Gaia: A new look at life on Earth – A short book review

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979) is a seminal piece for contemporary conservationists. The theory grew from his work in the 1970s to develop scientific experiments to find life on Mars. Specifically, what would life on Mars look like? To help answer this question, he turned his thoughts to the existence of life on Earth.

Earthrise: The first image of the Earth from space taken from Apollo 8 in December 1968. To some, this is the most influential, environmental photo ever taken. Image credit: NASA.

According to Lovelock, Gaia is a very complex, hyper-connected entity which has natural checks and balances to help maintain a state of equilibrium. And it is this perfect harmony that is the cauldron that sustains and nourishes life on Earth. For Lovelock our actions can have unintended and unpredictable consequences.

Gaia: a new look at life on Earth is written for a general audience and Lovelock has managed to skillfully blend scientific facts with daily observations. His book is logically structured as each chapter is dedicated to a specific aspect of the Earth’s marine, terrestrial and atmospheric environments. He also uses graphs – albeit sparingly – throughout the book to support his arguments. Indeed, he manages to take the readers on a rich and enlightening journey in his short book.

Sadly, Lovelock’s grand vision of Gaia is muddied in his book. Some sections of the book are repetitive. Despite his use of simple language, some readers might not enjoy Lovelock’s over-reliance on chemistry when explaining the functions of terrestrial, marine and atmospheric environments. His choice of words, such as ‘cybernetics’ and ‘circuits’ when referring to Gaia’s invisible connections might add to the reader’s confusion.

Perhaps, the greatest flaw is not in Lovelock’s writing skills or the structure of the book. It is in the theory itself. His Gaia operates in a perfect system where many forms of pollution such as ozone and greenhouse gases will be naturally dealt with. This view runs the risk of creating a false sense of security given the immense environmental and climate challenges we are facing.

Despite his best efforts though the first publication of Gaia was not well received by the scientific community. His peers considered the theory a heresy – grounded more in theology than in science. However, over the years, his theory has evolved (just like theories do) into something more palatable – a more holistic approach to understanding life on Earth.

Lovelock’s Gaia: a new look at life on Earth (first edition – 1979), is a polarising book. Some conservationists dislike it. Yet there are others who use Gaia as a banner to rally the masses. For me, the desire to read the book was more to get an understanding into the thinking behind Lovelock’s Gaia as well as an intrigue to see how (and if) the theory had evolved since it was first penned. At the very least, I am thankful that Lovelock planted the seeds of thinking about the world in a very different way.

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