Internet Case Study #17:

The Gaia Theorem, or the Zen of Earth

This Internet case study is copyrighted (©) 2000 by Kevin A. Morin and Nora M. Hutt.


    While we enjoy working with minesite-drainage chemistry, we find it beneficial to change pace once in a while.  One way to do this is to expand our thinking, step outside "the box", and think about "soft science".  Unfortunately, soft science, which is another name for tying together various branches of science sometimes with a philosophical attitude, is often considered a bad or embarrassing endeavour by hardcore scientists.  Interestingly, it is difficult to name a well-known and recognized scientist over the past few centuries that did not take a wider view of things.

    One topic that has recently interested us is the Gaia Theorem, which considers the Earth to be one large superorganism made up of millions of species, countless individual organisms, and inorganic material.  This unification of inorganic and biologic aspects is very Zen-like, but does it have any technical merit?


    An apparently eccentric scientist and inventor, by the name of James Lovelock from the United Kingdom, began developing the Gaia Theorem a few decades ago as he considered microbiological life on earth and whether life existed on nearby planets.  One of his latest books that develops the concept well is The Ages of Gaia (Lovelock, 1988), but various other publications add details to the concept.  It is important to note that New Age followers have embraced the Gaia Theorem and given it mystical qualities, but that is an adaptation of the Theorem.  Lovelock emphasizes his Theorem does not imply inherent intelligence or supernatural intent.

    As explained by Lovelock (1988),

"Through Gaia theory I now see the system of the material Earth and the living organisms on it, evolving so that self-regulation is an emergent property. In such a system active feedback processes operate automatically and solar energy sustains comfortable conditions for life." 

Put simply, organic and inorganic feedback work together to create relatively comfortable conditions for life on earth.  Since one of these feedback systems works properly only in the presence of all other feedback systems, the Earth forms an integrated "superorganism" called Gaia.  One interesting issue this raises for our work is whether anyone can thoroughly understand a small portion of Gaia, like a waste-rock pile or tailings impoundment at a minesite, without also looking at the larger superorganism. "The evolution of the rocks and the air and the evolution of the biota are not to be separated”

    As time goes by and we learn more about the earth, the complexity, integration, and feedback of physical, chemical, and biological factors becomes clearer year after year. An interesting quote from a recent National Geographic compares the oceans to the atmosphere:

"[Modern monitoring techniques] are revealing a physical ocean more complex and changeable than we ever imagined, more like a weather system than a geological one, complete with turbulence, fronts, and strange abyssal storms.” (Ackerman, 2000).

As we continue along this "learning curve", will we eventually confirm the Gaia Theorem?


    We believe that most people studying minesites inherently, but not always explicitly, realize that minesites are "open" systems.  They are open to the flow or movement of energy, inorganic matter, and biological organisms from the surrounding environment.  The Gaia Theorem raises the point of whether we can understand and predict the physical, chemical, and biological processes at a minesite without using a larger, integrated approach. 

    A simple example of this question involves the bacterium, Thiobacillus ferrooxidans, which has been granted the mighty powers of driving acidic drainage (ARD) and metal leaching at minesites.  To some, there would be no ARD without this organism.  Numerous references point out that T. ferrooxidans can accelerate the rate of sulphide oxidation, and thus the rate of acid generation, by one million times.  If this is the case, then certainly this bacterium is the major cause of minesite-drainage problems.

    What is not often recognized is that this six-order-of-magnitude increase is not observed.  We have discussed this in detail in a previous Internet Case Study, entitled Contribution of Bacteria to Sulphide-Mineral Reaction Rates in Natural Environments.  Can the Gaia Theorem help to explain this?

    In our own work with minesite-drainage chemistry, we see repeating patterns over decades of monitoring and in high-frequency monitoring.  We have described this in a previous Internet Case Study, with an appropriately Gaia-like title of Minesite-Drainage Chemistry is Like Rain.  Does the Gaia Theorem account for this?

    To read the conclusion, read the free download of our preprint for Securing the Future Conference in Sweden, June 2001.  


Ackerman, J.  2000.  New Eyes on the Ocean.  National Geographic, 198, No. 4 (October), p.86-115.

Lovelock, J. 1988. The Ages of Gaia. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

© 2000 Kevin A. Morin and Nora M. Hutt

For more case studies, see Environmental Geochemistry of Minesite Drainage: Practical Theory and Case Studies.


Created by K.Morin