This realization prompted what has become a lifelong quest for me: to analyze the underlying causes of this global cancer, and thereby find, if possible, a cure.
In pursuit of this quest, my first realization (for which I am thankful to Gregory Bateson, above all) was that the root causes of the Cancer of the Earth are not genetic--not somehow endemic to the human species--but rather, epistemological. The cancer originates, that is, in the false perception--dating back to the Agricultural Revolution, but codified by Descartes at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, that "man" and "nature" are separate, antithetical entities, and that the only true purpose of "nature" is to serve as a "resource" for "man." In his masterful final book, "Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity," Bateson blew this Cartesian dichotomy ("Res Cogitans" vs. "Res Extensa") right out of the water, when he demonstrated that the processes of biological evolution and learning in other living organisms are homologous with all the processes that we label as "mind"--that "mind" and "life" are the same thing.
When Lovelock's Gaia theory first was published and widely disseminated, near the end of Bateson's life, this homology between mind and life got a catchy name and a photo image, and thus went from abstract theory to counter-cultural phenomenon. "Gaia" as myth, model, metaphor, and movement became the only concept we have that dissolves the "man-nature" dichotomy altogether by positing a single system comprising both. Any understanding of Gaia theory makes it irrevocably clear that we are a part of "nature," not apart from it.
This being the case, the question remains: what part of this magnificent Gaian system are we? What is our role? Pessimists, of course, see our role as inherently pathogenic: human civilization is a cancer on the Earth, cancer consumes and destroys its host, and therefore we are doomed. Unfortunately, they may well prove right in the end. But despair is self-validating and therefore self-defeating. If we believe that there is nothing we can do to change our headlong course toward annihilation, then we will do nothing. But what if there is something we can do, before it is far too late?
If our global cancer is based on our shared cultural premises--on erroneous core presuppositions rather than on genetic propensity, as Bateson claims--then the path to healing and regeneration may well start with abandoning those presuppositions and embracing an alternative, systems-based, Gaian worldview. This is exactly what Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the worldwide Permaculture movement, had in mind. Mollison explicitly cites Gaia theory as the foundation of his vision:
"Lovelock (1979) has perhaps best expressed a philosophy or insight, which links science and tribal beliefs: he sees the earth, and the universe, as a thought process, or as a self-regulating, self-constructed and reactive system, creating and preserving the conditions that make life possible, and actively adjusting to regulate disturbances. Humanity, however, in its present mindlessness, may be the one disturbance that the earth cannot tolerate (Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, 2)."
As the founder of the Permaculture movement, Mollison's essential project was to create a Gaian praxis inspired by Gaian theory--to develop an autonomous, self-propagating educational movement that would evolve a human culture based on close observation of, emulation of, and engagement with the natural processes of self-sustaining and self-regenerating ecosystems. Originating in Australia, the Permaculture movement has since spread worldwide, albeit below the radar of Glomart corporate media. As his foremost disciple, world-renowned Permaculture master teacher Geoff Lawton, once said,
"You can solve all the world's problems in a garden."
However exaggerated this claim may seem, there is deep truth to it. Gardening (using permaculture principles), after all, promotes the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our living planet simultaneously:
- It promotes our physical health by giving us good outdoor exercise and simultaneously growing nutritious fruits and vegetables for ourselves and our families.
- It promotes our competence by enabling us to learn from our mistakes, and seek out knowledge and skills from others.
- It promotes our resilience by grounding us and increasing our ability to adapt to change, so we are less likely to panic or despair when (as now) political life turns ugly and vicious, or when unexpected catastrophe hits, whether from violent storms, prolonged drought, or economic collapse.
- It does likewise for our community, by increasing our collective self-reliance and encouraging us to share our knowledge and skills freely with others.
- Finally, as more and more people build healthy topsoil, they sequester more and more carbon and reduce the atmospheric excess from fossil fuels, thus enhancing the health, competence, and resilience of our entire planet.
In short, systemic Gaian thinking and its practical manifestation in the global Permaculture movement have the potential to become what we all need the most--a viable mechanism for the spontaneous remission of the Cancer of the Earth.