I WAS TOLD by Stephan Harding that “if there was the slightest chance of a cold, we will have to cancel. He had bronchitis not long ago; we can’t afford to take any risks.” But, despite the Arctic cold that had descended on England in February, I wasn’t coughing or anything, so we decided to embark. Nevertheless, we took the precaution of washing our hands carefully with antiseptic soap a few times. And then we were off for the coast of Dorset, in the south of England, in the direction of Cornwall.
At 98, James Lovelock is a very old man. His thinking is all the more important in that it avoids the academic, and he was the first to theorize what in ecology and Earth sciences is called the “Gaia” hypothesis, which I can provisionally summarize at this stage of my inquiry: the Earth is a totality of living beings and materials that were made together, that cannot live apart, and from which humans can’t extract themselves.
I had never imagined I would meet the father of Gaia. I had read all his books, but I was not all that keen on his recent statements in the press, his somewhat bizarre political ideas, and his inflated enthusiasm for the nuclear industry. Nor was I one for visiting the places where my favorite authors wrote their books. But Harding, his friend and disciple, had assured me that Lovelock wanted to meet me. He was wondering why a French philosopher was interested enough in the Gaia theory to devote a whole book to it [Bruno Latour’s Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, was published by Polity in 2017]. And since I hold the view that Lovelock’s theory holds equal place in the history of human knowledge to that of Galileo, he was apparently tickled to learn that I could go so far as to compare him to the famous astronomer and controversial inventor who had figured out that the Earth went around the sun.
As we were driving down the little Dorset roads before getting to the house perched on the seaside, buffeted by the wind, at the end of a track covered in pebbles washed up by the waves, I couldn’t hide my uneasiness at the idea of disturbing a 98-year-old. What could I say that would interest him? What could he tell me that he hadn’t told dozens of journalists looking to bolster his reputation as a controversial figure? Had he not recently traumatized a Guardian journalist by telling her that humans only had a hundred years before the robots took over? As I was soon to learn, he was not the first to get tired. After five hours of scientific discussion, I had to tear myself away from the delightful hospitality of “Jim” and his wife, Sandy.
Looking through the window of the dining room where we had a light lunch, and seeing a snow storm approaching over the sea, covering the setting sun with dark clouds, I listened to this paradoxical and feisty old man, still with a fresh ring to his voice. How had he introduced something quite new into the history of science that had also been the object of so many misunderstandings? When I was climbing back into Stephan’s car, I asked myself if it was me who had exaggerated the importance of Gaia, or if it was more the case that I was like a person who had the opportunity to meet someone like the venerable Galileo Galilei in the 1620s before his ideas became the common sense of a civilization to come.
What weight does the Gaia hypothesis have in the history of science? What does this new approach to political science represent? This was what I was thinking about as Stephan Harding drove me back to Exeter, capital of Devon, where I was to discover that a few centimeters of snow are enough to call a halt to trains, planes, taxis, and buses. This obliged me to extend my thinking, since I was stuck in a sufficiently well-heated hotel with a good supply of porridge …
We cannot hide from the fact that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about Gaia. We think we are using the name of this mythological figure to designate the quite common time-honored idea that the Earth is a living organism. Lovelock is renowned, they say, simply because he recast in cybernetic language the ancient idea that the Earth is finely tuned. The words “regulation” and “feedback” replace the antique idea of “natural balance” or even providence.
Now, the scientific hypothesis developed by Lovelock in the 1960s, and then a few years later in collaboration with another equally controversial researcher, Lynn Margulis (1938–2011), has, in my opinion, nothing to do with any natural “balance” or “harmony.” “Gaia” — since this is the name he gave to this hypothesis — is neither a big thermostat nor a superorganism, a sort of successor to the Mother Earth (or the stepmother) who features in so many mythologies. Facing up to her, as I say in Facing Gaia, means accepting another way of defining living things in their relations to the Earth, which is quite foreign to the way a superior and predetermined natural order is invoked.
I often ask myself why it is so difficult to get across the idea that Gaia dismantles any project predicated on providence, and cannot be used to nourish the fantasy of a return to religiosity. While talking to Stephan Harding in the car, I realized that it wasn’t just a matter of an error of interpretation. As Lovelock’s friend for many years, Harding, with many others, developed a real kind of “gaian” science. This “holistic” science broke with a too reductionist biology, and was put into practice in the magnificent setting of Dartington, south of Exeter, where I met Harding before our pilgrimage to Lovelock’s house. Schumacher College is an independent university where young people from around the world learn to live in a way that is compatible with “nature,” in a sort of California-style commune, collectively cooking up excellent meals, vegetarian of course. All this is only a few miles from the little village of Totnes, first of the “transition cities” that became famous through the Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion film Tomorrow (2015). You would think that Devon had become a laboratory for a new relationship with nature.
So I was very surprised that the Gaia Stephan teaches is deeply animist, spiritual, and intuitive, a view that that I thought was not so compatible with my reading of Lovelock. And yet he is one of Lovelock’s good friends, and it was he who went through so much trouble to organize the visit. When we speak of Gaia it is impossible not to take into account the multiplicity of its versions, including the wrong turns that Lovelock himself had left behind.
Lovelock at NASA
Luckily, that very evening in Exeter, I was to find myself dining with the two most important Gaia specialists, and they were interested in my story of the visit with “Jim”: Timothy Lenton who was his student, and now a professor of specializing in Earth Sciences, and Sébastien Dutreuil, a French historian of science who had just gotten back from a South Asian trip. Last year, he had defended an extraordinary thesis on the Gaia hypothesis.
So I had gathered in my hands, in the course of only one day, all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Going from Dartington to Exeter, I went from a kind of spiritual Gaia to a scientific one, while at the same time having the opportunity to go to the source, Lovelock himself, not far from Exeter. He would know, perhaps, how to decide between the two.
At first glance there is nothing simpler than the Gaia hypothesis: living things do not reside in an environment, they fashion it. What we call the environment is the result of living things’ extensions; their successful inventions and apprenticeships. This is not proof that the Earth is “living,” but rather that everything we experience on Earth is the unforeseen, secondary, and involuntary effect of the action of living organisms. This goes for the atmosphere, the soils, and the chemical composition of the oceans. We see it in termite mounds and beaver dams, which are not living in themselves, but without living organisms there would be no mounds or dams. So, the Gaia idea does not involve adding a soul to the terrestrial globe, or intentionality to living things, but it does recognize the prodigious ingenuity in the way living things fashion their own worlds.
Lovelock came up with the hypothesis when he was in Pasadena, at the time the programs for detecting life on Mars were being launched. This was 1965, and at the time he asked himself how a Martian planetologist might know there was life on Earth without the need to go there. His answer was as radical as it was simple: all the little green man had to do was look at the chemical distribution of the gases around the Earth. Far too much oxygen and methane, far too little CO2. The imbalance of the Earth’s gases called for an explanation that only the action of organisms could give: the living beings breathed and metabolized what other living things excreted.
As we were dining, Dutreuil recounted that as he was rummaging in the Lovelock archive at the Science Museum of London, he was able to document the source of this idea. If NASA had brought Lovelock to California, it was because he was already famous, not for his knowledge of geochemistry or biology — he was trained as a chemist — but because he was an extraordinary inventor of high-precision instruments. Through an amazing circumstantial serendipity, he managed, because of his instruments, particularly the famous electron capture detector, to discern pollution thresholds that were previously unquantifiable. So who at the time was interested in these gas emanations? First and foremost the chemical industry, as in the well-known case of measuring ozone in the atmosphere. Lovelock first worked in that industry, giving him a very unusual luxury for the 20th century, his own laboratory, which made him independent of universities.
The first Gaia idea came about with the following line of reasoning: “If today’s humans, via their industries, can spread chemical products over the Earth that I can detect with my instruments, then it is certainly possible that all terrestrial biochemistry could also be the product of living beings. If humans can so radically modify their environment in so little time, then other beings could have done it as well over hundreds of millions of years.” Earth is well and truly an artificially conceived kind of technosphere for which living things are engineers as blind as termites. You have to be an engineer and inventor like Lovelock to understand this entanglement.
So Gaia has nothing to do with any New Age idea of the Earth in a millennial balance, but rather emerges, as Lenton emphasizes over dinner, from a very specific industrial and technological situation: a violent technological rupture, blending the conquest of space, plus the nuclear and cold wars, that we were later to summarize under the label of the “Anthropocene” and that is accompanied by a cultural rupture symbolized by California in the 1960s. Drugs, sex, cybernetics, the conquest of space, the Vietnam War, computers, and the nuclear threat: this is the matrix from which Gaia was born, in violence, artifice, and war.
But Dutreuil is keen to point out that the most surprising aspect of this hypothesis is that it depends on the coupling of two diametrically opposed analyses. Lovelock’s analysis imagines the Earth seen from Mars as a cybernetic system, while that of Lynn Margulis looks at the planet through the other end of the binoculars, starting with the smallest and oldest living organisms. At the time, in the 1970s, Margulis was a typical example of a maverick, a dissident stirring up the neo-Darwinians who were in full flight at the time. In their minds, evolution presupposed the existence of organisms sufficiently separable from the others so that one could say that they had a modicum of superior or inferior fitness.
But Margulis challenged the very existence of separate individuals: one cell, one bacterium, one human, for the very good and simple reason that they are “all interlinked,” as the title of a recent book by Eric Bapteste indicates, Tous entrelacés or All Interlaced (2018). A cell is independent entities superimposed on each other, in the same way that our organism depends not only on our genes, but on those of the infinitely more numerous critters that are in residence in our gut or crawling over our skin. Evolution certainly exists, but which direction is it coming from, and which interlinked participants are going to profit from it? That is what is not calculable. Genes may well be “selfish,” as Richard Dawkins said at one point, the problem is that they don’t know the exact limits of their self! It is interesting to note that as time goes by, Margulis’s discoveries are gaining in importance, to the point where today they seem to be orthodox, thanks to the holobiont concept catching on with lightning speed. In that one concept, we get the whole idea of the superimposition of living beings folded into each other.
The Earth’s Thin Skin
What happens when you combine the insights of Lovelock and Margulis? In the course of a seminar that I attended the next day, before the snow came to engulf the south of England, the answer came to me quite clearly: with the Gaia theory one can grasp the “power to act” of all the jumbled-up organisms without immediately integrating them into a unity that is superior to them and which they obey. In this sense, and despite the word “system,” Gaia doesn’t act in a systematic fashion, or at least it isn’t a unified system. Lenton has shown that the regulation can be very strong or very lax, depending on the scales of space and time. The homeostatis of an organism and the more erratic regulation of the climate are not of the same type. The Earth is not an organism. Unlike all living things, it lives off itself in a way, through continuous recycling with very little help from external matter (apart, of course, from solar energy). One cannot even say that Gaia is synonymous with the globe or the natural world because, after all, living things, even after several billion years of evolution, only are in charge of a thin skin of the Earth, a sort of biofilm, what the researchers with whom I am working at the moment call “critical zones.”
Now I understand the mistakes made in the interpretation of Gaia both by those who rejected it too quickly, and those who embraced it too enthusiastically. Both were working with an image of the Earth, the globe, nature, the natural order, without taking into account the fact that they were dealing with a unique object requiring a general revision of scientific conceptions.
Ah! So I was right after all to make the comparison with Galileo. As I was stuck under my duvet waiting for it to rain enough for the English to dare to venture out of doors, I understood this striking sentence in Lovelock: “The Gaia hypothesis implies that the stable state of our planet includes man as a part of, or partner in, a very democratic entity.” I had never understood this allusion to democracy in an author who was not particularly defensive of it. That was because he wasn’t talking about democracy among humans, but was overturning our perspectives in a hugely consequential way.
Before Gaia, the inhabitants of modern industrial societies saw nature as a domain of necessity, and when they looked toward their own society they saw it as the domain of freedom, as philosophers might say. But after Gaia these two distinct domains literally don’t exist anymore. There is no living or animated thing that obeys an order superior to itself, and that dominates it, or that it just has to adapt itself to, and this is true for bacteria as much as lions or human societies. This doesn’t mean that all living things are free in the rather simple sense of being individuals, since they are interlinked, folded, and entangled in each other. This means that the issue of freedom and dependence is equally valid for humans as it is for the partners of the above natural world.
Galileo invented a world of objects placed beside each other, without affecting each other, and entirely obeying the laws of physics. Lovelock and Margulis sketched a world of agents constantly interacting with each other. When I came back from this amazing day in Dorset, I said to myself that taking on board such a world had nothing to do with ecology, but quite simply with a politics of living things. And as I was going down the coast, I had the thought that another Brecht was needed to write a “Life of Lovelock.”
Bruno Latour is a French philosopher and sociologist of science. His works include Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora’s Hope, and An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence.