Is Gaia Really a Living Being? (Pascal’s Wager, Updated)

sunrise-1756274_1280Is the Earth really just the sum of all its parts? Or does something more emerge from that? A superorganism? A living being? Gaia? It seems to make sense that just as the human body is a larger manifestation of a set of collaborative systems, so too is Gaia. Just as consciousness comes from neural activity and yet is something more, Gaia could manifest from a set of interlinking biological and geophysical systems and yet be more than these systems. That is not to say Gaia is conscious. But alive.

Can you see the fruit fly?
Can you see the fruit fly?

Yet, how do we know? It is not hard to think that we may have difficulty in effectively sensing a form of life so different than ours. How would a fruit fly comprehend an elephant? Can a bacterium sense a human being as one living entity, which considering relative size is about the right scale to consider?

A living Earth is about 4 billion years old (the planet is about 4.5 billion years old). We love to measure dog’s lives in “dog years” (or years they’d live if they were people). What if we tried to measure Gaia’s life in the same way? Assuming a human’s lifespan is a generous 100 years, 40 million years for Gaia is like a year. 110,000 years is like a day. A minute for Gaia is 76 years, or more than many people live. And 1.25 years is a Gaian second. Which actually fits nicely—Gaia takes a breath about once per second, inhaling every six months, absorbing CO2 through its plant and plankton lungs every spring and summer and exhaling every fall and winter. But ultimately, this is just math—Gaia is so different that we can only speculate and measure Her life indirectly—as James Lovelock did with his investigation into whether life existed on Mars by analyzing the presence of certain reactive chemicals (which being absent, he concluded there was no life on that planet).

So, as with God, does the understanding that Gaia is alive come down to faith alone? Another argument for whether Gaia is alive can be borrowed from French philosopher Blaise Pascal and his famous wager:

Pascal’s wager is one that seemed effective in tripping up the wavering agnostic. Look, Pascal argued, if God exists, and you don’t believe in Him, then you risk eternal damnation. If he doesn’t exist, and you do believe in him, then what is really lost? Perhaps you seek out a bit less hedonistic pleasure, but perhaps you’re also kinder, more giving, and have a nice fantasy (heaven) that gives your life meaning and your death less fear. It’s seductive.

There is a ready equivalent in The Gaian Way:

If Gaia is alive, and you don’t believe it, you risk treating Gaia like a supply of resources and normalizing the overexploitation of the planet. This will lead to the sickening of Earth, and in the process, shifting Earth to a state that is hostile to you, your children, your grandchildren, and humankind—risking your well-being, civilizational collapse, or even human extinction. Hell for all humanity, not just you. If Gaia isn’t alive, and you believe it is, then you’ll still make better ecological decisions focusing on sustaining the planet, rather than maximizing your well-being at its expense. What is really lost? Yes, a bit of comfort or pleasure as you steer away from the highly marketed consumeristic vision of the good life, but you’ll live a more wondrous and perhaps slower, and more beautifully-intertwined life (and foregoing the consumer diet and the stress of keeping up with the Joneses you may actually live a longer, healthier life as well).

But in reality, unlike God, where belief ultimately comes down to faith—and is an unknowable wager—Gaia’s vibrancy is all around us. The trees swaying in the wind, the birds singing, the animals scurrying about. We only have to stop and look to understand that Gaia is alive and awe-inspiring. Every year (or Gaian second) we feel Gaia’s breath—the coldness of Her exhalation, the warmness of Her inhalation. But now, because of human “progress,” Gaia is under mortal threat. And thus, so are we. So use your Gaian minute of existence to help heal Gaia and make your brief life matter.

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2 Responses

  1. Bart Everson

    Yes! Mapping the circular pattern of the seasons onto the cycle of the breath – I have developed a series of guided meditations around this.

  2. Tom Read

    I like the observation that Gaia is tangible to us — all around us — but also the hint that she’s “something more.” How would we sense that not-so-obvious aspect of Gaia? Alas, I don’t have an answer at the moment.

    Also, thanks for the order-of-magnitude math and the analogy of bacterium and elephant — helps put our lives in perspective. Well done, Erik!

    –Tom Read

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