Anthropocene Research Collective for Human, Animal and Interspecies Collaborations

“The Revival of Gaia”, long read


A long read written by Dennis Hamer

Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive? [1a]
– Amitav Ghosh

The Anthropocene challenges the modern idea of human sovereignty over nature; a position that has been troubled even more by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gaia theory is often presented as a fruitful framework for rethinking the human-nature relationship in the age defined by anthropogenic climate change. Contemporary applications of the Gaia concept, however, fail to resonate in the real world. This longread, written during another longdown amidst the raging pandemic (remember those days?), and at a time when both Lovelock and Latour were still alive and kicking, distinguishes three revolutionary insights derived from Gaia theory that are useful in acquiring a more down to earth understanding of life in the Anthropocene. Exploring Gaia theory and using the COVID-19 pandemic as an example, it ultimately argues that fictions are pivotal in finding ways to conceptualize the human-nature relationship in the world of the Anthropocene.

I Introduction

For over a year now, a force of nature has kept us homebound. And though it is generally assumed that the COVID-19 pandemic is bat-borne, we cannot blame nature for what might strike us as the end of globalization.[1b] After all, it took an interspecies affair between homo sapiens and another animal to spread the zoonotic disease among the human population in the first place. An affair that is characteristic for the general indifference humans show towards the more-than-human world. Despite the fact that the pandemic is caused by our own actions, a lot of people struggle to cope with this situation of involuntary powerlessness; submission to nature simply seems to be at odds with the modern human condition.

One could say that the pandemic challenges the deeply embedded conviction that the human is a conqueror of nature, for as the coronavirus vividly demonstrates, nature can also rule over humanity. In a way, this precarious new condition is reminiscent of the antinomy of ‘the Anthropocene’, the name proposed for the geological epoch that is defined by humanity’s significant influence on the functioning of the planetary system.[2] The ethicist Clive Hamilton has described the antinomy of this epoch as follows:

On the one hand , the science tells us that humans have become so powerful that we rival the great forces of nature, to the point where we have altered the trajectory of the planet. On the other hand, the forces of nature have been roused from their Holocene slumber so that we enter a long era in which they are more dangerous to us and more uncontrollable.[3]

That is to say, in its omnipotent reign over nature, the human species has now caused nature to respond with ever greater impact upon the human realm. This is what philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has called ‘the intrusion of Gaia’.[4] Consider for example the direct consequences of anthropogenic climate change: increasing global temperatures, rising sea levels, more droughts and extreme weather events, environmental degradation, animal migration due to habitat loss, and now arguably also the COVID-19 pandemic.[5] These are all instances of nature intruding the human realm due to human action – Gaia in action, if you like. Thus understood, the pandemic is only one more symptom of this unprecedented planetary crisis we find ourselves in. A crisis in which the forces of nature dramatically urge us to reconsider the ways we relate to nature, or planet Earth. But what should these ways look like? How do we overcome the modern idea that humans can and should subdue and conquer nature? And what are the concepts most useful in finding ways to cope with the condition that is so far perhaps best defined as the Anthropocene?

Authors like Hamilton, Stengers, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway, have made great efforts to conceptualise the radically altered human-nature relationship – to a point even at which we can no longer speak of a human-nature dichotomy at all.[6] Most of these efforts are aimed at ‘worlding’ a new world;[7] drawing up a new narrative framework in which the principal actor of the Anthropocene – the human – is no longer understood as the ruler of the world (and nature no longer as a passive backdrop). The irony in this is that it is our own power that ultimately forced us to awkwardly acknowledge a limitation of power in favour of the natural forces.[8] But with the loss of control over nature, nature also becomes more incomprehensible. The consequence is that we see ourselves more often confronted with phenomena that lie beyond our comprehension. The world no longer revolves around the human knower when nature so evidently takes over. Worse still, the world is deprived of its epistemic anchors.

To cope with this new condition, we stand in dire need of a new framework for understanding the world. The concept of Gaia often recurs in the recent writings of the authors mentioned above, as well as in those of many other critics and thinkers of the Anthropocene.[9] Invented by James Lovelock and co-developed in the 1970s with the late Lynn Margulis, Gaia theory seems to be enjoying some sort of a revival lately. Not only is Gaia on a par with (or even foundational to) the idea of the Anthropocene, Lovelock and Margulis’ concept turns out to be rather useful in redefining the role and place of humans in planetary nature. It is argued that the Gaian understanding of the world, in which humanity and the formerly de-animate nature are conjoined in an animate self-regulating system, can be put to good use in answering the question how to understand and inhabit the world of the Anthropocene.

In this article I aim at disentangling how Gaia theory can indeed be put to use as a fruitful framework for reorienting ourselves towards nature in the Anthropocene. Therefore the central question is: how can Gaia theory contribute to a better and more commonsensical understanding of the new predicament of the Anthropocene? Because in spite of the efforts to mobilize and popularize the Anthropocene concept, one cannot neglect that the main issue of rethinking our role and place in an ecologically troubled world is very much obscured by the many controversies and endless debates regarding the Anthropocene concept. As urgent as the matters addressed by the Anthropocene may be, the concept often seems to be an impetus to esoteric theory. I attempt to avoid these obscurities by focusing on three revolutionary insights that can be derived from Gaia theory. These handholds hopefully offer an understanding of the world that is more down to earth, and therefore also more easy to live up to. The Gaian handholds I distinguish here are the world understood as part of a living system, the concept of Deep Time, and the mytho-poetic personification of nature (as Gaia). I tend to connect each of these with the Anthropocene, thereby using the COVID-19 situation to make the human-nature question a little more concrete and easier to imagine. Because is that not what we currently lack; the power to imagine the unthinkable?[10]

II The Anthropocene and the End of Human Sovereignty

Though Gaia theory has been constantly evolving in the underground ever since its first formulation, it seems that the increased scientific adaptation and acceptance of the Anthropocene concept is responsible for the recent unburdening and revival of Gaia. Therefore, a few words on the Anthropocene seem to be appropriate before I turn to the question how the living systems thinking inherent to Gaia theory can provide a first handle on life in the age of anthropogenic climate change.

It was the year 2000 when the recently deceased Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen stood up during a conference discussion on the impacts of humans on planet Earth and furiously clamoured that “[w]e’re no longer in the Holocene, but in the Anthropocene!”[11] How could it be that these geoscientists, his valued colleagues, did not see that the human species had already inscribed its existence in the terrestrial rock strata? Did they not understand that the human species had catapulted an entire planet into a new geological epoch? Together with Eugene Stoermer, Crutzen drew up a one-page article that is generally considered to be the birth certificate of the Anthropocene.[12] The first serious debates on the Anthropocene mainly revolved around the geological question at what point in Earth history the human impact became truly observable. But it did not take long before the Anthropocene concept was discovered by the humanities too, and from that moment on the concept has been roaming the academia.

The 2009 publication of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s article ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’ has been a decisive moment in the Anthropocene’s rise to fame in the humanities. In his article, Chakrabarty upended the anthropocentric history of modernity by colliding human history and natural history – an inevitable conclusion if one accepts the reality of the Anthropocene.[13] From that moment on, the Anthropocene became the go-to description for a world in which humanity and nature could no longer be understood distinct from one another. That is to say, the modern human-nature dichotomy became untenable in the Anthropocene. As such, the Anthropocene represents a radically new view of ourselves and of nature: a view in which “human social, economic, and political decisions have become entangled in a web of planetary feedbacks.”[14] The many derailed and often arcane debates that followed did not make this new entanglement of the human fabric and nature easy to digest. Nor have we found ways to inhabit the Anthropocene in a sustainable way, or so it seems.

The novelist Amitav Ghosh takes Chakrabarty’s argument one step further by arguing that the Anthropocene not only poses a challenge to the sciences, arts, and humanities, but even to our most commonsensical understandings of the world. According to Ghosh the climate crisis, which is the core of the Anthropocene, “is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”[15] And indeed, an important reason for our collective failure to adapt to the Anthropocene, is our incapability to imagine both the human-nature collision and the concepts used to indicate this entanglement (mostly derived from the climate sciences and Earth System science), as has also been observed by other authors.[16]

I would argue, however, that the crisis we find ourselves in is more profound than climate change alone. For as the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates, we are reluctant to grasp ourselves as a species that is being subjected to a force of nature. We like to imagine that we will have sovereignty over nature in the end. We will for example ‘defeat’ the virus, and are ‘fighting’ climate change. But do such statements not lack a sense of reality when you consider that, to cite Latour, our dwelling place literally “begins to react to our actions, turns against us, encloses us, dominates us, demands something of us and carries us along in its path?”[17] In other words, how can stories about human sovereignty make any sense in a world where we are dragged along by the processes of nature?

The true crisis therefore, I would say, consists in the persistent belief in the modern distinction between humanity and nature that is so deeply embedded in the cultural imagination (of the West). For was it not the Promethean arrogance derived from this idea that threw us all into the current planetary crisis? Phrased like this, the Anthropocene could be interpreted as a cultural critique, an analysis of how we came to this point in Earth history. And what we need now are stories, concepts, and guidelines that can be put to use in overcoming the crisis. Ways to reimagine the ways humans relate to planetary nature, and vice versa. Ways to cope with the human-nature dichotomy and the end of human sovereignty. Ways to mobilize the views brought to fore by the Anthropocene. And this is where Gaia might turn out to be helpful.  

III Our World Understood as Part of a Living System

Before I elaborate on how some concepts derived from Gaia theory can offer guidance for life in the Anthropocene, let me first clarify a common misunderstanding of the Gaia concept. Because Lovelock and Margulis’ Gaia is not the same thing as planet Earth, or the Earth System for that matter, in contrast to certain New Age-inspired interpretations of the concept. Nor does Gaia theory imply that the Earth is alive. As Lovelock could not stress enough, Gaia is the complex and multidimensional ‘system’ comprising all life and material parts of planet Earth that has worked to sustain habitable conditions on Earth by modifying the environment.[18] Therefore Gaia cannot be understood as a single acting totality.[19] Instead, it is a radically different conception of nature, a new philosophy of nature even, unifying all life and matter on Earth without reducing it to a whole. In his seminal work Facing Gaia, Latour has very concisely formulated the radical problem Lovelock saw himself confronted with:

[H]ow to speak about the Earth without taking it to be an already composed whole, without adding to it a coherence that it lacks, and yet without deanimating it by representing the organisms that keep the thin film of the critical zones alive as mere inert and passive passengers on a physio-chemical system? His problem is indeed to understand in what respect the Earth is active, but without endowing it with a soul; and to understand, too, what is the immediate consequence of the Earth’s activity – in what respect can one say that it retroacts to the collective actions of humans?[20]

It should not be underestimated how revolutionary Lovelock’s theory actually is. Gaia, as Lovelock himself seemed to be well aware of, essentially challenges the entire modern idea of nature “as a primitive force to be subdued and conquered.”[21]

To avoid overcomplicating the already complex matter of Gaia, let’s stick with the main premises and most influential aspect of the theory for the moment. That is, the understanding of the life components of planet Earth as an intricate self-regulating system influencing the abiotic environment so that constant conditions are secured for all terrestrial life.[22] Though it is perhaps tempting to grasp our planetary dwelling place as the Earth System instead of Gaia, the latter is much less prone to becoming a mere substitute for the modern universal idea of nature. In other words, unlike the modern idea of ‘nature’ (as opposed to culture) or the Earth System, “Gaia is not a kindly figure of unification.”[23] It should be noted though that this position is not entirely uncontentious. Professor of Literature and Science Bruce Clarke has for example argued that the ‘Earth System’ phrase is “just the normalized locution for and the legitimized offspring of the biological cybernetic system upon which Lovelock’s thought of Gaia originally speculated[,]” and that therefore Gaia is systems thinking at a planetary level.[24] The question here is of course whether this does not reduce Gaia to the sort of unifying concept it so desperately tries not to be. But let’s not get lost in technicalities, and focus on what the role and place of humans is when our world is understood as part of a living system. Can the systemic conceptualization of the world offer any guidance in inhabiting the Anthropocene?

It is easy to overlook the ethical and political implications of Gaia theory. Whereas Gaia became a bona fide scientific concept once it aligned with the Anthropocene, as is suggested by Clarke in his extensive overview of the evolution of the concept,[25] in spite of this progress, the ethico-political significance of Gaia remains largely unacknowledged by Anthropocene authors – though Latour is an exception in this respect. Lovelock and Margulis have nonetheless been very explicit about the ethico-political consequences of their theory. Already in his first book on Gaia, Lovelock wrote that “the stable state of our planet includes man as a part of, or partner in, a very democratic entity.”[26] The democracy consists in that humans are drawn into the regulatory processes of Gaia as much as are all other life forms. By extending the idea of politics beyond the human realm, Lovelock intermingles the human realm with the natural.[27] Or, phrased the other way around, Gaia’s radical democratic tendencies render the modern idea of human sovereignty over nature untenable. “We humans are just like our planetmates[,]” Margulis wrote to further clarify Lovelock’s statement, “[w]e cannot put an end to nature; we can only pose a threat to ourselves.”[28] Could we then perhaps say that the widespread neglect of this idea is what caused the Anthropocene? At the very least this aspect of Gaia is on a par with the core idea of the Anthropocene, namely that humans and nature cannot be thought in isolation (any longer).[29]

The COVID-19 situation perfectly illustrates this predicament. For does the presence of the coronavirus not make it rather difficult to act as if humans stand above nature? Treating the virus with disdain (or denying that it exists at all) poses a direct threat to human existence. One could therefore say that the pandemic is an example of entangled life. Whether directly by introducing a contaminated animal to the human realm, or indirectly by causing other animals to migrate closer to human territories due to habitat loss, human interference with the natural world caused a disease to intrude the human realm that formerly only resided in ‘nature’. Note that I deliberately accentuated the modern human-nature dichotomy in order to illustrate how unlikely this rigorous distinction has become in the present-day world, dangerous even. Now, the odd thing with the pandemic is that, although most people would agree upon the above, the situation is framed as a war on nature. A random BBC article for example kicks off with the sentence “[t]he human race is locked in a battle against something five million times smaller than us[,]”[30] and on the website of the European Council you find a page called ’10 things the EU is doing to fight COVID-19 and ensure recovery’.[31] What is illustrated by this, I would say, is that we collectively fail to imagine the collision of humanity and nature envisioned by the concept of the Anthropocene. The modern view of the world in which humans reign supreme over nature is either too comfortable or too deeply embedded within our cultural imagination.

The same disjunction is also found in how we deal with climate change, as is dramatically described by Latour: “let us call it a conflict between modern humans who believe they are alone in the Holocene, […] and the terrestrials who know they are in the Anthropocene and who seek to cohabit with other terrestrials under the authority of a power that as yet lacks any political institution.”[32] Yet, it is not at all clear whether Latour’s modern humans are too stubborn to start cohabiting with other terrestrials, as he seems to be suggesting, or that these moderns simply lack the concepts and frameworks needed to imagine or believe that they inhabit the Anthropocene. And it also seems that one can traverse between the Holocene and the Anthropocene world when confronted with a particularly unimaginable situation, as is illustrated by the COVID-19 example above. Moreover, it is unfortunate that the Anthropocene itself – that is, the concept that is supposed to solve this so-called ‘war’ between the moderns and terrestrials (though we could also distinguish modern terrestrials and terrestrial moderns) – is already so difficult and unappealing to imagine. After all, it imposes a discomforting view of the world upon us.[33]

Discomforting as it may be, the reality of climate change urges us to do reimagine the human relation to nature, as well as the ways in which nature relates to us – though we should constantly be aware of the fact that our epistemic condition is human in and of itself. How can we then make the imaginative leap towards the Anthropocene worldview? Speculative fabulations like Haraway’s ‘Terrapolis’ – a transfiguration of the world aimed at making all terrestrial ‘critters’ more response-able to their environments – are useful for making the ‘post-modern’ world less haunting and discomforting.[34] However, as the reader of Haraway will instantly acknowledge, concepts like these are far too complex to help the average modern to imagine the world of the Anthropocene. Even the main idea of Gaia, that the human world partakes in a living system, is not very likely to do so. At least not by itself. That is to say, the idea that humans are part of a living system, and that they therefore need to collaborate with (instead of fight against) the other life components of that system in order to keep our environment habitable, is crucial for sustaining life in the Anthropocene. But, as I have tried to illustrate above, even when we share the (Gaian) idea that the conglomerate of life processes determines our fortune,[35] we still tend to mobilize an antagonistic stance towards nature as soon as we are confronted with unthinkable situations like climate catastrophes or the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, the radical replacement of the human actor from ‘apart from nature’ to ‘a part of nature’, as is suggested by the Gaia framework, doesn’t convince us to stay terrestrial when we find ourselves threatened by something like rising sea levels or a pandemic. At such moments, we tend to seek refuge in the comforting modern thought that we humans will overcome – even though Science, the great god of modernity, tells us otherwise. Let us therefore see if we can derive some other concepts from Gaia theory that can in fact be helpful in imagining the Anthropocene condition, to avoid potential relapses into the now illusory idea that humans are the rulers of nature

IV Gaia and Deep Time

As I have tried to explain in the above, the problem with both the Anthropocene and the general Gaia framework is that most people fail to translate the world as conceptualized by these concepts to concrete actions. This surely has to do with the unprecedentedness of the conditions described by them. Never before has Western civilization imagined itself to be a part of nature, we have always been the knowers and great conquerors of the natural world, and now we are urged to humble ourselves as subjects of nature. In the Anthropocene, however, nature surpasses our imaginative capabilities by intruding the human realm in unthinkable ways; two years ago no one would have dared to imagine a world in lockdown. Nonetheless, what we need, as is also wished for by Ghosh, is to look upon the world with clearer eyes – less deranged – than those humans that preceded us.[36] The main premises of Gaia is not necessarily of much help in mobilizing such a view, because the living systems part of Gaia is very much on a par with the Anthropocene. And the Anthropocene was already difficult to get your head around. That is to say, both frameworks imply a very similar and equally ungraspable repositioning of humankind: within Gaia and in the Anthropocene the human is a part of nature – to phrase it overly simplified.

However, when we speak of unprecedentedness and time (instead of place, as we did before), Gaia does differ from the Anthropocene. Whereas the Anthropocene is new, unprecedented, and the direct result of humans, Gaia is very old – the self-regulating system, that is – and definitely not the result of human action alone. And it could very well be that this radically different aspect proves valuable in making the Anthropocene condition more understandable. For what Gaia basically does is to render the timescale of human history redundant by embedding all life within a planetary framework, on a geohistorical timescale. And here I would like to introduce a concept that is not found in the writings of Lovelock or Margulis, though both of them are definitely thinking in these terms when speaking of Gaia: Deep Time.

The concept of Deep Time is introduced in the 1980s by the writer John McPhee to indicate the timescale of geological events.[37] Why I find this term particularly useful, is that it uses a metaphor to make a rather dull and unimaginative scientific concept – the geological time scale, or GTS – accessible to a general audience. Deep Time is a concept that is also often used in the Anthropocene discourse, but almost always in relation to the human timescale.[38] One could of course wonder whether this not leaves the door open to the human supremacist stance that resulted in the Anthropocene. Apparently, we were able to cause events to happen in less than an average human life that before literally took ages on the geological timescale.[39] So doesn’t that make us rulers of nature after all? Luckily, a counterquestion is also brought to the fore by the Anthropocene concept: do bad managers make good rulers?

Here too, the idea of the Anthropocene is troubled by the antinomy described by Hamilton, quoted in the introduction of this article. This is what makes the idea so difficult to put to practice; the Anthropocene basically suffers from schizophrenia. Human history and natural history collided, but the knowledge that these domains have not always existed in unison is very limiting when trying to imagine a world in which there is no such distinction. Be that as it may, within the Gaia framework the human timescale does not exist at all. There is only Deep Time, and therefore we cannot do otherwise but understand the world from a planetary perspective. As Lovelock has argued in his second book on Gaia: “[l]ife is a planetary-scale phenomenon.”[40]

Though the idea that our human world is a part of the living system that sustains terrestrial life is already humbling in itself, the Deep Time element of Gaia makes the modern human doubt its presuppositions even more. After all, Gaia was born long before humans existed, and has let life thrive perfectly without us being there – no need for gods or managers; she almost passes for an anarchist. The date of Gaia’s birth could arguably be set 2.8 billion years ago, in the Neoarchean, when two independent bacterial ecosystems, the photosynthesizing cyanobacteria and a strain of fermenting marine bacteria, generated a feedback loop between the biotic and abiotic terrestrial environment that has sustained habitable conditions for life on Earth ever since.[41] The ecologist Stephan Harding even suggests that Gaia, understood as another name for planetary self-regulation, has been around since the beginning of life on Earth. Throughout the history of life on Earth, Harding argues, we find several indications that suggest that some sort of planetary self-regulation has maintained habitable conditions for life.[42] The point being, to quote the quick-witted Margulis: “Gaia, a tough bitch, is not at all threatened [or ruled] by humans. Planetary life survived at least three billion years before humanity was even the dream of a lively ape with a yearning for a relatively hairless mate.”[43] In The Ages of Gaia, Lovelock also mocks the primacy of the human history over natural history by applying the modern historiographical periods to the ‘biography’ of Gaia.[44]

All mockery aside, it is definitely very difficult to understand the world beyond the human realm, even when urged to do so by the catastrophic events that define the Anthropocene, because one has to abandon the position of the knower and delve into the unknown. The uncertainty that comes with not knowing is another defining characteristic of the Anthropocene. We don’t know when the next improbable storm will hit, what virus might intrude our bodies next, and how hot it will become next summer. That is to say, we are no longer able to understand nature or the Earth as a whole, because we gained a “renewed awareness of the elements of agency and consciousness that humans share with many other beings, and even perhaps the planet itself.”[45] Therefore, we cannot do otherwise but humble ourselves as beings among many others.[46] This is actually the aim of Gaia theory, and probably the reason why so many scholars now adhere to this theory when searching for ways to conceptualize life in the Anthropocene. But before we can truly cope with this condition, before we can inhabit the Anthropocene, we need concepts that give us access to this frame of understanding and also incite us to live up to it.

Deep Time might well be such a concept, as is wonderfully demonstrated by several Gaia-inspired projects that actually use Deep Time to adapt to an understanding of the world as part of an ancient living system. The Deep Time Walk, for example, is a 4.6 kilometre long walk through the history of planet Earth. Each step resembles a million years. A quick calculation learns us that the human species only manifests itself in the final 10 centimetres of the walk.[47] After having walked the Deep Time Walk, one is left in wonder and cannot do otherwise but dwell in humility. After all, the life systems we inhabit predates the origin of our species with more years than that there are seconds in an average human life. McPhee’s famous metaphor is also useful in embedding the human species within Deep Time, and is illustrative for the frailty experienced at the end of the walk: if Earth’s history is resembled by an arm’s length distance, “[o]ne stroke of a nail file on [the] middle finger erases human history.”[48]

Another fascinating project aimed at fostering Deep Time thinking, is The Long Now Foundation’s monumental 10,000 Year Clock. This mechanical clock, designed by Danny Hillis and Brian Eno, only ticks once a year over a period of 10,000 years. In order to maintain its accuracy over such a long period, the clock is synchronized to the sun.[49] And since the sun has mattered to humans throughout history, “the Clock makes the statement that it will continue to matter thousands of years into the future.”[50] As one of the project members explains, the Clock is meant to embody Deep Time for people, thus hopefully cultivating long-term responsibility.[51] Though 10,000 years appears as shallow when compared to the deepness of 4.6 billion years, the Clock – which is still under construction – is in fact a perfect example of how a revised understanding of time can give us access to the planetary perspective of Gaia. To make a first step towards aligning Deep Time with the predominant modern and human timescale, the creators of the Clock for instance suggest to use five-digit dates to fit the intended life span of the Clock within our timescale. This, I would say, makes imagining the long-gone past and the distant future far more easier. By indicating this year as 02021, one is tempted to wonder what the world will look like in 20210, or what happened in 98021 BCE, thus being inclined to make the imaginative leap towards an understanding of the world from a planetary perspective.     

What I hope to illustrate with these examples is that we can only attribute meaning to the unimaginable deepness of time through art, metaphors and fictions. And isn’t this what we so desperately need when “the question of how to live in the ruins is now raised everywhere[?]”[52] As the writer and film maker Andri Snær Magnason has argued, the findings of climate science and the Earth System sciences increasingly fall on deaf ears, simply because the phenomena indicated by the words that are used, lie beyond our comprehension:

If the scientists are right, these words indicate events more serious than anything that has happened in human history up to now. If we fully understood such words, they’d directly alter our actions and choices. But it seems that 99 per cent of the words’ meanings disappear into white noise.[53]

So, how can one be ought to put theory to practice when one simply isn’t capable of grasping the theory first?

As I have already argued, understanding ourselves as being a mere part of planetary regulation is not enough. Let me illustrate this with another example. Lovelock recently argued in an interview that the current pandemic is definitely a part of the self-regulation of Gaia, a way to control the human population. “[W]hen the human population was much smaller and distributed less densely across the planet, I don’t think Covid would have had a chance[,]”[54] he reasoned. Intuitively, and from a mere human point of view, this argument will probably strike you as insensitive. Think again and add the element of Deep Time. Once you get that humans are not even a blip on the geological timescale, but do now endanger the steady state necessary for life to thrive on Earth by emitting excessive amounts of CO2 (among other things), is it then still unreasonable to think that Gaia intervenes to retain homeostasis?[55] That is to say, through Deep Time we tend to become more sensible to an understanding of our world as part of the ancient self-regulatory system called Gaia. Still, the fact that we are futile beings regulated by Gaia, isn’t easy to digest. Is that perhaps the reason why we tend to cling so desperately to the illusions of modernity, to the stories that tell us that we are in charge of nature?

Fictions can indeed be powerful in turning the inconceivable into the imaginable. But once we are capable of imagining, for example, our world as merely a part of an ancient conglomerate of intricate self-regulatory processes, we can at least act accordingly. And though Deep Time is of great help in mobilizing the planetary perspective for the Anthropocene, it should be clear from the above that we cannot do without fictions and metaphors. So, in the final part of this article I try to illustrate how the mytho-poetical element of Gaia can be helpful in drawing up the fictions we need for life to thrive in the Anthropocene.

V Fictions for Earthly Survival

One cannot write an article on Gaia theory without paying some attention to the peculiarity of the name. Lovelock did name his theory after the Greek primordial goddess after his neighbour, the novelist William Golding, suggested him to do so in order to replace the cumbersome and incomprehensible phrase “a cybernetic system with homeostatic tendencies as detected by chemical anomalies in the Earth’s atmosphere[.]”[56] Though she tolerated the name, Margulis didn’t like the fact that it introduced a pagan goddess to the atheistic view of the world inherent to the natural scientific disciplines.[57] Why would a self-respecting scientist name his theory so that it instantaneously becomes associated with mythology, paganism, and anthropomorphism? Margulis’ aversion was not gratuitous, because Gaia theory turned out to be having a hard time being taken seriously by the scientific establishment due to the quick pseudoscientific interpretations of the theory by several New Age cults. Even nowadays, scientists tend to avoid the name. ‘Gaia’ was translated to ‘Earth System’ as soon as the Earth System sciences got themselves established as a discipline. Apparently, the view that there is no place for fiction within the factual realm of science is still widely held; despite the fact that science and fiction have been sharing poetic tools and using the same sources of imagination since the beginning of modernity, as historian of literature and modern science Frédérique Aït-Touati has convincingly illustrated.[58]    

But when scientific concepts and their implications become inaccessible, impossible to imagine, as is the case with ‘ocean acidification’, ‘global warming’, and ‘mass extinction’, do we then not desperately need fictions as tools for regaining access to the meaning of the world in the Anthropocene? Remarkably, the Anthropocene was initially meant as such a tool itself; a tool for understanding the new human condition and a challenge to the “unifying grand narrative of the errant human species and its redemption by science alone[.]”[59] The way the COVID-19 virus is being depicted as a monster is insightful here. Would we have been able to imagine the urgency of the pandemic – and act accordingly – when the coronavirus wasn’t so often presented to us as a monster? That is to say, if the pandemic was only presented to us in natural scientific terms, would we then have been able to attribute meaning to the phenomenon? I think not, because what the monster metaphor does is turning an ungraspable and unimaginable phenomenon into something, someone even, we can actually face. And since monsters are generally considered to be bad and dangerous, the situation becomes meaningful and thus allows us to come up with ways to act and react to what we are facing. In other words, the metaphor links the coronavirus to the cultural imagination of monsters, through which we became able to respond. We became response-able. Fact and fiction conjoin in order to incite meaningful action.

Lovelock did something quite similar when he decided to call the ‘cybernetic system with homeostatic tendencies’ Gaia. First of all, the specialized scientific language is captured in a figure of speech that makes the scientific phenomenon imagineable, and therefore easier to understand. The name aligns the science with the cultural imagination of Gaia. And this brings us to the merit of the mytho-poetical personification of nature that is implied by Gaia. Because by naming the self-regulating system described in the theory after the Greek primordial goddess, Lovelock attributed a particular kind of personhood and agency to the intricate interplay of all natural phenomena. Before we were introduced to the Anthropocene concept, we generally did not grasp nature nor the planet at large as a persona capable of acting upon the human realm. Throughout modernity, the natural phenomena were primarily understood as deanimate traits of an exploitable resource. But with the collision of humanity and nature, and nature now intermingling with the human realm and vice versa, such thinking has become untenable. As I argued before, however, the problem is also that the Anthropocene condition is as difficult to wrap your head around as something like ‘ocean acidification’ or the pandemic without the monster metaphor. This, of course, makes it very tempting to just stick with what we know, comfort ourselves in the modern mirage of human sovereignty over nature, and simply await our own extinction in the Holocene.

Where the first two handholds derived from Gaia I distinguished above are primarily useful for grasping the Anthropocenic repositioning of the human in both place and time, the mytho-poetical aspect of Gaia is crucial in putting this understanding to practice. That is, the personification of the ancient living system in which we partake, as well as its association with the myth of Gaia, forces us to actually relate ourselves to her in the right way and therefore alter our behaviour. For as Clarke has justly remarked, we should not misunderstand the personification under discussion as a way of endowing nature with a self that must be protected. By doing so, “one is still complicit with its domination, albeit in an attitude of patronizing distress.”[60] Such a conceptualization of the human-nature relationship would indeed not adhere to the one pointed out by the Anthropocene, but rather to a light version of the one that resulted in the Anthropocene. But how should we then understand this personification? How are we ought to relate ourselves to Gaia?

The ancient myth of Gaia is elucidating here, though I have to be brief and hopelessly incomplete due to the length of this article. In ancient Greek cosmology, in a time where there was no time, the primordial Earth goddess Gaia was born from Chaos. Gaia parthenogenetically bore Pontus (the Sea) and Ouranos (the Sky). She lay with the latter, which led to the birth of six daughters and six sons. The youngest of sons, Kronos, introduced time and instantly the going got tough. Kronos couldn’t stand any longer – figure that ‘longer’ was a non-existent term before time was born – that the Sky was having an abusive relationship with his Earth mother, and nor could she. So they decided to put an end to it. Kronos cut of Ouranos’ genitals with a scythe, and Gaia threw the package across the world. The fertile blood flooded the Earth and life flourished everywhere. Next thing, Kronos buried Ouranos as far from the heavens as he possibly could, thus making the Sky part of Gaia again.[61]

So, what does this myth teach us about how we should relate to Gaia? According to this ancient cosmogony, terrestrial life came into being at the moment when Gaia redistributed the abusive agency of Ouranos by throwing his testicles across the world. The first thing we can learn from that, to reiterate Margulis, is that Gaia is indeed a tough bitch not to be messed with. Moreover, humans have not been there since the beginning of time; we are preceded by basically all the elements that make up life on Earth, represented here by the primordial gods and goddesses, and Gaia is the instance that unites and regulates them all. Only time seems to get away, though time would not have been there without Gaia. Transposing this fictional framework to the contemporary scientific framework of Gaia, thus turning the gods and goddesses into metaphors for different aspects of nature, can help us understand how we relate to these phenomena and how they are related to each other.[62] For example, the power relations in the myth are analogues to what is proposed by the findings of Gaia theory and Earth System science. To keep it simple: we do not have mastery over the sea or the sky. Especially not in the Anthropocene, the epoch in which the sea and the sky so explicitly claim mastery over us by rising and heating.[63] And if we cannot rule over the sea and the sky, it borders on madness to think we are in a position to exert power over Gaia, this primordial being encompassing all life processes. After all, if you want to live, you better don’t mess with her! Can we then do otherwise but “to bow for the majesty of Gaia while making the distribution of agency the political question par excellence[,]”[64] as Latour has suggested?

It is an interesting thought that the fictions that are implied by the name of Gaia, are helpful in gaining access to the scientific theory and the planetary view through imagination. More research on the role of fictions in acquiring an understanding of the unfathomable concepts of climate science and the Anthropocene is needed, but Latour and Haraway have already drawn attention to the important role of fictions in making these matters imaginable.[65] As Haraway has phrased so inimitably:

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.[66] 

That is to say, in order to become response-able to the troubled times described by the Anthropocene concept, the stories have to be ongoing.[67] For if there’s one thing that the Anthropocene makes clear, it is that we can no longer understand the natural phenomena from a distant and static perspective. That is, the modern scientific view of nature seen from the universe – the perspective that nourished the idea that humans stand apart from, and can therefore rule over nature – became untenable as soon as nature started intruding.[68] But in order to make sense of nature from the planetary perspective presented by Gaia, a view from which it is impossible to grasp nature as a whole, we need fictions to fill in the gaps and access the ungraspable reality of the Anthropocene.

VI Conclusion

The Anthropocene is a notoriously difficult concept, “partly because it implicates the thinker[,]”[69] as Christopher Schaberg has so aptly observed. This is of course troublesome, because that same concept urges us to inhabit the reality it describes. In order to find ways to overcome the inaccessibility of the concept, and to hopefully contribute in some way to make the Anthropocene easier to inhabit, I tried to show how the Gaia framework can be mobilized as a more down to earth gateway to a world in which humanity and nature became inseparably entangled. The COVID-19 pandemic confronted us with the reality of this world, and is illustrative for the unimaginability of the world of the Anthropocene. Much like climate change, but perhaps a little less abstract, the pandemic is a grim reminder of the need for a new understanding of the world. I tried to show how Gaia might meet the need for such an understanding by distinguishing three handholds derived from Gaia theory.

The first one, I argued, is very much on a par with the Anthropocene concept; though the explicit repositioning of the human within the living systems framework of Gaia obviates a possible relapse into the modern idea of human sovereignty over nature which the Anthropocene is still prone to. The second handhold, Deep Time, is useful since it consolidates the human within the larger framework by putting human history into a planetary perspective. With some examples, I tried to illustrate how Deep Time can actually enhance an understanding of our world as part of a self-regulating system that has sustained life on Earth since long before the human species entered the stage.

Though the first two handholds provided by Gaia theory are helpful in repositioning the human in a space- and timeframe suitable for the Anthropocene, I argued that neither of them is of much help when it isn’t put to practice. And to put the Gaia framework to practice in order to sustainably inhabit the Anthropocene, we cannot do without fictions. For fictions can provide access to the inconceivable concepts used by Earth System and climate science, thus giving us the ability to respond to the natural forces that threaten our existence through imagination. I tried to illustrate this with a short elaboration on the myth of Gaia. After all, the meaning of the Gaia framework for the Anthropocene cannot be grasped without the peculiar mytho-poetic personification of nature; a wonderful realignment of science and fiction.

Within the Anthropocene discourse, the question how fictions can be put to use in coping with the unthinkable reality of climate change, is almost exclusively discussed by literary scholars or limited to critical analyses of the new genre of climate fiction.[70] But if fictions in general, and not only literary fictions, have the potential to play a pivotal role in inhabiting the Anthropocene, should we then not desperately look for new ways to put these fictions to practice? What are the words we need for worlding the Anthropocene world? How can we deploy fictions for earthly survival?


[1a] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement. Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 3.

[1b] See: George Yip, “Does COVID-19 Mean The End For Globalization?,” Forbes, jan 8, 2021

[2] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The “Anthropocene”,” IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000): 17.

[3] Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth. The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Cambridge & Malden: Polity Press, 2017), 45.

[4] See: Isabelle Stengers, “The Intrusion of Gaia,” in In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey (Open Humanities Press, 2015), 43-50.

[5] Cf. Robert M. Beyer, Andrea Manica, and Camilo Mora, “Shifts in global bat diversity suggest a possible role of climate change in the emergence of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2,” Science of the Total Environment 767 (2021).

[6] See: Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm. Nature and Society in a Warming World (London & New York: Verso, 2018), 44.

[7] The notion of ‘worlding’ is derived from non-representational theory and appears in multiple forms in the works of Donna Haraway. Worlding, according to Haraway, is a ‘becoming-with’ implying performativity: an enacted and embodied way of being in the world, or attending to the world. This individual process of world-making is often called autremondialisation by Haraway, and can only happen through different forms of SF: Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, and String Figures intertwining natures, cultures, subjects, and objects. See: Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), 13.  

[8] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge & Medford: Polity Press, 2017), 283.

[9] To mention a few titles that are worthwhile but will not be further discussed due to the limited length of this article: Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge & Malden: Polity Press, 2017). And: Jamie Lorimer, The Probiotic Planet. Using Life to Manage Life (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

[10] Cf. Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 33.

[11] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene. The Earth, History and us, trans. David Fernbach (London & New York: Verso, 2013), 3.

[12] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The “Anthropocene”,” IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000): 17.

[13] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 201.

[14] Yadvinder Malhi, “The Concept of the Anthropocene,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 42 (2017): 21.

[15] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 9.

[16] See for example: Andri Snær Magnason, On Time and Water, trans. Lytton Smith (London: Profile Books, 2020), 64.

[17] Bruno Latour, Down to Earth. Politics in the New Climatic Regime, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge & Medford: Polity Press, 2018), 41.

[18] James Lovelock (with Bryan Appleyard), Novacene. The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence (London: Allen Lane, 2019), 12 & 28.

[19] Cf. Bruno Latour, “Why Gaia is not a God of Totality,” Theory, Culture and Society 34:2-3 (2017).

[20] Latour, Facing Gaia, 86.

[21] James Lovelock, Gaia. A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 11.

[22] Lovelock, Gaia, 119.

[23] Latour, Facing Gaia, 142.

[24] Bruce Clarke, Gaian System. Lynn Margulis, Neocybernetics, and the End of the Anthropocene (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 9.

[25] See in particular: Clarke, Gaian Systems, 1-46.

[26] Lovelock, Gaia, 137.

[27] This move of course reminds us of Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic”, in which the forester expands the ethical framework in such a way that ‘the land’ also becomes part of moral deliberations. See: Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, ill. Charles W. Schwartz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), 201-226. The preeminent environmental ethicist J. Baird Callicott even argued that Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” should be understood as a proto-Gaia theory. See: J. Baird Callicott, “From the Land Ethic to the Earth Ethic: Aldo Leopold and the Gaia Hypothesis,” in Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis, ed. Eileen Crist and H. Bruce Rinker (Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2010), 177-193. And for a more elaborate version of this argument: J. Baird Callicott, Thinking like a PlanetThe Land Ethic and the Earth Ethic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[28] Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet. A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 128.

[29] Or, in the words of Latour: “With the concept of the Anthropocene, the two great unifying principles – Nature and the Human – become more and more implausible.” Latour, Facing Gaia, 142.

[30] Abigail Beall, “The global fight against coronavirus,” BBC, accessed 7 March 2021, (emphasis mine).

[31] “10 things the EU is doing to fight COVID-19 and ensure recovery,” European Council, accessed 7 March 2021, (emphasis mine). 

[32] Latour, Down to Earth, 90.

[33] See: Christopher Schaberg, Searching for the Anthropocene. A Journey into the Environmental Humanities (New York/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 6-7 and 22-23.

[34] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 10-11.

[35] Margulis, Symbiotic Planet, 120.

[36] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 161-162.

[37] See: John McPhee, Basin and Range (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980).

[38] Cf. Hamilton, Defiant Earth, 118-119.

[39] Magnason, On Time and Water, 9.

[40] James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 63.

[41] Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson, Revolutions that made the Earth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 183-185.

[42] Stephan Harding, Animate Earth. Science, Intuition and Gaia (Cambridge: Green Books, 2016), 72-76.

[43] Margulis, Symbiotic Planet, 119.

[44] Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, 65-182

[45] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, 63.

[46] Hamilton, Defiant Earth, 50-51.

[47] See:

[48] McPhee, Basin and Range, 126.

[49] Danny Hillis, Rob Seaman, Steve Allen, and Jon Giorgini, “Time in the 10,000-Year Clock,” AAS 11-665 (2011): 1.

[50] Hillis, Seaman, Allen, and Giorgini, “Time in the 10,000-Year Clock,” 9.

[51] See:

[52] Isabelle Stengers, “The Challenge of Onotlogical Politics,” in A World of Many Worlds, ed. Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2018), 108.

[53] Magnason, On Time and Water, 10.

[54] Jonathan Watts, “James Lovelock: ‘The biosphere and I are both in the last 1% of our lives’,” The Guardian 28 Juli 2020,

[55] Homeostasis being the relatively steady state maintained by Gaia, or any self-regulating biogeochemical system so that optimal conditions are secured for all life partaking in that living system.

[56] Margulis, Symbiotic Planet, 118.

[57] Clarke, Gaian Systems, 2-3.

[58] See: Frédérique Aït-Touati, Fictions of the Cosmos. Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, trans. Susan Emanuel (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[59] Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 288-289.

[60] Clarke, Gaian Systems, 14.

[61] I roughly based this oversimplified retelling of the myth of Gaia on Hesiod, “Theogony” in Theogony and Works and Days, trans. M.L. West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). And: Stephen Fry, Mythos (London: Penguin, 2018), 3-24.

[62] Cf. Maggie Gee, “Imagining Gaia. Art Living Lightly With Science,” in Earthy Realism. The Meaning of Gaia, ed. Mary Midgley (Exeter: Societas, 2007), 96.

[63] That is to say, the reality of the Anthropocene has delegitimized the power relations that predominated modernity. As Hamilton explains: “If the grand narratives of modernity lent legitimacy to the prevailing order and structure of power relations, the arrival of the Anthropocene serves to delegitimize their claims. If, as post-modern critics suggest, science is a legitimizing narrative for the prevailing order, then the prevailing order now finds itself under siege from science. The new narrative does not serve the powerful but exposes their absolute failure.” Hamilton, Defiant Earth, 79.

[64] Latour, Facing Gaia, 284.

[65] See for example: Latour, Facing Gaia, 283. And: Latour, Down to Earth, 68-69.

[66] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 12.

[67] Ibid., 130.

[68] Latour, Down to Earth, 70.

[69] Schaberg, Searching for the Anthropocene, 22.

[70] See for example: Adam Trexler, Anthropocene Fictions. The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2015). And: Shelley Streeby, Imagining the Future of Climate Change. World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).

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