Let's not fool ourselves: we have brought the covid-19 global pandemic and the ever-increasing threat from climate change upon ourselves. For too long we have refused to consider the way "nature" works and now the Gaia alarm is sounding. If we act quickly, there is still a chance that we can change our ways and, in the process, create a more exciting and fulfilling way of organizing our lives. But these actions need to be nothing short of revolutionary.
The historian Yuval Noah Harari explains that humans "rule the world" because we are the only species that can co-operate flexibly and in large numbers, which, coupled with our use of language and imagination, gives us the ability to create 'fictional realities', for instance, religions, politics, money, economics, education and nation states. All of these social systems are based on cultural codes that sustain these fictional realities and make them into seemingly solid edifices.
Fictional realities are useful ways of organizing societies. There is nothing wrong with them in themselves, but they are inherently limited. When these fictions don't adequately take into account the natural systems that provide all the raw materials for the very functioning of living bodies, not to mention the air for breathing and the environmental waste management services, then at some point you can expect trouble to develop beyond the heady world of human fictions. Out there is the ‘real reality’ that runs the planet, sustaining the precious commodity of global habitability, as described by the "natural world" systems view of Gaian science.
First glimpsed by James Lovelock in the 1960s and further revealed in collaboration with Lynn Margulis, the Gaia planetary system is not a fictional reality created by humans, but on the contrary, after 3,600 million years of evolution, starting with the very first bacterial cells, it was the Gaia system that brought us humans about:
There is no evidence that human beings are the supreme stewards of life on Earth. But there is evidence to show that we are recombined from powerful bacterial communities with a multi-billion- year-old history. We are part of an intricate network that comes from the original bacterial takeover of the Earth. —Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos, 36
But for some reason, during the last 400 years or so, we in the West decided that we were somehow separate from, and superior to Gaian "nature." Our fictional realities became riddled with this illusion, and since the industrial revolution, our "species-specific arrogance" has known no bounds. As the Gaia alarm sounds, James Lovelock lays out the simple choice facing us:
In Gaia we are just another species, neither the owners nor the stewards of this planet. Our future depends much more upon a right relationship with Gaia than with the never-ending drama of human interest. —James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, 14
We are so obsessed with the "never-ending drama of human interest" that even the admirable call to "build back better" after the covid pandemic is mostly focused on minor changes to the same old script rather than on a serious consideration of the tantalizing question, What is a right relationship with Gaia? We can throw some light on this question by looking at some examples of where the "fictional" and "real" realities don't match up. Let's start with our approach to climate change.
A vital feature of the Gaia operating system in the natural world is emergence, the continual, flexible adaptation between organisms and their environment. On the one hand, global heating and its effects on the climate are a "real reality," an emergent property of Gaian nature brought about by the cascading effects of carbon emissions. But on the other hand, the heads of state, politicians, and business people who come together at meetings such as the UN Climate Change Conferences to look for a solution are representatives of fictional realities, such as nation states, corporations, or the UN.
These fictional realities maintain themselves according to their own rules, regulations, and dogmas, and so any attempt to come up with a solution to the real problem has always to be processed through these fictional procedures. Too often the inability to adapt and the resistance to change block real progress toward an accommodation with real conditions. Nevertheless, not only are we as a species, as organisms, as holobionts, in Gaia, but Gaia is also in us. So the dilemma is heightened because on one level there is a natural, personal, Gaian response to the urgency of the climate change challenge which then conflicts on another level with the inflexibility of the fictional rules and dogmas of the "never-ending drama of human interest." Agreements are drawn up, but very little happens.
Another example of the disjunction between the two realities can be seen in the growing concern with the inequality and poverty that exists at a global level. In contrast, a basic characteristic of the "natural-world" Gaia operating system is that all organisms are equally evolved. As Margulis and Sagan explain:
From the paramecium to the human race, all life forms are meticulously organized, sophisticated aggregates of evolving microbial life. Having survived in an unbroken line from the beginnings of life, all organisms today are equally evolved. —Microcosmos, 28
However, our current fictional economic system sees some people as "worth more" than others - Adam Smith actually built poverty and inequality into his economic fantasy. This in-built inequality is further compounded with scale. In contrast once again, Margulis and Sagan stress the equality of nature’s worlds:
An organelle inside an amoeba within the intestinal tract of a mammal in the forest on this planet lives in a world within many worlds. Each provides its own frame of reference and its own reality.—Microcosmos, 126
There is no suggestion within the Gaia system that any scale, any frame of reference, is any more or less important for the functioning of the whole system than any other. Similarly, it would be hard to make the case that your brain or your heart was more important than your digestive system in keeping you alive. The fictional realities of economics and politics, however, are largely based on hierarchies, where some parts of the system are considered to be more valuable than others and where certain activities are seen as more important for the functioning of the whole. This means that any attempt to address inequality by tweaking the fictional reality itself will never address the fact that inequality is a purely human invention and has no place in Gaia nature. As the covid pandemic has demonstrated, in the proper functioning of a healthy system, all workers are key workers.
The paradigm shift which the Gaia operating system view provides releases us from the deep-rooted concept within the "never ending drama of human interest" that we are somehow separate from, and superior to, the rest of the natural world. "We need to be freed from our species specific arrogance," Margulis and Sagan declare, as they point to something much more inclusive, powerful, and creative:
Human beings are not particularly special, apart or alone. A biological extension of the Copernican view that we are not at the centre of the Universe deprives us of our place as the dominant form of life on the planet. It may be a blow to our collective ego, but we are not masters of life perched on the final rung of the evolutionary ladder. Ours is a permutation of the wisdom of the biosphere.—Microcosmos, 195
As a product of 3,600 million years of evolution, we have inherited an intuitive understanding of what makes Earth-system sense, and this can inform the shift of imagination needed to begin to devise "Gaia-wise" solutions to the current problems we are facing, by designing human systems which are not insensitive to the dynamics of Gaia nature. What’s more, as "permutations of the wisdom of the biosphere," each of us will have something unique to offer to the process of discovering and nurturing our "right relationship with Gaia." In effect, we have a vast, untapped creative potential to "come of age" and bring about a human renaissance as a truly Gaia-wise species. For, as Lynn Margulis observes:
Gaia, in all her symbiogenetic glory, is inherently expansive, subtle, aesthetic, ancient, and exquisitely resilient. —Symbiotic Planet, 160
. . . and so, inherently, are we.
Thus it's time to promote a Gaia-Wise Global Co-operation Initiative with these aims:
—to create a network of organizations, groups and individuals at all scales who are already addressing problems through actions that make Earth System sense, and publicizing and sharing their experiences
—to popularize a Gaia-wise vocabulary which explains the features, processes and dynamics of the Earth Systems view in an accessible way, including:
• the dynamics of emergence, spontaneity and change in evolving systems
• the role of symbiosis, co-operation and competition in evolution
• the equal importance of all parts of a system in the functioning of that system
• the fundamental role of recycling at all scales within the global system
• the deeply interwoven relationship between an organism and its environment
—to highlight the incongruity between the "fictional realities" of current political, social, cultural and economic structures and behavior patterns and the "real reality" of Gaia nature, and propose Gaia-inspired ways of re-organizing the structures and behavior patterns so they make Earth System sense. Examples include:
• taking the supply of essential services, such as electricity, out of the competitive market system and installing local community-based systems
• recycling the accumulated global wealth currently in the hands of a minority into a "commonwealth" resource to alleviate the problems caused by the creation of the wealth, such as poverty, environmental degradation and climate change
• creating local communities which are directly connected to natural processes
The Gaia world view has been in the public domain since the 1980s and is now well accepted and researched within the scientific community. The covid-19 pandemic and the increasing uncertainty of the effects of climate change are now sounding the Gaia alarm loud enough for everyone to hear. This is nothing less than an existential challenge for humanity, but there is hope. We urgently need to expose the limitations of the fictional realities which are dictating our current behavior and shift the basis of our actions to the dynamics that have been driving the Gaia planetary system for 3,600 million years. We need to build resilience into the cyclical evolution of our social, economic and political systems by empowering people to design and create local-scale communities which are largely self-reliant in energy production, waste management, food supply, health care and education. We need a global wealth-recycling scheme that provides all communities with a generous living income, whatever roles that may entail, cleaning, cooking, bringing up and educating the young, providing health care, looking after the old, building and maintaining local infrastructure such as housing, energy supply, waste recycling and management systems, and tending to gardens, growing spaces and recreation facilities.
In short, we need to create Gaia-wise communities where people can lead naturally healthy lives with dignity and self-respect and where, in a deep way, they know they belong. And we need to start now.
© Peter Horton 2021 firstname.lastname@example.org