The Cartesian vision which still dominates the greater part of current scientific thought places us as observers external to Nature. Hence the concept of the "natural environment". The environment is thought of as being outside of us; an environment in which we are immersed to be sure, but which is not part of us. The dichotomy here is quite clear.
We have today cybernetics and systems theory, but rare are the people who observe Nature, and much rarer still are those who view the world from the holistic perspective of these disciplines. The doctrine that shapes modern technology is inevitably based on a reductionist worldview. The objectives are narrow, the reasoning is linear - however, the actual world is not like this.
Let us conduct a "thought experiment" (Gedankenexperiment) as Einstein used to do: could there possibly exist a planet full of life, a planet such as ours, but on which life consisted solely of animals and no plants? Of course not. Why not?
Even strictly carnivorous animals such as the lion or the sparrow hawk - what meat do they eat? They eat the meat of herbivorous animals or else other carnivorous animals that in turn feed on herbivores. The chain always ends in the plant.
Why does it end or begin with the plant? Very simple: the plant is able to do something that no animal is capable of. The plant masters the technique - the "technology" as we could say today – of photosynthesis. What exactly is photosynthesis? The plants capture solar energy, extract carbon dioxide from the air, and combine it with water to produce organic substances. Through this process, plants release oxygen. A super-simplified formula for photosynthesis is the following.
CO2 + H2O + solar energy = CH2O + O2
This reaction is very interesting. On the left side we have two simple mineral substances, substances without energetic content on a molecular level, which is the level where living beings and the surrounding mineral world interact with each other. (In terms of nuclear physics, which applies in the interior of the sun and the stars, or in the infamous nuclear reactors and bombs, the situation would be different.)
Energy cannot be extracted directly from water and carbon dioxide. From time to time, one reads in newspapers of inventors' stories of how they have conceived of motors which use water as a fuel. Anyone familiar with the basic laws of physics and the direction of the most elementary chemical reactions knows that this cannot be so.
On the other side of the equation we have a hydrocarbon and free oxygen. CH2O is a very simplified formula for sugars, starches, and cellulose. The hydrocarbons have a high energetic content. We might call them chemical batteries, for when they are combined, that is, burned with oxygen, they give off heat. The reaction obtained through photosynthesis provides two things - hydrocarbons and oxygen!
Animals need energy for all of their activities. The only inexhaustible source of energy on the Earth is solar radiation - as long as the sun continues to burn; that is, another five billion years. If life depended on something such as petroleum or coal, it would have already ended.
But this is an absurd consideration, for it was Life itself which produced coal and petroleum. In order to capture light, immobility and a large surface area is necessary; this is what plants do with their leaves always oriented in the direction of the sun. Because of their dynamic nature, animals are not able to do this. Instead, they utilize plants and take advantage of the organic substances produced by plants.
Now let us turn our initial question around: could we imagine a planet with life, but with just plants and no animals? Wouldn't such a planet be more harmonious, and with no suffering? The plants could develop freely, without being grazed, broused, trampled on, consumed,...
The formula for photosynthesis indicated that the principal "food" for plants is carbon dioxide. But this is almost a rare gas in the environment. Air is composed mostly of nitrogen (N2) - 79%, and oxygen (O2) - 20%. The rest is argon and rare gases. In spite of the fact that its concentration has been increased drastically in the last two hundred years by industrial smokestacks, automobile exhaust, destruction of the humus in our soils, and by massive deforestation, carbon dioxide constitutes only 0.033% of the atmosphere. Why then do plants not quickly use up this carbon dioxide?
It is because of animals that plants do not die of hunger. Animals master another technique similar to photosynthesis, almost identical but just the opposite - respiration. Let us look at a simplified formula for respiration:
CH2O + O2 - Energy = CO2 + H2O
Exactly the reverse of photosynthesis! While plants store energy and synthesize organic substances, giving off oxygen as a byproduct, animals, with the available oxygen, burn these substances and use the energy created in the process. They return to the environment exactly what the plants extract from it.
A curious and very significant detail: the catalyst in the photosynthetic reaction is chlorophyll - a green pigment, a fairly complicated molecule of the type chemists refer to as chelates. Chelates are large molecules in the form of a cage which lock up an atom of metal in their centre. In the case of chlorophyll, the atom is magnesium. The catalyst for respiration is hemoglobin, also a pigment which in this case is red. The central atom is iron. Anyone who has studied color theory knows that red and green are complementary colors.
Now we can present a very simple diagram:
CO2 -> Plant -> O2 -> Animal -> CO2
The plant takes in carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen. The animal consumes this oxygen and returns carbon dioxide to the environment. The cycle completes itself. The motor which drives this carousel is the sun.
Plants and animals thus form part of a functional unity. They are organs within a larger organism: not only are plants here for us, we are here for them!
Trees, jungles, meadows, swamps, the microscopic algae of the oceans... these are our organs, as much part of us as our lungs, hearts, livers or spleens. We could call them our "external organs", while the latter just mentioned are our internal organs. But we are external organs to them! The Grand Organism is One.
This quality of complementariness and interdependence, so characteristic of photosynthesis and respiration, can readily be found in a myriad of interactions that make up the Grand Vital Process. Let us recall a few others:
The bee and the flower. In some cases, the dependency between the flower and the pollinating insect is so precise that the two species are specific to each other. Such is the case with the little wasps of the fig trees that live inside the figs themselves. Each species of the great family of Ficus is pollenized exclusively by one species of micor-himenoptera, and by none other. Or the hummingbird that has a beak precisely suited to a particular kind of orchid-flower. Or the bumble bee whose dimensions and hairs are perfectly matched to a specific type of passion flower.
In some humid soils, extremely acid and poor in nutrients, the plant world manages to survive thanks to the presence of very special pioneers, certain carnivorous plants. When these plants die, with the resulting humus that enriches the soil, they are making way for other less specialized plants. Within the Grand Context, death is fundamental.
Why do plants produce appetizing fruits? In order for plants to be efficient at photosynthesis, they cannot move.. But they too must conquer territory. The fruit is the price the plant pays to the animal in exchange for transporting its seeds. The large fig trees that adorn the fields and plains of southern Brazil are much moreprecise. In most of the trees, the seeds germinate in the darkness of the forest soil. The seedlings spend years or decades living precariously, struggling to reach the top. In general, they are able to achieve this only when a giant tree, in a state of decay, falls and leaves a new open space. The fig tree does just the opposite. It is born in the upper branches of other trees, and survives for years as an epiphyte, feeding on the humus of the decaying branches and trunks. But it manages to send a root in the soil, embraces and strangles the tree on which it was born, and ends up becoming a new giant. But how does the seed get to the upper branches in the first place? The seed of a big fig germinates only after having passed through the stomach of a bird. If it falls to the ground, it will not germinate due to the absence of certain digestive acids found in the stomach of a bird which eliminate a substance that otherwise would prevent germination.
We would have to write a compendium of many volumes to illustrate only a fraction of the examples of multiple symbiosis. A good example is the leaf cutting ant. Each species feeds on a specific kind of mold that grows on a compost made by the ant from the leaves it cuts. The different molds can only live with their specific species of leaf-cutting ants.
Even the creatures we often classify as pests or parasites have their function. Modern agriculture would not be using so many toxins if it had not forgotten that pests only attack plants or animals which are sick, out of balance, or maladjusted. Attacking only marginalized individuals within a given population, parasites act as a sieve for natural selection, constantly perfecting the species, causing more synergism, more recycling of the resources utilized in the life process.
And the millions of species of bacteria, each one with its specific function? Without them, there would be no digestion or decomposition, no recycling of mineral nutrients. Plants and animals, when dead, would become mummified, obstructing space for those that are alive. In a totally exhausted soil, starvation would kill allsurvivors . Were it not for bacteria, plants would not have access to the nitrogen in the air, an element indispensable for synthesis of proteins. However, just as there are bacteria which help plants obtain nitrogen, there are other bacteria which return nitrogen to the air, thus maintaining a balance of stable flow. Still other bacteria, also in the soil, provide plants with access to phosphorus and other mineral nutrients, especially the micro-nutrients which are necessary for the health of the plants. Phosphorus is essential to the genetic code, that incredible biochemical language which on a molecular level determines, registers, and perpetuates, and through its mutations, enriches the wisdom of Organic Evolution, from the moment of being a fertilized egg until its death.
And what about all those larger organisms that either in the soil or on the top of it carry out preparatory work for bacteria, chewing, gnawing, tearing, taking apart, transporting the remains of dead organisms: fungi, protozoa, colembolas, nematods, flatworms, insects - including the highly structured societies of ants and termites - mites, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, earthworms, and also higher creatures such as mollusks and even mammals, such as the mole and the armadillo? Without them, bacteria would have a great deal of work, and the life cycles would be very slow.
Life would never be understood in the way desired by Decartes, who looked upon all living beings, except for humans, as mere machines, automatons, or robots as we would say today. But this worldview is still alive, very much alive, for example in the toxicology laboratories of the chemical industry, where millions of defenseless creatures such as monkeys, dogs, cats, rats and others simply classified as "guinea pigs" are subjected to indescribable tortures in order to establish in a terribly standardized fashion, among other indecent abstractions, the "permissible daily intake" of toxins with which to carry out their colossal business ventures. This view, most unfortunately, is common in many biology classes and in modern meat and egg factories, euphemistically referred to as "feed lots" and "chicken farms". Neither can Life be understood solely in terms of modern molecular biology with its ultra-reductionist focus and its "central dogma" postulating that the incredible diversity of forms and functions is merely the result of natural selection and random mutation. Only a systematic, unitary, and synfonic worldview can assist us in comprehending the true nature of our wonderful living planet.
Never have there been so many biologists as there are today. The "biological sciences" - the plural form of this term is significant - are comprised of more and more areas of specialization. In industry, I met entomologists who only investigated chemical methods for killing and eradicating insects. At agricultural experimental stations, researchers often spend their lives correlating statistically the reaction of certain plants to specific chemical treatments. Then there are those who study the effect of specific contaminants on various aquatic organisms. When I observe the work of molecular biologists who probe ever deeper into the dance of the macromolecules of the chromosomal genes, without considering the organism as a whole, I think of an image of someone who, wanting to know and understand the magnificent European railroad system, for example, the Bundesbahn in Germany, confines him or herself to studying with a microscope the letters of the thick time schedule booklets for the trains, and spends an entire life doing nothing but this.
What these people discover and catalogue does not cease to be interesting; these investigations are very important. However, cut off from a vision of the whole, they do not provide us with any ethical orientation. Moreover, it is the prevailing dogma within modern scientific circles that science has nothing to do with values, with ethics, with politics, with religion...
There are plenty of biologists, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find naturalists. Naturalists such as Darwin, Haeckel, Humboldt, Julian Huxley, or like some of my teachers: Alarich Schultz, his brother Harald; Croizat and Vareschi in Venezuela, the great Ruschi in Espírito Santo, Sioli in Amazonia, and the now mythological figure of Balduíno Rambo, almost totally forgotten by his countrymen, one of the great souls who walked on and venerated this land!
The difference between the conventional biologist, supposedly only "scientific", and the naturalist... lies in veneration! To the naturalist, Nature is not merely an object of study and manipulation; it is much more. Nature is something divine - let us not be afraid to use the word - it is sacred, and we humans are but a small part of her. From here it follows that the attitude of the naturalist can never be one of aggression, domination, spoliation. Naturalists strive for harmony, preservation, stewardship, aesthetic contemplation. The naturalist is on the same level as the artist, the composer, theconductor, the sculptor, the painter, the writer... but he works with harsh scientific discipline, in clear dialogue with Nature.
The more a naturalist marvels at the incredible interactions and complementary relationships within atoms, cells, organisms, species, populations, communities, and ecosystems, the more he attempts to arrive at a grand synthesis. From this ecological vision there thus emerged the concept of the Ecosphere, which is the sumtotal and interaction of all the ecosystems with each other and with the mineral world. The following diagram gives us a simplified representation of the Ecosphere:
The Biosphere, the totality of all living systems, is intimately and inseparably linked to the Lithosphere, the Hydrosphere, and the Atmosphere. The totality constitutes a functional unity, an organism in and of itself, a dynamic system that is integrated, balanced, and self-regulating.
It is still a common notion that Life exists on this planet and has been able to maintain itself to this day (it has already been at least three and a half billion years since the first breaths were taken in the primordial oceans) because the Earth, unique among the planets of our solar system, brings together the following very special conditions:
The proper size and rotation of a planet at just the right distance to a star of the right size. And further, the precise range of temperatures that are favorable to biochemical processes. In the Universe, extreme temperatures predominate, from almost absolute zero, - 273 C, in interstellar space, to around 6000 C on the surface of the sun; tens of millions of degrees in its interior; hundreds of millions of degrees in the interior of larger stars; and hundreds of billions in nova and supernova explosions. But the vital processes of carbon chemistry function only above temperatures of 0 Centigrade and break down before reaching 100 C. Only a few blue green algae and some bacteria in thermal springs are able to live in water with temperatures around 70 C; some fungi and actinomicets still live well at temperatures of 60 C in composts of organic gardens.
Earth barely escaped the fate of Venus or Mars, our closest neighbors. Jupiter, Saturn, and the planets still further away are out of the question. It is known that the average temperature on the surface of Venus is above 400 C. There is no organic substance that can withstand such heat. The oceans simply evaporated. On Mercury, closer to the sun than Venus, even the atmosphere could not withstand such high temperatures; it escaped. On Mars mid-day temperatures in the summer on the equator are approximately 40 C below zero. The carbon dioxide located on the polar caps of Mars is in the form of dry ice. As for the possibility of oceans on Mars, no way!
The fact is that Earth possesses very special conditions, and not just in terms of temperature. If it were a ball of gas like Jupiter, or a waterless and airless sphere like the moon, the right temperature range would be worthless. Also fundamental to Life is the coming together of three physical states: solid, liquid, and gas. Without these separate states, there would be no recycling, such as the interlinked cycles of carbon and oxygen, or the large and small biochemical cycles.
In order to maintain itself, Life requires yet further vital conditions: an atmosphere of certain composition, a specific salinity in the oceans, a certain range of pH (measure of acidity and alkalinity). At least 25 of the more than 100 elements from Mendeleyev's periodic table must be present.
When NASA was preparing the first unmanned vehicle that would land on the surface of Mars, it could have saved the high cost of automatic devices that collected and analyzed Martian soil to determine if the planet harbored some form of life, even more simple than the simplest of bacteria.
James Lovelock, one of the rare scientists of today who is able to survive as an independent consultant, worked at that time for NASA. He suggested that it would be enough to simply study the atmosphere of Mars, or any other planet for that matter, to determine whether or not life existed there. The important thing would be to verify whether the atmosphere, in its totality, was close to or far from a state of chemical equilibrium. Spectroscopic observations would suffice. Lovelock was ignored, and life on Mars was not found.
What would happen to the Earth's present atmosphere if Life disappeared? Its composition appears to violate the laws of chemistry. Without being replenished through photosynthesis, oxygen would not last more than a few million years. It would be consumed by the oxidation of rocks and of nitrogen, and would end up in the oceans in the form of nitrates. The seas would no longer have near-neutral pH, which is favorable to Life, they would turn into an extremely acidic, corrosive soup. Since the volcanic processes are far from being exhausted, the level of carbon dioxide would again increase. The Earth would end up almost as hot as Venus. And the oceans? They would evaporate! Water vapor in the upper atmosphere would be dissociated by the direct action of ultraviolet radiation. Hydrogen would be lost to interplanetary space, and the freed oxygen would oxidize the rest of nitrogen. Nitric acid would expose more crude rock, and all of the oxygen would be fixed in form of oxides. It would take longer than the fixation of oxygen in the first phase; however, time is the last thing Nature lacks. An atmosphere such as ours simply could not exist on a dead planet.
Thus a good chemist who looked at Earth from afar, far enough as not to be able to discern forests, cities, or roads, would - by simply analyzing spectrograms of our atmosphere - realize that something very interesting was happening here. Earth's atmosphere is far from being in a state of chemical equilibrium. Such is not the case with Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, and the rest of the planets, all of which appear perfectly normal in a chemical sense. This chemist would be fascinated!
Lovelock, in collaboration with Lynn Margulis, disturbed by the non-acceptance of his proposal to NASA, and thinking more deeply about the subject, took the conventional wisdom, according to which Life exists on Earth because Earth brings together and maintains the right conditions, and turned it on its head. If Earth offers the right conditions for Life, it is because they are maintained by Life itself.
Let us look at the correct temperature range for Life processes. At some moment between three and a half and four billion years ago, the Earth was already solid. The lava flows had solidified, the oceans had formed, the temperature had stabilized. The sun was between one and one and a half times less hot than it is today; this is an established fact since the sun is a rather normal star, within the "main line", whose evolution is well known bycosmologists. If Earth was not a ball of ice, it was by virtue of its own internal heat and the fact that the atmosphere at that time gave rise to a strong greenhouse effect. The atmosphere consisted primarily of carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia, with hydrogen and water vapor making up the rest. Almost all the hydrogen in the initial atmosphere had already disappeared. This atmosphere was of volcanic origin.
It was in that reducing atmosphere that Life began; indeed only in such an atmosphere could Life have begun. In an oxidizing atmosphere such as we have today, the first organic substances that appeared would have been rapidly destroyed by oxidation. Only in a reducing atmosphere could these organic substances have accumulated.
In an ingenious experiment based on Oparin's ideas concerning the origin of Life, Miller, in Urey's laboratory, demonstrated that submitting electric discharges to a glass globe containing water with its minerals and the kind of reducing atmosphere present at the early moment of earth's history would quickly result in the production of carbohydrates, amino acids, and even nucleic acids. These are the basic chemical building blocks for Life. The oceans must have been transformed into a caldron of organic substances, growing ever richer and more complex. Some scientists speak of the "primordial soup".
From the methane and ammonia in that atmosphere, and with the energy derived from the electric discharges and radiation, more and more organic material was formed. Excellent... this served to diminish the greenhouse effect! After all, the sun's steady increase in temperature somehow had to be compensated for.
At least a billion years must have passed before something of the complexity of a bacteria had evolved. From that point on, the great paths taken by Organic Evolution have been mapped out. The first organisms could only feed on the organic materials existing in the oceans. The soup began to consume itself. There was danger of extinction.
It did not take long, some two and a half billion years ago, for a solution to emerge. Photosynthesis enabled Life to synthesize its own organic material by capturing solar energy directly. A solution it was indeed, however, it also posed a tremendous threat. The first great pollution crisis. The oxygen produced by photosynthesis was a fatal poison to most of the living organisms at that time, all of which were anaerobic. What would happen today if there suddenly appeared and proliferated in the oceans an organism which in a process similar to photosynthesis gave off chlorine? It would be the end of all higher forms of life. Life, however, succeeded in overcoming that crisis. The anaerobic forms of life have managed to survive until this day, in the mud of swamps, in the mud at the bottom of the oceans, and in the intestines of higher animals; some of them as the bacteria which is so useful in biogas digesters. The pollution of the early atmosphere was turned into an advantage. The atmosphere switched from being a reducing one to an oxidizing one, thus making it possible for animal life, and its culmination in the human and dolphin brain, to evolve.
The sun continued to get hotter. The greenhouse effect of methane and ammonia had almost disappeared; carbon dioxide was still plentiful. If we examine the fossil record, a comparison of oxygen 16 with oxygen 18 shows that temperatures have always been maintained at more or less the current level. If today we have comfortable temperatures, it is because Life, once again, found a solution.
There emerged in the oceans microorganisms, corals, mollusks, and other large animals that made shells or structures from calcium and magnesium carbonate. Immense deposits accumulated. Mountain building later lifted up many of them. In the dramatic Dolomite cliffs in Tirol, and in thousands of mountains of the Alps, Atlas, Andes, and other ranges, these stratifications are clearly visible. In some of them, we can observe at a glance the patient work of millions of years of deposition. Enormous quantities of carbon dioxide were thus extracted from the atmosphere. Other organisms had to assist in the work. The first great forest appeared, consisting of plants still at the evolutionary level of mosses and ferns, licopods, cicadias, palms, and some forms now extinct.. This mostly occurred in the Carboniferous Period, and some three hundred million years ago. Gigantic deposits of coal and lignite here laid down. In more recent swamps there grew the peat bogs of northern Europe, Canada, and Siberia. Today in Scotland it is easy to observe how they still grow.
As for petroleum and natural gas deposits, there appears to be disagreement over exactly when they formed. Perhaps this occurred throughout the entire evolutionary process. Some of the petroleum and natural gas may be remnants of the primordial soup.
With a steady decrease in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and its associated greenhouse effect, it became possible to maintain constant and at an appropriate level the range of temperatures on Earth, in spite of the fact that the sun was getting continuously hotter. Had it not been for the patient and well-coordinated work of billions of creatures over billions of years, the Earth would be another Venus by now. Just as mammals and birds possess a mechanism for homeostasis (self-regulated equilibrium) that maintains their body temperatures constant regardless of the ambient temperature, so does the Ecosphere have its own mechanism for thermal homeostasis.
Only he or she who grasps this perspective will understand the audacity of Modern Industrial Society to look upon oil, natural gas, lignite, and peat as mere "fossil fuels".
With perspective far more holistic than the kind of myopic vision characteristic of industrialists, Margulis and Lovelock, in contemplating the incredible grandeur of our planet, concluded with the veneration of true naturalists that the concept of the Ecosystem needed to be expanded.
The newly proposed concept, which is beginning to be accepted by many great ecologists and which has already been championed by the vanguard of the environmental movement, is the concept of GAIA.
The Ecosphere is not a merely homeostatic, automatic, mechanical-chemical system. The Planet Earth is a living system, a living entity with its own identity, the only one of its kind that we know of. If other Gaias exist in the Universe, in our galaxy or in others, they will all be different. Such a unique living system deserves a proper name. The name GAIA was first proposed by the writer William Golding and was subsequently popularized by Lovelock and Margulis. It is a name which the ancient Greeks, in their much more holistic worldview than is ours, ascribed to the Goddess of Mother Earth.
The image of the Earth as a spaceship has become widespread. It is a nice metaphor in the conventional worldview, according to which the earth is merely a substrate or stage for Life, and other life forms are but necessary resources for us humans. However, the image of the Earth as a spaceship is a deceptive one. A spaceship has passengers. GAIA has no passengers; everything and everyone is GAIA. Using another image, it wouldn't make sense to say that my heart or my brains are passengers of myself. Even the mineral part, the continents, the rocks - to say nothing of air and water - are an integral part of GAIA, just as the shell is part of the mollusk. It appears that continental drift, the cause of vulcanism, and a new mountain formation, is also a consequence of sedimentation at the bottom of the oceans. Radiolarians and diatoms, with their beautiful silicon shells, along with those other organisms that deposit calcium, including certain marine algae, make deposits at the bottom of the oceans which are several kilometers thick. In such a way, the insulating effect for the magma heat is altered, the conditions of pressure are changed so that new flows emerge which cause the plates to shift. This is a recycling process that ends up returning to the continents what was lost to the oceans, providing them with new rock formations. A cycle that takes some two hundred million years to complete.
In the organism of GAIA, we humans, individually, are mere cells of one of her many tissues. A tissue that today has become cancerous, but which, hopefully, still has a cure. By now we have become the eyes of GAIA. Through the eyes of the astronauts and with the aid of satellite images, GAIA has been able for the first time to see herself in all her unique beauty - slowly spiraling white clouds, now concealing, now revealing the deep blue of the oceans, the yellow of the deserts, the different shades of green, now blending in with the poles.
Few, very few, realize the monumental significance, not only in terms of Human History, but also in terms of the History of Life, implied by the first photograph of GAIA, or that other shot of half-GAIA taken from the moon, rising solitarily in the pitch-black firmament.
This is a totally new fact! A decisive moment in the History of GAIA. A Faustian situation. Mankind, knowing too much, perhaps too soon, blinded by pride and uncontrollable greed, has set in motion a process of destruction that surpasses all previous crises.
As we saw in the beginning, by raising the current low level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Industrial Society is already interfering in a significant way, counteracting the tendencies of GAIA in one of her important control systems. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere before the spread of industrialization was near 0.025%. We have already increased the concentration by 30% in less than two hundred years, a mere fraction of a second in the life of GAIA. Perhaps the reason why we are not already feeling the serious consequences of this is because we are also interfering, in an equally blind fashion, in other control mechanisms that have the opposite effect. We are increasing the concentration of aerosols* and dust in the air, which by reflecting solar radiation, returns energy into space.
On the other hand, GAIA was already approaching its limits with respect to the question of thermal control by decrease in the carbon dioxide level. This concentration could no longer be lowered much more, for two very simple reasons: if it were lowered much more than the 0.025% level, the plants would end up dying from a lack thereof. For them, CO2 is their main nutrient. The other reason is that, in terms of the diminishing greenhouse effect, it didn't pay anything with the low level that already existed. In this latest geological period, during the last three million years, less than a day in life of GAIA, we have had four significant glacial periods. When a well balanced homeostatic system begins to get out of tilt, it is common for there to appear irregular vibrations, with exaggeration toward both ends. Something of this nature might have occured during the Pleistocene.
* Not to confuse with CFCs. These substances are usually named so because they are applied in such form. Aerosol means the suspension of fine liquid and/or solid particles in a gas, like clouds.
Meanwhile, since the end of the last major glacial period, it appears that GAIA has already found a new solution. From then until now, a very short period - a mere 15000 years - minutes in the chronology of GAIA, the tropical rainforests have expanded in areas that we now call the Amazon, Congo, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indochina, Oceania, Australia. The tropical rainforests have fantastic capacity for evapo-transpiration. Of the rainwater that falls on the tropical rainforests, in less than two days as much as 75% is returned to the atmosphere, forming new clouds that produce more rain later on. As Salati pointed out, the rain that falls on the eastern slopes of the Andes is made up of water that in its path from the first trade winds on the Atlantic coast fall and return to the clouds between five and seven times. The tropical rainforests are along the equator; their climatic influence extends to both hemispheres. This fact can be clearly seen in the meteorological institutes' films of moving satellite images. These great rainforests are like gigantic air conditioning units for the global climate. We must remember that the plant communities and the ecosystems of the current tropical rainforests are very ancient; they evolved over the past two hundred million years. What is new is their current expanse.
Once again, modern man is opposing the intentions of GAIA. All over, the tropical rainforests are being destroyed at rate as high as 200,000 square kilometers a year. In the case of the Amazon, if the state of Pará is wiped out, something which appears likely by shortly after the year 2000, for all we know, a process of total rainforest collapse could be triggered since the rainforest creates its own climate. Where the rainforest disappears, it is replaced by bare soil or thin scrub, and instead of evapo-transpiration, the parched soil produces hot ascending winds. The clouds above are dissolved, preventing rain from falling further on. But the rainforest can only survive with copious amounts of rain.
Is GAIA resourceful enough? Or are we going to incapacitate Her? The climate has been semi-chaotic since 1975. Could this be a bad omen?
For the time being, the explicit intention of the Consumer Society is to continue wreaking havoc on the Biosphere. The mandate is to develop at all costs; in other words, all that GAIA does will be replaced by something man-made for short-term consideration without taking GAIA's control system into account.
Let us look at the rationale being used by those who wish to become rich by destroying the Amazon. They cite defenders of the rainforest who talk about the Amazon, metaphorically, as the "lungs of the Planet". They interpret this statement as if the Amazon were an oxygen factory. Since when, however, do lungs produce oxygen? They consume oxygen. Then they cite, correctly, ecologists who have demonstrated that the great forest consumes exactly as much oxygen as it produces. Therefore, according to these people who want to profit at the Amazon's expense, there is no problem. "We are not going to die of asphyxiation", they say, "if the rainforest is reduced to a few points on the map", points which will then be referred to as, "ecological reserves" or "genetic banks".
If the Amazon or any other ecosystem in equilibrium produced much more or much less oxygen than it consumed, GAIA would have already died. GAIA, for a very important reason, ever since converting the atmosphere from a reducing one to an oxidizing one, has known how to maintain at all times an oxygen concentration of around 20%. Concentrations any lower would make animal life difficult. Since everything is connected with everything else, all forms of life would suffer. On the other hand, higher concentrations of oxygen would result in even more dangerous consequences. It would easily create a holocaust. At a concentration level of 25%, green leaves, even the wet ones, would burn like paper. A simple bolt of lightening would put an end to the Amazon. It is for this reason that smoking is prohibited when oxygen masks are lowered in an airplane. A very high concentration of oxygen might even result in the burning of the very atmosphere. When the scientists at Los Alamos exploded the first atomic bomb, knowing that the temperatures produced would reach millions of degrees, they had a horrendous fear of precisely this. Good sorcerer's apprentices though they were, the scientists at Los Alamos could not restrain themselves. Fortunately, nothing of the sort happened.
An approximate equilibrium between the production and consumption of oxygen, by itself, would not be enough. There are always certain ecosystems in an initial stage of ecological progression that are able to produce much more oxygen than they consume. Fluctuations that become dangerous would be inevitable. But GAIA, with her finely tuned feedback mechanisms, is able to control the large and small biochemical cycles. We have recently been discovering these systems. In the case of oxygen, methane seems to be involved - a rare gas in our present day atmosphere that is produced by those organisms which were able to survive the inversion of our atmosphere by retiring to anaerobic mud deposits and the intestines of animals. Man, however, has already managed to mess this up as well. Few are the swamps on the Planet that are not threatened by draining landfills.
Much could be said about the other minor gases, such as ozone, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methyl compounds, each one with its specific function. Some of these cycles, set in motion by living organisms, especially the microorganisms in the oceans, or by certain marine algae on the continental plates, have to do with another important equilibrium - the maintaining of the salt content in the oceans at approximately 3%. The origin of salts in the oceans is from the weathering of rocks. The insoluble oxides end up forming soil, or when carried off by erosion, they form sediments at the bottom of the ocean. The soluble salts, when not used in life processes, are all carried to the sea where they remain in solution, especially sodium chloride. Evaporation, on the surface of the oceans, which produces clouds, only carries distilled water to the continents. Then how can it be explained why the oceans are not already as dead as the Dead Sea? This is another beautiful story that is beginning to be unraveled.
Could all this be mere chance, as Modern Science would want us to believe? ... Science which does not accept the idea of purpose or intention in the Behavior of the Universe, which postulates that chance alone gave rise to the Symphony of Organic Evolution, a random process that resulted in millions of species - including ourselves - of animals, plants, fungi, protozoans, bacteria, phages, and viruses, all interacting in a complex and unified way, a synergistic interaction that our most brilliant thinkers, even aided by computer, could never have conceived and whose beauty our Ecology can barely discern?
Consequently, there can be no truth to that fundamental idea attributed to Darwin, according to which only the strongest win in the process of Natural Selection while the weak ones perish - an idea which is very much liked by those who have ambitions for power, control, and domination. The more we learn about Ecology, the more we realize that organisms which survive are the ones that are most adaptive, the ones that harmonize, the ones that most resonate with the Symphony. Among such organisms are creatures extremely delicate, fragile, and vulnerable, such as the orchid and the hummingbird, the pitcher plant and the tree frog.
The integration is even prior to the birth of the Solar System, which had already been around for a billion years before the birth of GAIA. If the sun, with its cohorts of planets, moons, asteroids, and comets, while condensing from interstellar gases, had not captured as well a certain portion of the ashes remaining from some supernova that occurred hundreds of millions of years earlier - the Universe is old enough for that - we would not have here all of the elements that form mountains, seas, and the atmosphere and which Life cannot do without. The planets would simply be balls of gas, mainly hydrogen and helium.
Could all of this be mere chance? What divine chance!
But what are we going to do first: become enlightened or continue as a cancer on the organism of GAIA, destroying, causing mass extinctions, poisoning our Biosphere beyond the point of no return?
When faced with that mortal threat - the sudden appearance of oxygen - which nearly wiped out all forms of life existing at that time, GAIA, instead of perishing, was able to take advantage of the crisis. A ferocious enemy was transformed by GAIA into a powerful ally which made more life possible, life that was more complex, more perfect, more diversified, more harmonious - a remarkable transcendence!
Who knows, two and a half billion years after that first mortal threat - the time it has taken for one of the most complex things GAIA has produced to evolve: the human brain - are we faced now with a new transcendence?
At this moment, our cancerous behavior represents a mortal danger to GAIA. But this is not inevitable. If we learn how to use wisely the intellectual potential that GAIA provided us with, as well as the marvelous technology derived therefrom, we might be able to assume conscious control of GAIA. GAIA already has an autonomous nervous system; we might become the gray matter of Gaia's brain. Modern electronics, with its ever smarter computers and instant global satellite communications, is already structuring something akin to a planetary meta-nervous system. But the nature of information exchange through this nervous system will have to change. If we succeed in forgetting our petty quarrels, in stopping the prostitution of Science for the destruction of Life and the insanity of the arms race or "star wars", if we succeed in placing our ingenuity in resonance with GAIA, only the future can say to what great heights we may climb.
However, if we continue with this current cacophony, the disaster will be total. For us! Perhaps not so much for GAIA. GAIA is very resourceful, and has a great deal of time. She will find a solution by evolving new forms of life. There still remain another five billion years before the sun, in its penultimate evolutionary phase, becomes a "red giant" and expands as far as the Earth, slowly dying out. GAIA will be recycled in the ground.
And the ethical, philosophical, and religious consequences of all this?
It's a pity that the Churches have not realized it. The Indians did!
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