Global Thinking & the Gaia Theory

In 1989 I met Dr. Anatoly Zaklebyney, professor of environmental science education, the Russian Academy of Education, Moscow. I was working with American and Russian teachers on a project that had emerged from teacher and researcher exchanges that I directed for the Association for Humanistic Psychology.

Dr. Anatoly Zaklebny explains  to American & Russian Global Thinking Project students in Moscow that the Earth is a single system as depicted in the Vernadsky's ideas.

Dr. Zakglebny explaining to American & Russian Global Thinking Project students in Moscow that the Earth is a single system as depicted by Vernadsky.

Our project in Russia was organized by the Russian Academy of Education, and it was through that connection that Anatoly and I met and became close friends. He was one of the most respected ecology and environmental educators in Russia, and had been involved in the development of environmental education teaching materials, as well as in directing environmental science teacher education seminars in the summer in Siberia.

The theme that emerged in our work with American and Russian teachers was the concept of global thinking. Through a series of seminars, school visits, and teaching in each others schools, this group collaborated to create the Global Thinking Project. Early in our conversations with Phil Gang, and myself, Anatoly introduced us to the Russian scientist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863 – 1945). Anatoly explained to us that Vernadsky developed the idea of the biosphere, which had been coined by Eduard Seuss years earlier. In his book, (which I located in the Georgia State University library) published in 1926, Vernadsky outlined his ideas that contained three principles (see Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere for more details):

  1. Life occurs on a spherical planet.
  2. Life makes geology—that is life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force, and to him nearly all geological features at the Earth’s surface are influenced by life.
  3. The influence of living matter on the Earth becomes more extensive with time. Increasingly more parts of the Earth are incorporated into the biosphere.

Vernadsky’s ideas didn’t make their way into the west for many years. His original book was in Russian, and a French translation was published in 1929. And it wasn’t until nearly at the end of the 20th Century that his ideas were translated into English. When Lovelock proposed his ideas in the 1870’s he was unaware of Vladimir Vernadsky. Interestingly, Vernadsky’s ideas were slowly coming into vogue in Russia at the same time that Gorbachev’s use of the concept perestroika (restructuring) took hold in the Soviet Union. Our work in the Soviet Union was propelled by the emergence of perestroika, and it aided in our work in Russian schools and in the Russian research institutes that supported us. An atmosphere of change was evident in our meetings with our Russian colleagues.

From Vernadsky’s ideas emerged fields such as biogeochemistry, geomicrobiology, ecosystem study, and ecology. Vernadsky’s ideas became fundamental to the philosophy of the Global Thinking Project. In our original teacher’s guide we wrote:

But perhaps more pertinent to global thinking is the fact that Vernadsky coined the concept of biosphere. He believed that scientists should focus attention on the “sphere of life.” According to Vernadsky the so called living and nonliving parts of the earth were interdependent and tied to each other. In fact Vernadsky called life “a disperse of rock.” To him life was a chemical process in which rock was transformed into active living matter and back, breaking it up, and moving it about in a never ending cyclic process. This amazing Vernadskian view of life, rock and earth never became widely known in the West, but recently, Vernadsky’s work has been given more attention, partly because of the translation of some of his articles and books, and his discovery by Western scientists concerned with a holistic view of Earth.

Vernadsky is crucial to our understanding of the theory of Gaia. In the introduction to the English translation of his book, the writers (13 in all, including Lynn Margulis) tell us that Vernadsky taught us that life, using visible light energy has transformed the Earth over the eons. They say:

What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space. Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all—through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere—connected in space.

Vernadsky’s idea of a biogeochemical evolving system was not welcomed by mainstream science, any more than Lovelock and Margulis’ Gaia hypothesis. For some scientists it was not surprising that these two holistic ideas were at first highly critiqued because of the mechanistic-reductionist nature of Western science. When I first started going to Russia I was impressed with the influence of Eastern thought on Russian thinking and examples of holistic thinking.

As Lovelock said in an introduction to the booklet The Biosophere by Vernadsky, published by the Synergetic Press, “We retraced his steps and it was not until the 1980s that we discovered him (Vernadsky) to be our most illustrious predecessor.”

As science teachers, Vernadsky’s work is essential, particularly to those teachers who work hard to help students become involved in science from an interdisciplinary standpoint. Of course, in my view, Vernadsky’s views are deeper than the traditional approach to interdisciplinary science education. Vernadsky believed scientists (especially Earth scientists) should explore the relationship between the development of life on Earth and the formation of the biosphere. To him living phenomena are at the center of geological formations. Vernadsky encouraged scientists to consider a holistic mechanism that unifies biology and geology.

I find these ideas exciting and now early in the 21st Century they are becoming mainstream. Or are they? What do you think?


Vladimir I. Vernadsky. The Biosphere. Springer, 1998.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.