Gaia Theory


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Originally proposed as a scientific hypothesis by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in 1974, and now generally accepted as a scientific theory, Gaia Theory proposes that the earth is a complex system of interactions between various organisms and the inorganic context of the Earth, and that this system of interaction comprises the living Earth system, or Gaia. This interpretation of Earth sees the Earth as a living, complex and self-regulating system. Despite widespread use, the theory is also widely criticized and those who wish to use this argument should also become familiar with its criticisms.

In general terms, the theory states that the complex Earth system is composed of four interacting subsystems: (1) the biosphere, sometimes referred to as the sum of life on Earth or as the global total of all individual ecosystems in Earth; (2) the hydrosphere, or the sum total of water systems on Earth; (3) the atmosphere or the layer of gases surrounding Earth held near Earth’s surface by gravity; and (4) the pedosphere, or the outer layer of Earth’s surface. These systems interact with one another and living species in a way that produces ecological stability or homeostasis – a stable global earth system or living Earth system called Gaia. The interaction of the various components of the Earth system (biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, pedosphere and living species) regulates other systems, such as ocean salinity, global temperature, surface temperature, and general atmospheric conditions. Disruption to any of the systems can cause ecological disruption and ecological instability in Gaia.

In his various writings, Lovelock has argued that human influences in particular disrupt the normal functioning of Gaia, and have caused the Earth to develop new equilibrium levels over time. In Lovelock’s view, those new equilibrium levels are a response to human disruption, and if human activity remains unconstrained, continually causes Gaia to adopt new equilibrium levels which become more and more hostile to human survival. In this view, this occurs as Gaia evolves new responses to human disruption in an effort to restore a form of ecological stability more consistent with the general path of the history of the development of Earth.

There is a large literature on Gaia Theory and its implications that are beyond the scope of this brief discussion. For some relevant literature examples, see the reference section.

With respect to green criminology, Gaia Theory provides a way of thinking about ecological organization and issues, and provides a scientific grounding for theoretical concepts within green criminology. There are a number of potential uses of this theory within green criminology which have yet to be explored.

Further Reading


Barrotta, Pierluigi. “James Lovelock, Gaia Theory, and the Rejection of Fact/Value Dualism.” Environmental Philosophy 8, no. 2 (2011): 95-113.

Crist, Eileen, and H. Bruce Rinker, eds. (2010). Gaia in turmoil: climate change, biodepletion, and earth ethics in an age of crisis. MIT Press.

Kirchner, J. W. (2003). The Gaia hypothesis: conjectures and refutations. Climatic Change, 58(1-2), 21-45.

Lenton, T. M., & Wilkinson, D. M. (2003). Developing the Gaia Theory. A Response to the Criticisms of Kirchner and Volk. Climatic Change, 58(1), 1-12.

Lovelock, J. (2009). The vanishing face of Gaia: A final warning. PublicAffairs.

Lovelock, James. (2003). “Gaia: the living Earth.” Nature 426, no. 6968 : 769-770.

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

Lovelock, J. (1995). The ages of Gaia: A biography of our living earth. Oxford University Press.

Lovelock, J. E. (1992). A numerical model for biodiversity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 338(1286), 383-391.

Lovelock, James E. (1989). “Geophysiology, the science of Gaia.” Reviews of Geophysics 27, 2: 215-222.

Lovelock, J.E.; Margulis, L. (1974). “Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis”. Tellus. Series A 26 (1–2): 2–10.

Onori, Luciano, and Guido Visconti. (2012). “The GAIA theory: from Lovelock to Margulis. From a homeostatic to a cognitive autopoietic worldview.” Rendiconti Lincei 23, no. 4 (2012): 375-386.

chneider, S. H. (Ed.). (2004). Scientists debate Gaia: the next century. MIT Press.

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