“The Gaea Hypothesis: An Overview” by Dana Corby

This article was first published in The Crystal Well in Spring 1976.

In the late 1960’s, a photograph appeared in magazines, on television screens, front pages and posters, all over the world. It was a photograph taken from space, of the Earth itself, and it radically changed the way human beings viewed this lovely planet of ours.

It is no coincidence that the ecology movements became “respectable” shortly afterwards. Never before had it been possible, except philosophically, to perceive the Earth as a whole. Never before had humans been brought so forcefully to awareness that there really wasn’t “someplace else” we could go to when we had thoroughly fouled our own nest.

The Pagan movement also received a great impetus at this time. Again, it was no coincidence. The mystical vision afforded by that wondrous picture of our Earth, glowing blue and white against the night of space, was for many people overwhelming. A great many began to feel that a philosophy which taught that the Earth was a place of sin and woe, that life was a trial, had to be very wrong. Surely this perfect, shining sphere, wrapped in its atmosphere like a royal garment, had to partake of the Divine.

To Dr. James Lovelock, a noted British ecologist, this first good look at the Earth from the outside was the inspiration for a new eco-evolutionary theory, which has since come to be called the “Gaea Hypothesis” after the ancient Greek Goddess of the Earth. The Gaea Hypothesis has thus far managed to upset nearly all the established theories of evolution and ecology by contradicting (and improving upon) most of those fields’ most cherished ideas.

Until now, life on Earth has been explained by the theory of the “Cosmic Accident.” That is, that life exists on Earth because environmental conditions “just happened” to be right for it. This theory has had some holes in it that somehow couldn’t be plugged up. It is known, for instance, that a good many of these “accidental” environmental factors happen to be the product of the very biological processes for which they create viable conditions. The very existence of the oxygen and nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere is dependent upon the metabolic processes of the animal and vegetative life which in turn depend upon the oxygen and nitrogen to keep that metabolism going. Without this interplay, the Earth would be a very different place of sterile soil and seas high in ions of oxygen and nitrogen. Catch 22 on a planetary scale!

The Gaea Hypothesis, on the other hand, postulates the Earth, Gaea, as a single organism of which all species are working members. Like other organisms, Gaea is self-regulating, creating optimum conditions within Her body, i.e., on the surface of the Earth, for life to go on. Again, the atmosphere is the key, but instead of insoluble paradox, we have a prime example of the adaptability, perhaps even intelligence, of Gaea. A number of species of animal life have evolved a kind of protective covering; for instance, the shells of mollusks, the slimy mantle of some fishes, even our own skins. These relatively resilient outer layers protect and allow full expression of the more delicate organs and their functions. Yet serious damage to the skin can cause severe shock which in turn can cause damage to the inner organs even though they may not be directly touched. If, as the Gaea Hypothesis suggests, Gaea evolved Earth’s atmosphere as a kind of mantle or epidermis for the protection of surface life, atmospheric pollution may have even more far reaching effects than anyone realizes.

Nearly everyone, these days, is aware of the discomfort smog can cause. Most people are also aware that it can kill trees, especially the more primitive and delicate pines, and that it has driven many species of animal into danger of extinction by narrowing their habitats past life-supporting limits. Witness the California Condor. What very few people realize is the relatively narrow limits within which the atmosphere itself can continue to support life.

A mere 10 increase in atmospheric pressure could raise the surface temperature enough to melt the Polar ice caps, flooding all low lying land masses. An increase in oxygen content to 25 would be enough to cause spontaneous combustion even in the Amazon rain forest. Further erosion of the ozone layer could cause wide spread radiation damage to chordate life. And all these factors are greatly susceptible to pollution. Pollution means particles in suspension in the atmosphere. That means greater density, hence greater pressure. Flourocarbon damage to the ozone layer has been much discussed. But it is water pollution which affects the oxygen levels.

Most of the Earth’s oxygen is renewed by the plankton in the seas and waterways. These comprise the greatest mass of plant life, though they are not as obvious or beautiful as the forests. Destroy or even seriously tamper with this vital source of oxygen, and life as we now know it disappears.

As grim as these facts are, Dr. Lovelock believes that it is pollution of the soil, through modern intensive farming methods, which is the most dangerous. By creating severe imbalances in the soil ― the flesh of Gaea of which we are a part ― we could well be actually making Her ill. Indeed, the theory has been offered, by a serious broadcaster on a mainstream Los Angeles radio station, that this winter’s freak weather conditions are “because the Earth has developed a cold of sorts as a direct result of the pollution that exists today!” Temperature pollution, from the excess heat generated in the cities, could also greatly circumscribe the future health and stability of the Earth.

In spite of the parade of frightening “ifs”, the Gaea Hypothesis is much more than a bogie for a polluting civilization. It offers humanity the opportunity to return to a healthy role as one of the functioning “organs” of Gaea ― Her central nervous system, if you will.

Some scholars of Gaea believe that She is not yet mature; that She is gradually growing or evolving towards a time in the not too distant future which they call the “Omega Point.” When the Omega Point is reached, Gaea will awaken,   and Life on Earth will become one in consciousness, as it is in biological heritage. If She is not to awaken a cripple, or worse yet, a moron, we must begin now to take Gaea and ourselves seriously. Every species extinct, every inch of live soil lost, limits the future life options of Gaea. Some followers of the Hypothesis go so far as to postulate that while Homo Sapiens may be the nervous system of Gaea, the cetaceans (whales   and their kin) are destined to become Her brain. Ergo, if we kill them all off, as we seem in danger of doing, we will have performed a lobotomy on ourselves!

Much of the Gaea Hypothesis has been a part of the mythos and outlook of Pagans since time immemorial. It is gratifying to see mainstream scientists coming around at last to our way of seeing things. But we cannot afford smugness. Rather, we must join forces with them in an active effort to ensure that when the Omega Point arrives we are a part of the kind of magnificent being Gaea our Mother was meant to be.

Sources:

The Gaea Hypothesis, Dr. Hugh Malafrey, Mother Earth News number 40
Gaea as Seen Through the Atmosphere, Dr. James Lovelock, Journal of Atmospheric Environment, Pergamum Press Vol 6
The Quest for Gaea, Dr. James Lovelock, Dr. Sidney Epton, New Scientist, Feb. 6, 1975

About Dana Corby

Dana Corby began her studies in Witchcraft in 1970 and was initiated into the Mohsian Tradition in 1974. She formed her first coven in 1977, has been a teaching priestess ever since. She is the senior-most practicing High Priestess of the Tradition, with all its existing covens descending from her. Author and publisher of “The Witches Runes” and several chapbooks, as well as an ongoing contributor to the Pagan press, Dana is also one of the contributing Elders to “Keepers of the Flame,” an oral-history book edited by Morgana Davies and Aradia Lynch and available through Amazon.com (shameless plug.) She may be best-known, though, for her work on the first album of Pagan music ever produced, Gwydion Penderwen’s “Songs for the Old Religion.”

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