The Gaia Hypothesis:  the Pearl of great price

Robert Anderson PhD

4 February 1942 – 5 December 2008


This is a draft script Robert Anderson wrote in preparation for a public lecture.  Unfortunately, the Power Point presentation was not completed before he died in December of 2008.  Even so, we at CONNECTED believe this is worthy of posting on our website.


Gaia is from the word for the Greek Earth Goddess


  I want to tell you about a very exciting story, something that happened in the early 60’s.  Around that time the US National Space Agency (NASA) developed a special instrument called the telebioscope, which, when placed in a spacecraft, can determine if life exists on a planet.  To test the instrument, it was directed to planet Earth.

  But the result gave rise to an astonishing realisation.  Obviously the instrument confirmed Earth has life on it.  However, an amazing truth revealed itself.  Not only did it show the whole planet was alive, it showed that it possessed all the essential characteristics of a single living organism.

  It was from these findings that one of the NASA scientists, Dr James Lovelock, developed what we now call the Gaia hypothesis.

  This finding proposed that our planet, Earth, is a single living organism that maintains its own homeostasis.  In other words, it is self-regulating.

  Just as our own bodies are self regulating, so Earth appears to do the same thing.

  Dr Lovelock noted that a slim margin of biophysical conditions on our planet allow life, as we know it, to exist. These biophysical conditions include such important features as:

·          a delicate stabilisation of the chemical composition of the atmosphere;

·          a ratio of mixtures of barometric pressures, and heat from the sun;

·          the axial spin rate;

·          and the mineral composition of the ocean.

  If these features or any other variables that maintain life on Earth are shifted more than the slightest degree, life on our planet as we know it would end!

  Interestingly, Lovelock determined that these conditions necessary to maintain life on Earth are not inherently stable.  According to the normal laws of physics and chemistry, these conditions should have lasted for only a short time.  This remarkable evidence revealed that for millions of years Earth has vigilantly taken care of the life on her surface and in her oceans.

  The fact that life started on Earth is certainly a miracle, yet it is equally miraculous that life has continued to survive.  For instance, the sun has increased its heat out-put by 25% in the course of its lifespan, yet the temperature on Earth has remained relatively constant.

  It appears that life on Earth is somehow co-operating to modify and maintain the biosphere in a condition that is favourable for life, almost as if Earth itself were alive.  It may help if we look at some of the most common examples of how Earth has done this. 

*Theoretically the temperature should have continued to rise but gases released by the vegetation maintain the atmospheric temperature within this very critical range.  For example, a tree in its lifetime will release about 2.5 million gallons of water vapour into the atmosphere.

*The salt concentration of the sea should also theoretically, continue to rise.  After all, water is constantly washing off salts from the rocks and land into the oceans.  Again, this is not the case.  It remains constant at the optimum level to support life.

  Somehow, something on our planet has been self-regulating and maintaining the equilibrium of these life-giving conditions for the last four billion plus years.  We see this sort of self-regulation in our own bodies.  So perhaps Earth is indeed a living organism!  

  These effects are completely spontaneous, the result of billions of individual plants and animals simply attending to their living needs, yet collectively creating something so much greater.

  It was in the late 1960’s that Dr James Lovelock put out his Gaia Theory to propose that separate organisms could unconsciously modify the environment in a way that is favourable for life.  This Gaia hypothesis, that Earth is a living organism with intelligence and purpose is both new and also very ancient.

  Early cultures often regarded the energies of Earth, all life and the cosmos as one, and yet at the same time multiple manifestations of universal energy.

  This new discovery of the Gaia hypothesis, if we might call it that, supports our small but growing rediscovery of the unity of humanity and of nature.

  If we ask, how relevant is this to us, the answer is very relevant because the Gaia theory provides an essential model for thinking about how humanity and the environment works together.  It gives us the positive or negative ways our behaviour impacts on the Earth.  Somehow, something on this planet has been self-regulating and maintaining the equilibrium of Earth’s life-giving conditions for a very long time.

  When we consider a subject as sweeping as the environment, we often focus on the most tangible aspects - the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we put on the table and so on.  These things are critically important  

  However, to me, the environment is also about something less tangible, but certainly no less important. 

It is about our sense of community - the obligation we have to each other, and to future generations, to save this Earth, our Earth and its creatures. 

It is about our sense of responsibility to each other and to the planet we share.  

  The realisation that natural beauty and resources that took millions of years to develop are being destroyed in a matter of decades.  Many perceive this as an unprecedented biological collapse worldwide.  It will require immense efforts to curtail extinctions. 

  Climate change from CO2 emissions is likely to accelerate the demise of many forms of life.  Biological diversity is already diminishing at an alarming.

  Let us look back for a moment at the Earth Summit, the International Conference held in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1992; Agenda 21.[1]  The Rio Earth Summit was unprecedented for a United Nations conference, in terms of size and the scope of its concerns.  Its purpose was to lay down definitive criteria and protocols for the protection of planet Earth and the species inhabiting it.

  Despite its importance, sabotage was attempted.  With the assistance of public relations giant, Burson-Marsteller, an elite group of business people were able to plan the Earth Summit agenda with virtually no interference from Government leaders.  They aimed to silence voices critical of the irresponsible behaviour of polluting corporations.

  This was repeated at the conference to set up the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety[2] - a treaty aimed at ensuring the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs), i.e. genetically engineered organisms.  The US particularly felt its business interests were threatened.

How far have we come in implementing this Agenda 21?[3]

  In June 1992 leaders from 178 nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro to forge agreement that would preserve our global environment.  They agreed that, “The current decline in biodiversity is largely the result of human activity, representing a severe threat to human development.”

The reality is that the loss of species is accelerating as humans encroach on habitats and destroy ecosystems, despite a too-weak Convention on Biological Diversity being ratified by 161 countries, not including the US.

What about Earth’s forests?  Every day hundreds of square miles of rain forest fall to the saw.  Delegates called for “urgent” action and laid plans for negotiating a forest convention.

The reality is that the world continues to destroy an expanse of forest the size of Nepal every year.  According to the World Resources Institute, Asia has lost 95% of its frontier woodlands.  Efforts to draft a forest agreement have run out of steam.

What about population growth?  Because of the sensitivities of the Vatican and some developing nations, recommendations for population control were muted by fuzzy bureaucratic language calling for “appropriate demographic policies.”

The reality is a potential bright spot.  Although the ranks of humanity still grow at about 80 million a year, an unexpected and rapid drop in birth rates continues around the world:  AIDS, a reduction in human sperm counts, and other effects.

What about the financial situation?

Delegates called for rich nations to increase development aid to 0.7% of their gross national product.

The reality is such aid, now averaging 0.3% of GNP, has been dropping steadily.  For example, US assistance to other countries declined 37% between 1992 and 1995.

Here, we should bear in mind that the 200 biggest companies in the world employ less than 1/3 of 1% of the global work force, but they control more than 1/4 of the world’s wealth.

And what of climate?

Recognising global warming as a problem, delegates approved a less than adequate convention on climate change calling on nations to reduce emissions of CO2 to 1990 levels.

The reality is too many nations have ignored this and released greenhouse gases as if the Rio meeting never happened.  The increase in Earth’s temperatures is already affecting weather systems, for example.

Big business can be expected to oppose reducing fuel use, so what should we expect from this lack of foresight?  Every day our cities pour out thousands of cubic meters of C02 and other acidic gases into the atmosphere.  This leads to acid rain and an increase in C02 levels globally, and hence a greenhouse effect.

Earth’s water

  One of the most frightening aspects of coming changes will be the shortage of water.  For many parts of the world, this has already begun.[4]  Billions of tonnes of extra water, at present locked in glaciers, will swell the oceans and increase risks of devastating flooding of lowland countries.

  Although 2/3 of Earth’s surface is water, 97% of it is seawater and undrinkable.  An additional 2% is locked up in the polar ice caps and the rest is distributed very unevenly.  Let me explain what I mean.

  Canada has the greatest supply while the currently 50 million people in India are without an adequate water supply.  Water tables all over the world are falling.  The water table under the North China plain is dropping on average by 5 / 1.5m annually. 

  Surprising as it seems, relatively little of Earth’s fresh water is needed for drinking.  About 25% goes to industry and 70% goes to agriculture.  So agriculture is where future water shortages will be felt most acutely.   

  You may ask, is this very relevant to me?  And the answer is, yes, very relevant because while irrigated land makes up only 17% of all farmland it produces 40% of the world's crops.  That is nearly half of the world’s food production.  If you are vegetarian, that is almost all of your food production.

  From about 1987, the amount of land under irrigation has declined, mainly because the world is running out of water to divert into its irrigation schemes.  Even so, in a few years, water scarcity will have been translated into food scarcity. 

  So, where do we go from here?  The biggest challenge of all is within ourselves.  The economic advances of the past century have been driven by a culture of materialism and accelerated growth.  This seems to be the universally accepted goal.  But as the well-known environmentalist, Edward Abbey, once said:  "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.  Unending, material expansion will destroy the Earth's biosphere just as cancer wastes away the human body."  This new era we are in calls for a “culture of permanence" - meeting the needs of the current generation without jeopardising the prospects of the next. 

  It seems our ancestors were much smarter than us.  They could see their complete dependence on the natural world.  They viewed trees and animals as sacred and so treated them with the greatest respect.  We have now removed ourselves from that close affinity with nature.

  We no longer seem to spend much time enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.  We should return to the same kind of reverence.  As Harvard biologist, Stephen Gould, put it, and I quote, "We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature."  Unless we follow Gould's advice, we may not be able to save ourselves either.

  There is an ancient Sufi story which illustrates this called the ‘Conference of the Birds’.[5]  According to ancient Persian legend, all manner of birds gathered for a conference one fine day and were persuaded to disperse to the four corners of the world in search of the meaning of life.  After many long and arduous years, they returned home only to discover that what they were seeking had been right there all along.  They were blind to it, but the journey away was necessary to open their eyes.

  In many ways this is the parable of western science.  After centuries of intellectual wanderings that increasingly led away from nature, we are irresistibly drawn back to her in the realisation that there is no authentic knowledge, and hence no meaning in life, apart from nature.

  You know we have at the present time a ‘Politics of Extinction’.  We are living in age of mass extinction.  Each year, over 20,000 unique species disappear from this planet forever.  This represents more than two species per hour.

  When I have finished this talk with you two species will have vanished forever.

  Species extinction is the fuel that supports the progress of civilisation machinery.  As a human species, we are at a crossroad.  We mindlessly pursue growth for the sake of growth alone.

  Most of us are insulated from the reality of species loss.  Alienated from the natural world, wrapped in our material pleasures, the average human being is unaware and probably non-caring about the biological holocaust that is occurring each and every day.

  The facts are clear:

*More plant and animal species will go through extinction within our generation than have been lost thorough natural causes over the past two hundred million years.

*Our single human generation - that is, all people born between 1930 and 2010 - will witness the complete obliteration of one-third to one-half of all the Earth's life forms.  Each and every one of them is the product of more than two billion years of evolution.

  Many see this as biological meltdown, that it could mean the end of vertebrate evolution on planet Earth.  Nature – Gaia - is under siege on a global scale.  Environmentally distinct regions, from tropical and temperate rain forests to coral reefs and coastal estuaries, are suffering in the wake of human encroachment.

  The Global Union of Concerned Scientists of which I am a member has over 1600 members, 100 are Nobel Prize winners.  I would like to read you their “Warning to Humanity” released in November 1992.  (Attached at end;

Take a moment sometime to look at the UCS Climate Change map ( 

The destruction of forests and the proliferation of human activity will remove more than 20 percent of all terrestrial plant species over the next fifty years.  Because plants form the foundation for entire eco communities, their destruction will carry with it the extinction of an exponentially greater number of animal species.  This could be ten times as many animal species for each type of plant eliminated.

Sixty-five million years ago, a natural cataclysm resulted in the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Even with a plant foundation intact, it took more than 100,000 years for animal biological diversity to re-establish itself.

Today the tropical forests are disappearing more rapidly than any other bio-region.  This ensures that after the age of humans, Earth will remain a biological, if not a literal desert for aeons to come.

The present course of civilisation points to ecocide - the death of nature.  Like a runaway train, civilisation is speeding along tracks of our own manufacture towards the stone-wall of extinction.

We, the passengers, are sitting comfortably in our seats, laughing, partying, and choosing not to look out of the window.  

Environmental activists are those few people who are trying desperately to brake the greed that propels this destructive juggernaut.  Others are desperately throwing out anchors in an attempt to slow the monster down while all the authorities, blind to their own impending destruction, are beating, shooting and jailing those who would save us all.  Authorities even use the term “eco-terrorist”.

We have very short memories.  For ten thousand years, humans have been marching across the face of Earth leaving deserts in our wake as footprints.  Because we have such short memories, we forget the wonder and splendour of nature.  We revise history to make it fit into our present perceptions.  Here is an example.  Only two thousand years ago, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, particularly Lebanon, was covered in a mighty forest.  The Phoenicians built powerful ships from the strong timbers of the region.  Rome, too, exploited forests and was a major exporter of timber to Europe.

The temple of Jerusalem was built with titanic cedar logs, one image of which adorns the flag of Lebanon today.  Jesus Christ did not live in a desert; he was a man of the forest.

The Sumerians were renowned for clearing the forests of Mesopotamia for agriculture, but the destruction of the Mediterranean coastal forests stopped the rain from advancing into the interior.

Without the rain, the trees died.  Thus the mighty Sahara was born and continues to grow southward across the broad northern half of the African continent at a rate of ten miles per year.

Let us look at Brazil.  The precipitation off the Atlantic strikes the coastal rain forest and is absorbed and sent skyward again by the trees, falling further into the interior.  Twelve times the moisture falls and twelve times it is returned to the sky all the way to the Andes mountains.  Destroy the coastal forest and the Amazon becomes a desert.  It may be as simple as that.  Create a gap anywhere between the coast and the mountains and the rains will stop.  We did it before while relatively primitive, but we learned nothing

Extinction is a difficult concept to fully grasp.  We have forgotten that walrus once mated and bred along the coast of Nova Scotia, that sixty million bison once roamed the North American plains.  One hundred years ago, the white bear roamed the forests of New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces.  Today we call it the polar bear because that is where it now makes its last stand.

Gone forever are the European elephant, lion and tiger.  It would take another creation and billions of years to recreate these creatures.  Extinctions mean the loss of billions of years of evolutionary programming.  They are the destruction of beauty and the removal of uniqueness.

We can say we have a crisis.  What can we do?  What must we do to save Gaia?

Biodiversity must become a central concern in our mainstream economic activities to avoid squandering our biological inheritance.

To be responsible for the complete destruction of a unique life form is an unconscionable act.  A reporter in California was heard to say, "all the redwoods in California are not worth the life on one human being."  Yet the rights of a species must take precedence over the life of an individual.  This is a basic ecological law.  It is not to be tampered with by primates who have moulded themselves into divine legends in their own mind.  Dr James Watson, who received the Nobel Prize for revealing the structure of DNA, was recorded at an annual Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting held in London saying:  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of scientists “playing god.”

We tend to grossly overestimate our own importance in the scheme of Gaia.  I want to conclude by reading to you a small item from the book by the biologist, David Suzuki, who produced a BBC series I am sure many of you will have seen.  He quoted a famous Harvard professor who used a very ironic example to illustrate just how little we as humans fit into the picture.  I quote:

“How can I put this without sounding callous? If all humanity disappeared, the rest of life would benefit enormously.  The forests would grow gradually back, and relative stability would return to the ecosystem processes that control global temperature and atmosphere. The fish in the oceans would recover, and endangered species would slowly come back.  On the other hand, if all members of one of the smallest groups of creatures, such as ants, were to vanish, the results would be catastrophic.”

That clearly illustrates our place in the scheme of things.  Every one of the thirty million plus species that grace this beautiful planet are essential for the continued well-being of which we are all a part. 

In conclusion we can say planet Earth – Gaia - is in grave danger.  We should take deeply to heart the statement by Dr Roger Payne: 

“Forever is older than the Universe itself.  Losing a species, forever, is a more inexorable loss than any we can ever comprehend.”

If we are to live in a sustainable world we have to take action.  As things stand, industrial corporations will not change this.  BP, Shell or Monsanto will not change it.  We individuals arethe ones to change this.  As Margaret Mead[6] so concisely put it;

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”



Robert Anderson BSc(Hons) PhD

4 February 1942 to 5 December 2008


Robert Anderson was a Quaker, teacher and writer.  He was a Trustee of Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility (, a member of Amnesty International, a Theosophist, and a campaigner for peace and disarmament.  He believed everyone has the right to equality and respect, freedom of speech and religion.  He lectured on many subjects to meet the public's right to be independently informed on issues of science, the environment and social justice.  He was passionate about making this world a better place for the generations to come.  He authored eleven books and regularly wrote for a number of periodicals.


Enquiries for books written by Robert Anderson should be addressed to


1992 World Scientists' Warning to Humanity


Scientist Statement


Some 1700 of the world's leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued this appeal in November 1992.  The World Scientists' Warning to Humanity was written and spearheaded by the late Henry Kendall, former chair of UCS's board of directors.


Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.


The environment is suffering critical stress:

The Atmosphere

Stratospheric ozone depletion threatens us with enhanced ultraviolet radiation at the earth's surface, which can be damaging or lethal to many life forms. Air pollution near ground level, and acid precipitation, are already causing widespread injury to humans, forests, and crops.

Water Resources

Heedless exploitation of depletable ground water supplies endangers food production and other essential human systems. Heavy demands on the world's surface waters have resulted in serious shortages in some 80 countries, containing 40 percent of the world's population. Pollution of rivers, lakes, and ground water further limits the supply.


Destructive pressure on the oceans is severe, particularly in the coastal regions which produce most of the world's food fish. The total marine catch is now at or above the estimated maximum sustainable yield. Some fisheries have already shown signs of collapse. Rivers carrying heavy burdens of eroded soil into the seas also carry industrial, municipal, agricultural, and livestock waste -- some of it toxic.


Loss of soil productivity, which is causing extensive land abandonment, is a widespread by-product of current practices in agriculture and animal husbandry. Since 1945, 11 percent of the earth's vegetated surface has been degraded -- an area larger than India and China combined -- and per capita food production in many parts of the world is decreasing.


Tropical rain forests, as well as tropical and temperate dry forests, are being destroyed rapidly. At present rates, some critical forest types will be gone in a few years, and most of the tropical rain forest will be gone before the end of the next century. With them will go large numbers of plant and animal species.

Living Species

The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living, is especially serious. We are losing the potential they hold for providing medicinal and other benefits, and the contribution that genetic diversity of life forms gives to the robustness of the world's biological systems and to the astonishing beauty of the earth itself. Much of this damage is irreversible on a scale of centuries, or permanent. Other processes appear to pose additional threats. Increasing levels of gases in the atmosphere from human activities, including carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel burning and from deforestation, may alter climate on a global scale. Predictions of global warming are still uncertain -- with projected effects ranging from tolerable to very severe -- but the potential risks are very great.

Our massive tampering with the world's interdependent web of life -- coupled with the environmental damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change -- could trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand.

Uncertainty over the extent of these effects cannot excuse complacency or delay in facing the threats.


The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth's limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.

Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth. A World Bank estimate indicates that world population will not stabilize at less than 12.4 billion, while the United Nations concludes that the eventual total could reach 14 billion, a near tripling of today's 5.4 billion. But, even at this moment, one person in five lives in absolute poverty without enough to eat, and one in ten suffers serious malnutrition.

No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.


We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.


Five inextricably linked areas must be addressed simultaneously:

*We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth's systems we depend on.

*We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustible energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water. Priority must be given to the development of energy sources matched to Third World needs -- small-scale and relatively easy to implement.

*We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.

*We must manage resources crucial to human welfare more effectively.

*We must give high priority to efficient use of energy, water, and other materials, including expansion of conservation and recycling.

*We must stabilize population.  This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.

*We must reduce and eventually eliminate poverty.

*We must ensure sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own reproductive decisions.


The developed nations are the largest polluters in the world today. They must greatly reduce their overconsumption, if we are to reduce pressures on resources and the global environment. The developed nations have the obligation to provide aid and support to developing nations, because only the developed nations have the financial resources and the technical skills for these tasks.

Acting on this recognition is not altruism, but enlightened self-interest: whether industrialized or not, we all have but one lifeboat. No nation can escape from injury when global biological systems are damaged. No nation can escape from conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. In addition, environmental and economic instabilities will cause mass migrations with incalculable consequences for developed and undeveloped nations alike.

Developing nations must realize that environmental damage is one of the gravest threats they face, and that attempts to blunt it will be overwhelmed if their populations go unchecked. The greatest peril is to become trapped in spirals of environmental decline, poverty, and unrest, leading to social, economic, and environmental collapse.

Success in this global endeavor will require a great reduction in violence and war. Resources now devoted to the preparation and conduct of war -- amounting to over $1 trillion annually -- will be badly needed in the new tasks and should be diverted to the new challenges.

A new ethic is required -- a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognize the earth's limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes.

The scientists issuing this warning hope that our message will reach and affect people everywhere. We need the help of many.

    We require the help of the world community of scientists -- natural, social, economic, and political.

    We require the help of the world's business and industrial leaders.

    We require the help of the world's religious leaders.

    We require the help of the world's peoples.


We call on all to join us in this task.

Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Warming map ( 

[2] The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health. It was adopted on 29 January 2000 and entered into force on 11 September 2003.

[4] A seven-episode set (22 mins ea) highlights the way the water crisis affects everyday life in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Fiji, India, Kiribati, Philippines, Thailand, Tonga   

[6] Margaret Mead (1901-1978), an Anthropologist,