roles to play, as do our coeval species on this planet. In 1979, James Lovelock took the world by storm with Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, a hypothesis named for a goddess of ancient Greece. In addition to its pantheon of deities, the world of Animist, classical Greece was a hive of conflicting omens and spirits. Spirits imbued each mountain, rock and tree, propelled each water course and drove the ever-restless air. Some were benign, others malign. And of course this multitude of earthy, airy and watery spirits comprised a snakes’-nest of seething contradictions. However, in her quiet wholeness, one goddess embodied them all. She was the ultimate feminine spirit, the Earthgoddess, Gaia.

In developing his modern, scientific Gaia hypothesis, Lovelock drew on geology, geochemistry, atmospheric chemistry, climatology, physiology and biology—Gaia’s enabling spirits, in Animist terms. From a shamanic point of view, Lovelock has used scientific disciplines as if they were power animals, tapping their intellectual strengths to show how every reaction forms an integral link in a single chain. From Earth’s core to her lithosphere, from her oceans to her atmosphere and biosphere, Lovelock proposed that Earth as a whole behaves like a huge, self-regulating organism. (In some respects, Vladimir Vernadsky reported aspects of these manifestations decades earlier.)

Ideas may take years to ferment: Lovelock credits earlier work by ecologist Eugene Odum, philosopher Stephen Zivadin and other ‘geophysiologists’, to use Lovelock’s expression. It was not until he collaborated with biologist Lynn Margulis that ‘the skeleton Gaia hypothesis grew flesh and came alive’ in 1973. From that point it took flight as a theory of Earth as living organism.

‘Gaia theory forces a planetary perspective,’ writes Lovelock. ‘It is the health of the planet that matters’. To that end, he ‘came to realise that there might be the need for a new profession, that of planetary medicine’.

Predictably, the Gaia hypothesis was lauded by environmentalists and scorned by many scientists. The hypothesis went into eclipse for a while. It seemed too unworldly, too whole/istic, too New Age. Skeptics abounded …

… But Gaia rebounded. Why? [At an earlier point in ‘Spirit in Health’ ] we heard of a dramatic recovery by Canada’s Ojibway shaman/artist, Norval Morrisseau, after a shaman changed his name. He became Copper Thunderbird, (or ᐅᓵᐚᐱᐦᑯᐱᓀᐦᓯ in Cree syllabics). James Lovelock did the same for Gaia. He changed her name to Geophysiology, a familiar language to the research community. The British Independent on Sunday quotes him: ‘By calling [Gaia] geophysiology, I thought [scientists] would be kept happy’. They were. Dick Holland of Harvard University, a prominent former critic of Gaia, became a founding member of the Geophysiological Society. The name change earned Lovelock’s patient the long overdue attention of the appropriate doctors—the research community.

Other factors helped bring about a positive change of attitude. Physics had long assumed that we live in a universe grounded in chaos and scattered by entropy—the gloomy promise of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. However, recent research seems to support A.N. Whitehead’s conclusion that atomic and molecular interactions demonstrate an inherent orderliness at the most basic levels. Something—Nature, if you will—imposes order. Molecular construction, destruction and change seems to experience explicit design.

That raised the thought: if order imposes itself on the microcosmic world of atoms, is it also at work in the macrocosm? How can it work against climate change?

Climate change and 'Emily', <em>Emiliania huxleyi</em>

Emiliania huxleyi. Photo, courtesy of the University of California, San Diego.

Climate change and ‘Emily’

Driven by that question, science again explores Gaia—Geophysiology—in a more holistic frame of mind. Gaia’s ordering is fully scaleable: from the microcosm to the macrocosm, scaling from the mass of atoms to the planet’s envelope. By way of example, let us pull just one straw from a haystack of facts: Emiliania huxleyi is a marine organism, a single-celled green plant, blooms of which cover vast areas of the deep oceans. ‘Emily’ removes carbon dioxide from the air and replaces this heat-trapping gas with oxygen. Moreover, Emily and her kind generate vast amounts of dimethyl sulphide gas; this rises into the atmosphere to form an aerosol of sulfuric acid droplets. These droplets become the nucleii around which water vapour condenses, forming clouds. Since oceans cover two thirds of the planet, the cloud cover resulting from the activities of ‘Emily’ and other microorganisms contributes powerfully to reflecting solar radiation, thereby cooling the atmosphere. Lovelock and others have suggested that marine microorganisms generate sufficient dimethyl sulfide to cool our gaseous envelope to the same degree as carbon dioxide warms it. The Journal of Phycology expresses one of humanity’s best hopes for repair for repair of climate change blandly: “Emiliania huxleyi (Lohm.) … is an important primary producer involved in oceanic biogeochemistry and climate regulation”. [1]

From life, to gas, to heat-reflecting liquid, to continued conditions for life. Animate, inanimate; yin, to and from yang. All are critical parts of the wheel. Tiny components directing the whole. Gaia as self-regulator. Gaia as medicine and healer. One can but hope.

© Robert Fripp, An excerpt from Spirit in Health, 2009

[1]  Journal of Psychology, August 2005, Volume 41, Issue 4  (Abstract)