Look at any map of the solar system, and Planet Earth is literally defined by its location — like the sitcom title said, it’s the "third rock from the sun."
"In other words, we’re just the right distance from the sun to prevent burning up or freezing," said Martin Ogle, chief naturalist for Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
But Ogle thinks that description is antiquated and, in many ways, inaccurate. Earth’s continued existence and the life it sustains, he said, aren’t just cases of having a lucky location in orbit around the sun.
"It’s [Earth’s] living system, to a certain extent, that controls planetary temperature," he said.
That belief is at the core of The Gaia Theory, described as "the scientific explanation of how our planet functions as a single living and self-regulating system."
While Earth’s distance from the sun provided the conditions for its living system to thrive, unlike on barren rocks like Mercury, it’s that living system which continues to adapt and allows life to flourish.
On Monday, April 16, Ogle is scheduled to present a workshop called "The Gaia Theory — Its Implications for Energy, Global Warming and Other Challenges" at the Arlington Central Library at 7:30 p.m. He said the presentation will be geared towards both "biologists and non-biologists alike," and will serve as a primer to what is becoming a revolutionary approach to Earth science.
THE GAIA THEORY was developed in the late 1960s by British scientist Dr. James Lovelock, according to Gaiatheory.org, an informational Web site about the theory.
Lovelock, who previously worked with NASA on a Mars project, claimed that organic and inorganic components of Earth have evolved together as a single self-regulating system.
Ogle began exploring the theory about 20 years ago after finding traditional biology and other sciences to be unsatisfying when it came to tying every discipline together. "If you wanted to talk about what motivates us, about our behavior…well, [they’d say] that’s for the philosophy class down the hall," he said.
The Gaia Theory, named for the Greek Earth goddess, "was the first context that basically said that the surface of the Earth is one living system, human beings included," explained Ogle.
"It ties in everything on the planet. For instance, oxygen is always there at 21 percent. We get a simplified version of it — plants breathe it out, we breathe it in. That’s not taking into consideration that oxygen is extremely reactive. It rusts things. It oxidizes things. It burns up the forest fires. What’s really astounding is that the plants breathe it out, the animals breathe it in, the fires, the rusting iron — it’s all in balance, or else our oxygen levels would be swinging wildly."
The Theory has many proponents. Last October, Ogle and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority presented an entire conference on the Gaia Theory at George Mason University’s Arlington Campus. Speakers presented different views on the theory, and how it related to current issues in energy use and climate change.
WHEN IT COMES to global warming, the Gaia Theory is actually something that can be used by both sides of the debate.
Arlington County Board Chairman Paul Ferguson (D), a staunch supporter of local initiatives to battle global climate change, attended last year’s conference, Ogle said, and has studied Lovelock’s "doomsday scenario" books on global warming and Gaia Theory.
Yet the theory can also be utilized by those who feel greenhouse gases won’t lead to a global climate crisis. "Sometimes people will say that since it’s a self-regulating system, we can pump all the carbon dioxide into the air and it won’t matter," said Ogle.
Whatever the argument, Gaia Theory is growing in prominence and acceptance — perhaps to the point were it could challenge long-held notions found in biology textbooks.
"It completely transcends it, in a way," said Ogle.