Friday, January 10, 2014

Gaia: you ain't seen nothing yet




The magnificent lady
who gathers up the divine powers of heaven and earth
and rivals great An,
is mightiest among the great gods.
She makes their verdicts final

(from the electronic text corpus of Sumerian Literature)




A review of the book by Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson "Revolutions that made the earth" (Oxford 2011)

The authors of "Revolutions that made the earth" start from the very beginning with mentioning the name of Gaia for the subject of their book; the story of the Earth's ecosystem. Some people see Gaia as a living being, some as a benevolent goddess, some as a tangle of feedbacks, and others think she just doesn't exist. Yet, out there, there is a pattern, there is a logic. The ecosystem, (aka "Gaia") is there to do something - it is there to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible rate. And it (She) does it very creatively, by means of the endless variety of things and creatures we see around us. We are just starting to understand how exactly this gigantic system works and how it (She) has changed over  the eons. It is perhaps the most fascinating story ever told - and it is not yet concluded.

If you know something of this multi-billion year story, you can't but feel sorry for the poor clods who think that the whole issue of climate change reduces to such silly statements as "climate is always changing". The Earth's climate, indeed, has been always changing, but always for some reason. And it is changing now very fast for a reason we understand: the human caused emissions of greenhouse gases. It is a change occurring way too fast for the planetary mechanisms that normally stabilize climate to intervene. The results could be very bad for human beings but Gaia doesn't care for humans. She simply survives.   

Unfortunately, humans don't seem to understand the mess they have put themselves in with their carbon emissions. One reason is that the Gaian climate mechanisms are described in scientific papers hidden behind publishers' paywalls and written in obscure and forbidding language. For the non initiate, learning the history of Earth and of its climate from academic papers is not unlike deciphering the hymn of the earth goddess Inanna (an earlier name for Gaia) from Sumerian cuneiform tablets. But the scientific knowledge about Gaia is starting to trickle down from the rarefied world of academia to the real world of ordinary people and the book "Revolutions that made the earth" gives you at least a fighting chance to learn the basics of the subject.

"Revolutions" is written in plain English, not in cuneiform, and the authors made a remarkable effort to be clear and understandable by the layman. That doesn't mean it is an easy book and Lenton and Watson are alerting the reader that "The book covers terrain that ranges in difficulty from easy to strenuous." They are right: sometimes you have the feeling that deciphering cuneiform could be easier than deciphering some sections of this book. That's probably unavoidable: Gaia is a complex system, one of the most complex systems we know of. As for all things which are important and fascinating, learning about the ways of the Goddess requires (and deserves) time and attention.

But if you let yourself to be taken in by the story that the authors of "Revolutions" are telling, well, you don't have to go into the most complicated details (say, the question of the mass independent fractionation of sulphur isotopes). And what a story they are telling! It spans four billion years and went through a series of dramatic events; "revolutions", as the authors correctly term them. They list a total of 8 such events, from the appearance of replicating molecules to the origin of symbolic languages, with humans. Gaia has been stepping up her metabolism toward a higher and higher efficient transduction of solar energy; every revolution has been, basically, a metabolic revolution. Lenton and Watson estimate (p.49) that the metabolic efficiency improvement has been at least of a factor one thousand from the first life forms on Earth to the present biosphere.

So, you ain't seen nothing yet as the planetary engine is revving up and may well go past redline. This is the point that Lenton and Watson are making: revolutions are not over. There is plenty of room for Gaia to grow since the whole biosphere, today, does not capture more than about 2% of the energy arriving from the sun. So, we may be ready for a new jump that could bring the complexity of the ecosystem to levels unthinkable up to now. What this new revolution could be, exactly, is difficult to say. Here, the chapter of  "Revolutions" describing the future of the ecosystem is - I must say - the least satisfactory of the book. It tries an impossible task: a few pages are just not enough to tackle such a gigantic issue. It is sure, anyway, that revolutions are never painless and it would be wrong to think that the new metabolic jump will save humankind from the self-inflicted disaster of global warming. It may save just a few of us, or perhaps none. Gaia doesn't care for humans, she simply survives. We will see what the future has in store for us. In the meantime, I am reading "Revolutions" a second time - as it deserves.












 






18 comments:

  1. As Antonio Turiel mentioned, we are destroing our Habitat, not the Planet.

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  2. I think your Gaia at the top is a harpy. Are you saying that we are blind and soon will be without food?

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    1. The Goddess has many forms - not all of them are benevolent and merciful.

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  3. "Some people see Gaia as a living being, some as a benevolent goddess, some as a tangle of feedbacks, and others think she just doesn't exist. Yet, out there, there is a pattern, there is a logic. The ecosystem, (aka "Gaia") is there to do something - it is there to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible rate.

    Nonetheless I would be willing to bet -regardless of how "some people see Gaia”- an additional 50 dollars (Amazon’s steep price for the book) that: a) Gaia is NOT a living being, nor is "she" a "benevolent" goddess; (nor a malevolent one for that matter); nor that a set of phenomena and processes which can be called "Gaia" does NOT exist.
    The description from the sentence I quoted above which is most likely to be "true and real" (in generally accepted epistemological terms) (though still only partial) is that "she" is "a tangle of feedbacks"

    And I say "only partial" since off-hand the “phenomenon” we humans have chosen to call GAIA seems to be more than that. Since it also involves and subsumes the evolution and coming into being of various so called "emergent phenomena" some of which have to do with biological evolution (e.g. John Maynard Smith's entire account of the history of biological evolution) and some with evolution and “revolutions”. (i.e. with qualitative and discontinuous jumps in evolution) of systems which are not primarily or solely biological (or geological, or geochemical, or geo-physical) in nature but, rather, are an interaction.

    The interaction of such different "evolutions" and "revolutions" -and their different categories of systems and processes- is clearly something more than just some "tangle of feedbacks" even if a good part of it probably can be reduced to that. There is always a challenge for any of the single branches of science being studied in depth in reductionist fashion to aggregate up nicely with other branches into holistic and integrated explanations. Just as there are often serious disaggregation problems for holistic explanations back into the specifics of reductionist analyses at various levels and for various interactive and inter-nestled system components. The study of the “nitty gritty” of the inter-nestled components of complexity and of complex interactive systems at various levels, and how they actually occur, come into being (emerge), or interact is fairly “complex” .

    I also would exclude the possibility of "teleological" or "purposive" explanations or characterizations. " such as…. "The ecosystem, (aka "Gaia") is there to do something - it is there to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible rate". That may well be what it is actually observably doing but it is a far cry from that, to conclude that that is its so called "purpose".

    These are the ideas and views (prejudices?) -against either religious or anthropomorphic or teleological explanations- with which I approach my upcoming reading of this undoubtedly interesting book and I will make a 50 dollar bet with myself (to try to recover the money I will have to shell out to Amazon to receive it) that I was WRONG about even these fundamental assumptions. That way I can at least receive a fifty-dollar consolation prize for having gotten it all wrong. But whether right or wrong about the fundamentals I am sure I will learn a lot by reading the book and will be able to look forward even more to how Earth and Gaia are going to use up that other 98% of solar energy that is hitting Earth everyday in ever more marvelous and surprising ways.

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  4. I was never happy with James Lovelock for naming his theory Gaia theory. I do understand that we as humans need metaphors to clarify our thoughts and to be able to communicate them to others. Metaphors that use anthropomorphic agents that have certain properties and functions are used by many great thinkers, because this is the way our minds work.

    Examples of some of those most infuential thinkers of our time, are Richard Dawkins (Selfish Gene), Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking. Fast and Slow) and James Lovelock (The Gaia Principle).

    Anthropomorphic agents are powerful metaphors because our brains are able to make very good guesses on how agents will behave under circumstances we have not been able to observe yet.

    There is a fallacy though. This fallacy is that some people tend to take anthropomorhic thinking too serious. It is (as Dawkings would say) a very successfull meme that has the tendency to develop into blind faith. Even when the usefullness of the metaphor fades it will continue to exist. It is exactly the way that ideologies and religions are created in the collective human mind. These memes tend to serve themselfs even when they have a corrupting and negative effect on those that carry it.

    Therefore to all that are thinking of Gaia as more than a very clever metaphor by James Lovelock, I say: please dont. Blind faith is exactly what brought "Gaia" into the grave situation she is in now.

    Blind faith in that "invisible hand" and the "homo economicus", that the market and its growth will be our saviour. Blind faith that there is a reward in the afterlife for being a brave, submissive believer in whatever religion or ideology tells you.

    I am writing this, because the Gaia theory seems to be a very successfull meme in certain esoteric, green circles and there is danger of it becoming a volatile meme by its entanglement with esotericism. I have long wondered why esotericism gives me the creeps and have finally found out why.

    In my understanding, this world is spiritually famished. Spirituality is in its essence the need for harmony with oneself, the earth and all others. We need reclaim our spirituality to face the revolutionary changes that the plundering of our planet is forcing upon us.

    Spirituality is essentially the thinking that more for you is more for me. It is the opposite of capitalism. In capitalism, less for you is more for me. Capitalism ist he force behind plundering our planet.

    We are separated, dislocated and socially alienated by capitalism. Capitalism takes away the things we give each other out of love and generosity, and sells them back to us. Things like friendship, advice or belonging. (See i.e. Bruce K. Alexander. the Globalization of Addiction. or Charles Eisenstein. Sacred Economics).

    In many cases esotericism is one form of capitalism selling us back the spirituality it took from us, it is the commercialisation of spiritual hunger. Esotericism is therefore the worst form of capitalism. It is one therefore a part of the problem not the solution.

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    1. It is an interesting series of reflections, Alien. And I think you hit the right target when you say that this world is "spiritually famished" and that spirituality is the opposite of capitalism (more specifically, the combination of liberism and capitalism).

      Now, with my text I didn't mean to say that Gaia can fill this spiritual vacuum. Gaia is a good metaphor and I didn't mean anything more than that. A way to enliven complex and difficult concepts. But you are right: as with all good metaphors there is a chance that Gaia could be taken too seriously. When Darwin developed the idea of evolution by natural selection, he didn't imagine (I think) that eventually that would lead to white supremacists and the like. So, the risk is there that Gaia could lead to some damaging misinterpretation - even though I find it difficult to imagine how you could kill people in the name of the Earth Goddess - but never underestimate the resources of evil!

      Anyhow, your post makes me think that the spiritual aspect of our relation with the ecosystem is something we must face. We can't continue with the fiction that we are hard nosed people interested only in hard facts and data. It is not easy - we have to think about that.

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    2. Thanks for your kind response. I did not want to incur that you would use Gaia other than as a metaphor. But the Gaia theorie has fascinated so many esoterics that I felt compelled to write this comment.

      I feel like rambling some more today and would like to pick up on your last paragraph about facts and truth.

      I have studied natural sciences (physics and mineralogy) and had a fact driven view of the world for most of my life. As I get older, it becomes more and more obvious to me, that facts and truth are not the same thing at all. Truth comes to us in stories and revelations, not arguments. We often have all the facts without understanding the truth.

      I will use a very drastic example to make my point. About 1 Million humans were factually killed in Auschwitz. This abstract number, while being true, will not convey any kind of truth. It is just a very large abstract number that we cant seem to really comprehend.

      Hearing a subjective story of one survivor, maybe someone we have emotional ties with, might carry in it infinitely more truth about the terrible events heand all those countless others lived through, than any fact that we had to learn in school. Even if he doesnt get all the "hard" facts right, his story might give us the kind of understanding neccessary to prevent things like that from ever happening again. The facts will never be able convey that message.

      When it comes to plundering the planet, destroying the atmosphere, depleting the oceans or ruining the top soil, we, as humanity, seem to have all the facts, but are obviously totally clueless of the truth. Most people are still missing the stories they can emotionally connnect with to really understand the truth behind the facts. This is my explanation for cassandras curse.

      You are doing a very great job in bringin the facts out there. But sadly, we can not hope that people will grasp the truth behind the facts fast enough anymore.

      I have no answer for that problem other than that we might have to live through collapse to understand the truth. Maybe the problem is therefore, just as you said, that our focus on rationality, scientific approach and hard facts is just what brought us here.

      This is actually the conclusion of philosopher Charles Eisenstein. If anybody has not heard of Charles until now, I suggest to read his books or watch one of his speeches. especially if feeling frustrated about how we seem to be unable to change our course towards desaster. (And he is no esoteric at all, but a scholar with a profound background in philosophy, economics and ecology).

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScOgao-tRwU
      http://charleseisenstein.net/

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  5. Regarding "spirituality" I would say that the world is both "famished for spirituality" but also "sickened with indigestion from too much spirituality".....once we know exactly what the notion means and can agree to it then perhaps we can at least distinguish the good spirituality from the bad one. (after we are first sure that the notion is not completely meaningless within the "normal" categories of epistemology) (but "paranormal" categories abound there too)

    Please also see one of Carl Sagan's final books: "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark"...." But even Carl Sagan doesn't really dare to take on the notion of "spirituality" itself. (only a few spirits here and there). Spirituality simply IS, because it IS, because some people say it IS, because IT IS experienced, and because it is good and clearly indispensable and always has been and always will be. End of Story.

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    1. Carl Sagan didn't take on the notion of "spirituality" because he felt it himself when he looked up at the stars.

      Saying that spirituality doesn't exist is like saying consciousness doesn't exist, or love, or hate, anger, frustration, hope, etc.

      Spirituality is an emotion and exists as surely as other emotions exist.

      Now... whether there is something to feel spiritual about is a different question.

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  6. You said that "Some people see Gaia as a living being, some as a benevolent goddess, some as a tangle of feedbacks, and others think she just doesn't exist. Yet, out there, there is a pattern, there is a logic. The ecosystem, (aka "Gaia") is there to do something - it is there to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible rate. "
    A small quibble, that last sentence should read, "dissipate free energy at the fastest rate possible."
    Unfortunately, what that means is that metaphorically, Gaia privileged the human species because we were able to run down fossil energy reserves at a faster rate than any other species. We might even say that there was no competition. No other species was able to run down fossil energy reserves at all and so with that fossil energy at our disposal, we were able to displace thousands of other species from their ecological niches and drive them to extinction. The paradox in all this seems to be that the thing that makes us so successful, the inevitable law of energy depletion at the same time could spell the destruction of the earth in the form that allowed humans and other species to evolve. Multiple biological species make for effective energy dissipation only in a narrow band of temperatures. Outside that band of temperatures that supports the life forms that dissipate energy, other processes must do the job. There may be no life forms involved at all. Gaia as presently constituted will change into something else, something less complex and indifferent to earth's present life forms.

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  7. Wolfgang, the principle I was citing is often expressed in term "fastest rate of entropy dispersal" - I think it is equivalent to what you say, though. And you are basically right in your considerations: fossil energy has been outcompeting life's metabolism in dispersing entropy. If we were able, for instance, to burn the all the accumulated kerogen in the crust in a gigantic fire, that would outcompete every other process in terms of rate of entropy dispersal - so fast that nothing would be left. But, oh.... what lovely light it would give!




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  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  9. Anime sospese
    le ho viste aggirarsi in tutte le stazioni
    in cerca della loro identità perduta
    vita vissuta ai margini della dignità
    imposta da una società malata
    Priva di amore verso i più umili
    che stanchi di lottare si sono arresi
    assistendo impassibili alla vita che non gli appartiene più
    Vita ricercata nella folla frettolosa
    schiava del tempo che passa veloce
    come fossero automi taluni offrono una moneta
    tenendo in vita queste anime sospese
    condannate ha fare da specchio a tutta l’umanità. Vittorio
    PS il mondo di domani??? nel post sopra ci sono parole stampate non esatte. grazie

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  10. Dear Earthlings and Universlings (same difference)

    The Earth is a system that is alive and has a metabolism.

    You are a vital part of that living system.

    You are one of the very few parts of the system that have awareness.

    You are one of the even smaller number of parts that are aware of that awareness.

    The Earth, then, is a living and conscious system. Humans are a way for the Earth to perceive its self.

    It is conscious, partly, because it has a nervous system named: Humanity.

    The Earth also has a respiratory system composed of human lungs and trees, among other things.

    The Earth also has a digestive system composed of human guts, microbes, plants and other animals, among other things.

    You humans ARE Earth. Literally and figuratively speaking.

    You are the Earth thinking. You are the Earth disagreeing. You are the Earth farting and smiling about it.

    Is the Earth alive? It is as alive and aware as you are, Earthling.

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  11. Uni : Now THAT's what's known as "human exceptionalism", in spades!

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  12. Visto che cambiate le parole del post ( Anime Sospese ) da me Postato ne chiedo la cancellazione
    grazie Vittorio

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    1. OK. Credo di aver cancellato quello giusto. Sennò fammi sapere

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  13. questo è quello giusto.
    Anime sospese
    le ho viste aggirarsi in tutte le stazioni
    in cerca della loro identità perduta
    vita vissuta ai margini della dignità
    imposta da una società malata
    Priva di amore verso i più umili
    che stanchi di lottare si sono arresi
    assistendo impassibili alla vita che non gli appartiene più
    Vita ricercata nella folla frettolosa
    schiava del tempo che passa veloce
    come fossero automi taluni offrono una moneta
    tenendo in vita queste anime sospese
    condannate ha fare da specchio a tutta l’umanità. Vittorio
    PS il mondo di domani???

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)