Earth Day 2020

Earth Day 2020 and Global Solidarity

David P. Turner / April 19, 2020

Earth Day in 2020 is the 50th Anniversary for this annual gathering of our global tribe.  Historically, it has been an opportunity to note declines in environmental quality and to envision a sustainable relationship of humanity to the rest of the Earth system.

This year, in addition to the usual concerns about issues like climate change and ocean acidification, Earth Day is accompanied by concern about the specter of the COVID-19 pandemic.  A glance at the geographic distribution of this virus is the latest reminder that interactions with the biosphere, in this case the microbial component, can link all humans in powerful ways. 

Environmental issues that were on the front burner when Senator Gaylord Nelson initiated Earth Day in 1970 were mostly local − polluted rivers, polluted air, and degraded land cover.  These issues were addressed to a significant degree in the U.S. by passage of the Clean Water Act (1972), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).  These were national level successes inspired by environmental activism.

Awareness of global environmental change in 1970 was only dimly informed by geophysical observations such as the slow rise in the atmospheric CO2 concentration.  But by the 1980s, climate scientists began a drumbeat of testimony to governments and the media that the environmental pollution issue extended to the global scale and might eventually threaten all of humanity. 

The United Nations has functioned as a forum for international deliberations about global environmental change issues, and the signing of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987 hinted at the possibilities for global solidarity with respect to the environment.

To help matters, economic globalization in the 1990s began uniting the world in new ways.  Huge flows in goods and services across borders fueled a truly global economy.  The level of communication required to support the global economy was based on the rapidly evolving Internet.  It provided the foundation for a global transportation/telecommunications infrastructure that now envelops the planet.

A political backlash to economic and cultural globalization has recently brought to power leaders like Donald Trump (U.S.) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil).  Their inclination is much more towards nationalism than towards global solidarity on environmental issues.

However, humanity is indeed united – in fear of climate change and coronavirus pandemics if nothing else.

Each year, the growing incidence of extreme weather events associated with anthropogenic climate change negatively impinges on the quality of life of a vast number of people around the planet.  This year, billions of us are locked down in one form or another to slow the spread of a virus that likely emerged from trafficking in wild animals.  In a mythopoetic sense, it is as if Earth was responding to the depredations imposed upon it by our species.

Philosopher Isabelle Stengers refers to the “intrusion” of Gaia (the Earth system) upon human history.  The message from Gaia is that she is no longer just a background for the infinite expansion of the human enterprise (the technosphere). 

Humanity can reply to Gaia with ad hoc measures like building sea walls for protection from sea level rise.  Or we can get organized and develop a framework for global environmental governance.

There are many impediments to becoming a global “we” that will work collectively on global environmental change issues.  Nevertheless, the incentives for doing so are arriving hard and fast.  The diminishment of the wild animal trade in China in response to COVID-19, and the unintended reduction of greenhouse gas emissions globally associated with efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, signal that radical change is possible. 

Fitting testaments to an emerging global solidarity about environmental issues would be eradication of commercial exploitation of wild land animals everywhere in the world, and stronger national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions relative to current obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Both initiatives of course face strong cultural and political headwinds.  But Earth Day, as one of the largest recurring secular celebrations in the world, is an opportunity to think anew.

Recommended audio/video:
One World (Not Three), The Police

The Second Revival of Gaia

January 11, 2020/David P. Turner

Gaia was originally a figure from Greek mythology: the mother goddess who gave birth to the sky, the mountains, and the sea.  Gaia was adopted by the Romans when they conquered the Mediterranean basin, but her myth was largely abandoned with the ascendency of Christianity by the third century CE.

The first revival of Gaia was a product of the nascent Earth system science community in the 1970s.  Atmospheric chemist James Lovelock was impressed by the finding of geologists that life had persisted on Earth for over 3 billion years despite a 25% increase in the strength of solar radiation (associated with an aging sun), and numerous catastrophic collisions with asteroids.  He also understood that the chemistry of the atmosphere − which provides oxygen for animal respiration, protection from toxic solar UV-B radiation, and influences the global climate − was maintained by the metabolism of the biosphere. 

These observations led him to suggest that the Earth as a whole was in a sense homeostatic, it was able to maintain certain life enhancing properties in the face of significant perturbations.    

In casting around for a name to give this organism-like version of the planet, he was inspired by author William Golding to revive the term Gaia.  Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis went on to write many influential peer-reviewed papers, and later books, on Gaia.

By the 1990s, the question of what regulated the functioning of the Earth system had become of more than academic interest.  Earth system scientists had observed that the Earth system was changing and begun to worry about possible impacts of those changes on the human enterprise.  Concentrations of greenhouse gases were rising, stratospheric ozone was declining, and a wave of extinctions was sweeping the planet. 

Geoscientists were initially intrigued by the Gaia Hypothesis about planetary homeostasis, hoping perhaps that Gaian homeostasis might save us from ourselves.  But by around 2000 they had largely rejected Gaia as an entity.  Many of the feedbacks in the Earth system (see my Teleological Feedback blog) were positive (amplifying climate change) rather than negative (damping), hence not contributing to homeostasis.

The second revival of Gaia came predominantly from scholars in the humanities.  Historians typically begin human history about 10,000 years ago when humans adopted an agricultural way of life.  However, the discovery that humans have recently begun to alter the global environment on a geologic scale changes everything (as activist Naomi Klein says).  The Earth system is no longer a benevolent background state that will provide a growing humanity with unlimited resources.  Earth has a Gaian history that is now imposed upon by human history.  The new field of Big History aims to juxtapose the geologic and anthropocentric time frames.

Historians needed a term to evoke an Earth system that in a sense has its own agency, and scholars like science historian Bruno Latour and philosopher Isabelle Stengers settled on Gaia.  They emphasized Gaia not as a nurturing mother, but rather a force that will smack humanity down if the current trajectory of global environmental change continues.

In a recent hybrid interpretation, geoscientist Tim Lenton and humanities scholar Bruno Latour have dubbed the newly revived Gaia as Gaia 2.0.  This version refers to an Earth system on which a sentient species has evolved and begun to alter the planet but has collectively taken on the project of developing an advanced technological civilization (a technosphere) that will live on the planet sustainably.  That means comprehensive renewable energy, nearly closed material cycling, conservation of biodiversity to support the background metabolism of Gaia 1.0, implementation of multiple strategies to moderate climate change, and forms of governance that facilitate self-regulation at multiple scales.

Gaia 2.0 is the combination of the pre-human Gaian Earth system and the recently emergent technosphere.