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  • JonathanMackenzie

Autopoietic Gaia and the Carbon Cycle

At the very heart of the climate crisis is the carbon cycle and in particular humanity's complex and intricate relationship with it. Crucially this relationship is reciprocal: the carbon cycle makes us and our environment, and we make and shape it through our activities.

We are in fact part of the carbon cycle. The great planetary flows of carbon on both short and long time scales pass through and around us. The material functional stuff of our bodies - the DNA, proteins, enzymes and fats - are carbon-based chemicals derived via the food chain from carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere. The energy that powers our bodies, captured originally from sunlight, is transferred and processed through this carbon chemistry. Our civilisation is also built upon the energetic and material properties of carbon, but that which has been extracted from the earth. Fossil fuels power our machines, tar forms our roads, plastics and petrochemicals pervade our technology, industry and agriculture.

But we are also part of the carbon cycle cognitively, in the way we conceive of it and how that conception informs our actions. Our measurements and observations, the science and models we are developing all form an understanding of the carbon cycle. This underlies political decisions, corporate and financial actions, and cultural dissemination, which in turn play a part in determining its future.

As part of the Materialising Data project we are developing a multi-modal form of enquiry that seeks to unpick and trace some of the complex relationships between the material, energetic, biological, human and cultural components that make up the carbon cycle. By combining creative practice and scientific rigour we aim to view, frame and imagine it in ways that may then contribute to shaping it.

Here I present some thoughts that underpin this enquiry which draw on ideas from cybernetics, in particular the idea of autopoietic Gaia developed by Lynn Margulis, her own refinement of James Lovelock's theory of a living planet.

Autopoiesis, meaning self-making, is a systemic definition of life devised by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s, part of a second wave of cybernetic thinking that widened the scope of the subject beyond control and communication in animals and machines.

Autopoiesis defines a living system as a closed network of processes which mutually make one another. In so doing they delineate themselves as a unity having a boundary through which the system couples to its environment. Maturana and Varela's model system was that of the cell, its self-producing organelles, including the cell wall, constantly building themselves with raw materials and energy acquired from its external environment. The ongoing process of sensing and acting by which the system does this they identified as cognition.

Autopoetic systems are homeostatic. Despite operating away from thermodynamic equilibrium, and despite a constant turnover of materials, they maintain as constant the network of functions that make the system.There is therefore a circular causality to life: it makes those things that are needed to make itself. The action of any part of the system can be seen in the context of the autopoietic imperative; the need to maintain the self-making unity of the system.

In their own words:

"Autopoietic machines are homeostatic machines. Their peculiarity, however, does not lie in this but in the fundamental variable which they maintain constant. An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. It follows that an autopoietic machine continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components, and does this in an endless turnover of components under conditions of continuous perturbations and compensation of perturbations. Therefore, an autopoietic machine is an homeostatic (or rather a relations-static) system which has its own organization (defining network of relations) as the fundamental variable which it maintains constant. This is to be clearly understood."

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition, 1972

Although Maturana and Varela were strictly talking about biological systems, the idea of autopoeisis has subsequently been applied to other types of living systems, most notably to social systems by Niklas Luhmann and to James Lovelock's Gaia by Lynn Margulis.

Lovelock originally conceived Gaia as a planetary version of homeostasis, the ability of a living system to maintain stability through physiological processes. He recognised that the state of the Earth's atmosphere, geology and biota were interelated through feedback processes which as a whole regulated the surface temperature to within a narrow range over geological timescales despite the Sun's changing intensity.

Margulis progressed this idea in the spirit of the next wave of 'second-order' cybernetics by seeing Gaian homeostatic processes as autopoietic because they form closed, self-making and self-maintaining feedback networks. For example, geological activity makes atmospheric gases; captured atmospheric gases form biochemical structures; and fossilised organisms end up making rocks. Such self-making networks work in concert to provide the conditions for life to function. Like the circular causality of the cell, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life.

She also saw that these processes involve relationships between components existing within different domains, those of the abiotic, biotic and metabiotic. The abiotic domain includes rocks, atmosphere, oceans and polar ice. The biotic includes all living organisms, and the metabiotic are the psychic and social components built upon a biotic substrate.

So for example seashells or beehives are abiotic extensions to the biotic. Similarly, human

technology is seen as a coupling of the metabiotic with the abiotic. Machines have a symbiotic existence with humans. They are not alive themselves, but they are brought into being and are maintained by living thinking organisms. Reciprocally, we depend on machines to live our lives.

Margulis' version of Gaia theory also clarifies many of the unfortunate misinterpretations that have dogged Gaia and its legitimacy within academic science. The Earth is alive, but it is not an organism. That is, to be alive is to be autopoietic, with organisms being a subset of life. But other things can be alive too; cities, corporations, the Earth as a whole, but they do not reproduce and evolve via DNA, nor do they have sentience or sapience. This subtle refinement neatly dispels the misunderstanding of Gaia as new-age Earth mother. Rather, Gaia involves sentient and sapient beings as distributed components that are tied into a network of self-production and self-maintenance along with components from other domains.

To illustrate this view of how different domains can be linked to produce homeostasis, consider the simple example of a home heating system. This is a classic first-order cybernetic control system operating in the abiotic domain of chemistry, electromechanics and thermodynamics. The temperature of the house is regulated by the concerted action of a negative feedback loop consisting of thermostat, controller, boiler and radiators. If the temperature measured by the thermostat falls below a set point, the boiler is switched on, and vice versa. We can extend this slightly to include the thermostats on each individual radator, so that the system becomes a distributed network of feedback loops coupled together to even-out the temperature across the house.

Now add a resident to the house who uses the heating, setting the thermostat according to their needs. The resident themselves embodies a biotic homeostatic system, an array of physiological control processes involving the nervous and vascular systems, metabolism, sweating and shivering, all acting in concert to regulate their body's temperature.

The two homeostatic systems of heating and body and their respective abiotic and biotic domains are coupled via a feedback loop where the resident sets the thermostat. Note that this account is so far in the territory of first-order cybernetics, that of control in man and machine.

However, if we consider that the resident may set the thermostat according to how warm they feel, and perhaps also taking into account how much money they want to spend on heating and how guilty they feel about burning fossil fuels, the account of the system has now extended into the realm of second-order cybernetics. The coupling feedback loop operates in the metabiotic domain to include the feelings of the user as well as their engagement with external social systems of money and current affairs.

Now imagine the heating breaks down. The resident observes a change to the system and contacts a plumber, perhaps the same one who constructed the heating in the first place. They then come and act on the heating system itself to restore its function and consequently play a role in regulating the temperature of the house. The plumber's actions form a control loop too, but this time it is autopoietic in nature because it is maintaining the integrity of a feedback system itself, not the temperature directly. Moreover, the material components of the heating system may be replaced while its function is preserved.

This example serves to illustrate one of Margulis' key insights about autopoietic Gaia, that the homeostatic system couples components from abiotic, biotic and metabiotic domains in a network of self-maintaining feedback loops.

Returning to the carbon cycle and placing it within this context it can be seen to be the very lifeblood of autopoietic Gaia, the key material involved in the structural and energetic transformations within and between these different domains.

It is not of course simply a cycle, but a complex myriad of cycles within cycles on many scales of time and space linking every aspect of the Earth system, its oceans, atmosphere, cryosphere, biota and human civilisation.

For example, in the slow carbon cycle, volcanoes pump carbon dioxide from the Earth's crust into the atmosphere. This combines with rainwater to form carbonic acid which dissolves silicate rocks to form various carbonates. Bacteria, fungi and plants catalyse this process to increase the rate at which it occurs. The resulting carbonates are washed down into the oceans where they are taken up by shell-building organisms such as corals and planktons. After the organisms die, their shells fall to the sea floor where over time they form sedimentary limestones. The heat and pressure of tectonic activity eventually metamorphises the rock, releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere to complete the cycle. In another route, biomass directly enters the ground as soil and mud which over time forms shale, coal, oil and gas deposits.

In the fast cycle carbon is transferred in and out of the atmosphere and the oceans on timescales of the lifetime of organisms. Photosynthesis by plants and phytoplankton captures carbon dioxide turning it into sugars which fuel the whole myriad of organic chemical reactions on which life is based. The autocatalytic nature of these chemical networks make them a prime example of a self-making system. The constructive flexibility of molecular carbon gives rise to the incredible diversity and complexity of organic forms. This carbon then returns to the atmosphere and oceans through respiration, decomposition, and fire.

In total these interconnected autopoietic processes of carbon transformation regulate the temperature of the Earth's surface primarily through the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and consequent greenhouse effect.

"Over the long term, the carbon cycle seems to maintain a balance that prevents all of Earth’s carbon from entering the atmosphere (as is the case on Venus) or from being stored entirely in rocks. This balance helps keep Earth’s temperature relatively stable, like a thermostat." NASA Earth Observatory

We can now situate humanity and its recent post-industrial role in the carbon cycle. Most significantly, we have short-circuited the long and short carbon cycles. By extracting the carbon locked-up in fossil fuels we are rapidly increasing the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This has come about because of the huge success of the industrial, financial, political and military complexes which have grown to dominate all human activity.

Moreover these complexes can be seen as self-producing, self-maintaining networks themselves, fulfilling their autopoeitic imperatives. Here geopolitical power structures and flows of money facilitate self-supporting relationships that align with the extraction and use of fossil-fuel derived carbon.

To counter this all-encompassing system that is raising the Earth's temperature, however, we are adding new layers of metabiotic driven feedback control. Climate scientists and governmental bodies are constructing the apparatus to measure and model carbon processes in different domains of the Earth system, including human produced emissions, and making plans for countries to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

International scientific institutions and governmental organisations couple to form self-making networks of knowledge production. The World Climate Research Program (WCRP) coordinates development of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) where research groups compare and refine computational climate and Earth system models used to make predictions of possible future scenarios of global heating.

These inform the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the treaties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiated at annual COP summits. This knowledge and the debate it engenders disseminates culturally having an effect on people's individual actions.

It is as if we, as part of autopoietic Gaia, are constructing a giant introspective feedback loop, a giant thermostatic controller and attaching it to the carbon cycle in an attempt to regulate the planetary temperature. Whether we will succeed, or whether the physiological systems will break down, only time will tell.

“On Earth the environment has been made and monitored by life as much as life has been made and influenced by the environment.” Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan


'Margulis, Autopoiesis, Gaia', Bruce Clarke

'Gaia and the Evolution of Machines', Dorian Sagan & Lynn Margulis

'Autopoiesis and Cognition', Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela


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