A Gaian Interpretation of COVID and the World
Before the Glasgow climate summit in November, British ecologist and futurist James Lovelock wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian, entitled “Beware: Gaia may destroy humans before we destroy the Earth.”
“Gaia” is the ancient Greek goddess who personified Earth, and the theory behind it is one Lovelock pioneered in the 1970s. The idea is that Earth is a single complex organism with its vast amounts of life striving to balance and correct its ecology, sort of like a huge immune system.
From that worldview foundation, Lovelock offers this extreme conclusion: “Covid-19 may well have been one attempt by the Earth to protect itself.” He means, of course, that the earth was attempting to protect itself from humans. If people continue to egg on the planet he warns, “Gaia will try harder next time with something even nastier.”
It’s not clear whether Lovelock means for his theory to be taken literally or metaphorically. On one hand, this could be the musings of a materialist, talking in a colorful way about “natural systems.” On the other hand, Gaia theory is the kind of belief a generation of spiritually hungry climate activists are tempted to latch onto.
Gaia theory taps is one expression of an emerging spiritual trend among Americans. In recent years, the number of people claiming to practice witchcraft in the U.S. has increased dramatically, as have the number of young Americans interested in astrology. The line between secular materialism and new age panpsychism can be surprisingly thin. Just take “New Atheist” Sam Harris, who despite being an avowed materialist, advocates strongly for meditation to achieve “transcendence” and push past what he calls the “illusion of self.”
Beliefs like Gaia offer explanations for the improbability, the complexity, and the intentionality found in the universe, things old-school Darwinism have always struggled to explain. It's an avenue for spiritual feelings without demanding any significant responsibility or life change in return. They can also serve—as Gaia theory clearly has for James Lovelock—as a sort of ideological battering ram, to help convince those who would otherwise oppose a certain ecological agenda.
But beliefs within the Gaia ecosystem (pun intended) all have something in common: They’re user-generated. Unlike organized religion, Gaianism (the name for the spiritual version of Gaia Theory) can essentially conform to any number of beliefs dependings on the person holding them. It’s not subject to any kind of empirical test or divine revelation. It doesn’t require specificity as to what beliving it would precisely entail.
In other words, Gaia not only buckles under close scrutiny, it evades scrutiny altogether.
Short of just claiming it, there’s no way to verify whether or not Gaian beliefs are true. No tree, rock, or koala bear has ever verified Mother Earth’s existence. In fact, outside of people attributing it to nature, and superimposing a motive of revenge, there’s no evidence whatsoever that Covid-19 is the Earth’s angry way of punishing us.
And therein lies the central way Gaianism fails: It cannot explain humanity. Are we a part of nature, a plague of nature, or something else entirely?
If people are just another part of the system, then who’s to say that constructing massive cities, designing virtual worlds, dumping chemicals and sewage into rivers, or chopping down trees is is wrong? In fact, wouldn’t these things simply be natural selection working towards its logical end? If everything is Gaia, aren’t we Gaia too?
Of course, we all agree that people shouldn’t dump chemicals in rivers or otherwise pollute the planet. But that’s only true if we are qualitatively different from—and responsible for—the natural world. Otherwise, the whole story is nature conquering nature, which nature always does. There needs to be a true and distinguishable “we” in this scenario, something Gaia theory can’t account for.
Christianity can. In fact, Christianity gives us a grounding for every right belief Gaia theory proposes but cannot explain or ground
For one thing, the Christian story bases its entire existence on a potentially falsifiable event: the resurrection of Jesus. That gives an evidence test that New Age philosophies can’t match. If Jesus rose from the dead, the whole thing is true. If Jesus didn’t, as the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, then the whole thing is nonsense.
Secondly, Christianity can explain the mind behind the cosmos: the infinitely wise, infinitely just Creator who made this world and cares what happens to it. It’s not just blind forces of nature telling us to check ourselves, or illusions of physicality based on some kind of divine spirit. We have a Heavenly Father, the divine source of personhood.
Third, Christianity tells us who we are, how we fit into the full story. We are special stewards of creation, capable of massive amounts of good and evil. We’re made in the image of God with a divinely ordained job to do: Cultivate the created world.
The thing Christianity doesn’t do is subject people to a constant dread of Mother Earth viewing us as parasites. One could easily ask a believer in Gaia theory: How many humans are too much? Would Gaia be satisfied with pre-industrial levels or only with the eradication of every last person? Is somewhere in the middle okay? Who’s to say?
Of course, we’ll never know. But we get the sense Gaia is a capricious master, at least as brutal as what Tennyson famously labeled “nature, red in tooth and claw.”
My advice for would-be panpsychists is this: Ditch Gaia. Look at Jesus: Earth’s creator, gardener, redeemer.