The Consequences of Gaia - or -
The Carbonist Manifesto
Copyright © 1992 Jeff Berkowitz

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      This essay describes some philosophical, ethical, and cosmological implications of the Gaia hypothesis. Although loosely grounded in recent research in ecology and paleoclimatology, this is clearly an essay and not a scientific paper. It is also distinctly tongue in cheek, but the author has spent some serious moments wondering whether the belief system outlined below is any more unreasonable than certain "mainstream" viewpoints.


Over the last few years, we've become familiar with the notion that the biosphere is a dynamic, self-regulating system. In fact, an even stronger assertion can be made: the biosphere, in its present oxygen-rich form, is "a kind of superorganism that in its entirety maintains the conditions that best suit life on earth." [1] This formulation, known as the Gaia Hypothesis, was originally advanced by naturalists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (novelist William Golding suggested the name.)

      A key point in the Gaia hypothesis concerns the stability of the carbon cycle: that the level of atmospheric CO2 has been maintained within relatively narrow limits for hundreds of millions of years. This point is critical because the temperature of the biosphere is largely controlled by the quantities of greenhouse gases (primarily CO2) in the atmosphere. Various geophysical and biological processes cooperate to lower the amount of free CO2 when the biosphere warms, and release CO2 when it cools. Thus the assertion that CO2 has remained relatively constant is also an assertion that the temperature has remained within relatively narrow limits: at no time in the last billion years has the Earth been a pressure cooker like Venus, or a snowball like Mars.

      This essay contends that over geological time periods (in particular, over the last 500 million years) the amount of available carbon in the biospheric carbon cycle has slowly decreased. This decrease has been driven by long term processes that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and deposit it in rocks. Plants, for example, capture free carbon in the molecules making up their tissues. As the plants die, their carbon sometimes leaves the dynamic biological domain of the "carbon cycle" and enters the geophysical domain as "hydrocarbon deposits" (coal, oil, and seafloor sediments.)

      Various pieces of indirect evidence exist for this slow decline in the CO2 content of the atmosphere. Numerous plant species, for example, thrive when subjected to an atmosphere lower in oxygen and higher in CO2 than the current atmosphere of Earth. It is natural to suppose that this beneficial effect is a holdover from the bygone era in which the photosynthetic "apparatus" of these plants evolved; their initial evolutionary "best fit" has slowly become a "misfit" due to decreasing levels of atmospheric CO2 across intervening megalenia. Some direct evidence of CO2 decrease also exists in the form of ice cores [1, p 42] although it covers a much shorter time scale.

      It is true that several arguments for the "essential stability" of the atmospheric CO2 level exist, in addition to well-understood mechanisms that "reverse the process" by removing carbon from the geophysical domain and returning it to the biosphere (that is, the domains are not truly separate.) It has been widely observed in the literature that CO2 levels could never have "fallen" to less than one-third of their current value, nor could O2 levels have "risen" significantly from their current values, without deadly consequences for life [2].

      The author finds these arguments too weak to deflect the main thrust of this essay. None of the data presented in Garrels et al [2] appear to rule out the possibility of somewhat higher atmospheric CO2 in ages past. In fact, their discussion of the carbon cycle gives short shrift to "reservior five" - organic carbon locked up in sediment. It is the relationship between humankind and this crucial reservior five that we will now continue to explore.

      As we've shown, conventional reasoning links the general stability of the carbon cycle to the general stability of biospheric temperature. This same reasoning also serves to link the slow decrease in CO2 to an equally slow (yet systematic) cooling of the biosphere. The Gaian temperature "equilibrium" is not, in fact, stable. Across geological eons, the Gaian feedback system achieves not stability, but rather a slow cooling. Various evidence for this cooling trend exists [5].

      Of course, the Gaian system is quite robust - as evidenced by its repeated recovery from the effects of barrages of big rocks from outer space. As Gaia ages, however, it is faced with the threat of a calamity worse than the impact of a dinosaur killer. This is the threat of "cold equilibrium", more colorfully called "the White Earth scenario."

      The White Earth scenario is part of the dirty laundry of the climate modelling community. As noted in Gleick's "Chaos: Making a New Science" [6], some seemingly reasonable (although simple) climate models suffer from an odd characteristic of falling into a state in which much of Gaia's free water is locked up in snow and ice; the surface albedo of the planet is high; and no obvious mechanism for increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas content or otherwise warming the planet presents itself. Since this state does not seem to correspond to anything in the historical record of the Earth, it is regarded as anomalous and incorrect.

      I suggest that we take take a truly novel approach to these seemingly valid models that drop into the White Earth state: let's presume that they are valid, and that they are telling us something important. We are at risk of "cold equilibrium" in the near geological term.

      The ability of the paleoclimatological community to accumulate the data leading to this conclusion and then avoid the conclusion itself is quite astonishing. One paleoclimatologist [4] has the audacity to draw a graph of Gaian temperature that trends smoothly downward for many millions of years, but is suddenly consumed by a series of sharp vertical excursions ("wiggles") over the past few hundred thousand. It's similar to the graph of a coin which rolls slowly around in a large circle, then rattles rapidly around in an oscillating spiral for a few moments before coming to rest in an equilibrium state, stable and dead - Gaia converges on the White Earth.

      Now let's take a step back from this impending frozen death for a moment. The key to the Gaian system is that it is *self-adjusting*. As observers who have only recently had our eyes opened to this wonderful concept, the Gaian model, we cannot hope to appreciate the myriad ways this all-encompassing system might find to regulate itself - to adapt to conditions and to maintain the equilibrium necessary for life. We must not underestimate the ability of the Gaian organism to evolve temporary organelles designed to deal with crisis.

      The last 100,000 years have seen some of the coldest times in the 500 million that have elapsed since the Ordovician period. These 100,000 years form less than 1/1000th of the intervening 500 million years.

      Oddly, they're the same 100,000 years that Homo Sapiens Sapiens has existed on Earth.

      Clearly, the biosphere has reached a point of crisis. The relatively stable processes of self-regulation that have worked for the past hundreds of millions of years have reached the limit of their ability to correct.

      In response to the impending crisis, Gaia evolved a solution. At the edges of the ice sheets that flowed down over the northern hemisphere during the last ice age, Gaia brought it to fruition: a short term corrective process designed to restore the natural balance of free carbon dioxide in the biosphere.

Man

      Yes, Man. Not the destroyer, the pillager, the environmental rapist of the popular lore; an utterly different view of Man the restorer, the savior, the solution to an environmental crisis more dangerous to the biosphere than even the giant stone that ended the age of dinosaurs. Man, whose only purpose in the Gaian system is to extract carbon from the rocks and put it back in the atmosphere where it belongs.

      It is not far-fetched to suggest that the evolution of mankind is an adaptive reaction. Organisms under stress are known to exhibit all manner of extraordinary behaviors. It is likely that Levenson's "one last coincidence" [1, p 56] is not a coincidence at all.

      From 1500 to 1850, throughout the Little Ice Age, the nations of Europe expanded in population, power, techno-logical competence, military strength, economic endeavors, in world rule - in virtually every measure of the vigor of a civilization.

      No, it is not a coincidence at all. It is, quite literally, our destiny; that is why we are so well equipped to succeed and expand our CO2-returning practices during periods of intense cold.

The climatological community has come close to the point:

Within a few centuries, we [human beings] are returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored in the sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years [3].

But as scientists, the community lacked the zeal to make that final, fundamental leap from observation to motive - the observation that this is not merely an unanticipated side effect of intelligence, but the very reason for its existence.

Post-Gaian Environmental Ethics

Given this recognition of mankind's role in the Gaian system, it is possible to construct a consistent system of environmental ethics that might be called "Carbonism."

      Carbonists hold viewpoints that differ significantly from widely accepted environmental viewpoints, but Carbonists are not wanton destroyers of the environment. Carbonists do not favor poisoning the environment with long-lived toxins such as heavy metals or radioactive nucleotides, the accumulation of solid waste, or any other practice that does not contribute the the increase of CO2 in the biosphere.