This is a somewhat lengthy summary of the 2006 book, Animate Earth: Science, Intuition & Gaia by Stephan Harding, a founding member of Schumacher College in Devon UK, Resident Ecologist and Coordinator of their MSc program in Holistic Science. He is a colleague of James Lovelock and shares with him appointment to the Arne Naess Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo (Arne Naess was a mountaineer, philosopher and founder of the deep ecology movement).
This book (or this summation) is essential reading for anyone seeking to truly understand the intricate web of relationships that form the creature Lovelock named Gaia: the animate, sentient, intelligent Earth. It is essential reading to comprehend the exquisite but fragile dance that terrestrial life, the planet’s geology, atmosphere and oceans created under the guidance of Gaia to maintain a habitable temperature and environment for 3.5 billion years – and how humanity’s “perturbations” have thrown that dance into almost certain irreversible disarray. And it is essential reading for those who wish for something else. – Robert Riversong
Science, Intuition & Gaia
Stephan Harding 2006
“Reason flows from the blending of rational thought and feeling. If the two functions are torn apart, thinking deteriorates into schizoid intellectual activity and feeling deteriorates into neurotic life-damaging passions.” - Erich Fromm
“Modern man talks of the battle with nature, forgetting that if he ever won the battle he would find himself on the losing side.” - E. F. Schumacher
Thesis: Science is a dangerous gift unless it can be brought into contact with wisdom that resides in the sensual, intuitive and ethical aspects of our nature.
For most non-Western cultures, nature is truly alive, and every entity within it is endowed with agency, intelligence and wisdom. This animistic perception is archetypal, ancient and primordial.
James Hillman, student of Jung and founder of Archetypal Psychology, suggests that animism is not, as is often believed, a projection of human feelings onto inanimate matter; but that the things of the world project upon us their own “ideas and demands”, that any phenomenon has the capacity to come alive and to deeply inform us through our interaction with it.
Spinoza, Leibniz and Alfred North Whitehead each believed matter to be intrinsically sentient. Paul Shepard (Coming Home to the Pleistocene) suggests that it was the Neolithic adoption of agriculture that drove animism underground as people became fearful of undomesticated nature and worshipped wrathful masculine gods who were distant from nature. David Abrams (The Spell of the Sensuous) argues that the advent of formal writing systems, in particularly the emergence and spread of the phonetic alphabet, was a major element in the shift from direct experience to idealized, mediated experience of the world.
The Burying of Anima Mundi
This was evident in the transformation, in the 4th century BCE, from ancient Greek polytheism to the more rational world-view of Plato. Plato considered the material world to be but derivatives of eternal abstract ideas. The Church entrenched this perspective into a highly dualistic cosmology with a pure heaven and a sinful earth with man half way between. But Plato still held to some animistic values and, in his Timaeus, articulated the notion of the feminine anima mundi, or soul of the world. “This is indeed a living being supplied with soul and intelligence…a single visible entity, containing all other living entities.” The human soul, Plato believed, was connected to the souls of animals and plants through the anima mundi, but humans who “had no use for philosophy” would reincarnate as animals unworthy of respect.
Aristotle, Plato’s student, articulated a non-dualistic animism, and this most ancient of beliefs held sway for 1600 more years until the birth of modern science. The old Church tolerated and incorporated many animistic traditions, but the Protestant reformation tried to exorcise it from the world. The scientific revolution – which blossomed in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) that had decimated Europe following the reformation, plagues and famines – advanced the thesis that certainty must be based on reason rather than faith.
Galileo (1564 – 1642) taught that one must ignore subjective sensory experiences if one wished to learn anything useful about the world. John Lock (1632-1704) gave the name “secondary qualities” to such felt experiences, in order to emphasize their inferior, derivative nature compared to the primary qualities of size, shape and weight. Galileo believed that reliable knowledge resided in quantities, so nature had to be reduced to numbers if she was to reveal her secrets and submit to the control of the human mind. For scientists, mathematics became the language for understanding and controlling nature.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) called for scientific thinkers to “bind” and constrain nature using mechanical inventions so that she “could be forced out of her natural state and squeezed and moulded” and thereby “tortured” into revealing her secrets.
René Descartes (1596 – 1650) declared that the material world we see and sense around us was devoid of soul, and that it was nothing more than a dead, unfeeling machine which we could master and control through the exercise of our rational intellect. He taught that any entity could be completely understood by studying how its component parts worked in isolation – his infamous reductionist methodology.
Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) invented (independently of and concurrently with Liebniz) differential calculus – the mathematics of change – and seemed to provide final confirmation that the world was no more than a vast machine whose behavior could be precisely predicted and explained by quantification. These thinkers and this revolutionary movement signaled the shift into scientific materialism. As mechanistic science grew in influence, the anima mundi faded from consciousness.
The Resurgence of Anima Mundi
Psychologists now understand that what is repressed can haunt consciousness in the form of pathological behavior and distorted perceptions. The anima mundi, so long suppressed into the nether regions of consciousness, has now come back in the guise of a global crisis that threatens civilization itself. This crisis is, at root, one of perception.
The great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, spoke of four main psychological functions or ways of knowing, common to all humanity. Sensation, or sensory experience, yields a direct apprehension of the things around us through the medium of our physical bodies. Thinking interprets what is there in a somewhat logical, rational manner. Feeling grants a negative or positive valence to each encounter, and so helps to ascribe value to the phenomena. And intuition yields a sense of its deeper meaning.
In our culture, mainstream science is based principally on the deliberate cultivation of the thinking function, which is overly dominant not only in science but in the culture as a whole. Feeling – the evaluative ethical function – is left out of science. In conventional science, sensation and intuition serve thinking as auxiliary functions. However, the impulse in conventional science is to convert raw sensory experience into numbers or abstractions as quickly as possible. This mode of sensing marginalizes the phenomena and inhibits the possibility of the perception of depth and intrinsic value in the thing being studied.
The predominant style of thinking in conventional science is reductionism. Reductionism is built upon a broader set of assumptions, such as that objects matter more than the relationships between them, that the world is ordered hierarchically, and that knowledge can be objective. Systems thinking, while still mind-dependent, involves shifting our focus from objects to processes and relationships, from hierarchies to networks, and from objective knowledge to contextual knowledge. From this form of study emerges the principle of “emergence”, in which surprising properties appear at the level of the whole that cannot be understood through a focus on the parts alone.
Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle teaches us that “what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. If we cannot predict the exact nature of emergent properties, and if small changes can have unforeseeable and potentially dramatic outcomes, we have to accept the possibly uncomfortable conclusion that nature is inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. In that case, participation is the only available option.
Though intuition is vitally important to both conventional and holistic science, there is no effort within conventional science to incorporate it as a methodology. Largely attributed to Goethe (1749 – 1832), but traceable back to Ficinio and Paracelsus, and before them to the Hermetic tradition, this methodology involves “active looking” without reduction or objectification. One has the intuitive perception of the thing as a presence within oneself and not as an object outside one’s own being. This methodology develops what can be called “non-informational perception”. Geothe asks us to suspend the urge to theorize, and to enter as fully as we can into the experience of sensing the phenomenon before our gaze, so that we commune with the unbroken wholeness of the phenomenon.
The Rediscovery of Gaia
Perceptions of wholeness arrived at through active looking are inseparable from a deep sensitivity to the intrinsic value in the being or entity we are interacting with – reuniting fact and value. In this process, we allow ourselves to be open to the subjective agency at the heart of every “thing” in the world so that we can speak and act appropriately in their presence and on their behalf. Native teachers around the world are the best teachers of this way of being in the world. We must not only recognize that the Earth is animate – alive and intelligent – but we must also actively help to re-animate the Earth so that we bring her back to life for us as a sensitive and sentient being. It is time to rediscover Gaia.
For millennia, traditional peoples all over the world have believed in an Earth Mother who bestows life and receives the dead into her body. The ancient Greeks caller her Gaia, the earthly presence of anima mundi. Long before the classical Greek period, Gaia was considered to be the most powerful of all deities, far more important than Zeus and his Olympian pantheon. The gradual shift to mind-based abstract philosophy and its step-daughter, science, led to an almost 4,000-year exile of Gaia from human consciousness (except among indigenous peoples).
But the intuitive experience of Gaia remains ready to break through the armor of our minds, sometimes so powerfully that our entire outlook on life can be permanently changed. This was the case with Aldo Leopold (1886 – 1948), one of the fathers of the modern ecology movement, as described in his book A Sand County Almanac in which he learned to “think like a mountain”. Though he created the field of wildlife management, Leopold was instantaneously transformed from a manager of the wild to a protector of wild ecology. Leopold had been Gaia’d.
That most eloquent exponent of our relationship to Gaia, David Abram, was surprised to discover from traditional medicine-persons that they considered their ability to heal as a secondary skill and a by-product of their much more primary role as intermediaries between the human community and the more-than-human realm of animals, plants and earthly elements within which the human community is embedded. One day, watching the subtlety of a spider’s spiral movements as she set and tested the various strands of her web, Abram began to feel that he was witnessing the universe itself being born. Abram had been Gaia’d.
“As we return to our senses, we gradually discover our sensory perceptions to be simply part of a vast, interpenetrating webwork of perceptions and sensations borne by countless other bodies.”
Hence to touch the coarse skin of an oak tree with one’s fingers is also, at the same moment, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. To perceive the world is also to feel the world perceiving us. Everything speaks.
Arne Naess (1912 – 2009), the distinguished Norwegian professor of philosophy and avid mountaineer, was the founder of the deep ecology movement. At seven years old, he sensed that the mountain was a living being that emanated benevolence, magnificence and generosity. The emphasis on action is what distinguishes deep ecology from other eco-philosophies, and is what makes it a movement. Perhaps the most fundamental insight of the movement is that all life has intrinsic value independent of its value to humanity. From that insight comes ecosophy, or ecological wisdom – a way of being in the world which minimizes harm to nature while enhancing one’s own feelings of awe, wonder and belonging.
Gaia may also appear to us through the intellectual function, as it did for British scientist James Lovelock, known for his theory of a self-regulating Earth which he named after Gaia. Lovelock stumbled upon his theory while working for NASA in the 1960s on the problem of detecting life on Mars. He reasoned that life radically alters the atmosphere by using it as a source of raw materials and as a repository for exhaled gases such as oxygen and methane, keeping our atmosphere far from equilibrium and making it highly reactive. But the critical insight did not occur to him until he came upon the puzzling geological fact that the proportion of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere has remained roughly constant at habitable levels for the last 300 million years. Perhaps life was somehow not just involved in making the atmospheric gases, but also in regulating their abundance, keeping them at levels suitable for life itself over vast periods of time. A second insight was that life must also have regulated our planet’s temperature. In other words, the planet itself is a huge living organism with its own remarkable emergent capacity for self-regulation. Lovelock had been Gaia’d.
Jacques Monad (1910 – 1976) was a French biologist who, in his book Chance and Necessity, stated that “animism established a covenant between nature and man, a profound alliance outside which there seems to stretch only terrifying solitude”. He then asked, “Must we break this tie because the postulate of objectivity requires it?”
It should be increasingly clear that the mechanistic view of the world is literally killing the Earth as it was configured at the time of our birth as a species, and that in these times our most urgent task is to find a way of re-weaving the ancient covenant with Gaia.
James Lovelock was not the first scientist to speak of a living Earth. James Hutton (1726 – 1797), one of the founders of modern geology, is reputed to have thought of the Earth as a super-organism whose proper study was physiology. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 – 1829), the first to create a coherent theory of evolution, recognized that living beings were comprehensible only when seen as part of a larger whole. Goethe had similar views. Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859), founder of bio-geology, saw the Earth as a great whole, and spoke of climate as a unifying global force, and of the co-evolution of life, climate and the Earth’s crust.
In 1875, Eduard Suess published The Face of the Earth, in which he imagined the Earth as a series of concentric envelopes – the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere. Vladimir Verdadsky (1863 – 1945) used the biosphere concept to develop a theory of the co-evolution of life and its non-living material environment, and his ideas gave rise to the Russian concept of the ecosystem.
Lovelock, however, was the first to take the idea of a self-regulating Earth far beyond the preliminary speculations of his predecessors. The first paper in which Gaia was explicitly used as the name for the self-regulating Earth was published in 1972. Further papers were written with the help of Lynn Margulis in the early 1970s. Margulis is the creator of the endosymbiotic theory of heterogeneous prokaryotic synthesis into modern prokaryotic cells (that predator bacteria developed a symbiotic relationship with host cells and evolved into the mitochondria that power every animal cell, including our own, or into the chloroplasts that transform light into energy in every plant cell), and had to persevere decades of rejection from the orthodox scientific community before having her remarkable contribution was embraced by that same community, much as has been the fate of the Gaia hypothesis before being accepted as the Gaia Theory.
Gaia theory suggests that life and the non-living environment are tightly coupled, like partners in a good marriage. The self-regulation arising from this tight coupling is an emergent property that could not have been predicted from knowledge of biology, geology, physics or chemistry as separate disciplines. The resistance to mainstream scientific acceptance is because this theory falls perilously close to the long-rejected heresy of teleology, or natural purpose.
There is, however, good scientific evidence to support the Gaia Theory. The sun today is about 25% brighter than it was around 3.5 billion years ago when life first appeared on this planet, and yet Gaia’s temperature has never been too hot or too cold for life. There has been a regular rhythm in the geological traces of temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide, like a heartbeat or pulse, with brief warm periods every 100,000 years. During each cold period, the amount of carbon dioxide has never fallen below 180 parts per million (ppm), and has never exceeded 300 ppm during the warm periods.
Further evidence lies in the remains of multicellular life forms in rocks up to 550 million years old, the period in which body parts were hard enough to be preserved as fossils. From this record can be seen five mass extinction events during which the diversity of life rapidly declined, sometimes to alarmingly low levels such as in the Permian extinction of 250 million years ago in which 95% of all fossil remains vanished from the shallow oceans. But, after each such seemingly tragic event, it took Gaia only 5-10 million years to recover to a planet once again teeming with life. Self-repair and self-perpetuation are two principal qualities of life.
One of the key concepts for developing a rational understanding of Gaia is the notion of feedback, which was formerly developed as the science of cybernetics by Norbert Weiner (1894 – 1964) and others in the 1940s and 50s. Feedback loops can be either negative, in which the initial change is counteracted, or positive, in which the initial change is reinforced. Wherever we look in the biological world, we find astonishingly complex feedback loops. Invariably, non-linear relationships will be present and, if so, the range of behaviors of a system will range from predictable to chaotic. Non-linear systems are riddled with tipping points, at which a very slight shift produces dramatic and unpredictable results, but many systems are so complex that it’s impossible to know exactly when these points might be encountered.
When such tightly-coupled ecosystems are modeled on computers, what’s discovered is that the more complex the web of relationships, the more diverse is the community of life and the more stable the non-living climate of the Earth.
The Elemental Beings
Democritus was right – the material world is indeed made of atoms; but atoms are not dead, mechanical entities – they are participatory beings. When a hydrogen atom bonds with an oxygen atom, aspects of the personalities of hydrogen and oxygen are brought out in the relationship which are not present in hydrogen and oxygen alone. However, when two hydrogen atoms bond with an oxygen atom, a totally different set of qualities spring forth in a new emergent domain.
We realize a profound wisdom in the etymological root of the word “matter”, which comes from the Latin for “mother” (mater) and “matrix” or womb. For animists, matter and psyche are indissoluble, for the psyche of the world resides nowhere but in matter itself. If it is true that psyche is indeed revealed in the very thick of relationship, then Gaia may well be a domain in which the presence of living beings so quickens and intensifies the planet-wide interactions amongst atoms, rocks, atmosphere and water that the Earth literally awakens and begins to experience herself as alive and sentient.
Aristotle, more of an animist than his teacher Plato, said that two mysterious forces run the universe – attraction and repulsion. Attraction and repulsion have something to do with intelligence, with the “soul” of the universe itself. Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who created quantum mechanics, noted that the number of protons and electrons in pure elemental atoms is always equal, so that overall charge in such atoms is zero. Atoms, like humans, are constantly trying to find balance or fulfillment. Atoms aren’t satisfied until they achieve this, and atoms cannot do this alone – they have to interact with each other to share or exchange electrons and, in so doing, they create the bewildering variety of molecules, or communions of atoms. Each molecule is an emergent domain with properties not reducible to those of its constituent atoms.
The most important elements for life and Gaia are just six: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur (CHNOPS). To find completion, carbon needs another four electrons, and finds them by sharing those in the outer orbits of other atoms, especially other carbons, forming what chemists call covalent bonds. The linkages among carbon atoms are the basis of life as we know it – without them Gaia could not exist.
Rather than sharing electrons in a covalent bond, it is possible for an atom to give away one or more outer electrons if there is an atom available that can use them to complete its own outer orbit. This type of atomic union is known to chemists as an ionic bond. By exchanging the electron, both partners find rest. Having lost an electron, a sodium ion has a positive charge and, having accepted the electron, a chloride ion is negatively charged – so they must lie close to each other so that their charges can interact and achieve balance.
Hydrogen is the most abundant atom in the universe (88% of all matter) and is the primordial atom from which all others are derived through fusion in the intense heat and pressure within stars and supernovae explosions. Hydrogen ions are the most chemically reactive ions in existence. This means that two hydrogen atoms happily bond to each other covalently to make H2 – a hydrogen molecule – but hydrogen also bonds cheerfully with other elemental beings such as carbon, phosphorus or oxygen and is a major constituent of living beings. Hydrogen is an airy, flippant creature which would love nothing better than to escape our planet and return to its ancestral domain in outer space as hydrogen gas, for Gaia’s gravitational field is not strong enough to keep it from floating off. But life on Earth has various ways of recapturing free hydrogen by combining it with oxygen before it can escape.
Nitrogen encounters its most stable relationship with itself. Two nitrogen atoms create a triple covalent bond which requires a great deal of energy to break apart. It is essential that nitrogen stays twinned as molecular nitrogen gas (N2) for, as the most abundant gas in the atmosphere (78%), its collective weight at the Earth’s surface produces the right pressure for the greenhouse effect which regulates the Earth’s temperature, although any additional nitrogen would asphyxiate oxygen-breathing life. Atmospheric nitrogen also dilutes oxygen, which is thereby restrained from consuming anything in its path in spectacular global combustion.
Oxygen, the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium, is the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Oxygen is passionately hungry for electrons to complete its outer shell – so hungry that it can find fulfillment by bonding covalently with virtually every single known element. Only helium, neon, argon and krypton are immune from its fiery attentions, because these “noble gasses” enjoy complete outer electron orbits.
Respiration, without which multicellular life, such as us, would be impossible, uses oxygen to burn up food molecules in a gradual, controlled way and stores energy in special molecules such as phosphorus-rich ATP. We humans process an astonishing two pounds of ATP per hour every day of our lives.
Phosphorus is the “light-bearer” of the chemical world, firstly through its involvement in the storage and release of energy ultimately derived from the sun and, secondly, as the ultimate source of the eerie light of bioluminescence. Phosphorus links with carbon and nitrogen to make the ATP molecule, which is the front-line energy acceptor molecule present in every living being. Like oxygen, phosphorus is a passionate chemical being.
Sulfur shares some of the passion of oxygen but, being more moderate in its relationships, is able to form long rings and chains rather like those of carbon, and to bond with other atoms in a great variety of ways.
Calcium has been called the messenger of the cell. It is involved in virtually every cellular process, ranging from cell division to fertilization to muscle contraction. But too much calcium can kill, so cells must expend energy to keep it at a concentration low enough for optimum functioning.
Iron has a particular penchant for oxygen, and sits at the center of the hemoglobin molecule where it binds with oxygen from the lungs, releasing it to the cells. It also binds to oxygen in two important forms: as hematite (Fe2O3), familiar in black volcanic sand beaches, and magnetite (Fe3O4). Both of these iron compounds had an important part to play in determining the oxygen concentration in the Earth’s early atmosphere.
Silicon shares some of the character of carbon – it is a highly social being which likes to make long chains with other silicon atoms as well as with oxygen atoms, giving rise to silica (SiO2), which can arrange itself into the highly ordered, spiral configuration of quartz crystals.
The Birth of the Elementals
Out of the Big Bang, which happened some 15 billion years ago, energy, matter, space and time appeared out of nowhere in a primordial instant of creation. As the fireball spread, it gradually cooled until, after the first fifteen minutes, the energy condensed into the first electrons and then, with further cooling, into neutrons and protons. In the next fifteen minutes, the cooling was sufficient to allow the coalescing of these particles into hydrogen, the first elemental being born of the universe, and to this day the most abundant of all the elements.
The heavier elements were forged much later on, when atoms of hydrogen clumped together through gravitational attraction to form the stars that coalesced as the universe cooled even more, releasing immense amounts of energy, some of it as visible light.
If the gravitational attraction between bits of matter had been just a little greater or lesser than it actually is, stars as we know them would not have been possible and, without the elements the solar system and the life our planet bears could not have existed.
For much of their life, these stars burnt hydrogen, but then as they died, pressures and temperatures reached such high levels in their interiors that heavier elements were formed at an ever-quickening pace. Once the iron phase was reached inside these stellar giants, the pace of elemental creation was frenetic and, in the last few seconds of their lives, an inward gravitational collapse generated sufficient energy to power massive supernova explosions which sent vast quantities of hydrogen and smaller amounts of the heavier chemical beings such as carbon, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur whirling into the outer reaches of interstellar space. Thus many of the chemical beings which now constitute the Earth, and indeed our whole solar system, have lived in several stars before coming to dwell in us and in the rocks, atmosphere and oceans of our planet.
The cloud of interstellar matter that eventually became our Earth had just the right combination of elements to give rise to a living planet. It was fortunate that the nebular cloud that eventually formed the Earth was poor in carbon dioxide and water, for too much carbon would have meant so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that the surface temperature of the Earth would have been very high right from the outset.
Our infant planet was special in many ways. Its orbit was just the right distance from the sun to allow liquid water to remain on its surface, and its mass provided just the right amount of gravitational attraction for holding the atmosphere and ocean in a protective embrace around the Earth. The sun itself provided a relatively steady output of energy, without too much sterilizing ultraviolet radiation. The configuration and masses of the other planets in the solar system were also well tuned, so that mutual gravitational influences on each other and on the Earth produced the enduring emergent property of stability in the Earth’s orbit. Our moon is critically important for the living complexity of our planet, as well, for her intense gravitational embrace further stabilizes our planet’s axial tilt, which would otherwise wobble chaotically.
It is as if matter was waiting for the appearance of the right conditions before it could explore the possibilities latent within itself for the emergence of an evolving, self-regulating planet hosting an abundance of life. Matter ached to experience itself unfolding into the fullness of the living state.
The Carbon Cycle – or How Gaia Keeps Her Cool
The surface temperature of Earth has remained relatively stable, and within the range necessary for life to flourish, for 3.5 billion years. During that time, the sun has become hotter and continuous emissions of carbon dioxide from volcanoes should have resulted in a hellish life-obliterating global super hothouse many millions of years ago. But yet we enjoy a fairly comfortable global mean temperature of 59°F.
The reason for this remarkable stability within the comfort zone is a combination of biology (life), geology (rocks), phsysics (energy transfer) and chemistry (interactions among the chemical beings), working together to regulate Gaia’s temperature over a range of time scales in a never-ending dance of negative feedback.
Emiliania are one of a group of algae that revel in a delightfully romantic name: coccolithophores, meaning “carriers of little stone berries”. The “berries” are wheel-shaped structures, or coccoliths, made from one of Gaia’s most important molecular beings: calcium carbonate, a combination of three of the elements born of the supernova explosion which led to Gaia’s birth (calcium, carbon and oxygen), the most common form of which is calcite. Calcite can manifest in a variety of ways, but is most commonly encountered as light porous chalk or the much more dense limestone. Emiliana is a single-celled photosynthesizer skilled in another complex biochemical art – the precipitation of calcium within deep intracellular chambers into exquisitely crafted coccoliths which, when complete, are secreted to surround the cell in a white coating of chalky plates.
Basalt is the mother of all rocks. It wells up at Gaia’s mid-oceanic ridges, hot and pliable like just melting chocolate from deep inside the Earth. Granite is born at super-high temperatures and pressures deep below the continental margins when basalt is cooked with water, or when calcite and silica deposits recombine. Basalt and granite (known to science as calcium silicate rocks) contain a lot of calcium, oxygen and silicon which self-organize on cooling into three-dimensional crystalline lattices of exquisite precision and regularity. Locked up in the rock lattice like captive princesses in an ancient castle are positively-charged calcium ions which, never losing hope of experiencing something other than the stasis of a crystalline existence, long to escape the lattice prison that has held them captive often for millions of years. There is only one way that calcium’s escape can be assured – she must embark on a chemical marriage with carbon, her prince, suitor and bridegroom who, rising into the atmosphere as part of a carbon dioxide molecule, searches everywhere for his rock-incarcerated princess. But the consummation of the marriage requires a specific ritual.
First a water molecule from a rain shower must dissolve a carbon dioxide molecule to yield carbonic acid that immediately dissociates into two new chemical beings: a bicarbonate ion, in which the carbon atom is linked to one hydrogen and three oxygen atoms, and a positively-charged hydrogen ion. The hydrogen ions thus released, being nothing more than protons, are small enough to travel easily amongst the much larger chemical beings such as calcium, silicon and oxygen which hold the rock lattice tightly together. Vast hordes of the tiny, positively-charged hydrogen ions insinuate themselves into the rock. Ant-like, they pass through tiny gaps in the walls of the granite castle and cluster around the negatively-charged oxygen and silicon ions, neutralizing the electrical attractions that hold the rock together, so that what was once solid, impassable granite or basalt slowly dissolves like a wet lump of sugar.
As the rock falls apart, carbon from the atmosphere, held fast in the bicarbonate ions, combines with the newly liberated princesses, the calcium ions, merging in sacred chemical marriage to become calcium bicarbonate, which is a water-soluble form of chalk. The process, known to mainstream science as calcium-silicate weathering, removes carbon dioxide from the air, thereby cooling the Earth.
The calcium bicarbonate solution gets flushed through the soil by rainfall, and eventually finds its way into rivers that carry it to the sea, where, if they are present, the coccolithophores precipitate it as solid chalk within their microscopic bodies. By precipitating chalk containing carbon dioxide stripped from the atmosphere, these beings have a massive cooling effect on the entire planet. When they die, a chalky marine “snow” settles to the bottom of the sea, squeezing and squashing underlying accumulations of chalky skeletons into solid chalk rock. But these great deposits contain more than chalk. Silica and oxygen weathered out of the granite and basalt, washed into the water as silicic acid, reaches the sea where diatoms, radiolarians and sponges precipitate it into exquisitely-crafted glassy shells and spicules that rain down to the murky depths of the ocean alongside the chalk shells of the coccolithophores. These form flint nodules within the chalk.
The control of calcification by living beings has become ever more subtle and sophisticated as Gaia’s ability for self-regulation evolved and strengthened over geological time. In the heyday of Gaia’s infancy, some 3 billion years ago, huge bacterial communities (the stromatolites) laid down vast crusty platforms of limestone wherever they needed to grow nearer to the life-giving light at the ocean surface. Then, from 600 million years ago until about 80 million years ago, the main calcifying beings were the chorals, mollusks and crustaceans. Since then, the main site of life-enhanced calcification has shifted from the margins of the continents to the outer edges of the continental shelves, as an infinitude of tiny floating beings such as the coccolithophores have laid their chalky dead to rest on the seabed far below them.
Life on land makes a vitally important contribution to cooling the Earth by greatly enhancing the physical and chemical dissolution of basalt and granite. Life on land is a rock-crushing, rock-dissolving being. Weathering can be considerably enhanced by even relatively simple beings such as lichens and bacteria growing on the rock surface, but trees and shrubs can reach deeper into the rock, making the whole process happen very much more quickly. Thus, in warm wet tropical conditions, life can accelerate granite and basalt weathering as much as 1,000 times relative to a bare, lifeless surface.
But there is a great danger here: weathering of granite and basalt could send the planet into a permanently frozen ice-ball state if too much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere drains away as chalk to the bottom of the ocean. Gaia, as a whole, prevents this icy fate thanks to the tectonic movements of her crust, driven by the great powers residing in the deep interior of her rocky body. When it meets a continental edge, the sea floor basalt gently bends beneath it, carrying some of the overlying calcium carbonate and silica with it into the Earth’s depths. In the abysmal deeps, they melt under temperatures and pressures powerful enough to break the bonds between calcium and carbon in the chalk, and between silicon and oxygen in the silica. And then two extraordinary transformations happen. The first is the release of carbon dioxide that rises upwards beneath the edge of the continent, breaking through at last in spectacular volcanic eruptions that return vast amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere while sending strands of red molten lava coursing down steep volcanic slopes. The second is the recreation of granite underneath the continental margins, making up for granite lost to weathering on the land surfaces.
Plate tectonics, driven as it is by the decay of radioactive materials deep in the Earth, seems to be totally independent of life. But nothing could be further from the truth, for without water there would be no plate tectonics, and without life there would be no water. Water molecules invade the crystalline matrix of the sea floor basalt as it moves away from the mid-oceanic ridges, softening it so much that, by the time the basalt meets the edge of a continent, it wants nothing more than to sink like so much semi-molten chocolate. But once in the basalt, some of the water molecules break up as their oxygen atoms feel an irresistible attraction for some key iron-bearing compounds, leaving hydrogen, the lightest of all chemical beings, free to escape to outer space. In time, so much hydrogen would be lost that Gaia would die of desiccation, a fate avoided thanks to the work of countless bacteria in the ocean sediments that capture energy by combining oxygen with the fleeing hydrogen, thereby re-creating the lost water and saving the planet.
The slow tai chi dance of negative feedback has kept the temperature just right for life – a great dance that involves all the living beings, rocks and gases which participate in carbon’s great chalk journey through Gaia. There are seven interlinked negative feedbacks involved in this great set of self-regulatory dances. Volcanoes have the important job of supplying the air with fresh legions of carbon dioxide molecules from the fusion of chalk and silica deep in the Earth. These great conical mountains of lava are free to behave as they wish because there are no couplings with the rest of the dance to control their tempestuous eruptions.
As a result of the volcanoes’ uncontrolled emotions, vast amounts of carbon dioxide are sent into the atmosphere, which would warm the whole of Gaia because of the increased greenhouse effect. So more water evaporates into the air from the oceans, eventually condensing as rain-bearing clouds. Some of this rain falls on land where vegetation grows on granite and basalt. The life-giving rainwater percolates down through the soil to be absorbed by the plants, which grow better in the moister conditions. More rock is crumbled and ground up by roots, fungi and bacteria, which breathe large quantities of carbon dioxide into the vastly increased surface area provided by the myriad rocky fragments. This life-enhanced weathering of granite and basalt sucks carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sends it into rivers as calcium bicarbonate ions where the carbon eventually finds its way into deposits of chalk and limestone on the sea bed. Gaia is cooler now, with less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so there is less rainfall, and in the drier world there is less life-assisted weathering of granite and basalt. The great dance comes full circle as volcanoes warm the planet through their return of carbon dioxide to the air.
Plants also grow more vigorously in an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide, an essential nutrient that they deftly capture through tiny pores on the undersides of their leaves. As the plants grow, their roots expand in the soil and weather more granite and basalt, thereby cooling the earth.
Since the birth of Gaia, the sun has been gifting the Earth with increasing amounts of solar energy. What has countered that increasing generosity is life’s creative expansion into novelty right from its first appearance about 3.5 billion years ago.
As Gaia has evolved, the diversification amongst her living beings has gone hand-in-hand with greater rock-weathering abilities into chalk and limestone. During this whole evolutionary dance, the relationship between life, rocks, atmosphere and oceans has intensified and deepened like a good marriage, and Gaia has honed and augmented her skill at regulating her temperature. She has become more exquisitely responsive to both the sun’s increasing brightness and to varying amounts of carbon dioxide released from volcanoes, much as a musician begins as a promising young player and matures into an accomplished virtuoso. As time has gone by, more and more players, in the form of newly-evolved species, have added their voices to Gaia’s symphony.
Gaia’s learning curve has not always been consistent. Around 300 million years ago, there was a significant cooling period and glaciation gripped the planet. This event, which marks a major transformation in Gaia’s evolution into greater maturity, was caused by a massive increase in the biologically-assisted weathering of granite and basalt as deep-rooted plants took hold of the planet’s land surfaces. It took Gaia about 100 million years to recover from this self-imposed perturbation. By around 200 million years ago, three was much less granite and basalt available for weathering and carbon dioxide once again began accumulating in the atmosphere. Amazingly, temperatures before and after the cooling period were remarkably similar. Before the event, some 600 million years ago under a dimmer sun, higher levels of carbon dioxide kept temperatures well within habitable levels. Since her recovery from the cooling, Gaia has dealt with the sun’s increased brightness by safely tucking carbon away in carbonate sediments at the bottom of the ocean and by burying the bodies of dead carbon-rich photosynthetic beings (which we have foolishly been digging up to burn in the form of fossil fuels).
Carbon travels through Gaia within a set of nested loops, each operating at its own particular pace. Amongst the shortest of carbon journeys are those that take as little as a year to complete. Uncontaminated air collected above Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano shows carbon content oscillating annually like the Earth’s breathing. In summer, photosynthesis takes out much more carbon dioxide than is released from the soil by microbes breaking down dead leaves and other organic matter, producing the carbon troughs. In autumn and winter, photosynthesis shuts down in the high latitudes as plants go into deep dormancy. But the soil microbes continue their work of breaking down organic material despite the low temperatures, and so carbon dioxide wafts out of the soil and into the air, showing up as the annual peaks in the carbon graph.
Tipping Points – Negative becomes Positive, which is Negative and not Positive
Although the soil is a great reservoir of carbon fixed by photosynthesis, it seems that what happens in the soil could, paradoxically, help to warm Gaia if we continue to emit carbon into the atmosphere at very high rates by the burning of those Gaia-buried fossil plants. Recent models have shown that the activity of the soil microbes increases dramatically when atmospheric carbon dioxide is at about 550 ppm. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air increase temperatures in the soil which, in turn, stimulates the growth and activity of soil microbes. This leads to a massive breakdown of soil organic carbon, and hence to an outflow of carbon into the atmosphere that outstrips the inflow of carbon into the green world from photosynthesis. Here is an important feature of non-linear systems such as our planet – what was once a negative feedback can easily become a dangerous positive feedback if the system is forced beyond a critical tipping point.
The ocean absorbs around 30% of the carbon dioxide currently emitted into the atmosphere by humans. Scientists talk about three major “pumps” by means of which the oceans remove carbon dioxide from the air – the solubility pump, the biological pump and the physical pump. The solubility pump doesn’t directly involve life – it works simply because carbon dioxide dissolves in sea water. Waves break on the ocean surface and, as they ripple and swirl, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is folded into the ocean much as a baker kneading bread dough wraps air into her creation. Because the gas molecules have less energy available for leaping back into the air if the water is cold, more carbon dioxide enters the ocean through this route in the high latitudes. In fact, carbon dioxide has a great talent for dissolving itself in water – it is twice as soluble as oxygen at 68°F – a property that makes a huge difference to Gaia’s temperature.
The biological pump is itself divided in two – the biological organic pump and the biological carbonate pump, already known to us as Gaia’s great chalk journey. The biological organic pump begins when translucent green algae absorbs the carbon and converts it into sugar. The algae is eaten by tiny amoeba-like predators called radiolarians which, in turn are devoured by shrimp-like copepods and jellyfish. The predation cycle continues and some of the carbon is emitted as fecal matter, which may be ingested by other deep-sea creatures or decomposed by mud-dwelling life forms at the ocean bottom. One percent of the descending organic matter arrives on the sea floor and 0.1% of that is buried in the ocean sediments. About 25% of all organic carbon finding its way to the ocean floor stays there for 100 to 1,000 years or, chemically transformed, locked into rock for perhaps 200 million years. Most of the organic carbon on this planet resides in the remains of once-living beings within this sedimentary organic carbon reservoir.
Great down-wellings of carbon-rich ocean water in the high latitudes constitute the third pump – the physical pump. As the sun beats down on cloudless tropical oceans, great tongues of warm waters are carried into the high latitudes by strong currents such as the Gulf Stream. By the time the Gulf Stream reaches Greenland, it is so much denser than the surrounding water that it sinks and plunges down in two huge underwater surges to the bottom of the ocean. A similar sinking takes place around Antarctica. Significant amounts of carbon – as carbon dioxide dissolved directly from the air and as the carbon-rich corpses of a whole legion of marine organisms – are dragged down into the ocean depths with the down-welling waters, surfacing about a thousand years later in the Indian Ocean and in the central north Pacific. If our planet has an equivalent of flowing blood, this must be it, for this vast global flow of water ably distributes dissolved gases, warmth from the sun and vital nutrients around Gaia’s great spherical living body.
But this global circulation of ocean water is a delicate thing, highly vulnerable to changes in the density of sea water in the down-welling regions around Greenland. Towards the end of the last ice age, as the world warmed, huge amounts of fresh water from the melting of the North American ice caps entered the North Atlantic, freshening the warm salty waters of the Gulf Stream to such an extent that their sinking was preventing. As a result, the down-welling weakened or shut down around 12,900 years ago, plunging Europe and the entire North Atlantic into a dramatic cooling event known as the Younger Dryas, that delayed the beginning of the current warm interglacial by some 1400 years. Even more dramatic was the end of this period of intense cold, in which an abrupt warming of around 12½°F took place in a decade or so. It seems likely that our war on nature is set to trigger similarly abrupt, catastrophic changes to our climate – with very little warning.
Life, Clouds & Gaia’s Reflection
There are other ways that life has contributed to Gaia’s emergent ability to maintain a habitable planet, such as altering her shade or albedo (diffuse reflectivity). Living beings do this in two major ways. One is by releasing chemicals that seed vast banks of dense white clouds that reflect the sun’s energy back to space before it has a chance to heat up the Earth’s surface. Another is by covering vast areas of land with dark or light vegetation that respectively absorbs or reflects the sun’s rays, thereby warming or cooling the Earth.
This unexpected ability of life to alter the planetary albedo has to do with the global sulfur cycle. Sulfur is essential to life – without it, the amino acids that build proteins cannot be made – but is very scarce in the soil. In the ocean, however, it is abundant, brought there by the rivers that garner it from the weathering of rocks exposed to the air.
Gaia faces the critical problem of transporting the sulfur from the ocean where it is abundant to the land where it’s scarce; for without this vital transfer, terrestrial life would be impossible. The delicious, tangy aroma that greets your senses at an ocean beach is the gas dimethyl sulphide (DMS), produced by marine algae. DMS also plays an important role in seeding planet-cooling clouds. It takes more than just water vapor to make a cloud. Water molecules must condense on small particles in the air known as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). Particles of dust blown in from the land perform this function well, as can salt spray sucked up by winds from the ocean surface, but both are nowhere near common enough to account for the abundant swirling whiteness that cloaks our planet.
It turns out that Emiliania, and many other algae such as seaweeds, emit DMS which finds its way into the atmosphere where it attracts the ardent attentions of oxygen, which sucks the electrons it needs and leaves behind, among other things, molecules of sulphate aerosol, which water vapor finds irresistibly attractive as condensation nuclei.
Not only algae but coral reefs also emit DMS when they experience stress from increasing temperatures or ultra-violet light. Life on land also plays its part in cloud seeding. Trees do this by emitting complex organic molecular beings called turpenes and isoprenes. A forest not only seeds its own clouds, but also recycles the very water that makes clouds by capturing rainfall with its roots before sending it out into the air again. Most of the Amazon’s rainfall comes from outside its basin, mainly on moist, warm winds from the Atlantic, but 25% of the Amazon’s water is recycled as rain by the forest itself.
When clouds condense over the Amazon forest, a vast amount of energy is released – about 40 times the entire energy used by humanity in a year. Much of the energy is shunted around the globe in great waves of air to affect the climates of far-flung regions such as North America, South Africa, South-east Asia and parts of Europe. Cutting the forest down is a catastrophe, not only for the millions of species living in them, but also for the world’s climate. The Amazon seems to do best during an ice age, when the high latitudes are covered in ice but the tropics are deliciously balmy and just right for the cloud-seeding forests. In between ice ages, during the warm interglacial periods, the whole world warms and the forest can just about manage to keep its temperature within tolerable limits. But in our times, with more carbon dioxide in the air and higher temperatures than have been seen on Earth for more than 400,000 years, the forest can no longer cope. Soon it could lose more water through evaporation than it can capture by triggering rainfall through cloud formation, and could gradually dry out until a critical threshold is reached. Then it would die back exponentially fast. The savannah which replaces the rainforest seeds fewer clouds, so the entire Earth would warm as a massive temperature gradient builds up between the tropics and the high latitudes, creating severe storms and hurricanes which wreak havoc over Earth’s surface like demented genies bent on revenge for the foolishness of humankind.
It isn’t just tropical rainforests which emit cloud-seeding chemicals; the great temperate forests do it too, and so do the moss-covered peat bogs and, to a far lesser extent, the great northern boreal forests. In all, clouds seeded by life cool the planet by up to a staggering 18°F, about twice the temperature difference between a cold ice age and a warm interglacial period.
Today, the cloud-seeding marine algae are retreating further towards the poles as human emissions of greenhouse gasses warm the oceans. Peat bogs seem to be partners with oceanic algae in the work of cooling. Iron is scarce enough in the ocean to limit algae growth. Peat bogs consist of one major kind of plant – moss, and most often only one kind: sphagnum. Mosses are happy in the wet and damp and, in order to keep things moist, they release sulfur gases to the air which seed clouds and trigger rainfall. The marine algae thrive on the peat bog’s gift of iron, producing vast amounts of DMS just off the coast. The algal DMS seed clouds, some of which deposit sulfurous rain on the sulfur-hungry mosses sitting atop the peat bogs. The peat bogs and the oceanic algae feed each other the scarce nutrients each one needs.
Peat bogs also remove carbon dioxide from the air, fixing it as peat where it resides in dark, moist entombment for many centuries. Peat bogs also cool the planet by killing off dark, snow-shedding coniferous forest. Snow settling on the treeless bog creates a high albedo surface which cools the Earth about 80% more effectively than the snow-free moss of summer.
Biomes & Climate
Relationships between the different biomes – Gaia’s major ecological communities – also have a huge impact on climate. Up in the far northern latitudes, below the tundra regions where most of the peat bogs grow, lies the great boreal forest. The trees’ dark green foliage warmed the whole boreal region and the entirety of the northern hemisphere by a staggering 4.5°F during the period from 1965 to 1995. If tundra were to expand just a bit, North America and Eurasia would cool by around 5.4° and snow would cover the ground for an additional 18 days.
There is a seesaw effect between the boreal forest and the mossy tundra which has played a major role in the Earth’s climate by amplifying the swings in and out of ice ages over the past 2 million years. When our planet’s elliptical orbit places us at our greatest distance from the sun, the tundra spreads its mossy legions southward at the expense of the dark boreal forest and the snowy white winter tundra helps to tip the Earth into an ice age. Thousands of years later, when our orbit brings us close to the sun, the dark-leaved boreal forest expands northwards, warming the earth even in the winter months.
But it isn’t just the trees and mosses that interact with the climate of the high north; other members of the biotic community may also be involved, including predators and their prey. During cold, snowy winters, it’s easier for the wolf-packs to hunt moose, which reduces the amount of browsing on coniferous trees and allows more to reach maturity – which, in turn, warms the climate and reduces the snow-pack allowing the moose to thrive, kill more young trees and hence cool the region. There may well be more than a mere linear cause and effect running form climate to wolves to moose to fir trees. It is a process far too complex to model, let alone fully understand.
From Microbes to Cell Giants
The long evolution of Gaia has not always been smooth and gradual – there have been critical transformations or tipping points that have reconfigured her atmosphere, oceans and land surfaces beyond all recognition because of tightly-coupled interactions between her living beings and her rocks, atmosphere and water cycle.
Ever since their appearance at the beginning of the Archean eon some 3.5 billion years ago, bacteria have operated a tightly-coupled metabolic network spanning the entire globe which has ensured that the Earth’s surface has remained within habitable bounds. Humans have given bacteria a bad reputation, with our germ theory of disease, but only a small minority are pathological to humans. Most are engaged in the nitty-gritty work of keeping the planet alive by capturing energy, recycling and decomposing.
Life of any kind is impossible without cell membranes, and all cell membranes display a stunning degree of agency and sentience, for all of them are able to carefully select what goes in and out through their pores. Cell membranes are semi-permeable. What this intelligent membrane is able to accomplish is the maintenance of a very stable interior environment, through a process which has been called “autopoesis” – self-making or, literally, self-poetry.
All life processes produce substances which would be toxic if not removed, and so all living beings must excrete, or better, donate these substances to their surroundings to stay alive. The miracle of ecology is that the waste products of one kind of being are the food for another, which means that all living beings organize themselves into a vast, extracellular self-making network of which Gaia is the final expression.
Most bacteria live in communities, often with different cell types carrying out specific metabolic functions, and in order for the whole to work well, the multifarious and multitudinous members of the group have to communicate with each other about the complexities of the surroundings which impinge on them, and about the state of the whole community.
Bacterial chemical communication is of such startling complexity that it resembles the basic grammatical structures of human language, so much so that scientists are now talking about bacterial syntax and even about bacterial social intelligence. As in human language, the meaning of a given bacterial signal depends entirely on context. One key researcher in this field speaks of bacteria leading “rich social lives”, of developing “collective memory” and “common knowledge”, of having “group identity”, of being able to “recognize the identity of other colonies”, of “learning from experience, of “improving themselves” and of engaging in “group decision-making”. Bacteria are deeply sentient creatures that live in a rich, meaningful communal world, partially of their own making, to which they respond creatively and with exquisite sensitivity.
Bacteria invented the major techniques for extracting and storing the energy needed for life, and for capturing key nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Very soon after life first appeared, they invented water-based photosynthesis, without which life as we know it would be impossible. They also invented fermentation, without which we would have no wine, beer or cheese.
Bacteria have been able to succeed so brilliantly because of their immense capacity for networking. A key networking skill they use is the ability to swap bits of DNA – the biological bits and bytes that prefigured computer language and the creation of the digital internet and the world-wide-web of connection which that made possible. Oxygen-producing photosynthesis, one of the most astonishing of all bacterial metabolic accomplishments, may well have been invented by a single ancestral bacterium that spread the innovation by means of the “open source” genetic exchange.
Yet the newly-invented photosynthetic pathway could have quickly frozen the nascent Gaia to death by removing all the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This dreadful fate was prevented thanks to the efforts of the decomposing bacteria living in the sediments at the bottom of the ocean. These beings digested the corpses of photosynthesizers when they reached the sediments from the upper sunlit regions, releasing methane gas to the atmosphere with its inordinate penchant for reflecting heat from the Earth’s surface to keep the planet warm. At the ocean surface, wherever photosynthesis had made oxygen locally abundant, a new bacterial metabolic opportunity opened up: respiration. Respirers use oxygen to digest the very same photosynthesizers that produced the oxygen in the first place. In a sense, respiring creatures, such as humans and the primordial bacterial respirers, run photosynthesis in reverse, by using oxygen to break down the complex sugar molecules inside the bodies of their prey, releasing carbon dioxide and water in the process.
The reversal of photosynthesis can never be complete, since some of the sugar-bodies escape the respirers and get buried in the anaerobic sediments. The free oxygen reacted with methane in the air, sulfur from volcanoes and iron in rocks. Eventually, around 2.5 billion years ago, the very face of Gaia was gradually transformed beyond all recognition as these oxygen “sinks” became saturated and free oxygen lingered in the atmosphere. Oxygen is both a giver of life and a dealer of death, for the gas is so highly reactive that it happily attacks the complex molecules inside living cells. But, in any case, the new oxygen-rich environment quickened the global bacterial metabolism, allowing it to weather rocks on the land surface ever more effectively.
Lynn Margulis has vigorously promoted the idea that, when the Archean eon was drawing to a close, bacteria were trying out another kind of association, in which some of them lived inside other bacterial cells. This endo-symbiosis (symbiosis from the inside) may have begun as a predatory relationship which turned friendly once the predator discovered that cooperation suited it much better than naked aggression. This arrangement has been working successfully ever since it was first invented about 2.5 billion years ago. The predator in its modern form is known to science as the mitochondrion – the powerhouse of the nucleated cell. Mitochondria are about the same size as bacteria, but have a much more organized internal environment and have DNA which is much more closely related to that of bacteria than to the DNA in the nucleus of the host cell. The last to arrive in the emerging symbiosis were the chloroplasts, once free-living bacteria that now live inside plant and algal cells as their photosynthetic powerhouses.
By the end of the Archean era, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere gradually increased. Amazingly, for the last 350 million years, oxygen in the air seems to have hovered around the 21% that is close to optimal for large multicellular beings such as us. Atmospheric oxygen cannot increase above 25% without triggering massive fires that would burn most of the land vegetation to ashes. If oxygen in the atmosphere declines to 13-15%, fires cannot start in even the driest vegetation, yet the continuous presence in the fossil record of charcoal suggests that oxygen levels have never been low enough to prevent fires nor high enough to totally burn up all vegetation. The fossil charcoal hints at a compelling Gaian oxygen-regulating story involving surprising interactions between life, rocks, atmosphere and oceans.
Phosphorus is absolutely indispensable for making the energy-storing molecule ATP in all living beings, which is also needed for growth and as a component of DNA. The ultimate source of phosphorus is the weathering of rocks, and its ultimate destination is the ocean sediments. So living beings are totally dependent upon the cycling of rocks for fresh supplies of the precious element. Contact between any acid and rocks is all that is required to weather out their precious lodes of phosphorus. Carbonic acid, from the marriage of rainwater and carbon dioxide, does the job well enough.
Nitrogen is a key nutrient that is made available to life only when it is removed from the atmosphere by bacteria in the soil or in the open sea. But the nitrogen-fixing bacteria cannot do their work without phosphorus. Another group of bacteria, the denitrifiers, strip nitrogen out of dead algal bodies, returning it to the atmosphere to complete the cycle.
Amazingly, the quantitative relationships between phosphorus, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and the living beings result in an emergent self-regulatory dance that has kept all of these chemical beings well within the limits that life can tolerate over hundreds of millions of years. This dance, however, can be disrupted by enormous forces, such as the impact of a large asteroid or the multifarious impacts of an overly-large body of humanity.
Despite 10,000 years of abuse, the land still gives us beauty and grandeur, for there is still great presence here – the wild consciousness of a place diminished, but not yet fully desecrated. But there is now no part of Gaia left untouched by the human hand. Everywhere “development” chews up wild places, spitting them out as the “stuff” we increasingly see as indispensable to our lives. We have unleashed Gaia’s wrath, and in her desperation she seems poised to respond to our onslaught with an even greater one of her own which will kill vast numbers of people and lay low our so-called civilizations.
For most of her life, Gaia has gone through million-year periods of relative warmth, and equally-long periods of cooler temperatures. But things have changed in the more recent past. We know for certain that, for the last two million years, Gaia has been moving in and out of ice ages with extraordinary regularity. Every 100,000 years during the last 700,000 years, ice has spread down from the Arctic regions into northern hemisphere latitudes, covering them with glaciers miles thick, and the world has cooled. Each phase of this cycle is about 50 times as long as the entire span of Western civilization. Gaia’s temperature has reached the same maximum at each warming – the same minimum at each cooling.
The recent ice ages have to do with the fact that Gaia, although apparently alone in the vastness of space, is deeply sensitive to the animate presences of the other planets in our solar system. The eccentricity of her trajectory through space expands and contracts from egg-shaped to almost circular with a periodicity of 100,000 years. Precession and tilt only alter the distribution of the sun’s energy on the planet, not its absolute amount, but changes in eccentricity do alter the amount of available solar energy. Even so, the extra amount is tiny – only about 0.2% less at maximum eccentricity relative to the almost circular orbit. But there seem to be a suite of global-level positive feedbacks that act as amplifiers.
During the last 3.5 billion years, Gaia has maintained habitable temperatures in the face of the ever-brightening sun by gradually removing carbon dioxide from her atmosphere, thanks to the ever-more efficient life-assisted weathering of granite and basalt. By two million years ago, however, so much carbon dioxide had be buried in her skin that removing any more has been of little help in Gaia’s efforts to keep herself cool.
Cybernetic systems wobble from one state to another when they are about to fail, like a spinning top just before it falls. For James Lovelock, Gaia’s recent wobbles in and out of ice ages may be a clear sign that she is struggling to keep cool under a bright sun – that she is overstretched to the point of instability, with the glacial periods being her preferred state and the interglacials her fevers during which she hovers dangerously close to catastrophic climatic breakdown.
The fact that Gaia has switched from ice ages to interglacials on a regular basis might lead one to think that her climate has remained stable in each of these two states, but nothing could be further from the truth. Cores of ice from central Greenland are much better at revealing climate changes on short time-scales than the ice cores from Antarctica. The ice from the north holds unequivocal memories that climate during both the last glacial and the current interglacial was highly unstable, with particularly rapid shifts from relatively warm to cold even when the world was in the grip of the ice age.
The evidence suggests that these temperature fluctuations were triggered by very small changes in solar luminosity – another warning that seemingly insignificant changes can be amplified into huge effects by complex dynamic systems such as Gaia. Scientists know only too well that irregular behavior is a hallmark of complex systems. One particular event underscores this instability: the end of the Younger Dryas cooling some 11,600 years ago, when global temperatures soared 27°F in no less than a decade.
The Gaia into which our species emerged is a wild, complex dynamic being, subject to sudden shifts between multiple semi-stable (or metastable) states. At this time in her long life, small disturbances can ramify through her vast body, growing larger and larger through positive feedback. There are tipping points beyond which climate can suddenly transmute from benign to deadly, and there is no good reason for us to bask in the complacent idea that our emissions of greenhouse gases will warm the planet gradually.
A metastable system with (1) a weakly stable state, (2) an unstable transition state, and (3) a strongly stable state
Global average temperatures have increased about 1°F during the 20th century – the warmest century for a millennium. The mean global temperature from 1000 to 1999 shows a clear downward trend until about 1900, when the planet’s temperature began to climb rapidly to today’s higher level. This suggests that before our interference, Gaia was headed for the next ice age, possibly in 15,000 years. We now have about 395 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, about 40% above the ceiling of 280 ppm to which Gaia has returned during each of the previous interglacial periods. There is now a general consensus that a doubling of carbon dioxide from pre-industrial levels to 550 ppm could happen by 2050 and that would increase global temperatures by 3.6 to 7.2 degrees F.
When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reach around 400 ppm, and global temperatures rise to the lower end of that spectrum, Gaia could move through a series of irreversible tipping points which risk “serious large-scale system disruption” (according to the IPCC).
The 1¼ mile-thick Greenland ice cap is already melting at a rate of about 33 feet per year, ten times faster than was previously contemplated – 40% of the sea ice around the North Pole has melted during the last 33 years. The loss of Arctic sea ice by September 2005 was so severe that scientists now think that the far north has reached an irreversible tipping point that will lead to no sea ice in the far north within a century. If all of the Greenland ice cap melted, sea levels around the world would rise by 23 feet within 1,000 years with catastrophic impacts on civilization, which is centered mostly in vulnerable coastal cities.
To add insult to injury, the melting of the Greenland ice cap would send enough fresh water into the sea to flip the oceanic thermohaline circulation into its “off” mode very quickly, perhaps triggering changes to the climate of western Europe and possibly beyond. In the last 30 years, the extent of snow cover in the far northern hemisphere during spring and summer has decreased by 30%.
The realm of ice and snow is also under siege in Antarctica, where dramatic changes are taking place as the continent warms at a rate of almost 1°F per decade. There is real danger that the Ross ice shelf could soon begin to collapse. Its breakup would cause so much ice to reach the sea from the West Antarctic ice sheet that global sea levels would increase by 16 to 23 feet. The melting of the entire Antarctic ice sheet would raise global sea levels as much as a phenomenal 164 feet.
Vast areas of our planet’s land surface, about 25% of the total, are covered by permafrost, including half of Russia and Canada and 82% of Alaska. Permafrost holds huge amounts of organic carbon (about 1/7 of the world’s total), contributing another twist to the multifarious and accumulating feedbacks that are warming the planet.
But another, possibly greater, danger lurks in the permafrost of the continental shelves of the world’s oceans. In such places, where temperatures and pressures are just right, a remarkable association takes place between two of Gaia’s key chemical beings – water and methane – giving rise to the infamous “methane hydrates”. In these curious structures, water abandons its usual penchant for making hexagonal ice molecules and assembles itself instead into curious cubic cages of ice with up to eight “guest molecules” of methane in cordial repose at the center of each cage. The total store in these hydrates and in free methane gas trapped beneath them is in excess of 10 trillion tons – by far the biggest reservoir of organic carbon on the planet, and about 13 times as much carbon as is held in today’s atmosphere. Huge amounts of carbon are stored in the permafrost hydrates alone – almost as much as is held in the sum total of all the world’s terrestrial biotic communities.
It is almost certain that a breakdown of the methane hydrates helped to warm the Earth at the end of the last ice age, and they may even have contributed to the Permian mass extinction when most marine creatures died. We don’t know quite where the tipping points for catastrophic methane emissions are, but there are serious suggestions that a warming of about 5.4°F would lead to the release of 85% of the methane after a few thousand years – effectively an irreversible change as far as humans are concerned. There is another terror associated with the dissolution of methane hydrates: tsunamis. Stable hydrates are as solid as rock but, as soon as they fall apart, previously solid substrate turns to liquid mud that creates a sub-sea slump that can whiplash the water into coherent killer waves.
A relatively new and incontrovertible discovery was the acidification of the oceans that comes about when the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere dissolves in sea water to create carbonic acid. This has dire consequences for the numerous living beings that so deftly use chalk for making shells, coccoliths and skeletons. These include the corals, the crabs and sea urchins, the clams and sea shells, and the tiny but climatically vital coccolithophores so critical for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and for seeding planet-cooling clouds. As the chalky structures of these diverse creatures dissolve in a global ocean enriched with hydrogen ions put there by our lust for burning fossil fuels, Gaia warms even more in yet another destructive positive feedback.
Meanwhile, down in the Amazon basin, things are not looking too promising either. Global temperature increases may well see to it that the forest rapidly vanishes soon after 2040, when its ability to recycle water suddenly collapses after the region has warmed 7.2°F. The dying Amazon will release its vast store of carbon into the atmosphere, further warming our world.
Soils hold particularly large amounts of carbon – globally about 300 times as much as we release every year by burning fossil fuels. But, with rising temperatures, decomposing bacteria will swarm more vigorously and more abundantly. Wherever they find it, they will consume the soil carbon, releasing carbon dioxide and methane back to the atmosphere. Normally, photosynthesis sends more carbon from the atmosphere into the soil than is released by decomposition, especially in an atmosphere enriched with carbon dioxide, but this tidy arrangement is predicted to tip and turn tail when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 ppm sometime within the next 10 to 50 years. Alarmingly, researchers have recently shown that we may have already tipped over this threshold; and, as soils become a net source of carbon to the atmosphere, the great planet-warming positive feedbacks receive another turn of the screw.
Species on the Move
In the temperature regions of the world, spring-time events such as flowering, budding, singing, spawning, migrant arrival and insect appearances are not what they used to be – they have all been happening progressively earlier since the 1960s. There are also changes to some key autumnal events, such as amongst migratory birds, which have abandoned winter migration altogether or have delayed their departures.
The general trend in a recent study of 1700 species is a poleward movement of 3.8 miles per decade, and a 20 foot movement up the sides of mountains. Virtually the whole biosphere is being uprooted in unprecedented ways. But many of these exiled species face another danger – habitat fragmentation. As economic growth and development proceed apace, more and more of Gaia’s wild places are paved over, built on, or plowed up for intensive agriculture, preventing species that need to move to higher latitudes and altitudes from reaching suitable safe havens. As these species face extinction, biotic communities lose complexity and diversity and unravel further.
Hurricanes and Global Dimming
It turns out that the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface has been going down by about 3% per decade for that last 50 years. We don’t just emit greenhouse gases when we burn fossil fuels; we also release vast quantities of aerosols, such as sulphates that seed dense white planet-cooling clouds and hazes. It seems that the sulphates we emit can diminish rainfall over large areas. Clouds that don’t produce rain have increased cooling effects. Overall, our atmospheric pollution is having two opposite effects: one warming and the other cooling, with warming the stronger of the two.
The good news is that we can easily do something about global dimming, for it is easy enough to scrub the sulfur out of our fuels and smokestacks. We’ve been doing just this over the past few years and global dimming is indeed diminishing. But there is a tragic irony, for as we reduce sulphates and other aerosols, we lose the cooling effects of the clouds and hazes they seed, and the warming increases.
It could well be that temperatures in the cleaner air will rise twice as fast as was previously thought, and that some of the critical tipping points will be surpassed as soon as 25 years from now. This would imply global warming in excess of 3.6°F, at which point the Greenland ice sheet would begin its irreversible melting. By 2040, the planet could well have warmed by 7.2°F, triggering the irreversible die-back of the Amazon forest. This would release even more carbon into the atmosphere by the end of this century, warming the world by 18°F, at a pace more rapid than any other previous episode of natural warming. With this amount of warming, methane hydrates would begin to break down, releasing their vast store of methane into the atmosphere. Eventually Gaia would probably settle into a new hot state, bearable for her, but immensely dangerous and uncomfortable for us.
In a warming world, hurricanes could become far more powerful and destructive than ever before. But, strangely enough, the new super-hurricanes could set off negative feedback that could take some of the heat out of climate change by stirring up sea-bed nutrients that feed phytoplankton blooms, which remove carbon dioxide and seed clouds. Just more evidence of the complex feedback loops that Gaia uses to attempt to maintain temperature stability.
In spite of a remarkably solid consensus among climate scientists about the very real dangers of anthropogenic climate change, there are climate skeptics who have argued that the observed warming is due to natural variability in the activities of the sun and volcanic emissions. It is true that these important effects account for about 40% of the observed variation, but we now know that they have helped to cool rather than warm the planet during the last quarter century, and are unable to account for the 1°F warming trend of the last 30 years. The skeptics have shifted their ground from denial to arguing for the lower end predictions of the IPCC, which more or less favor business as usual.
Perhaps the skeptics should consider what happened during the Eocene period some 5.5 million years ago, when the Earth warmed by 9°F in the tropics and 14.4°F in the temperate regions under a sun some 0.5% less bright than today’s due to a massive injection of greenhouse gases similar in magnitude to our own untimely gaseous exudations. Even though Gaia’s great wild ecosystems were everywhere intact during the Eocene, it took 200,000 years for the biologically-assisted weathering of granite and basalt to cool the planet. Today, we have partially disabled Gaia by taking over about half her land surfaces, and the sun is hotter.
If Jung is right, if our psyche is none other than the psyche of nature, then by wounding Gaia we wound ourselves, both physically and psychologically. Perhaps the most profound way we can make peace with Gaia is to feel ourselves extending outwards beyond our skins into the wide, living world of Gaia’s gyring, eddying “circles of participation”.
Gaia and Biodiversity
Biodiversity is the diversity of life at various levels of organization, ranging from genes, species, ecosystems, biomes and landscapes. As far as we can tell, Earth just before the appearance of modern humans was the most biodiverse it has ever been during the 3.5 billion years of life’s tenure on this planet, and before we began to upset things the Earth hosted a total of somewhere between 10 and 100 million species. The fossil record shows us that there have been five mass extinctions in the last 400 million years or so, all due to natural causes, but the greatest and fastest mass extinction is happening now, and is entirely due to the economic activities of modern industrial societies. We are hemorrhaging species at a rate of up to 1,000 times the natural rate of extinction, or, more prosaically, every day we are losing 100 species. According to the Living Planet Index, in the period from 1970-2000, forest species declined by 15%, fresh-water species by a staggering 54%, and marine species by 35%.
Biodiversity gives us three key benefits that Aldo Leopold talked about: integrity, stability and beauty. The acronym “HIPPO” identifies the lethal impacts on biodiversity, in order of importance: habitat destruction and fragmentation, invasive species, pollution, population, and over-harvesting.
On every continent on earth, some 10,000 years ago, there was an uninterrupted continuum of wild ecosystems. The abundance of flying, leaping, swimming beings in this pristine state astonished the first European settlers all over the world, who quickly set about logging, hunting, fishing and clearing for agriculture with a demonic destructiveness that beggars the imagination. Today, there is no habitat on Earth that has not been seriously degraded by humans. All the great biomes face increasing threats, including the mangrove swamps, the wetlands, the tropical dry forests, the tundra and the boreal forests – the future for all of them looks bleak. When humans attack the great wild, they generally leave a few fragments. Each fragment is an island, often surrounded by inhospitable habitats such as agricultural land, buildings and roads that for many creatures create insurmountable barriers to foraging, dispersal and colonization.
These can cause extinctions even in areas where there has been little habitat fragmentation, and wipe out more species than pollution, population pressures and over-harvesting put together. About 4,000 exotic plant species and some 2,300 exotic animal species have been brought to the United States alone, threatening 42% of species on the endangered species list.
Rachel Carson’s (1907 – 1964) seminal book, Silent Spring, was instrumental in starting the green movement by bringing the dangers of pesticides to our attention in 1962. Since then, pollution of many kinds has become alarmingly widespread.
The current (2006) world population stands at 6.925 billion, and is projected to level off at around 10 billion by 2150. People need land, water, food and shelter, and have to satisfy these needs by destroying wild nature. But it is not just a question of sheer numbers. Paul Erlich devised this famous I=PAT equation to make the point. “I” stands for impact, “P” stands for population, “A” stands for affluence and “T” stands for technology. Today, the world’s middle class number about 20% of the population, but they consume about 80% of the available resources. The huge pressures of human population drive all other causes of extinction, including the last of them: over-harvesting.
About one third of endangered vertebrates are threatened in this way. Often the over-harvesting is carried out by poor rural people left with no other means of surviving after they have been forced off their lands by global economic forces. The rich countries of the North are also responsible for over-harvesting, and are especially responsible for driving several key fisheries to the point of extinction.
Biodiversity and Ecological Stability
Persistent communities self-assemble with a final membership of about 15 species. As the number of species builds up, it becomes harder and harder for an invader to find a toehold in the nexus of interacting species – strongly suggesting that communities develop an emergent protective network that becomes more effective as the community matures. Ecological communities can indeed be thought of as super-organisms which function smoothly and predictably as their biodiversity increases.
Gregory Bateson (1904 – 1980) considered nature a vast interconnected “mind” that exists by virtue of the information flows between its components, and an ecological community as a coherent being with its own emergent “mental” state that arises out of the sum total of all its interactions.
Biodiversity and Climate
It is now generally agreed that life affects climate in at least two major ways: by altering the composition of the atmosphere, and by changing how solar energy heats up the Earth’s surface and how this heat is distributed around the planet.
Foliage is very important in regulating the surface climate. In general, the more leafy a forest, the more evapo-transpiration and so the more cloud production, local rainfall, local cooling and plant matter production by photosynthesis. A more diverse flora almost certainly improves transpiration by providing a bigger and more varied mat of below-ground root structures with better water-trapping abilities, and it could also enhance evaporation by providing a larger and more complex total leaf surface area from which rainwater can evaporate. The intricate leaf surfaces of a more diverse flora create a rougher land surface that increases air turbulence, and this could well increase the transfers of heat and moisture to the air, influencing weather patterns on both local and global scales.
Biodiversity also provides us with a host of other benefits, such as stabilization of soil, recycling of nutrients, water purification and pollination. These benefits have been called “ecosystem services” by a new breed of ecological economists. In 1997, global ecosystem services were worth almost twice the global GDP. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, compiled by 1,360 scientists from 95 countries, found that 60% of ecosystem services had been degraded. Human activity has changed ecosystems more rapidly in the past 50 years than at any other time in human history. About 24% of the planet’s land surface is now under cultivation; a quarter of all fish stocks are over-harvested; 35% of the world’s mangroves and 20% of its coral reefs have been destroyed since 1980; 40%-60% of all available freshwater is now being diverted for human use; forest has been completely cleared from 25 countries and forest cover has been reduced by 90% in another 29 countries; more wild land has been plowed up since 1945 than during the 18th and 19th centuries put together; demands on fisheries and freshwater already outstrip supply; and fertilizer runoff is disturbing aquatic ecosystem services.
But these utilitarian arguments for protecting biodiversity may not prevent it from being seriously degraded, for ultimately, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002), we may not be able to save what we do not love. If we are ever to develop a world-view that has any chance of bringing about genuine ecological sustainability, we will need to move away from valuing everything around us only in terms of what we can get out of it, recognizing instead that all life has intrinsic value irrespective of its use to us.
In Service to Gaia – Why Does Nature Matter?
As we develop sensitivity to many other styles of non-human sentience every bit as important as our own, we realize that we owe our very existence to the complex planetary intelligence that has run our world without our input for the last 3.5 billion years.
So being of service to Gaia requires us to develop a deep sense of embeddedness in the life of the great planetary being that has given birth to us and to every other creature that has ever oozed, crawled or sent its roots into our planet’s soil. We need to sense that our every step is taken not on, but in the Earth; that we walk, talk and live our whole lives inside a great planetary being that is continuously nourishing us physically with her miraculous mantle of green and her luscious swirling atmosphere, a being that soothes our psyches with her subtle language of wind and rain, with the swoop of wild birds and with the majesty of her mountains. We need to develop a sense of ourselves as beings in symbiotic relationship with Gaia. We need to develop a sense that Gaia is really alive, not in some metaphorical sense, but really, actually, palpably. Let Gaia take you over – let yourself be Gaia’d over and over again.
Can we let the science be like the juicy bone tossed to the rational mind to keep it happily chewing whilst the real work of developing our belonging to Gaia happens through our senses, our feelings and, perhaps more importantly, our intuition? Let these be the gateways into our new sense of belonging in a living world, and let our reason take its rightful place as the servant of this deeper, more intoxicating knowledge.
Every part of a phenomenon contains the whole – reality is holographic. This gives us a tremendously important clue about how we can cultivate our sense of belonging to Gaia: we can do this by developing a deep love of place. The soul of a place, when entered into with the deep interest and concern that love entails, contains the quality of Gaia as a whole being. We need to give ourselves time to experience the soul of a place, and through it the soul of the world, the anima mundi.
The love of place is the ultimate act of non-violent resistance to the major force that is destroying the animate Earth that we evolved into: economic growth. Mainstream economics is obsessed with growth of the material kind. But growth has failed to make us any happier, and is degrading the more-than-human world on which we utterly depend. The payment of interest is one of the key drivers behind the growth imperative. This is a classical positive feedback loop – a genuinely vicious cycle that inevitably leads to ever more growth and the social and ecological breakdown that this entails. The major commodity that currently fuels growth through international trade is money. Each day, 1.3 trillion US dollars are traded on the international money markets in what amounts to gambling on a massive scale. The motivation for making all this money is of course the need to pay off interest and make surplus profit. The mainstream indicator of growth is the notorious GDP – the Gross Domestic Product. But GDP is a woefully inadequate measure of what really matters, namely human and ecological well-being. GDP around the world has grown since the end of the Second World War, but there is ample evidence that growth is making us less and less happy. Alternative indicators of human well-being, such as the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator), peaked around the 1970s and have remained stationary since despite continued GDP growth.
Economic growth is bad for Gaia. A growing economy must eventually wipe out all the forests, exhaust all the fisheries, mine all the minerals and extract all the oil. Furthermore, growth will erode both a favorable climate and human health when Gaia’s capacity to deal with the increasing volumes of waste and pollution becomes saturated. Growth also erodes the social fabric because it sets us all against each other as we scramble to earn more and climb higher up the social ladder – it sets the rich North against the poor South, and perpetuates a new form of colonialism every bit as cruel as its more blatant manifestation in the last century and the one before.
The instruments of this new kind of growth-obsessed colonialism are the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), all of which operate completely outside the democratic process, with unelected representatives meeting behind closed doors, accountable to no one other than their corporate masters. The paramount achievements of these arrangements have been increased social and ecological breakdown.
Technological optimists tell us that we need not worry about the ecological impacts of growth because improvements in efficiency will sort out the problem. They believe we can “dematerialize” our industrial products so much that we will require virtually no physical matter to make them. They speak of “factor four” and “factor 1,000″, meaning that we can make the same commodities with one quarter to one thousandth of the raw materials we use today, and they rightly advocate recycling of every last bit of matter so that industry follows nature by operating according to “closed loop cycles”. They even have impressive techniques for helping industry use less energy, and can even demonstrate how to use renewables such as wind and solar. They also speak of “biomimicry”, whereby nature’s design secrets are put to use in creating products with greatly reduced ecological impacts. These are laudable goals and are to be encouraged and applauded, but to think that the problems of growth will go away because of them is misguided. In the Western world, significant improvements in the efficiency of resource use have not prevented a significant increase in waste and pollution. Even if the supposed hyper-efficiencies do eventually eliminate the problem of material throughput, we would still be left with the social problems created by the greed and selfishness that we must cultivate in ourselves if the economy is to grow.
The famous phrase “sustainable development”, introduced in 1987 in the Brundtland Report, Our Common Heritage, is meant to address these problems by proposing that more growth is required to generate the wealth to make sustainability a reality, especially in the global South. But “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, as long as “development” implies increasing the extraction rates of raw materials from wild nature. If so, sustainability and development are contradictory concepts and “sustainable development” is just economic growth dressed up in the language of deliberate obfuscation.
For it to be truly sustainable, development would be aimed at insuring that the amount of matter flowing through the global economy would either shrink or be at a steady state. The founders of economics, people like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, had no problem with steady-state economics. John Stuart Mill wrote, “The best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward.”
An economy organized according to steady-state principles is one that nurtures the soul of place in a way that is consistent with living sustainably within our animate Earth. Local community is of paramount importance because it is the source of wealth, soul, human warmth and well-being, and so a truly sustainable economy would have to consist of a network of semi-autonomous local economies. Such economies would arise form local eco-communities building their own low-impact ecologically-sound dwellings out of straw bale, cob or local sustainably-harvested timber, which would blend in well with the landscape.
There would be a stipulation that a large proportion of the land around each eco-dwelling should be managed for wildlife or be allowed to regenerate naturally. Every able-bodied community member would be required to contribute a minimum amount of time to working on the community farm. Each community would also have its own small school, and it would have its own healers, drivers, carpenters and craftspeople. It would care for its own infants, children and elderly between them. It would have its own renewable energy production systems based on solar, wind and biomass. There would be at least one skilled community facilitator/counselor to help social bonds between community members to mature and grow.
As has been the practice amongst humans for countless millennia, adolescents would come of age by means of deep experiences in wild nature guided by qualified adults, in which our young people would encounter the deep mysteries of the cosmos.
Real change has to be an inner one, for even the most brilliant technological solutions could lead to disaster if they are not used by wise human beings. Perhaps the most fundamental maxim of Gaian wisdom is that we humans are fully accountable for our planet. Each person must work out their own ecosophy (from oikos: household and sophia: wisdom) based on their own deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment.
The architecture of a new ecosophy can be represented by the Ecosophical Tree. The tree’s roots snake down into the rich soil of experience, absorbing the nutrition of profound inspiration. Arne Naess stressed the importance of radical pluralism at this level, for we need to be tolerant of other’s deep experiences, no matter how different they might be from our own. Commonality arises at the trunk of the tree, into which all the roots flow. This could be articulated as the Deep Ecology Platform formulated by Arne Naess and the American philosopher George Sessions.
The Deep Ecology Platform
- All life has value in itself, independent of its usefulness to humans.
- Richness and diversity contribute to life’s well-being and have value in themselves.
- Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs in a responsible way.
- The impact of humans in the world is excessive and rapidly getting worse.
- Human lifestyles and population are key elements of this impact.
- The diversity of life, including cultures, can flourish only with reduced human impact.
- Basic ideological, political, economic and technological structures must therefore change.
- Those who accept the foregoing points have an obligation to participate in implementing the necessary changes and to do so peacefully and democratically.
From the common trunk, branches begin to spread out in all directions in another flourishing of radical pluralism. These represent the lifestyle options and from them come the fruits of concrete action.
Living in harmony with the animate Earth involves translating our deep experience of her sentient presence into concrete everyday actions. Eventually, after careful consideration, each person will make his or her choices consistent with the common platform of the trunk. When this happens, fruit grows, matures and finally falls to the ground, fertilizing the soil with nutrients that everyone can draw from. Every person’s actions will be different, but if they are truly consistent with the realm of deep experience, each action will benefit the whole of Gaia, including other human beings. Each person’s particular journey from roots to trunk and then to branches and fruit represents their own ecosophical path into right action in the world.
Right action requires us to live into the body of the Earth. We would then encounter a broader, Earth-centered view in which every breath we take and every decision we make is a pledge of service and allegiance to the greater personhood of the planet.