Back in the 1970s, chemist James Lovelock, with his associate microbiologist Lynn Marguilis, developed what they called the Gaia hypothesis: the theory that our planet is a sentient organism dedicated to promoting and protecting all forms of life.
Gaia is the ancestral name of the primal Earth goddess, whose regulation of all organic components of life – until the Industrial Revolution and the spread of capitalism – maintained a viable existence for humans and other creatures.
During the past 150 years, however, the operation of international trade and industry has steadily come under the control of “free enterprise” corporations. Their obsessive pursuit of profits for the rich and powerful, and the consequent poverty, hunger and inequality that has devastated nearly half the world’s population, have seriously sabotaged Gaia’s global guardianship.
She has witnessed an alarming growth of human overpopulation; the pollution of the planet’s oceans, seas, lakes, rivers and soil; the contamination of its atmosphere with fossil fuel and carbon dioxide emissions; hacking down the rainforests; driving hundreds of animal and marine species to extinction; underdeveloping the planet’s renewable forms of energy, and – most tragically — raising global temperatures to lethally intolerable levels.
Lovelock surmised that humans have now pushed Gaia to her limit of toleration. In self-defence, she has been forced to treat humans as malignant invaders, whose many injurious activities have to be curbed.
She had hitherto confined her retaliatory measures to ramping up floods, droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, and other climatic deterrents. But, these having proved ineffective, she has resorted to the imposition of a global pandemic onslaught. Unlike previous such epidemics, however, Covid-19 has two deadlier aspects: it proliferates very quickly, and (so far) has no vaccine antidote.
For humans, such a virulent assault on their health, security, mobility, social and economic welfare is an appalling experience. The sooner it can be overcome and their lives restored to normal, the better.
For Gaia, on the other hand, Covid-19’s effects are quite beneficial — not just in terms of restraining humans’ harmful activities, such as deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, and the depletion of non-renewable resources — but also in helping moderate the baneful effects of human-generated global warming.
A major drop in travel by airplanes, cruise ships, and motor vehicles – all significant CO2 emitters – has effectively cut greenhouse gas emissions and helped detoxify the atmosphere.
So has the shutdown of many factories and refineries – also big industrial polluters.
The main question that the Covid-19 pandemic raises is whether such a severe reprimand by Mother Earth – when it eventually runs its course – will be heeded and appropriately acted upon, or whether we will promptly return to our old reckless, asinine, and ultimately suicidal ways.
If we take the latter self-destructive course, humankind’s future will be put in imminent jeopardy. With key economic, political, cultural and climate policies continuing to be set by capitalism’s profit-deranged CEOs and investors, hope for the human race’s survival will be inconceivable.
Gaia will of course survive. Over the millennia, she has overseen the rise and fall of many previous dominant lifeforms, from the dinosaurs and reptiles that ruled the planet for 175 million years to mammals and primates such as monkeys and apes, from whom humans eventually evolved.
The crucial distinction between humans and earlier mammals was that humans were endowed with a superior intelligence that, over time, led to hunting and gathering skills and then to farming and high-tech devices. Unfortunately, it also led to wars, poverty, inequality, overpopulation, capitalism, and global warming.
If humans precipitate their own extinction, Mother Earth may have a role to play in supplanting us with a species that shuns conflict, greed, inequality, and capitalism – and thus survives as long as the dinosaurs.
As we are confined by Covid-19 in our homes for the next several months, we might well contemplate the kind of society we would prefer to have in the aftermath of this crisis. It’s either a resumption of the perilous free-market status quo, or a firm commitment to the creation of a fair, safe, progressive, clean, and epidemic-free environment.
The choice we make will shape the future of our children and grandchildren, and the fate of potential generations that may or may not succeed us.