The Ecological Thought vs. Gaia Theory

A direct engagement in a response that Tim Morton made to my projected stress onto him about James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and the imminent collapse of the biosphere:

The positive and negative feedback loops that Lovelock uses in his Gaia Theory operate as systemic interactions between objects that accelerate one way or the other. Either they unleash certain objects that wreak havoc on the total of the environment of the Earth and disrupt the balance that Lovelock believes stabilizes the Earth to make it habitable for life, or the feedback loops ‘cancel out’ negatively and balance the objects in the environment. The negative feedbacks have certain objects and the processes in which they are caught up in pushing against each other, working towards a goal of hospitality for life and complexity (life and its mutations into new life forms). These processes of positive and negative feedback are like the difference between unchecked expansion of empires or viruses and the system of checks and balances or the limits that environments pose on the breeding of populations beyond a certain “threshold”.

Positive feedback loops have a potential of spiraling out of control and disrupting the environment to such an extent that most of the living beings cannot cope, for (as Lovelock claims) the loops that have persisted for a few billion years (1/4 of the supposed life of the universe) have altered to such an extent that the biodiversity working its complexifying magic would be seriously stunted: most life and species would die off. This is the terrifying thought that Lovelock is said to have uncovered and I sought out Tim Morton’s advice on, seeing as his ecological thought is so penetrating and formative of my own thought (still in its early stages). His response is two-part and can be found here and here.

Morton sees the holism of Lovelock as a form of Big Modernity on which we project a metaphysics of presence. Not having come to grips with “the nothingness in the phenomenal-thing gap”, we readers are narrowed down into a forced choice and can only resort to our particular decisions or some grand project of modern technological advance. The grand technological fix of the future that humans can make to the biosphere at large would be the only option to maintain the constant presence of Gaia, preserving our ‘more present than thou’ attitude of an existing Reality. It is the only alternative to one’s less significant decisions to drive a car (spilling CO2 into the air) or not when the holism of Gaia Theory is under consideration, or so Morton thinks. Relying on a technological salvation from the apocalypse to save the presence of the Real would be the only thing else one could think of in contrast to the decision to carefully measure one’s individual *carbon footprint* – insignificant considered in isolation. Morton seems to think that the fire and brimstone of Lovelock’s lament over the destruction of the Gaian aspect of the biosphere forces us into an impossible position that leads to cynicism and resignation, due to our (the reader’s) divided powerlessness at such a really existing entity.

This giant entity is an environment as well as a quasi-fiction (he named it after a goddess), and, being a kind of Whole, it is irreducible to the component parts that make it up – swallowing our actions in their individuality (the reader reading alone) up into obscurity. But the problem of the whole remains, only now we can only dream of the potential for a “great future innovation” to save us. The problem I have with this interpretation of Gaia (that terra-ism necessarily follows from such holism) is that Gaia is not considered more real or present than something else but a mere self-organization of matter in a far from equilibrium condition. It doesn’t seek the reality of presence in the way that Nature or the external world in its totality does but simply describes a scenario in which a machine has come to self-regulate given certain conditions, namely, being far from equilibrium. There is a newish science to this phenomenon of self-organization that can be both modeled virtually and observed, as Manuel DeLanda has shown in his impressive works. Gaia is just a localized theory of this science in the planet Earth system.

The feedback loops that Lovelock harps on have indeed stabilized an environment that accommodates life. I have no problem with the usage of a mythical goddess to articulate an argument about a process that one has discovered, but it is in taking this thing as a whole that issues crop up. Lovelock makes a mistake by calling this thing a whole, indeed a direct contrast to the reductionism so often characteristic of scientific inquiry. The process of regulating materials in a systematic way has made life habitable on planet Earth: negative feedback loops have worked wonders in this far from equilibrium situation.

In spite of what Morton says, Lovelock does assert that for humanity to be burdened by the tasks that Gaia does for free would require way more central planning than any previous war and is near impossible. His solution is to embrace nuclear energy with all of its dangers in order to save civilization which he so reveres from carbon emissions. I don’t see civilization as such a thing that needs protection but instead point to a more ecological existence that empires and capitalists spawning from civilization have mostly tarnished. Lovelock is stuck with a desire to keep civilization while simultaneously understanding that it’s own unquenchable desire for growth is what is besieging Gaia. To his credit, he (a scientist) understands the limits of reductionist thinking, the harmonious-primordial-natural past and linear causality; unfortunately, he moves back to holism to explain the self-organization of Gaia. Perhaps there is a way to fuse self-organizing thinking with the ecological thought and not get hung up on Nature, Civilization, or other ‘Wholes’.

I am convinced of the truth of Lovelock’s theory, especially after reading about the science of self-organized phenomenon in far from equilibrium conditions in Prigogine and Stengers’ ‘Order Out of Chaos’. As a whole, a self-organizing process is able to detach itself from the parts that supposedly make it up – the things that are organized by Gaia. But the part-whole distinction raises up old conceptual formulations that are hard to shed. As something different from the component parts that compose it, Gaia seems to most like a transcendent being external to those parts. This is crucial and hard to fathom: Gaia is only a mythological being, a name standing in for a process that functions as a balancing act. It cannot really lay claim to the whole, but it is still a self-generating process far away from the equilibrium of classical physics and the concepts of the generic philosophical tradition.

We the readers and actors need not defer to some emancipatory future technology or bear the responsibility of global warming on our own personal shoulders, but the processes that Gaia allows must be rigorously defended somehow even if we don’t see clearly what that tract would look like. It makes no practical difference if one sees this as Gaia to be vanguarded or multiple processes that need to be maintained, so long as the bodies are mobilized in a way that life can go on instead of be attacked by its environment. Mythologizing a discovery of science in self-organized activity, an oddity to beings attracted by symmetry and having employed causal reasoning for so long, could be a benefit to the goal of keeping this system life-sustainable or not. A familiar name helps one grow accustomed to an unfamiliar, foreign idea. One way or another, this process is under extreme and abrupt stress and there is little time to reorganize human societies so as to keep the process flowing.

A process. This process will continue to assert itself regardless of what we humans do, but we are severely weakening it, and by weakening this process we will drastically weaken life’s capability to thrive. That there are a few million people scraping out for survival in the polar regions instead of bountiful biodiversity is an awful scenario; I really don’t mind if I have to resort to ethics or vitalist centralism to assert this – we have an obligation to both continue living (this includes non-humans) and to obey the processes of our environment that support our living once we have understood these processes (scientifically or otherwise). Having the means to conceptualize – or just even phenomenologically perceive the self-organization of one’s surroundings intuitively (like “mother earth is provider of us all and must be cared for” or whatever) – how contingent one’s life and each other’s life is on those systemic flows is a legitimate, justified reason to preserve that self-organized stability and not let it cross that threshold. Preventing the irreversible processes that will be unleashed after reaching a 2 degree rise in temperature are an ethical obligation unlike any injustice to the poor, the animals, or the environment because *one* or *we* living creatures cannot exist without the health of Gaia (the self-organization of the biosphere) from the outset. Perhaps using the term “ethics” is inadequate, but it’s the best we’ve got – without it, we humans will allow that which gives us life to dissolve (not disappear), all the while throwing our hands up and saying “oh well, that’s just how it goes!” when we could have stopped it and continued flourishing for who knows how much longer. Fossil fuel consumption is chipping away at the planet’s ability to foster life, it is time we face this fact and act so as to let life prosper again.

This failure to understand and transform our activity in light of Lovelock’s elaboration of Gaia(self-organization in the biosphere) would be an instance of life in self-destruct mode instead a mutually beneficial life-Gaia ecological mode. Life needs no verbal legitimation to persevere, but now we can chose an orientation that will continue life in a more life-favoring way or go into an era of mass death, extinction, and scarcity. Indeed, given the right plan and commitment of certain individuals and the proliferation of this new knowledge of self-organization among the correct population of decision-makers, a plan to continue the comfortable hospitability that our planet has provided us living creatures could be carried through. It is so obviously more desirable, both ecologically and vitalistically, to work towards this outcome that it is not a stretch to say that any elaboration leading towards an outcome incompatible with this self-regulating behavior (given that one understands these Gaian processes) is life-negating nihilism. In short, to disregard Gaia is to disregard that which conditions life – to be ambivalent about the continuation and enjoyment of life.

The apocalypse is on the horizon: the movies, video-games, and literature about zombies and post-apocalypse are on to something. There is a threshold that we cannot cross before catalysts take effect and the planet will be put on an irreversible course that will make our human lives and other animal’s lives a living hell. Yes, we need to act now positively and not in a cynical mode where the terrible event is off in the distance and inevitable, or a preservationist mode where as-yet-unimagined technology is the only thing that can save the Presence of Nature. But we must understand that there is a threshold of temperature rising that we cannot cross for it will create positive feedback loops that will place all of Earth’s creatures in a far less desirable state than the one we have now. A desirable state would be one where life strives with less pushback from from its environment, and the disparity of crossing the threshold and not crossing the threshold is staggering. There are folks who understand this and are trying to stop it like Bill McKibben with his essay on Global Warming’s Terrifying Math and David Roberts’ Tedx video in Grist.

This is an strange moment – perhaps the greatest and most epic moment that humans have been placed in: we know that our own stabilized practices will mutilate and impede the existence of life and we can change them – all that is left is to figure out *how to stop these practices*. When it comes to strategizing on actions I am all ears.

It is a comparably few who understand these processes of self-regulation and just how much damage to them is being done. The rapid industrialization of the twentieth century is like the World of the Forms crashing down on the Earth and stratifying it in its own permanent vision of equilibrium – all the while ignoring the fact that the biosphere of Earth operates in a *far from equilibrium situation*. Our human desire for elegant symmetry and equality in our theory could very well cause a mass die off that also could have been prevented by humans. Industrialization has allowed a clever and adaptive species to put the carbon in the ground into the air and, without a radical shift in practice, set this self-organizing system back 100,000 years. This is the basis for an ecological ethics. An ecological ethics must include not just things and bodies – living and non-living – but processes: systems that operate and disparaging scales such as those in far from equilibrium conditions resisting entropy. This is crucial to the continued prosperity of living things either human or non-human for the next 100,000 years.

I’m curious about this difference I have made here between things/objects and processes/systems. I had a twitter battle with Levi Bryant over Object Oriented Ontology (you’ll have to search if you want to find it since I don’t know how to get the conversarion history link – but it would be worth searching @onticologist with @billrosethorn) and its potential inability to think the latter. I don’t want to jump to conclusions but invite more conversation on this subject. This is something Lovelock has internalized about skeptical scientific inquiry: after his initial Gaia Hypothesis buckled under the poignant critique of Richard Dawkins he accepted its defeat and retooled it to make a more robust theory – holism issues aside. Similarly I want to be open to an ontology that is held by such penetrating thinkers as Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Graham Harman. This is far too important a topic to let academic quarrels get in the way and I have always viewed criticism as a positive, life-affirming exercise done between friends and not as polemics.

We need not care about the outcome of the Earth and the life in it. Our thoughts and concerns are infinitely moldable into one form or another. But to take the whatever attitude is to deny that which springs up from what one is (if it is reading this right now): A Life! This is nihilism and it takes many forms along with the thoughts we conjure up in our discourses. It is a topic that needs more attention on its own. As Nietzsche coaches us, and Deleuze constantly reminds us in Nietzsche and Philosophy, to desire nothing is still to desire. We cannot rid ourselves of the will to power of life, and to will nothingness is still to will – perhaps even more intensely. I end with this because when I met Tim Morton on Market Street in San Francisco, a few words of his words still ring true in my mind to this day: nihilism is not something one arrives at but something one must pass through. The good stuff comes after passing through nothingness.

I mentioned earlier the possibility of a joint venture between the ecological thought all this self/process theory. I am becoming more and more convinced that how we deal with the thought of nihility – nothingness – is the great question for this epic problem.

Here’s to a more hopeful future.

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