When First We Glimpsed Gaia

April 27, 2009 by Jay Beckwith
When First We Glimpsed Gaia

On Christmas day forty-one years ago this photo of “Earthrise” over the lunar horizon was taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders. They had become the first humans to leave Earth orbit. In a historic live broadcast that night, the crew took turns reading from the Book of Genesis.

The view of the Earth, whole and complete, stunned the world’s consciousness. To see our home in all its glory and fragility floating in the colorless void made environmental converts out of many of us. In September 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson announced that on April 22nd of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on the environment – Earth Day.

Today, the view from space has lost much of its visceral impact but we should look again. There is still much we have to learn. Imagine the earth not as a planet but as a fish bowl. Like one you may have won at a church bizarre with a lucky toss of a ping pong ball and brought home with a bright eyed goldfish anxiously darting within. And now complete that story by remembering the lesson that fish taught you; the iron rule of nature, that the waste of one organism must be the dinner for another. Not knowing this rule, you probably “over fed” your fish and it suffocated in its own waste.

This is the core lesson that the “global warming deniers” simply don’t get. The issue is not whether the planet’s temperature is changing, but that the human population is When First We Glimpsed Gaia spewing forth more waste, in this case CO2, than the planet can metabolize. We don’t know in detail what the full repercussions will be. Quite likely the added CO2 will have more impact on humanity by chemically turning the ocean more acidic than in its effect on climate. That acid makes it very hard for animals who live in shells and who are the base of the food chain. When they die, the ocean dies we are all in really serious trouble.

Look again at the earth in space. Now see that globe, not as a fish bowl, but as a carefully crafted aquarium. One in which just the right plants and animals have been placed so that they are in perfect balance. Creating such a miniature ecosystem is a typical project in biology courses. When properly done they can be tightly sealed and will live longer than their builder. This is what ecologists call self-sustaining systems. Our world and our economy are similar systems. When carefully made they can be “sustainable.” Take a final look at the earth. If you could take that picture today, the polar caps have visibly shrunken, the tan deserts are larger, storms more powerful, and the infernos of regional fires could be seen. In four decades man has literally changed the face of the earth.

This is the first regular GoLocal column. A goal of this column is to provide ideas to help us redesign our “fish bowl” so that we can stop, and then begin to reverse the changes we are making to this precious place.