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Lovelock and Capra: The Evolution of Our Climate System and the Birth of Gaia

Image by Emerald May; Reading the 2000 edition of James Lovelock’s book "Gaia, the practical science of planetary medicine" (Lovelock, 2000) one find they adopt and retain many of Lovelock's perspectives. The term "Gaia" is emotively loaded, and Lovelock had received some very biased coverage on when interviewed and when he was advocating for nuclear energy. The term "Gaia" itself can inspire mistaken impressions in many - myself included initially - as they might envisage a Greek goddess from which the name comes and dismiss it as a "New Age" delusion but it is not. Lovelock's Gaia is the most utilitarian description of our dynamic living Earth from a top-down perspective, a biogeophysical self-regulating super organism, not necessarily sentient or intelligent but the same could be said for the deluded species destroying it. "Delusion" is the nicest explanations for our idiotic (Parker, 2005) ecocidal actions.

In any case, I highly recommend Lovelock's book, as he covers the human shortcomings of reductionist individuals and the institutions they form. He defines the nature of "Gaia" as he meant it to be used in a way that should satisfy any intelligent scientist or logical mind. One must also acknowledge in this context another visionary author; Fritjof Capra and his book "The web of Life" (1996). In summary, Lovelock outlines ecological interactions that possibly underlie the evolution of individual organisms, ecosystems and the emergent non anthropocentric nonsexual Gaia – an amazingly complex, resilient self-regulating emergent system of biogeophysical systems.

These have coevolved in an overwhelmingly cooperative synergy where selection pressures on individual species were less important than natural selection of successful cooperative communities where successful interactions evolved from a chemical to behavioural and eventually moral code of interactions, instincts and behaviours. These facilitate near-optimal dynamic ecosystem functions in mammals and birds and possibly all creatures with a nervous system and resonate throughout all levels of life and the environment. It coevolved with in a reciprocal synergy of increasing complexity of life's defiance of entropy as it process the energy manifest in our unfolding universe, it attempts to touch on nodes of that reality with the unreliable metaphor of words at least.

Capra summarises the emergent mind and matter interactions that shape our Earth and the "world we bring forth" with our limited perceptions best. Translating dynamic holograms into ambiguous, variously understood, often emotively loaded words can be difficult. Capra and Lovelock describe the limits of scientific and other human reductionist institutions and the difficulties faced when trying to describe complexity that straddles many disciplines and challenges reductionist practitioners worldviews which often causes emotively inspired blowback from the establishment and its currently worse than useless (in the context of saving humanity from immanent self-inflicted extinction) institutions and their denizens

"Gaia became visible through the new knowledge about the Earth gained from space and from the extensive investigations of the Earth’s surface, oceans, and atmosphere during the past few decades. While this view lends itself to poetic metaphor, it is also a hard science theory of our planet that came from a top down view from space. The top down view of the Earth as a single system, one that I call Gaia, is essentially physiological. It is concerned with the working of the whole system, not with the separated parts of a planet divided arbitrarily into the biosphere, the atmosphere the lithosphere and the hydrosphere. These are not real divisions of the Earth; they are spheres of influence inhabited by academic scientists." (Lovelock, 2000)

And, as written by Capra:

“This we know.
All things are connected
like the blood that unites one family.
Whatever befalls the Earth,
befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth.
Man did not weave the web of life;
he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web,
he does to himself.
-Ted Perry inspired by Chief Seattle” (Capra, 1996)

Earth's early lifeless climate was anoxic (Lovelock, 2000), all oxygen was bound into rock, water, carbon dioxide and other compounds and the oceans were full of dissolved minerals. In the broadest sense the climate is the average physical and chemical conditions that could be expected to exist at a location at a certain time (Pielke et al., 2016). Earth's early atmospheric chemistry, temperature and hydrological cycles, its climate as is more commonly understood, was powered by a much dimmer sun and all surface water would have frozen solid if Earth's atmosphere was as, it is now. But an extreme greenhouse effect with possibly 10,000 times more CO 2 than current atmospheric concentrations caused by the initial atmosphere and accumulation of CO 2 in the atmosphere from volcanic sources allowed some water to exist as liquid (Kasting, 1993; Lovelock & Margulis, 1974) etc.

As CO 2 and water vapor increased in the early atmosphere, increasing areas of ice melted and exposed rock to weathering which allowed exposed and dissolved minerals to react with CO 2 to form carbonate minerals which precipitated as sediments and slowly removed CO 2 from the atmosphere. That process gradually reduced the greenhouse effect causing reflective ice cover to increase (a positive feedback component) which reduced weathering and allowed greenhouse gases to accumulate again, a predominantly “negative feedback” system (Kasting, 1993) - or “thermostat” (Lovelock, 2000) dominated by the greenhouse effect. A lifeless simple climate system powered and perturbed by solar input and orbital cycles moderated by an interaction between rock, atmospheric chemistry, the physical and chemical characteristics of water and Earth’s surface, simple but intrinsically cyclic, (Lovelock, 2000) covers the “thermostat” dynamics and implications of feedback cycles under a warming sun.

Capra also identifies the subsequent fluctuations of complex resonant ecosystem dynamics that occur in functional ecosystems as part of their "homeostasis" interactions as a strength, a feature that facilitates dynamic adaptation to gradual and sudden changes and that “biodiversity productivity resilience” effect is key to the multiple scale "ecologically responsible geoengineering"(ERG). Surface effects include albedo -reflectivity, surface, and clouds interacting with the greenhouse effect and causing convection of latent heat (water vapor) and sensible heat which is related to surface albedo, thermal properties, and hydration – ice, water, wet or dry, which affect solar energy partitioning (Bowen Ratio) and all those atmosphere, surface, and water components interacted to create Earths prebiotic climate system. Before the emergence of life our Earth had a relatively simple abiotic hydrological cycle or climate system. When life began to dominate Earth’s climate system which it has until recently, and still does as human life and activities attempt to destructively dominate, our Earth developed increasingly complex and powerful “Ecohydrological” (Falkenmark & Rockstrom, 2004) and biogeochemical cycles.

Whether life evolved elsewhere and came to Earth, or it began here, it is highly likely that all life in Earth is related and can be traced back to a bacterium (and Archaea if one insists). The origin and identity of our "last universal common ancestor" or "common ancestral community of primitive cells" (Campbell & Reece, 2002) are still disputed by some but no serious biologist would dispute that all visible and known life in Earth is related – our family, and we rely totally on a cooperative complex interaction of all domains of life from the ecosystems in our digestive tract, on skin and elsewhere and the larger ecosystems that provide our food and used to recycle our waste. Lovelock covers how microorganisms helped retain Earths water by fixing hydrogen in sulphur compounds in the anoxic Earth and then by creating free oxygen and hydroxyl radicals in the subsequent oxygenated atmosphere and explains how life most likely acted to retain nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere and many other aspects of the evolution of our climate system.

Another form of complementarity is ‘mutualism’ where some association between species provides mutual benefit, for example, most plant roots form associations with fungi (Begon et al., 1996) the plant provides energy to the fungi in the form of carbohydrates while the fungi help the plant by extending hyphae through the soil which extract nutrients and water from the soil and provide them to the plant, thus effectively extending and improving the plants root system, overall health, ecohydrological and nutrient recovery and recycling functions. Mutualism can occur between bacteria and algae in sewage treatment waste stabilisation or oxidation ponds where bacterial oxidation of organic carbon produces CO 2, which is used by algae during photosynthesis, the algae then release oxygen which is used by the bacteria for respiration (Ludwig et al., 1951). Facilitation occurs when a species or group of species moderate harsh conditions to provide needed resources for other species (Hooper et al., 2005). A possible example of facilitation in algae communities could occur where flagellate algae agitate the water and thus increase nutrient flux through the boundary layer around non-motile algae species. Another example is where vitamin B12 producing bacteria aid vitamin B12 requiring diatoms (Haines & Guillard, 1974). Terrestrial examples abound of course.

Functional niche differentiation usually applies to interactions within one trophic level, mutualism often applies to interactions across trophic levels, and facilitation can occur within and across trophic levels. Obligate symbiosis – where two species must interact to survive or reproduce is an extreme form of mutualism (Begon et al., 1996). We are all obligate symbiotes of Gaia. (Lovelock did not like "biosphere"). The selection effect (in the context of biodiversity/productivity) can occur because a diverse community is more likely to contain a species that is highly productive and can become dominant (Cardinale et al., 2009).

The complementarity effect, mutualism and facilitation have the potential to maintain and increase biodiversity, but the selection effect may cause the development of a monoculture. It is also possible to get a ‘negative selection effect’ when the most competitive species is not the most productive (Loreau, 2000).Competition itself can lead to reduced productivity or growth because resources are diverted from growth and maintenance and squandered on the competitive interaction (Tanner, 1997) which in extreme cases can destroy the resource base the competitors need to survive – civilised humanity and our many prior collapsed civilisations are the best example of that. Other interactions that can occur in biodiverse systems are predator/prey which includes plant (or algae)/herbivore interactions, parasite/host interactions and Commensalism, where a parasite requires a resource or habitat from a host, but the host suffers no tangible disadvantage from the interaction (Begon et al., 1996).

An example of commensalism is where a lichen or moss requires a tree to grow on, to receive enough light but does not affect the host tree. Lichen is also a symbiotic alliance between fungi and microalgae and coral reefs are communities of small animals in symbiotic relationships with microalgae. Coral reefs are perfect examples of microorganisms creating the conditions for exponentially increasing biodiversity to thrive, within a reasonable climatic envelope of course.

Even so, every effort to understand the complexity we rely on does add to our understanding of our living planet and are worthy in most cases and do illustrate very important aspects of the complexity. Capra’s "Network" metaphor (he explores the limits of words and metaphors too) is possibly a more useful and easily understood analogy of the interactive fabric of life. He also explores the mathematics of complexity and chaos and the connection of mind and matter. No intelligence or "intelligent design" is required for the evolution of Gaia, the product of all life now and in the past. Yet one perceives a wonderful apparent emergent intelligence in the interaction's "cognition" processes, cycles and products of life, in ecosystems and the global ecosystem. We learn from nature, it provides the settings, creatures and characters humans build their legends from, we can never "dominate nature", that arrogant delusion is what helps us collectively destroy our climate or more commonly our environment. We must work With Nature on its complex, ultimate, terms.

The priority here is to illuminate the evolving reality of Gaia as a superorganism or system that must be understood and appreciated as such if we are to effectively work with it and within it as "us" to survive. Animals evolved in the water and served to enhance nutrient cycles in their aquatic environment and accelerate its primary productivity and carbon management functions, and animals emerged from the water and also bought their water within their bodies but more significantly perhaps, they bought the nutrients that were washed, blown and leached from the landscape and stored in the oceans within its biota onto land, and then they began to carry those nutrients up hills in their bodies and droppings and disperse them throughout the lands. The algae and animals acted to maintain a fertile yet clean ocean then to transport nutrients recovered from below the oceans photic zones, through whales, fish and phytoplankton onto land when fish were caught and eaten by terrestrial dwelling animals and seabirds etc, as the water washed and leached nutrients from the landscape life intercepted the nutrients essential for life and returned them to landscapes where they accumulated as more was replaced than was lost due to the effects of weathering, life gleaned and concentrated the nutrients essential for life and fertility and functions continued to increase in energy and matter (energy) processing power, productivity, biodiversity, efficiency and resilience.

The biogeophysical factors that created and maintained our climate system which in the broad sense includes all Earth systems as most accessibly defined in "Land's complex role in climate change" (Pielke et al., 2016) also include the impact of animals that are generally not included in climate change literature. Animals began to transport nutrients from the deep ocean to continental interiors as they evolved and spread across the land. (Doughty et al., 2015) calculated the likely late-Quaternary nutrient recycling capacity of animals and how that reduced after the megafauna extinctions and recent human impacts on animals and found that vertical movement of phosphorus from ocean depths to surface waters has decreased by 77% and movement of P from sea to land has declined by 96% due to whale hunting and the decimation of seabird and anadromous fish populations in recent times.

Gaian systems had multiple back up systems or cycles and redundancies that became variously significant under sudden or gradual changes generated from outside and within Earth’s atmosphere that were corrected by basic evolved mechanisms that served to maximise the individuals own wellbeing and helped to maximise ecosystem functions and stability in most cases and which became increasingly resilient over time.

It seems that as human actions destroyed the terrestrial component of Gaian carbon management systems the Ocean compensated as it was stimulated by nutrients being burned, blown, leached, and washed off landscapes degrading to wasteland and deserts as we mined the fertility that had accumulated in them over aeons in an exponentially increasing destructive disaster which has destroyed at least 90% of Gaia’s vital functions. There is only one example of a functional climate system available to humanity and that is the Earth before colonial humans decided to dominate our Earth, Gaia, our biosphere, as it was 12,000 years ago, rapidly restoring those systems functionally with all the remaining species and local variants we can save and re extend across landscapes is the only way to effectively address climate change, there are no silver bullets there are very useful technologies that can do a lot of damage if applied in inappropriate context.

The main theme I wished to introduce here is that our climate system arises from a dynamic interaction between life and geology and solar input etc. Our climate system is our biosphere or Gaia or our living Earth is a single system created by life for life and we must restore it as a living resilient system because my intensive research has revealed that all of humanities technologies and hubristic self-serving industries and institutions cannot recreate and maintain a climate system suitable for our lives and our wider families lives to persist in.

We must restore healthy oceans and landscapes, our lungs, and restore the quality of our waters that flow through our earth and on it, that bathe in the water that flows through us all and through the atmosphere in an intricately interconnected system – our blood supply, and we must repair the red and white blood cells – the animals that maintain and can improve our living systems of networks for the good of all our family, our animals that carry the nutrients and used to maintain a wonderful dynamic balance of increasing complexity until the last few seconds, or second of Earths history if it is compressed into a week. It is our collective choice to start another analogous week and we have no time to waste, our choice is life or extinction, those who think they can sit on a fence have chosen extinction and are a major part of the problem with colonial humanity which will guarantee our extinction unless they can be knocked off that fence.

References

Begon, M., Harper, J. L., & Townsend, C. R. (1996). Ecology (3rd ed.). Blackwell Science.

Campbell, N. A., & Reece, J. B. (2002). Biology (6th ed.). Benjamin Cummings.

Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new synthesis of mind and matter. HarperCollins.

Cardinale, B. J., Hillebrand, H., Harpole, W. S., Gross, K., & Ptacnik, R. (2009). Separating the influence of resource ‘availability’ from resource ‘imbalance’ on productivity–diversity relationships. Ecol Lett, 12(6), 475–487. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01317.x

Falkenmark, M., & Rockstrom, J. (2004). Balancing water for humans and nature: The new approach in ecohydrology. Earthscan.

Haines, K. C., & Guillard, R. R. L. (1974). Growth Of Vitamin B12-Requiring Marine Diatoms In Mixed Laboratory Cultures With Vitamin B12-Producing Marine Bacteria12. Journal of Phycology, 10(3), 245–252. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529-8817.1974.tb02709.x

Hooper, D. U., Chapin, F. S., Ewel, J. J., Hector, A., Inchausti, P., Lavorel, S., Lawton, J. H., Lodge, D. M., Loreau, M., Naeem, S., Schmid, B., Setälä, H., Symstad, A. J., Vandermeer, J., & Wardle, D. A. (2005). Effects of Biodiversity on Ecosystem Functioning: A Consensus of Current Knowledge. Ecological Monographs, 75(1), 3–35.

Kasting, J. F. (1993). Earth’s early atmosphere. Science, 259(5097), 920–926.

Lovelock, J. E. (2000). Gaia, the practical science of planetary medicine.

Ludwig, H. F., Oswald, W. J., Gotaas, H. B., & Lynch, V. (1951). Algae Symbiosis in Oxidation Ponds: I. Growth Characteristics of" Euglena Gracilis" Cultured in Sewage. Sewage and Industrial Wastes, 1337–1355.

Parker, W. C. (2005). Teaching against idiocy. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(5), 344–351.

Pielke, R. A., Mahmood, R., & McAlpine, C. (2016). Land’s complex role in climate change. Phys. Today, 69, 40–46.

Tanner, J. E. (1997). Interspecific competition reduces fitness in scleractinian corals. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 214(1–2), 19–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0022-0981(97)00024-5