Saturday, February 1, 2014

Questioning the idea of a conscious planet

Quite at a tangent to the dominant discourse on reducing pollution load on the environment to make it hospitable for life-forms at the United Nations conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972, James Lovelock had proposed Gaia Hypothesis the same year wherein he had argued that the planet was regulated by and for the life forms occurring on the planet. In simple terms it meant that the planet has a 'consciousness'.

Four decades later, Toby Tyrrell, a professor of Earth System Science at the University of Southampton puts the hypothesis through some serious tests. For Tyrrell it is hard to accept Lovelock's assertion that the planet adjusts itself to the needs of the living organisms. Citing the manner in which the magnetic termites engineer its mounds to minimise exposure to sunlight, the author contends that organisms instead adapt to the environment. Else, the planet would have moderated the negative impact of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere.

As it is now understood, the Earth's atmosphere is not a biological construct but is determined mainly by geological forces and astronomical processes. What begs an answer is the compelling question: why despite modifications of the Earth over the geological timescale the planet has continued to remain hospitable to living species? The interplay of biotic and abiotic systems is more complex than what has been understood thus far. By raising fundamental questions on Gaia hypothesis, Tyrrell seeks to develop a deeper understanding on how our environment works and how far it can be negotiated against human-induced changes during the coming decades.

One third of this well argued book consists of end notes, many of which are as readable as the main text. By questioning the arguments for and against the Gaia hypothesis, Tyrrell has done a great service to enriching the ongoing discourse on making our planet hospitable for all life forms, now and in the future. The author, however, draws a thoughtful but challenging conclusion: ‘Ensuring that the global environment remains propitious for life is up to us, and there is no Gaian safety net to come to the rescue if we mismanage it'....Link

On Gaia 
by Toby Tyrrell 
Princeton University Press, Princeton 
Extent: 311, Price: $35

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