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Earth Day, 2018
How Is “Mother?”
by Guest Editor Dr. Lorin R. Robinson

We call her Mother Earth. We speak of Mother Nature. The Greeks called her Gaia—the personification of the Earth, the great mother of all, the primal mother goddess, the creator and giver of life to the Earth and all the universe.

In the late 1970s, two biologists—James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis—resurrected Gaia from the dustbin of Greek mythology to name a hypothesis suggesting that the biosphere and physical components of the Earth are closely integrated—a complex interactive system that maintains climatic and bio-geo-chemical conditions in a preferred homeostasis conducive to life as we know it. They appeared to claim that this complex system allows Earth to react to change like a living organism.

Critics, including Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and others, were quick to label the work “pseudoscience.” They pointed out that, while, among other factors, life on Earth certainly alters the environment, the life that then is seen thriving evolved and adapted to do so. Thus, there is no magical mechanism that endlessly returns conditions to some ideal balance. Further, the system at this point in the planet’s long history only looks tuned for life because we're a product of the system.

Gould labeled the hypothesis “a metaphor masquerading as a mechanism.” 

It is also the ultimate exercise in hubris and chutzpah to seem to imply that the planet cares enough about its inhabitants to strive to maintain conditions conducive to their comfort. 

Responding to criticism, Lovelock later presented a version of the Gaia hypothesis without seeming to claim that the Earth's biological systems intentionally or consciously maintain the complex balance that life needs to survive—that it was, in fact, a metaphoric statement and not meant to be taken literally. 

That, however, didn’t deter well-meaning members of the burgeoning environmental movement from adopting the Gaia gospel as more than metaphor. 

So, we glibly anthropomorphize the blue-green space traveler upon which we ride—we insignificant organisms whose history spans only an instant in the planet’s 4.5 billion-year history.

Is she aware of our existence? Does she feel us scraping off layers of her soil; drilling holes deep into her body? Does she know that we are burning her fossil fuels, releasing trillions of tons of greenhouse gases into her atmosphere?. Does she know that we are fouling and acidifying her oceans; sending radioactive mushroom clouds into her skies; burning countless millions of acres of her forests? Does she know that her temperature is climbing; that her oceans are rising; that her surface is being churned and battered by increasingly violent weather?

Probably not. 

In the billions of years the planet has been hurtling around the sun, it has borne and survived cataclysms beyond our reckoning. Its fiery birth. The continued slow cooling of its core with the violent fracturing and spewing to the surface of its superheated guts. The inexorable wandering of its land masses, skating on the surface of its molten magma. The bombardment of asteroids large enough to inflict deep wounds and cast enormous quantities of debris into the atmosphere, blocking the sun’s warmth, creating a killing field for creatures crawling or swimming on its surface.

During its lifetime—based on orbital variations, a wobbly axis and other factors—Earth has been a dry world, a water world, an ice world.

What we are doing to the planet pales by comparison.

If Mother Earth were aware, she’d probably be amused that the slightly annoying vermin infesting her body are in the process of self-destruction, saving her the trouble.

But she isn’t aware. And she doesn’t care. And if, or when, we go, she will take no notice.

Dr. Lorin Robinson is a writer and former chair of the Journalism Department, University of Wisconsin—River Falls. His latest book is Tales from The Warming: 10 Near-Future Stories Envisioning the Human Impact of the Climate Crisis.
Coming in May 2018 from 
Open Books