Ecological science is often organised as a hierarchical series of entities: genes, individuals, populations, species, communities, ecosystems and biosphere. Here, I consider an alternative process-based approach to ecology, and analyse the nature of the fundamental processes in ecology. These fundamental processes are discussed in the context of the following question:‘for any planet with carbon-based life, which persists over geological time scales, what are the minimum set of ecological processes that must be present?‘I suggest that the following processes would be present on any such planet: energy flow, multiple guilds, ecological tradeo ffs leading to within-guild biodiversity, ecological hypercycles, merging of organismal and ecological physiology, carbon sequestration and possibly photosynthesis. Nutrient cycling is described as an emergent property of these fundamental processes. I discuss reasons why a biosphere based on a single species with no nutrient cycling is very unlikely to exist. I also describe the concept of ‘Gaian effect’. This suggests that some processes will always tend to extend the lifespan of a biosphere in which they develop (positive Gaian effect) while others could either increase or decrease (negative Gaian effect) such a lifespan. These ideas are discussed in the context of astrobiology, ecosystem services, conservation biology and Gaia theory.