Ancient, Resilient, Dynamic: Why Earth Is Life on a Grand Scale

By showing interconnections across time and all living things, Ferris Jabr makes a case in a new book for the Earth as alive 

Science writer Ferris Jabr, A09, weaves vivid narratives that reveal the wonder of the living world. His stories, such as widely read New York Times Magazine articles on a celebrity beluga whale, the social life of forests, and the evolution of beauty in the animal kingdom, are infused with a lyrical sensibility, reminding us of our fundamental connection to Earth.

Now Jabr casts that relationship into a vastly larger context in his first book, Becoming Earth: How our Planet Came to Life. It takes a fresh look at the Gaia hypothesis, a conceptual framework from the 1970s for studying life on Earth. Though Gaia was once ridiculed by scientists, aspects of it have recently been gaining new respect in scientific circles. 

Becoming Earth book cover

Ferris Jabr’s “Becoming Earth” affirms “how Earth not only gave rise to life, and now teems with it, but has also been profoundly, miraculously shaped by it,” says science writer Ed Yong, author of “An Immense World.”

The Gaia theory, in broad strokes, argues that Earth is not simply a planet on which life exists, but is a complex, self-regulating life form in its own right. It is also, by extension, a rethinking of human life as well: to recognize ourselves as continuous with nature, with the rest of the living world, and with the planet.

As a Tufts undergraduate, Jabr pursued his studies with a free-range curiosity. A double major in English literature and psychology, he also banked as many biology courses as he could. “I was just really fascinated by animal behavior, cognition, neurology, neuroscience, language, communication, and memory,” he recalls. 

But a pivotal moment came outside the classroom with a Tufts media internship on the PBS show Nova: science journalism, he realized, was a viable way to combine his eclectic interests into a career. After getting a master’s degree in science, health, and environmental reporting at New York University, he worked as both a staff editor and freelance writer for various publications, eventually becoming a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine

He has also has written for Scientific American, The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and National Geographic. His articles have been anthologized in the 2014, 2020, and 2023 editions of Best American Science and Nature Writing. And his work has received the support of grants and fellowships from MIT, UC Berkeley, and the Whiting Foundation.

Jabr devoted more than six years to writing Becoming Earth, including extensive research that took him to far corners of the planet, from the Amazon to Siberian tundra. The book is divided into three main sections that explore how life has transformed each of the planet’s major spheres: Rock (how life sculpts Earth’s crust, or lithosphere), Water (how life defines the ocean), and Air (how life created the planet’s modern atmosphere, including the air we breathe). 

The many life-powered revolutions detailed in the book’s chapters, he says, underscore the remarkable longevity, abundance, and power of life throughout Earth’s 4.54-billion-year-history.

Jabr recently spoke with Tufts Now about his quest to bring holistic, planetary-scale perspectives to much greater awareness. As he writes: “When we learn to see our species as part of a much larger life form—as members of a planetary ensemble—our responsibility to Earth becomes clearer than ever.”

You’re making an argument that the Earth is a living entity. Can you expand on what that means?

For a long time within the world of science, we’ve talked about the evolution of life on Earth. We separated the geological from the biological. We looked at changes to the planet, and the evolution of life, more as parallel processes than interconnected ones. 

Recently there’s been a big change. Scientists have come to recognize just how intertwined the biological and geological are, and how life and Earth are constantly changing each other, reciprocally transforming each other, co-evolving. The more that I studied this interdependency of Earth and life—of the biological and geological—the more I kept coming back to this question of, well, is the Earth system, as a whole, also alive?

That’s an idea implicit in Indigenous cultures, as you point out, and first popularized for the Western world in the 1970s and 1980s through the Gaia hypothesis, developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. What was their premise?

bison siberia

Jabr's research included traveling to Pleistocene Park in Siberia, where bison are among the grazing animals brought in to restore a lost ecosystem. The animals have transformed forest into grassland. Photo: Courtesy of Ferris Jabr

Lovelock and Margulis proposed that all of the innate and inanimate components of the planet came together to form a single, self-regulating, living system. They argued that the Earth has endured for more than four-and-a-half billion years, and it’s been alive, depending on how you want to think about it, for most of that time, despite going through massive catastrophes and crises over and over again. 

They believed we have to account for that astonishing resilience and tenacity. That’s what my book is getting at, but in the context of the current planetary crisis with the dramatic climate changes we’ve brought upon ourselves. 

It’s interesting that in the 1970s, the Gaia hypothesis was not well-received in scientific circles, but there’s now a shift. What happened between 1970s and now so that it started to gain some traction?

The first Gaia book was immensely popular with the general public; readers absolutely loved it. But many scientists, particularly evolutionary biologists, harshly criticized it. That legacy that has followed Gaia this whole time and slowed down its acceptance within the scientific community.

Lovelock admitted himself that he made some mistakes in his original articulations. Some people took his ideas and interpreted them as saying that Earth was sentient, that Earth was this goddess that was deliberately nurturing everything and making everything harmonious. And of course, that’s not what he was saying. So Gaia really retained a stigma within the scientific world because of all of that misconception.

But slowly there has been a growing body of evidence that supports how life has dramatically transformed the planet—that life is intertwined with Earth’s capacity for self-regulation. The evidence for that perspective has become so overwhelming that it essentially now forms the foundation for this new field of science called Earth system science. 

It’s different from geology or classic Earth sciences in that it’s explicitly interdisciplinary and takes a very holistic perspective on the entire Earth system. It looks deliberately at the connections between life and the planet. 

It took a while for perspective to find its formal academic grounding, but now it’s a universally accepted fact that life is a major geological force on our planet, and it has been for billions of years.

Your book arrives, then, at a pivotal point, when there is a growing appreciation for that holistic thinking.

Yes. My book is just one component of a movement that is really gaining momentum. A lot of other books currently in the works are orbiting similar ideas and themes, offering a reconsideration of Gaia and animism. It’s part of a renewed attention to the inherent value of non-human life, and a consideration of whether we should give legal rights to rivers, forests, ecosystems. I see physicists, astrobiologists, and biologists continually reevaluating the nature and definition of life.

You describe the planet as having a lifelike quality. In one interview, I noticed you cautiously directed the conversation away from thinking of life as analogous to a human body—as a breathing entity. 

Because we are animals, the most familiar form of life to us is other individual organisms: Animals, plants, fungi, microbes. But we have to get past this idea that life is synonymous with organism. We have to recognize that the phenomenon we call life happens at multiple different scales. An individual cell is not an organism, but it is alive. Just as a forest is alive, the planet is alive. I’m saying that Earth is demonstrating the same processes and defining characteristics that we see at all these other scales of life. 

As for the definition of life—what we call life are complex systems of matter and energy that find ways to perpetuate themselves. This is their most universal quality. And that can happen at the scale of just a few molecules, or it can happen at the scale of something as massive as the Amazon rainforest, which researchers have said has endured for 50-plus million years, retaining its essential ecological characteristics the whole time. That’s incredible longevity. We have to explain that somehow. I don’t think it’s fair to discount it from the world of the living just because it’s not an individual organism.

On that point, can you expand on the nature of the planet itself? You posit that its aliveness generates life, not through genetics or sexual reproduction, but through the rich diversity of life that it supports. 

If we recognize that life is a literal extension of the planet, then we’re recognizing that Earth is animated; it is, in part, literally composed of living organisms. And these organisms and their environments are so tightly bonded that at the planetary level, their interactions and relationships over long periods of time result in vast emergent properties that very much resemble what we see in smaller living entities. I’d characterized it as recursive. It’s all about these feedback loops, and that’s what makes it so complicated and fascinating.

From what I understand, you were prompted to write a book based on an “aha” moment Can you recall that moment? 

Ten years ago, I was doing a lot of general research on plant behavior and communication, and came across new studies about how the Amazon makes its own rain. The Amazon was continually spewing invisible plumes of small biological particles like pollen grains, fungal spores, and microbes, which combined with water vapor also released by the forest to make rain clouds, accelerating the water cycle.

Amazon rainforest

A revelation of the Amazon rainforest as a living network capable of generating its own rain was the touchstone for writing "Becoming Earth." Later, from the vantage point of the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory, Jabr saw how that reciprocal relationship unfolded. It brought "everything together so palpably and visually."
Photo: Courtesy of Ferris Jabr

Those effects ripple throughout the entire continent, bringing precipitation to other parts of South America, and even changing weather in North America, on another continent. For me, that was mind blowing. I started to think of the Amazon as this kind of garden that was watering itself, kind of tending itself to some degree. That made me curious about other examples of life that were dramatically transforming the environment in a big way. That was the beginning of this whole intellectual quest that culminated in the book. 

After delays because of the pandemic, I got to visit a research station in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, which includes a dizzyingly tall tower, the tallest structure in all of South America. Standing on that tower, I could see the forest as a massive living network. 

From that vantage point, I could see the water rising up from the forest, the clouds forming up above, and I knew that there were all these invisible particles and gases around us as well. It was just this wonderful culmination of everything, bringing everything together so palpably and visually.

"Some people still think of humanity as the passengers on spaceship Earth—that we’re along for the ride and hanging on as best as we can. But the Gaia theory, I’ve come to believe, is the truer philosophy; it is the one that is necessary and more relevant right now."

Ferris Jabr

Can you talk about Gaia in the context of climate change and where we are now in terms of people who tend to fall back on “business as usual”—who don’t connect the future of humanity to a planetary future? 

Some people still think of humanity as the passengers on spaceship Earth—that we’re along for the ride and hanging on as best as we can. But the Gaia theory, I’ve come to believe, is the truer philosophy; it is the one that is necessary and more relevant right now. 

We’re not just this superficial life form that’s clinging to the surface and has accidentally harmed parts of the environment. Instead, we are vital component of this larger living entity and we have severely imbalanced that greater living system. We are creating major repercussions for our entire way of life and for countless non-human creatures. 

The task before us is to learn how to live as part of this system, to not constantly disrupt these rhythms that have co-evolved over massive spans of time, to learn how to work with the planet’s longstanding ecologies without trying to harness them for our own selfish benefit or destroy them. We have the knowledge base and the tools to do much of this, but we need the right social and political momentum behind them.

Many people now accept the reality of climate change. But our industrial and economic systems are so entangled with the fossil fuel industry and with industrial agriculture—the two major causes of greenhouse gas emissions—that disentangling ourselves from those systems is proving extremely difficult and taking way too long. While we have made progress, we’re still massively behind where we should be.

I believe living as part of a sustainable Earth system means ending the fossil fuel industry. We cannot delay any further. One cannot overemphasize the urgency of this and the importance of moving as quickly as possible.

You’ve had a successful career as science writer for the general reader. What does this career mean to you?

Are you familiar with this Japanese philosophy of ikigai? Sometimes it’s translated as a reason or purpose for living. The idea is that you should find the intersection of your passion, your skillset, and the world’s needs. Writing this book is for me basically a manifestation of ikigai. It’s one of the most effective ways that I individually can reckon with the climate crisis and contribute to its resolution. 

I would encourage everybody to use that philosophy to try to do the same. It can be anything from political activism to community gardening to becoming an electrician or solar engineer. Climate change is a world-encompassing problem and we should all be treating it like the emergency that it is. To me, that means constantly thinking about it and working it into our day-to-day lives and figuring out what is the best way that I can individually do something to bring about change.

Editor's Note: Porter Square Books (25 White St., Cambridge) is hosting a conversation with Ferris Jabr (and a book signing) on July 16. More details online

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