Let us imagine that you are in a grove of giant redwood trees on the coast of California and that you are standing on the stump of a tree that has just been felled. When standing it was a vast tree weighing over 2,000 tons and over 100 metres tall, a spire of lignin and cellulose, a tree that started life over 2,000 years ago.

A strange thing about this tree is that during its life nearly all of it was dead wood. As a tree grows there is just a thin skin of living tissue around the circumference; the wood inside is dead, as is the bark that protects the delicate tissue. More than 97% of the tree we stand on was dead before it was cut down.

Now in this way a tree is very like the Earth itself. Around the circumference on the surface of the Earth is a thin skin of living tissue of which both the trees and we humans are a part. The rocks beneath our feet are like the wood, and the air above is like the bark. Both are dead matter, but the air and rocks, like the wood and the bark, are either the direct products of life or have been greatly modified by its presence. Is it possible that the Earth is alive like the tree?

It was the view from space about 20 years ago that showed us how beautiful and how seemly was our planet when seen in its entirety. The Earth was also seen from space in invisible wavelengths through the sensors of scientific instruments, and their view made some of us re-examine our theories about the nature of the Earth. It led my colleague and friend Lynn Margulis and me to propose that the Earth itself was indeed in some ways alive like the tree, alive at least to the extent that it could regulate its climate and chemical composition. We called the idea Gaia, after the old name for the Earth…

Although some of my colleagues in science are beginning to take it seriously as a theory to test, most mainstream scientists prefer to see the Earth as just a ball of rock moistened by the oceans, a piece of planetary real estate that we have inherited. In their view, we, and the rest of life, are just passengers. Life may have altered the environment, or have coevolved with it, as by putting oxygen in the air, but they see this as no more than the act of passengers who, when on a long sea voyage, may decorate their cabins.

If mainstream science is right and the Earth is like this, then to survive it might not matter what we do, so long as we do not foul the Earth so much as to hazard ourselves and our crops and livestock.

But what if instead the Earth is a vast living organism? In such a living system species are expendable. If a species, such as humans, adversely affects the environment, then in time it will be eliminated with no more pity than is shown by the micro-brain of an intercontinental ballistic missile on course to its target. If the Earth is like this, then to survive we face the hard task of reintegrating creation. Of learning again to be part of the Earth and not separate from it. If we choose to go this way, the change of heart and mind needed will be great and it will include also the reintegration of religion and science.

In Newton’s time he was able to say, “Theology is the queen of the sciences.” I happen to think that although science has progressed vastly since Newton, it has also moved a long way in the wrong direction. Scientists had to reject the bad side of medieval religion: superstition, dogmatism and intolerance. Unfortunately, as with most revolutionaries, we scientists merely exchanged one set of dogma for another. What we threw out was soul…

I sometimes wonder if the loss of soul from science could be the result of sensory deprivation. A consequence of the fact that 95% of us now live in cities. How can you love the living world if you can no longer hear birdsong through the noise of traffic, or smell the sweetness of fresh air? How can we wonder about God and the Universe if we never see the stars because of the city lights?…

City living corrupts: it gives a false sense of priority over environmental hazards. We become inordinately obsessed about personal mortality, especially about death from cancer. Most citizens, when asked, list nuclear radiation and ozone depletion as the most serious environmental hazards. They tend to ignore the consequences of greenhouse-gas accumulation, agricultural excess and forest clearance. Yet in fact these less personal hazards can kill just as certainly. Sadly we are the witnesses of the disintegration of creation without realising that we are the cause.

The humid tropics are both a habitat for humans and in the heartland of Gaia. That habitat is being removed at a ruthless pace. Yet in the West we try to justify the preservation of tropical forests on the feeble grounds that they are the home of rare species of plants and animals, even of plants containing drugs that could cure cancer. They may do. But they offer so much more than this. Through their capacity to evaporate vast volumes of water vapour the forests serve to keep their region cool and moist by wearing a sunshade of white reflecting clouds and by bringing the rain that sustains them. Their replacement by crude cattle farming could precipitate a disaster for the billions of the poor in the third world. Imagine the human suffering, the guilt and the political consequences of a Sahel drought throughout the tropics. To say nothing of the secondary climatic consequences here in the temperate regions…

A whole and healthy planet comes from the activity of single organisms that evolve with their environment to become a global influence. For us this implies a personal relationship. So what can I do? You may well ask. I suppose the answer is that for each of us there is an appropriate course of action. For us as a family this has meant planting about 20,000 trees. I recognise that this may be impractical if you live in a city. But there are many things we do that are harmless in moderation and malign only in excess. I find it helpful to think of the three deadly Cs: cars, cattle and chainsaws. You don’t have to be a puritan and ban them: just use them moderately.

I speak as the representative, the shop steward, of the bacteria and the less attractive forms of life. My constituency is all life other than humans, because there are so many who speak for people but few who speak for the others.

To see the Earth as a living organism makes tangible the concept of stewardship and focuses our hearts and minds on what should be our prime environmental concern: the care and protection of the Earth itself and especially of the forests of the humid tropics. So let’s stay selfish, but be guided in our selfishness to keep a world that is healthy and beautiful, and that will remain fit for our grandchildren as well as those of our partners in Gaia.

James Lovelock first published his Gaia theory in 1965. This article is extracted from the July/August 1988 issue of Resurgence, no. 129.

James Lovelock is a scientist, author, researcher, environmentalist and originator of the Gaia Theory.