When the Gaia hypothesis was first broached in the 1970s, it was met with scorn and hostility by several noted scientists. The theory, named after Gaia, the Greek goddess of the earth, holds that the major life-sustaining elements of the earth constitute a unified self-sustaining, self-regulating system. Thus, for example, the sea maintains a 3.4% rate of salinity and the atmosphere contains 20.95% oxygen. If any part of the system is threatened, as by pollution, the rest of the Gaia mechanism adjusts accordingly to retain the status quo to support life.
Some cosmologists welcomed the Gaia theory as a tool to help persuade the public that if it mistreated the earth, by polluting fresh water and the air we breathe, the earth would defend itself as it could. One form by which Gaia would readjust its homeostatic balance, some scientists predicted, would be violent weather. Thus if farms and cities along the banks of the Mississippi violated its flood plain and polluted its waters and added too much carbon dioxide and methane gas to the atmosphere, excessive snowmelt and powerful rainstorms would send the river over its banks to reclaim its flood plain and interrupt human activity harmful to it.
The past few years, just in the United States, have brought record heat, snowfall, rain, hurricanes, and tornados to the land, causing massive destruction and in some cases remaking the map along the Gulf Coast and the Mississippi delta. In the wake of the enormous earthquake and tsunami in Japan last winter, seismologists have warned that one of the most likely areas for a similar catastrophe lies in the Pacific Northwest. And along the East Coast, weather forecasters think that twice as many as normal the number of severe tropical storms, including hurricanes, are likely to occur this summer. Proponents of the Gaia theory, then, speculate that the more we tax the environment with pollutants—think of BP oil stressing natural systems in the Gulf of Mexico—the more we bring about the devastating weather now common throughout the U.S. and worldwide.
I saw firsthand the mind-boggling destruction wreaked on trees and houses in a section of Forest Hills, Queens, last year by a 150-mile-an-hour wind shear, and you can see on the Internet and TV the flattening of Joplin, MO, by severed tornados over the weekend, leaving almost 100 people dead.
Irrespective of the Gaia hypothesis, a group of Norwegian scientists in the early 1990s conducted experiments that showed that if pollution of sea, land, and air continued unabated, in twenty years’ time unprecedentedly severe storms would buffet the earth. Twenty years later is now.
If indeed there is a connection between our mistreatment of the earth and the severity of current weather, what is each of us ready to do to return the environment to a state of balance?