Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Taking Gaia Seriously

Ernest Partridge

A Public Lecture Presented at Northland College
February 14, 1994


Several years ago, the maverick British scientist, James Lovelock, suggested that the earth's ecosystem, which he called "Gaia," is "alive" -- "alive" in the sense that it is a self-regulating organism, which alters its physical environment (most notably the temperature and chemistry of the atmosphere) to sustain the myriad species which constitute its "life." Literal-minded scientific critics have insisted that a depiction of the global ecosystem, "Gaia," as a "live organism," is an exercise in rhetorical overkill, even Lovelock has since toned down and qualified that analogy.

Even so, with some qualification, I would go further than Lovelock: I would suggest that Gaia is not only "alive," but that she is a conscious moral agent -- that Gaia has a mind and a conscience!"

This pronouncement will surely amaze my students and colleagues, who have come to expect from me the sort of cautious critical nit-picking and semantic precision that drives decent folk to feed hemlock to philosophers. Yet here, I seem to be talking like some sort of romantic, pan-psychic nut.

Now for my qualification: we, homo sapiens, are that "mind and conscience" of Gaia. To the best of our knowledge, we are the only earthly species with reflective moral intelligence. Accordingly, if our species were to disappear, Gaia would literally "lose her mind," perchance to regain it should another species evolve with like capacities. Of course, Gaia, for virtually all of her two-billion year life, has been "mindless," without our moral and intellectual capacities; in fact that very intelligence, or better, "technological cleverness," now constitutes a threat to Gaia's health, rivaled only by rare, extra-terrestrial asteroid bombardments.

"Big deal!," complains the critic. "You start with an apparently outrageous claim that the planet has a mind, then retreat to truism that the planet contains an intelligent species. Your theory has died, not of a thousand cuts, but of a single qualification. So what's your point?"

Simply this: my "retreat" is not to a truism. If we are, in fact, the only species with self-reflective moral intelligence, we are not, in addition, a thing apart from Gaia -- not enclosed like a giraffe in a zoo, or encased under glass like a rock specimen in a museum. Our species' relationship to the planetary ecosystem which created and sustains it, is more analogous to the relationship of our brain to our body. To regard our intellect and culture as our exclusive species property, and not, at least metaphorically, as an "organ" of the planetary organism, is to commit what Alfred North Whitehead called, "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness." With the insights of ecological science at hand, we are no more entitled to see ourselves as autonomous "tenants" of this planet, than the post-Copernican scholar was entitled to see himself at the center of the universe.

In sum, my essential thesis comes to this: just as it is impossible to construct a coherent morality from the perspective of the individual person, so too is it impossible to devise a sustainable environmental ethic from the point of view of our personal species. Ultimately, we must see our thought and moral agency as functioning within the larger context of the life-system of the planet. We must understand, and acknowledge, that our interdependent connections with the natural sources and sustenance of our lives are so strong and complete, that the person-society-planet boundaries are shadowy and permeable. If we realize this, we will view ourselves not as autonomous planetary "tenants" but as integrally functioning components of the planetary life system -- Gaia. And, with the dissolution of the person-planet boundary, our mind is recognized as the mind of the planet, and our moral agency the conscience of the planet.

If I am to sustain this hypothesis, then I must defend the following:

  • The concepts of life and health are significantly, if not precisely, applicable to the global ecosystem.

  • Morality is essentially systemic: a coherent ethic can not be constructed from the point of view of the individual agent.

  • Our minds are not contained within our skin. They extend out to mix with the world of our experience, of our education, the persons of our community, and if we are ecologically aware, to the natural sources and sustenance of our organisms.

  • Our personal needs and fulfillments -- the requisites for a desirable life -- are inextricably grounded in the natural conditions that selected our species. In other words, we are, in a profound and fundamental sense, natural beings.

This, in order, will be the remaining task of this paper.


I begin my reply with the warning of Thomas Hobbes: "Words are wise men's counters; they are the money of fools." Or, in simpler words, we should use our language to convey and expand our thoughts, not to confine them. To call Gaia "alive" in the strict biological sense, is less than a literal truth. But this stretch of language may well convey much more truth than falsehood. For while the planetary ecosystem is in the grey area, the "penumbra," of the concept of life, some characteristics of life apply, and some do not. In particular:

  • Does Gaia have a cellular structure? No. Unless, in a metaphorical sense, we call the individual organisms the "cells" of Gaia's body.

  • Does Gaia reproduce its own kind? Again, not literally so. Not unless and until we eventually "terraform" other planets.

  • Is Gaia a self-regulating homeostatic system? Yes. But that criterion is too broad, for so too is a desert lake, like the Great Salt Lake, which has only evaporation as its outlet. When the rainfall is abundant, the lake enlarges to increase evaporation; and when it is dry, the lake contracts to "conserve" its water. But the Lake, though self-regulating, is in no sense "alive."

Gaia, however, shares with its component live organisms, these crucial qualities:

  • It regulates and even alters its physical environment to make that environment conducive to its survival. As Lovelock and Margulis have pointed out, two billion years ago, the solar energy output was 40% less than it is now. And yet, the planetary temperature has remained well within the bounds of two-digit Celsius degrees, necessary to sustain life. Moreover, though dissolved salts have constantly been carried into the oceans, then left behind by evaporation, the salinity of the oceans has remained constant at the favorable 3% for most of the epoch of life -- and for reasons that are not fully understood even today. In short, when the physics and chemistry of the planet have tended toward conditions hostile to life, Gaia has successfully countered these threats.

  • Most importantly, perhaps, like a living organism, Gaia is a complex system of interdependent and mutually sustaining parts, in dynamic equilibrium. When moderately disturbed, the system tends to recover its previous state. When profoundly disturbed, it moves to a new equilibrium.

And if we can, to this degree, attribute "life" to the global ecosystem, then the clinical-normative assessment of life, "health," is close at hand. In other words, if the concepts of "health" and "disease" are meaningfully applied to ourselves and to our fellow living organisms, then, if the attributes of life apply to Gaia, so too will the concept of health apply to the life community. We will, in a literal sense, be in a position to diagnose Gaia's state of health, and perhaps prescribe remedies.

So just what do we mean by "health." While this question opens the door to a library of opinion in the field of medical ethics, I believe that we can list a few essential, if interrelated, elements of health. They would include: (a) viability -- the likelihood of remaining alive under normal conditions; (b) robust functioning -- the availability of numerous and redundant defenses against disease and injury; (c) adaptability to changing conditions in the external environment; and (d) harmonious integration of component parts, functioning to support the whole system.

Do all these conditions describe what we ordinarily call a "healthy organism." Do they describe as well the conditions of flourishing ecosystems? If so, I rest my case.


During the first half of the 20th century, moral philosophers focused their attention on the individual person -- his or her feelings, volitions, satisfactions and preferences. For the most part, we have moved beyond, though, alas, this moral atomism remains alive and well in those most robust concepts of applied economics, "the free market," and "cost-benefit analysis," which continue to captivate legislators and public policy-makers.

In contrast to these trends, the most interesting and productive schools of contemporary moral philosophy, hold that morality can be adequately be understood only in the context of a community. The social and behavioral sciences, allied with game theory, have demonstrated that attempts to comprehend morality from the point of view of the individual, are as futile as efforts to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

The relocation of the moral point of view from the individual to the community of like beings was, I contend, crucial to the advancement of moral philosophy. But while it was a step in the right direction, yet another step is required: the step "up" to the point of view of the planetary life-system itself. But first, let's justify the initial step. If we are to see ourselves as the conscience of Gaia, we must first defend the notion that morality is fundamentally systemic and communal.

In the most general sense, morality might be regarded as a system of rules, the general obedience to which requires us to give up something in order to gain more. In the language of contemporary game theory, morality is a plus-sum game.

Conversely, immorality consists in acting as if one is sufficiently different from all others to make himself an exception to these rules, and thus entitled to take more at the expense of others. Persistent opportunity to do just that, mixed with a insufficient conscience or will to forbear, might be called, with just a bit of exaggeration, "the root of all evil."

The clear implication which follows is that self-seeking and self-serving behavior is, at best, amoral, and if done at the expense of others, immoral. But even more significantly, due to the systemic nature of morality, self-serving behavior can also be self-defeating -- a circumstance which has come to be called "the paradox of morality." Consider:

  • A soldier who elects to serve as an altruist in a squad of altruists, each willing to sacrifice his life for his buddies, will be much more likely to survive combat than an egoist serving in a squad of egoists.

  • The "Tragedy of the Commons:" "Utility-maximizing individuals" (so admired by the economists) "rationally" exploiting a common resource will eventually bring ruin to all, including themselves. The solution? "Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon:" -- i.e., rule of law.

  • Consider two marriages: In the first, two individuals marry with the determination to gain the most personal satisfaction from the relationship. In the second, two lovers are consumed by the desire to promote the happiness of the other, with little concern for their own happiness. I leave it to you to guess which will be happier.

  • The point is reiterated by numerous game-theory simulations such as "prisoner's dilemma" and "tit-for-tat" strategy, which have clear application to ordinary social conditions.

In sum, when contemplated from the point of view of the social system, we find that there are selfish reasons for being unselfish. This "moral paradox" serves to erase the sharp line that is traditionally drawn between "selfish" and "unselfish" behavior -- a line which, I submit, has distorted much of our moral thinking.

This account is incomplete, however, if it does not include, along with the "game theory" defense of morality, "the ethics of love" -- what I have elsewhere called, "the need for self-transcendent concern." (1)   If you ask a parent, "Why should you love your children? What's in it for you?" The irrelevance, even the impudence, of the query is self-evident. Anyone who would deign to reduce love to self-interest, deserves not an explanation but our pity. There is no need to explain color to a fully sighted person; it is impossible to do so to a blind person. Similarly, there is not need to define "love" to a lover. He or she knows. And to a confirmed cynic or egoist who does not understand love, it is useless to attempt an explanation.

Shortly, I will suggest that a similar argument might apply to an appreciation of nature. (2)   But if nature, and the life within it, is to be an authentic object of love, then some fundamental connections and harmonies must exist between ourselves and the nature which selected us and which sustains us. This, as we shall see, is another basic premise of my argument.


Where do our personal lives begin, and where do they end? Our personal selves do not "belong" to the brain. Instead, our minds extend along the neural pathways to all the brain's receptors: our eyes, ears, hands and skin. Moreover, our minds do not end at our skin. Instead, they go beyond along verbal pathways, and now electronic, and eventually fiber-optic, pathways.

Where is the boundary of my mind, if not my brain case? Because of my mind, I have a concept of Gaia, yet that concept has no simple location in my brain. The source of that concept is the unbounded reservoir of culture, myth, science, routed to my awareness through the conduit of James Lovelock's brilliant and inspired language. Because I desire to share these ideas with you, my brain activates my vocal chords, and our common atmosphere conveys these words to you, in a language acquired in our common society. And as I sat at my computer preparing this paper, my mind extended to, and through, my finger tips, to the keyboard and on to the screen. That same computer contains data files which I previously entered, and then put to good use, as I composed these words. And through that computer, during the same week, I sent a letter to a friend in Moscow, received a reply, and responded, all within the space of three days.

So I ask again: where does my mind begin, and where does it end? Surely it is not contained in the three pounds of "wetware" within my brain case. In Whiteheadian terms, the concept of Gaia now before my mind, is the focal point in a field -- a convergence at this instant of a myriad of lines of causation from countless sources, extending far out in space and back in time, and crossing no sharp ontological boundaries. The traditional gap between the knower and the known, the mind and its object is, by this account, blurred.

If, on the one hand, we are "natural creatures" in the full sense and implication of that concept, and if, furthermore, our minds are by no means confined to our immediate physical locations, does it not also follow that our minds and moral agency, in some important sense, "belong" to the planetary ecosystem? And if we are not, then where, pray tell, is the boundary which confines mind and conscience to our species, and leaves nature both mindless and amoral?


The received myth of "the encapsulated human mind" is supported, in turn, by the view that "human nature" is infinitely variable -- a view which has dominated the behavioral and social sciences throughout much of our century. First the cultural anthropologists reported the astonishing diversity of human cultural beliefs and practices, and then the behavioristic psychologists proclaimed that "human nature" was a sum of organic responses to external stimuli (largely of cultural origin). By this account, mind, reduced to "behavior," returned to the confines of the skull, and conscience was abolished from the scientific vocabulary. From the assumption of the "infinite plasticity" of homo sapiens, it followed that there was virtually nothing that a human being might not be taught either to value or abhor, and thus that there was no reason why we should not surround ourselves with a totally "artificial" environment. The point is made with stark clarity by Martin Krieger, in his infamous essay, "What's Wrong With Plastic Trees?"

What is considered a natural environment depends on the particular culture and society defining it... but this ... says nothing about the applicability of such a definition to other cultures...

What's wrong with plastic trees? My guess is that there is very little wrong with them.... [T]he way in which we experience nature is conditioned by our society... (3)

If so, then we can either take nature or leave it. And given the human emergencies before us, perhaps we'd better just leave it. After all, writes Clare Gunn,

The only reason anything is done on this earth is for people. Did the rivers, winds, animals, rocks or dust ever consider my wishes or needs? Surely we do all our acts in an earthly environment, but I have never heard a tree, valley, mountain or flower thank me for preserving it. (4)

So argue the "artificialists." How are we to answer them? How are we to reconnect the artificial with the natural?

We begin, I suggest, with a simple appeal to common sense. Most of us today, and surely all ethnologists, psychologists and other scientists engaged in this debate, grant that homo sapiens is a species which evolved on this planet along with all other life forms. The point of contention is that the "artificialists" further claim that we have evolved to a condition of virtually total adaptability and thus autonomy from our natural origins. Like the maturing organism, they contend, we're grown-ups now, in no further need of the natural circumstances which nourished us. And since nature is mindless, there is no "ingratitude" in pushing it aside as we make our own way. So goes the conventional wisdom.

In rebuttal, we ask that the "artificialists" reconsider the common ground of our agreement: evolution. This "nature" which they would so casually cast aside, is the milieu which selected us and our component genes, for virtually the entire 2 million year life of our species. (We are, after all, removed from our hunter-gatherer origins by, at most, ten thousand years). Over 98% of our genes are identical to those of our nearest cousins, the Chimpanzees. Can we then so casually absent ourselves from the milieu which selected and sustains our biotic essence? Is our need for, even our love of, nature merely a cultural accident which, as Prof. Krieger would argue, we can just as easily re-educate ourselves to do without?

Hugh Iltis, a University of Wisconsin Botanist, disagrees. "Like the need for love," he writes, "the need for nature, the need for its diversity and beauty, has a genetic basis." He continues:

... the best environment is one in which the human animal can have maximum contact with the type of natural environment in which it evolved and for which it is genetically programmed without sacrificing the major advantages of civilization... Every basic adaptation of the human body, be it the ear, the eye, the brain, yes, even our psyche, demands for proper functioning access to an environment similar, at least, to the one in which these structures evolved through natural selection over the past 100 million years. (5)

E. O. Wilson, who has give this theory the name of "Biophilia," elaborates:

The brain evolved into its present form over a period of about two million years, from the time of Homo Habilis to the late stone age of Homo sapiens, during which people existed in hunter-gatherer bands in intimate contact with the natural environment. Snakes mattered. The smell of water, the hum of a bee, the directional bend of a plant stalk mattered. The naturalist's trance was adaptive: the glimpse of one small animal hidden in the grass could make the difference between eating and going hungry in the evening. And a sweet sense of horror, the shivery fascination with monsters and creeping forms that so delights us today even in the sterile hearts of the cities, could see you through to the next morning... Although the evidence is far from all in, the brain appears to have kept its old capacities, its channeled quickness. We stay alert and alive in the vanished forests of the world. (6)

And so, if the biophilia hypothesis is correct, then another avenue from human mind to planetary mind, is through our genes. For if our "human nature" has been selected for us by Gaia, then "human interest" and Gaian interest merge. It is in our interest to preserve the global ecosystem, not simply because it is "useful" to us, but because, in a deeper sense, it is us. If we are wise enough, at last, to realize the congruence of personal and planetary interest, and if we act accordingly, then we will fulfill our role as the mind and conscience of the planet.


The "category error" involved in locating morality and human interest on the level of human community, might be illustrated by a fanciful thought experiment: suppose our bodily organs were conscious and deliberative. One might imagine a "selfish kidney" saying, "look, why should I care about the heart and lungs? I've got my own problems?" To which the heart would respond, "well, if that's the way you feel, I'll just do my thing without your assistance." Needless to say, you wouldn't want to be carrying a life insurance policy on that body.

Now suppose, instead, that only the kidneys were conscious. Would that make any difference in it's "selfish" attitude toward the heart and lungs? Clearly, it's "selfishness" would be equally self-defeating. The problem, in both cases, is that the kidney would wrongly conceive its "individuality." In the context of the integrated whole that is the body, a "kidney-centered" morality simply makes no sense. It is self-defeating.

The Zen philosopher, Alan Watts, put the matter this way: one might think of the stomach as the brain's way of feeding the brain. Or one might think of the brain as the stomach's way of finding food. But, of course, once you have descended "below" the level of the integrated organism, there is no "way" that makes any sense. The brain and the stomach evolved together in the integrated system that is the body. This much we all can understand. Their "interests" can only derive from the interest of the organism of which they are parts.

But in the industrial world, our understanding appears to have stopped at the level of the individual human organism. Thus we fail to appreciate that our species has evolved as a functioning "organ" of the planetary organism. Still worse, it now appears that this organ has mutated into malignancy, threatening the very world which is its body.


It is time now to summarize our argument. Social Ethics is relational. Morality cannot be articulated from the perspective of the individual and defended simply by aggregating the interests of separate selves. Environmental ethics is also relational, but it can succeed only if it moves one step beyond social ethics. Like egoism, anthropocentrism ultimately fails, by placing responsibility at the wrong level of abstraction. Introduce "selfishness," even "enlightened self-interest" among the body's organs, and the body will die. The subject matter, the relevant frame of reference of each organ, is the health of the total organism. A wise person seeks to maintain the health of his or her body, not as "another possession" or adjunct to one's personality, but as integral to that personality. And to maintain that health, we do not look to the "separate interests" of our component organs. We look to the integrated functioning of the system.

Analogously, if we take seriously the "ecological point of view," and see energy, nutrients, niches and species (including ours) as functioning parts of the global system, then, from this point of view, anthropocentrism becomes as coherent and sensible as "kidney-centrism." Accordingly, if we take seriously the notion that we are the mind and conscience of Gaia, and we accept the corollary that "the world is our body," such dichotomies as "ecology vs. economy," "man against nature," and "wilderness vs. resource values" makes as much sense as "liver vs. stomach," "heart vs. lungs."

Admittedly, this is hardly an original conclusion. Aldo Leopold wrote of the necessity to "think like a mountain." And the phrases "global thinking," "planetary perspective," and the like have become clichés. And that is just the problem which I wish to address. I suggest that we've not really comprehended the import of Leopold's concept of "the land community," and of the native American notion that "we belong to the Earth." And small wonder. A full appreciation of this notion requires a radical realignment of our fundamental world-view, unprecedented since Copernicus demoted our planet from the center of the universe to a remote suburb of an ordinary galaxy. What we face, then, is nothing less than a challenge to see our world, and our place in it, with new eyes. And that is no small order. My task is to breathe new life into a dead metaphor and a worn cliché -- sufficient life to propel us all into a new perceptual and moral paradigm, that we have heretofore only hinted at, and surely have never really taken seriously.

If we are, in fact, the mind and conscience of Gaia, this mind and conscience have overridden an unconscious, non-moral, but well-functioning operating program of over two billion years duration. Like children, endowed too soon with wealth and power, we have acted with exuberant irresponsibility. We are like a gang of teen-agers on a joy-ride, behind the wheel of a vehicle we cannot control, and heading toward a precipice. And since we can't stop the world in order to get off, our only acceptable option is to gain control, and soon.

If we fail, then Gaia's experiment in intellect and moral agency will, at length, have proven a failure, and she will revert to her previous successful, albeit mindless, condition.

For make no mistake: despite the Earth-First! rhetoric, there is no need to save the planet. If homo sapiens goes over the edge, Earth will abide, albeit with a much diminished and simplified ecosystem (at least for the next few million years).

In short, Gaia doesn't particularly need us. But I have at least enough human chauvinism in me to suggest that without us -- without our art, music, poetry, literature, science and philosophy, and without our love -- our planet will be a poorer place.


Copyright 1994 by Ernest Partridge



1. "Why Care About the Future?", in Responsibilities to Future Generations, ed. Ernest Partridge, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1981.

2. Of course, one might attempt to reduce love to self-interest, by pointing out that a life without love is seriously impoverished -- not the sort of life an rational person would want. And this is true, of course, but it is also radically irrelevant. The misery of a loveless life does not recommend love for the sake of self-interest, as much as it directly validates the value of love. For as soon as a person seeks love in order to maximize his "personal utility," he is engaged in an exercise in futility.

3. Martin H. Krieger, "What's Wrong with Plastic Trees?", Science, 2 Feb. 1973, pp. 448, 453.

4. Clare A. Gunn, Landscape Architecture, July 1966, p. 260.

5. Hugh Iltis, "To the Taxonomist and the Ecologist, Whose Fight is the Preservation of Nature," Bio-Science, December, 1967, 887. In numerous articles and lectures in the early seventies, Iltis was among the first, perhaps the first, to articulate and defend this theory. It is a great pity that his energy and devotion did not prompt an appropriate response among scientific researchers and environmental philosophers.

6. E. O. Wilson, Biophilia, Cambridge: 1984, Harvard University Press, p. 101.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .