The Gaia Hypothesis: Earth is a living organism.
Our food chain is ultimately tied to the whole web of life – we damage it to our peril. If the chain is broken in too many places, humans will go extinct. Before then, we will be very hungry. Apocalyptic? Probably.
What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. The living part of the Earth is all the plant life (the most important, the source of all energy and nutrients), the fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals, plus the invisible creatures in the soil – worms, bacteria, and fungi – that convert detritus into nutrients for the plants. Collectively, we pollute the Earth by our inadvertent, unconscious, and uncaring discharge of industrial wastes and excessive agricultural and household pesticides.
Neighborhoods without birdsongs – what an awful image! Nevertheless, as Rachael Carson warned in the title of her book, Silent Spring, humans could create a bird-less world through excessive use of insecticides. Thirty-seven years after Rachael Carson’s eloquent warning to the world about the devastating effects pesticides have on birds and beneficial insects, pesticides continue to be a pervasive and insidious threat to ecosystems. A massive chemical assault on our environment is launched each year by farmers and official agencies that apply hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides on crops, roadsides and in forests.
There are an estimated 67 million annual bird deaths in California from the insecticides diazinon and carbofuran. Birds exposed to sub lethal doses of pesticides are afflicted with chronic symptoms that affect their behavior, reproduction, and nervous system. Weight loss, increased susceptibility to predations, decreased resistance to disease, and abandonment of nestlings have all been observed as side-effects of pesticides. What makes us believe that we are immune to similar effects that degrade our health?
In the book Our Stolen Future, the authors describe omens that all is not well in the animal kingdom. “On Near Island in Lake Ontario in the 1970s, a Canadian wildlife biologist noticed that at a time when the herring gulls should be busily feeding their chicks, there were unhatched eggs, abandoned nests and dead chicks everywhere. The biologist estimated that eighty percent of the chicks had died before they hatched, and many of the dead chicks had grotesque deformities…. In Northern Europe in the late 1980s an epidemic among the seal population became the largest die-off in history: more than forty percent of the entire North Sea population of seals died. A marine scientist suspected that the viral plague resulted from suppressed immune systems.”
We must remember to look beyond the animals, to its smaller creatures. In the book Forgotten Pollinators, the authors describe the effect of toxics on small but very important creatures in the web of life. “Those unconcerned about the natural world will do well to consider the consequences for humanity of the decline of pollinators. Eighty percent of the species of our food plants worldwide depend on pollination by animals, almost all of which are insects. One of every three mouthfuls of food we eat, and of the beverages we drink, are delivered to us roundabout by pollinators.”
Will the unfolding of the 21st century see a society of gee-whiz electronics, convenience products, sophisticated technologies and explorations of outer space, but devoid of healthy plants, animals, and fish? I passionately hope not. In this vein I close with a quote for this country’s first ecologist, Aldo Leopold. “Our relationship with the Earth must be like our relationship with one another…a ceaseless exercise in respect.”