Autumn.wmf (12088 bytes) Concepts of Biology (BIOL116) - Dr. S.G. Saupe; Biology Department, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Collegeville, MN 56321;;

Gaia, Religion & Tragedies: Some Musings on Human Ecology 

I.  Humans have had a tremendous impact on the biosphere
    There are countless examples in the text.

II.  Gaia & Global Medicine.
    If the Earth is a large self-sustaining system (giant super-organism) as Lovelock believes (Gaia Hypothesis), then environmental perturbations can be considered as a type of "sickness".  To provide an example, the following is excerpted from an article I wrote a few years back in response to a lecture by Dr. Pinky Nelson, a Wilmar (MN) native who flew on the space shuttle.  What do you think?

      "Take two aspirins and call me in the morning"  - At a Warner Lecture, Dr. Pinky Nelson said that most astronauts are changed by their flight in space; specifically they return with a greater sense of appreciation for the earth and its fragility.  Apparently the spectacular vistas from space highlight the beauty, mystery and "aliveness" of the earth and its occupants. 

    Through photographs, we terrestrial-bound types can vicariously share the experiences of the astronauts and begin to appreciate the source of their awe and wonder.  I suspect that these emotions occur simply because from space, the earth looks alive, something like a cell complete with an atmospheric membrane.  Swirling weather systems are reminiscent of cytoplasmic streaming and the land masses and oceans suggest organelles and other cellular inclusions.  From the shuttle, the earth must seem as vibrantly alive as an amoeba, aardvark or apple.  Perhaps it just takes a special vantage point a hundred miles above the earth to appreciate it.  Considering how remarkable the earth must look from space, it would be more surprising if the astronauts were unaffected by their privileged views of spaceship earth. 

    Although he has never looked through a window of the shuttle, James Lovelock has apparently been able to escape the restrictive tethers of his terrestrial existence and view the earth as if from space.  As a result of his intellectual space travels, Lovelock has published two books [Gaia. 1978. Oxford University Press, NY; The Ages of Gaia. 1988. W. W. Norton, NY] which seem to formalize and describe what I think the astronauts must experience while gazing homeward.

     According to Lovelock, the earth is an immense organism that is "...alive in the sense that it [is] a self-organizing and self-regulating system."  Lovelock has named this organism Gaia, after the Greek Goddess of the earth.  Although Gaia was originally met with disbelief, biologists now consider this idea to have some merit.  For example, Yale biologist Harold Morowitz says that "biological activity is then a planetary property, an interrelationship of organisms, atmospheres, oceans and continents...The environment and living organisms are bound, inseparable parts of one set of linked planetary processes...[T]he sustained activity of the 'biogeochemical' system is more characteristic of life than are the individual species." Biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas also agrees that the Earth is a "coherent system of life, self-regulating, self-changing, a sort of immense organism".

    From a Gaian perspective, environmental problems such as pollution take on a much greater significance.  Not only are we releasing toxic chemicals into the environment, but in essence, we are poisoning a living thing.  We are violently assaulting a global organism that we depend on for our existence.  Fortunately, Gaia is strong and she will survive, with or without us. 

    But she could get mighty sick; perhaps sick enough that she won't be able to support us any longer.  It's not too late to tend to our ailing patient.  We need to usher in an era of global medicine and educate an army of planetary physicians to tend to our global patient.  If we don't start practicing planetary medicine soon, we may need to look for a new planet.  But don't blame Gaia, we are creating the diseases for which there may be no cure."

III. Tic-Tac-Toe and War Games.  
    If you and your opponent both know the rules, there is no way to win the game of tic-tac-toe, except by cheating.  This is an example of a problem with no technical solution - that is, a scientist/engineer/mathematician cannot devise a "fix".  In the film War Games, starring Mathew Broderick, a computer learned from playing tic-tac-toe that there was no solution to the arms race.  Again, the arms race is another problem without a technical solution.  No matter what new weapon system one side devises, the other can devise an equally successfully counter-defense leading to a no win situation.

    What is a problem with a technical solution?  Polio - a vaccine was produced to protect people from this terrible disease.  Or, air pollution -  put scrubbers on smokestacks.

    If the solution is not technical, then what is it?  The solution must come from a change in human behavior.  These changes can be prompted from our various institutions such as religions, morals, governments, economics.  As an example, how are we going to solve the arms race problem - change our attitudes.  As another example, HIV is currently a problem with no satisfactory technical solution.  Although drug cocktails seem to be effective in stopping the progression of the disease, the only "solution" is to modify human behaviors (i.e., practice safe sex).

    Many environmental problems fall into the class of problems with no technical solutions.  That is, there is either no quick fix to the problem from the lab, or the fix is so expensive or otherwise unattractive to make it non-existent.  Thus, these problems will only be solved by human behavioral changes.  Population growth is one such problem - there are ways to control human fecundity, but they rely on individual application.  

    As you will recall, these ideas come from an article by Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of the Commons, that was published in Science 162: 1243 - 1248 (1968).

IV.  Destruction of a commons is inevitable - unless freedom is restricted.
This is another lesson from Hardin's article.  A commons is a resource shared by many (such as air, water).  According to Hardin, unrestricted use of a commons will ultimately lead to the destruction of that commons because a person will individually benefit from the use of the commons, but will only share partly in the cost of destruction of that commons.  Here is an example for you, again extracted from a brief article I wrote before Earth Day 90.

      "Aristotle and Walking on the Grass".  Spring is the time plants awaken from their long winter nap to begin life anew.  There will be another reawakening this spring - the environmental movement will awaken from a relatively inactive period during the past several years.  This reawakening, called Earth Day, will be celebrated around the globe on 22 April, 1990. 

     As Earth Day draws near we will hear about many environmental crises, each more tragic than the next.  One link between each of these tragedies is that they involve a violation of the "commons".  Garrett Hardin, in a brilliant essay that should be required reading for every college graduate (Science 162:1243-1248; 1968), developed the idea of the commons. 

     Hardin considers a commons to be any resource, such as air and water, that is shared by many.  Given freedom to use the commons, Harding concludes that its ultimate fate is destruction.   This occurs because individuals gain fully from the use of the commons while only sharing partly in its destruction.  Thus, each member, unless completely altruistic and not swayed by peer pressure, is tragically compelled to use the commons, ultimately destroying it.  Hardin describes this scenario as the "tragedy of the commons" and correctly concludes that we must limit individual freedom in a commons by "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of people affected."

     As an example, a campus lawn is a commons.  On the way to class, we might cut a corner and individually benefit by saving a few seconds.  Although one set of footprints will not harm the grass, many will.  The freedom to use this commons (lawn) results in the destruction (unsightly paths) of the lawn.  Tragically, we are compelled to do this because "everyone else does" and "what difference can I make" and because we share in the cost of the destruction of this resource (it's not hard to imagine that departmental budgets are slightly smaller and student tuitions are slightly higher to help pay for such repairs).  The only way to preserve a resource (lawn) is to limit freedom - Please don't walk on the grass!

     Hardin certainly wasn't the first to recognize our disrespect for commons.  Aristotle knew, "That which is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care".  Perhaps lawns would get more respect if they were as "common" as a Minnesota prairie".

V.  Many environmental problems are examples of violations of commons.
    Solving these problems will rely on changes of human behaviors and attitudes.

VI.  Historical roots of our environmental crisis.  
    Some scholars have blamed formal religions for contributing to our environmental problems.  The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote for The Record arguing for the adoption of an Environmental Studies program at CSB/SJU (which happened!) that looks at this issue.

     In the October 17 issue of The Record, Dr. Ernie Diedrich and SJU Senior Mike Miner argued eloquently for the introduction of environmental studies (ES) into our curriculum.  I concur and I am especially glad to see this issue being addressed publicly on our campuses.  I believe that there are many excellent reasons why we should adopt such a program.   Perhaps the most significant reason for our institutions is because many of the solutions to our most critical ecological problems will have a religious base.

     In a classic essay published in Science (155:1203-1207; 1967), Lynn White, Jr. argued that the roots of our ecological crisis are ultimately derived from the "...Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man".  He believes this attitude originates in the Christian creation story in which God created the earth for the benefit and rule of humans.  Thus it " God's will that man could exploit nature for his proper ends". 

    Ex-President Reagan is alleged to have said, "when you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen then all."  According to White, this comment is an example of the Christian notion that "...a tree can be no more than a physical fact.  The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West.  For nearly two millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature."

    White concludes that since "...the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious...More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one."  In his classic essay, "Tragedy of the Commons", biologist Garrett Hardin also assets that there will not be a technical solution to many pressing environmental problems including population growth.

    Charles Birch, the 1990 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, highlights the importance of religion in solving our ecological problems.  He says that "...expanding the concepts of compassion, rights and justice to all living creatures, not only in theory but in the practice of a biocentric ethic, would be a great achievement for our time.  Yet the advocacy of Western religious thought is most weak here, where the ache of the world is most strong."  Writer and philosopher Richard Means agrees that "...we need to appreciate more fully the religious and moral dimensions of the relation between nature and the human spirit."

    I am convinced that religions can play a major role in addressing ecological problems.  And what better place could there be than CSB/SJU, with its strong Benedictine heritage focusing on stewardship of the land, to examine the interrelationship of religion and ecology?

    Let's consider the idea of an environmental studies program - St. Benedict would want it that way."

What do you think?

VI.  Case Studies.
    In class, we will study some environmental problems.  Our goal will be to understand the nature of these crises and how things went wrong.  We will analyze these cases in relation to the "tragedy of the commons" and Barry Commoner's "laws" of ecology:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else (or, you can never do just one thing)

  2. Everything must go somewhere

  3. Nature knows best

  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch

Resources: the following are a few web links to information about Gaia and James Lovelock


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Last updated: May 10, 2004        � Copyright by SG Saupe