James Lovelock’s “The Vanishing Face of Gaia”

I have started reading James Lovelock‘s The Vanishing Face of Gaia. At this point, three main ideas have struck me, that I want to share.

(1) The seriousness of the global environmental and climate crisis we are facing. The analyses and models of the IPCC, considered to be the best possible science available today, are below the facts that we can measure and observe. The crisis is evolving much faster than those models lead us to expect and the “smooth” evolution that they seem to predict may well be overtaken by unexpected, sudden, chaotic and dramatic changes. Lovelock is very critical of the work of the IPCC, claiming that they have allowed their science to be smoothed by political interests. Although it is difficult for me to gauge to what extent political pressure weighs on the IPCC scientists, Lovelock’s observation is critical as the relationship between scientists and politicians is determining global environmental decision making. I concur with Lovelock when he claims that climate change is moving at a much more rapid pace than modeled by our so-called best available science. A recent and reliable report called the Copenhagen Diagnosis confirms this.

(2) Our “best available science” has not yet really made its way to the Gaia approach, i.e. it is not yet capable of articulating a vision on the earth as one whole, one body, one organism. This seems to me as if a medical doctor would not be able to look at the human being as a whole, taking into account laws and parameters that concern this whole as a whole and “integrate” towards the whole the complex interactions of laws and interactions at a lower level. Objects under study in sciences are always “wholes” of other, “smaller” objects that can be studied at their own level, but something is added when these “smaller” object combine into the “higher” object (the whole is more than the mere sum of its components). We have not yet managed to integrate our science towards the higher level of Gaia and this may lead to misunderstandings, e.g. that we don’t understand well that at this moment the earth, as Gaia, is working out a new balance or equilibrium for its existence.

(3) I also appreciate very much how Lovelock articulates the place of human beings on earth. He considers them clearly a part of the whole, as this whole also contains other component parts. But, at the same time, human beings are a valuable part of this whole, produced by Gaia over the space of millions of years so as to give it the capacity to think and to reflect. In that sense, it would be damage to Gaia if human beings were to disappear from it. This kind of anthropology balances well, in my opinion, the tension between a dangerous anthropocentrism on the one side and the denial of the importance of the human being on the other side. Human beings are an important part of Gaia, crucially enriching it, but they are not more than a part of Gaia and, therefore, cannot be disconnected from it.

These three ideas seem very stimulating to me; they should also, in my opinion, be in the backpack of all those who will participate in the Copenhagen negotiations. Moreover, they are a healthy reminder to theologians, particularly Christian theologians, to enter into critical transdisciplinary conversations with scientists, to remind themselves that the notion of “creature” is a flexible and dynamic one, and to challenge them to develop an anthropology that reflects genuine admiration for human beings, those very special creatures that cannot, however, be disconnected from their embeddedness in the whole of a creation that they can enrich, but that has also taken a serious risk in generating them and allowing them to emerge.

Thank you for these challenges, James Lovelock.


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