Friday, March 23, 2018

Gaia Sermon II--the Four M's

"We have two choices: a Gaian future--or no future."

So said Norman Myers, an eminent British environmental scientist, back in the 1980s. But what did he mean by a "Gaian future?"

First, what do we mean by "Gaia"?

Gaia can briefly be defined as a Myth, a Model, a Metaphor, and a Movement.

"Gaia" was originally a Myth--the name given to the primordial Mother Goddess in ancient Greek mythology, and the etymological root of all the words we have that begin with "Geo--"such as "geology," "geometry,"  "geophysics" and even the name "George" (which derives from the roots ge + ourgos, meaning "earth worker" or farmer). Hesiod's account of the marriage of Ouranos (heaven) and Gaia (earth) has parallels in most other indigenous mythic traditions in the world, including our own. Shakespeare, for example, begins Friar Laurence's opening sermon with the following words:

"The Earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb."

This ancient mythic name took on a new life, in the late 70s, when it was adopted by a British biochemist named James Lovelock, in collaboration with his American colleague, microbiologist Lynn Margulis, to refer to their groundbreaking scientific Model of the biogenic roots of our biosphere--that is,  that life itself creates and sustains the atmospheric and geochemical conditions that, in turn, sustain life. While the details of this theory are exceedingly complex, and well beyond my competence, it can be boiled down simply as the interaction of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water, as mediated by life. Very simply:

Fire--Solar energy--powers photosynthesis, which is the energy source, not only of plant life, but of the animals that eat those plants and the fungi and bacteria that break them down. Without solar energy, there would be no life.

Earth--Life depends on a wide array of minerals, which it draws up from the substrate to mix with dead organic matter, broken down by fungi, bacteria, and insects, to form topsoil. Without topsoil we would have no plant life, and without plant life, no topsoil.

Air--Plants take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.  But without plant life, we would have no free oxygen at all to breathe.

Water--Fresh water is essential for all life, but without life, there would be no fresh water on Earth. The reason is that biomass filters the water in lakes and rivers, preventing it from becoming saline like the oceans, and thereby making it available for more life.

In short, the Gaia model tells us that Life itself transforms the Earth's surface and atmosphere into a life-support system. Without life, the Earth would be uninhabitable.

As this Gaia model entered into public discourse, it became something deeper--a Metaphor for the holistic way of thinking that gave rise to it.  "Gaia" as metaphor refers to a whole new way of thinking that does away with the false "Man/Nature" dichotomy upon which our agricultural and industrial system is based. While we tend to think of "Nature" as something "out there"--a resource which we can exploit at will--Gaian thinking tells us that we and our institutions are a part of, not apart from, the natural world. Gaia is not only "out there" but also, in here.

This metaphor has given rise to a worldwide Movement which currently goes under many names, all predicated on this perception of Nature--or Gaia--as a system of which we are a part, rather than as merely a resource which we exploit for our own purposes. So the Gaia movement includes--but transcends--the Environmental Movement. While the latter calls for reform, Gaian thinking calls for regeneration--for reinventing our culture from the ground up. In short, it calls for Permaculture: a design methodology, applicable to all human systems from our backyard to our global socioeconomic order, based on the three core ethics of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.  So since we all are Gaians, whether we like it or not,  I wish to leave you, today, with a Gaian Categorical Imperative:

In everything you do, strive to promote the health, competence, and resilience of yourself, your community, and your planet simultaneously.

To the exact extent that each of us adopts these Gaian ethics, we still have a chance of becoming agents of the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth.  We can still have a Gaian Future.

No comments: