Have you ever heard of Gaia? Look back on your Greek mythology. Gaia was the great mother of all, the goddess of all of the Earth. All of the gods, Titans, and Giants were born from her.
Gaia is also a hypothesis developed by James Lovelock. Lovelock is a scientist and chemist, and posed that our Earth was not a mish-mash of environments and ecosystems, like ocean, rainforest, and desert, but was actually one great big organism, with each part interacting with the other. It’s kind of like the simplified explanation of Chaos Theory: A butterfly flaps its wings in Europe and causes a thunderstorm in Africa, which leads to a hurricane in the United States.
The basic hypothesis refers to the homeostasis of our planet, that is, that things have a tendency to balance themselves out and strive to stay constant. Look at it this way: Your body gets hot, your cheeks turn red, and you begin to sweat. While your temperature may rise slightly, the act of flushing and sweating allows your body to circulate your body fluids and quickly return your temperature to a comfortable base level. While we have had fluctuations in the temperature of the Earth throughout its history, it has managed to return to a sort of normal (climate change arguments notwithstanding).
The same sort of balance can be found in other parts of nature. Take the Pacific atoll of Palmyra. These warm, blue waters of the Pacific are home to numerous species of shark. The sharks feed on manta rays, which flock to the area to feed on plankton. The plankton thrive in the nitrogen-rich waters, the result of runoff from the millions of birds who nest on the shores.
Part of Lovelock’s argument is that we’re starting to cause a potentially catastrophic shift in our Earth’s balance. A case in point would be Palmyra. When people first began to inhabit the atoll they brought with them coconut trees. The trees are not native to the area. Birds are not fans of the trees for nesting and prefer lower, multi-branched scrub trees. As the coconuts have flourished, the birds have moved elsewhere, the plankton has thinned out, the mantas have moved elsewhere in search of food, and the numbers of alpha predators like sharks was decreased.
Another study has shown the change in migratory patterns of hummingbirds. While not directly linked to a human action like the coconut trees, the birds are facing a disruption of their mating habits. Some species of the tiny birds migrate between Central America and the Rockies. They carefully time their spring migration to hit the higher elevations in the Rockies when certain lilies and flowers bloom. As the climate moves North, scientists have found that these plants are blooming a couple of weeks sooner than they used to. While the hummingbirds used to have several weeks to feed and mate, they now have a few days. The current trend suggests that in a few decades the little birds may miss the spring bloom entirely.
I’ve been following the work of a group called I Love Mountains. They’re opposed to mountaintop removal mining. The process strips all of the vegetation off of a ridge, scrapes the soil down to a coal seam, and then gathers the coal. The resulting waste is filled into the streams and “hollers” that mark the towns and communities of Appalachia. Only problem is, the lack of vegetation has allowed dangerous amounts of minerals and toxins to contaminate the water supply, and storms that used to feed the streams and rivers now rush into the valleys, flooding areas that used to be able to absorb a heavy rain.
That’s straight-up man vs. nature.
All of this has made me think long and hard about the tiny impacts that I have on my environment. I’m fortunate to live in an area where I can walk to the market, ride my bicycle to work, and many of my friends are within blocks of my home. I often find myself going over a week at a time without having to actually drive anywhere. I have not always been so lucky, so I’m taking advantage of it now. It has given me the opportunity to think about other ways that I can lessen my footprint, like recycling more, buying smarter, and engaging my neighbors.
After all, I don’t want to anger a manta ray in the Pacific.