Gaia as a moral guide? – A book review

By Haseef Ahmed
Posted on 27th February 2023
Image: Haseef × DALL·E

Gaia: A new look at life on Earth by James Lovelock is one of the early primers of the environmental movement that caught both the public and scientific community’s imagination. The book was first published in 1979, during the era of burgeoning research into man-made effects on the environment conducted at prestigious universities such as Columbia and MIT, as well as by major oil producers such as Exxon (1). Indeed, Lovelock himself extends his gratitude, in the preface, to a colleague from Shell Research Limited (p.xix).

The most salient and interesting points to note are that the text posits an original idea, proposed by a scientist but one which challenged the scientific orthodoxy of the time. Furthermore, it was specifically intended to capture the attention of the masses, hence Gaia and not a dry, scientific term such as ‘a self-regulating complex system’. Lastly, it opened avenues of research and scientific exploration which are still animating present debates.

Debates on the scientific merit of the Gaian hypothesis and whether it can be advanced towards fact is the subject of another book by Lovelock, written specifically for scientists, titled ‘Ages of Gaia’. The present book has a broader scope aimed at non-scientists, engineers, and environmentalists ‘who need moral guidance as well as technology within their work’ (p.xi, emphasis added).

On first impressions, the book does a good job holding the reader’s hand, walking them through the hard science behind the ideas and more broadly, the ideas themselves. The book is well written and logically organised, and the argument well-paced. It is concise and engaging, and the reader is clearly on-boarded with a definition of terms and various tables and figures provided that do not assume any prior knowledge.

This does not, however, mean that the author begins from a neutral stance. In fact, by the second page of the Preface, Lovelock states his clear convictions as pro-nuclear and anti-green activism, the politicisation of which ‘has led us dangerously astray’ (p.viii). He also excuses multinational companies and state institutions by claiming that consumers are ‘equally responsible’. The logical connection here is that all living things depend on each other in a complex interconnected system.

This is most clearly articulated in chapter 4 Cybernetics where the positive and negative feedback systems are explored. This circuit diagram, or causal loop, maps out Gaia ‘physiologically’ (p.58) and the effect is that of an emergent planet-sized control system of life with plants and animals as its components.

Beginning with chapter 7 Gaia and Man, the focus of the book changes from the preceding scientific argument to a broader remit in which societal aspects and considerations are discussed. The intermingling personal beliefs laid out in Preface are much more readily communicated in these final 3 chapters where the discussion expands to how we ought to live given this newfound understanding.

This review benefits from hindsight when evaluating the ideas in the book; it is clearly an original contribution of a highly imaginative thinker. The persuasive strength of Gaia is demonstrated through the numerous Earth System Sciences (ESS) & Geophysiology courses that subsequently followed. It is now possible to study undergraduate and postgraduate level courses at prestigious universities such as Stanford which seriously consider the Gaia hypothesis/theory (2). Academics are continuing the work such as, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime by Bruno Latour published in 2017 (3). It also provided the inspiration for others such as Johan Rockström, professor in ESS at University of Potsdam, who has pioneered work on planetary boundaries (4).

In the context of sustainable development, the aforementioned discussion on cybernetics addresses the key aspect of dealing with complexity. This takes a systems approach to studying the regulatory phenomena of the planet which has many actors with interdependent relationships. Furthermore, there is a sophisticated discussion on dealing with environmental limits which is brought up throughout the book such as the concentration of oxygen (21%) in the atmosphere being optimal whilst even a small increase in concentration to 25% level would lead to ‘raging conflagrations which would destroy tropical rainforests and arctic tundra alike’ (p.65).

Finally, there is also discussion around dealing with trade-offs as ‘Gaia has vital organs at the core, as well as expendable or redundant ones mainly on the periphery. What we do to our planet may depend greatly on where we do it’ (p.119). This is a subtle argument which suggests that there is room for development and industrial activity provided that it is managed and conducted at the right place and within bounds.

This book was the starting point of the new scientific consensus on the way earth sciences were conceived. At that time, however, it ruffled feathers as the idea is couched within mythical/pagan terminology and, if true, would have serious consequences for related disciplines such as biological evolution. The underlying premise is that the biosphere is a self-regulating entity for life which affects and determines its environment. Evolution, conversely, argues that life through natural selection is in a battle for survival set against the external environment. This makes the proposition so radical that it can be seen as a Copernican revolution with consequences for all related sciences. The critical pushback was strong and multi-faceted leading to the subsequent downsizing of Gaia theory, but this lengthy development is beyond the remit of this book review (5).

The critique that follows thus leaves aside the scientific debate, focusing on the broader societal issues for the non-scientists, engineers and environmentalists.

As mentioned in the introduction, the book was written in the context of the oil industry commissioning its own scientists to study man-made effects on the environment. There was, in the earlier example of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the subsequent disinformation spread by the chemical industry (6), a warning for Lovelock on how the oil and gas industries may behave.

At the heart of the discussion is a moral argument on how to treat our environment, and it is perplexing throughout the book to read examples of non-human processes being likened to human activity. Despite Lovelock protesting that he does not mean to attribute agency and intention to non-human life, nevertheless the analysis throughout compares industrial activity with natural activity by plants and animals. I do not grant the assertion that all human activity is natural and thus part of Gaia; respiration and other natural human activity would be comparable to plants and animals, but modern industrial activity is something of an entirely new and incomparable magnitude in the natural world. Furthermore, we partake in other unnatural activities based on intangible concepts such as money, politics and luxury. The environment is usually outside the system boundary in these and thus I feel that the book failed to fully grasp the problem.

In the broader field of paradigm shifting “great ideas”, the book also falls short with hardly any deep sociological or theological development. This is especially surprising given Lovelocks’ exhortation in the preface for the need for moral guidance. The great world religions and humanism have had an influential hold over human behaviour and there is little if any proposition of an alternative way of behaving.

Instead Lovelock proposes to take Garrett Hardin’s view of life (p.116), one that is deeply pessimistic, Eurocentric and hardly a recipe for a collective “us”. The vast majority of humanity is deeply religious, and Hardin’s views will not be acceptable to them as the proposed solution. Indeed, 11 years prior to the publication of Gaia, Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Man and Nature argued that the ‘ecological crisis is only an externalization of an inner malaise and cannot be solved without a spiritual rebirth of Western man’ (7). Lovelock’s interest in a holistic system completely misses any consideration of the internal workings of human beings and the Gaia theory does not address the spiritual vacuousness of modern needs and desires.

Indeed, this internal human flaw is exploited by oil majors who used the uncertainties and planetary regulation modes of thinking introduced by science to deny, doubt and delay action on tackling emissions. Lovelock himself was possibly an unknowing complicit party in this as his sailing trips were financed by Royal Dutch Shell (8).

To close, the book leaves an impression of uncertainty for engineers, as industrial activity may or may not impact Gaia. We are told to trust in a scientific dogma which can dispense of weak hypotheses and uncover the truth of Gaia i.e., we must wait for more scientific development and answers. If I were an engineer at an oil refinery there would be no real urgency and cause to change course. To quote Kotter's framework for change, the first step ‘establish a sense of urgency’ is missing (9).

There can be no prescription, no set of rules for living within Gaia. For each of our different actions there are only consequences (p.132).

There is also no independent account taken for the effect of human action, in the form of misbehaviour, greed, or excessive consumption. There are no charges taken against the behavioural trends or philosophical and religious dictates that have governed human life in the last century such as Christianity, Capitalism, or Marxism.

The final idea of a whale knowing a bicycle design in the last pages is absurd and a surprising ending unrelated to the preceding ideas in the book. This leaves the moral seeker without a full sense of conclusion and questioning the meaning and relevance of such an image, an apt summary of Gaia.

1.      Banerjee, N., Cushman Jr., J.H., Hasemyer, D. & Song, L. (2015) Exxon: The road not taken. 2015. Available from:
2.     Stanford University (n.d.) Earth system science: Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. [Online]. Stanford Earth | School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. Available from:
3.     Latour, B. (2017) Facing gaia: Eight lectures on the new climatic regime; trans. by Catherine Porter. John Wiley & Sons.
4.      Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., et al. (2009) ‘A safe operating space for humanity’. Nature. 461 (7263), 472–475. DOI: 10.1038/461472a.
5.      Harvard University (2012) Gaia hypothesis. 2012. School of Engineering & Applied Sciences.
6.      Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring. Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin Company.
7.      Nasr, S.H. (1968) Man and nature: The spiritual crisis in modern man. Dunstable, England, ABC International Group.
8.      Aronowsky, L. (2021) Gas guzzling gaia, or: A prehistory of climate change denialism. Critical Inquiry. 47 (2), 306–327. DOI: 10.1086/712129.
9.      Kotter, J. P. (1996) Leading Change: An Action Plan from the World's Foremost Expert on Business Leadership, Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press. ISBN: 9780875847474

Lovelock, J. (2000) Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. Oxford, Oxford University Press.