James Lovelock, creator of the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’, has died

James Lovelock’s interest in the conditions of life on earth arose out of disillusionment in the mid-1960s. The NASA Mars mission he worked on yielded no clues as to the hoped-for presence of life on the alien planet, and this setback, Lovelock recounts in his famous 1979 book The Gaia Principle, created within him the ambition to at least better understand the ecological conditions on our own planet.

The hypothesis that the earth should be understood as a genuine living being that, over hundreds of millions of years, has been able to keep its biosphere in balance and make life permanently possible, is described by Lovelock as a complex biological-cybernetic theory, but increasingly with a metaphysical-enthusiastic one excess, which is reinforced by the reference to Gaia – in Greek mythology the personification of the earth and the primeval mother of the gods. According to James Lovelock, his neighbor, the writer and later winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, William Golding, suggested this name for his theory in the early 1970s, thereby promoting the popularization of keywords.

The Gaia hypothesis, the revitalization of the planet, works on that new awareness of the earth as a vulnerable entity, which is also promoted by the first photographs of the entire globe from space, which were taken at the same time. Like Stewart Brand and his “Whole Earth” catalog in California, Lovelock, born in 1919, the ingenious freelance scientist who left academic institutions early on, stands for a combination of advanced biochemical and information technology knowledge with hippie and New Age borrowings that have characterized the post-1968 American counterculture. Before that, Lovelock, who grew up in London, studied chemistry, medicine and biophysics.

James Lovelock in front of a home-made device to measure molecules in the atmosphere.

(Photo: Nicholas T. Ansell/dpa)

As the 1970s progressed, the natural and life science community turned its back on Lovelock’s increasingly activist Gaia publications; but for the nascent ecological movement, his conception of the earth as a maternal creature becomes one of the most important sources of inspiration.

When the earth suffers, a living being suffers

James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis has experienced a significant academic renaissance over the past decade by the influential philosopher of science, Bruno Latour. In his 2013 Gifford Lectures, Latour combines Lovelock’s ecological-holistic theory with his own critique of dualism, characterized by oppositions such as nature and culture, subject and object, acting human and non-acting thing shaped rationalistic modernity. In Latour’s increasingly esoteric late work, Gaia, Mother Earth, becomes the leading figure of a new political theology, a counterforce to the inexorable destruction of the planet in the age of the Anthropocene.

The fact that Lovelock’s almost fifty-year-old intricate analyzes have recently become a driving force in the social sciences and humanities (a new version of the “Gaia Principle” has recently appeared) undoubtedly has to do with his concept of the earth as being as living as unstable organism provides a powerful and easily understandable picture of the dangers of man-made crises on our planet that may no longer be able to be corrected. As Lovelock writes, over an unimaginably long period of time, the earth made life possible through its regulatory mechanisms, through its interlocking of all processes in the biosphere. On the other hand, it took only a few hundred years for humans and the methods of exploiting nature they developed to disturb this balance so severely that the climatic conditions of life are damaged in a possibly irreversible way.

James Lovelock, who died of biblical age in Dorset, southern England, on Tuesday, the day of his 103rd birthday, has left a powerful metaphor for contemporary struggles and analysis in the face of this damage. If the earth is really a living thing, if the burning forests and the overflowing waters are not simply understood as abstract natural crises, but as the painful expressions of a living organism, these catastrophes trigger much stronger affects. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis seems to be unfolding its full power only today.

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