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The Perceptual Implications of Gaia

Thoughts on the spirit of the atmosphere
The Perceptual Implications of Gaia

by David Abram

The Gaia hypothesis represents a unique moment in scientific thought: the first glimpse, from within the domain of pure and precise science, that this planet might best be described as a coherent, living entity. The hypothesis itself arose in an attempt to make sense of certain anomalous aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere. It suggests that the actual stability of the atmosphere, given a chemical composition very far from equilibrium, can best be understood by assuming that the atmosphere is actively and sensitively maintained by the animals, plants, oceans, and soils all acting collectively, as a vast, planetary metabolism. In James Lovelock’s own words, the hypothesis states that:

The entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts.[1]

It is gratifying to see that this hypothesis is slowly gaining a hearing in the scientific world, while being further substantiated by biologist Lynn Margulis, whose meticulous research on microbial evolution has already shown the existence of certain Gaian regulatory systems.[2] That the hypothesis will gain proponents only slowly is to be expected, for to accept it as valid is to throw into question many deeply ingrained scientific and cultural assumptions. In fact, the recognition of Gaia has powerful implications for virtually every realm of scientific and philosophical endeavor, since it calls for a new way of perceiving our world. In this essay I will explore just a few implications that the Gaia hypothesis holds for our understanding of perception itself.


It is significant that the first evidence that the surface of this planet functions as a living entity should come from a study of the atmosphere, the very aspect of the Earth that we most commonly forget. The air is so close to us that we tend to leave it out of our thinking entirely — much as we do not often attend to the experience of breathing, an act so essential to our existence that we take it completely for granted. The air that surrounds us is invisible to our eyes; doubtless this has something to do with why we usually act and speak as though there were nothing there. We refer to the space between things, or the space between two people; we do not speak of the air between us, or the air between oneself or a nearby tree. We generally assume, unless we stop to think about it, that the space between us is roughly continuous with the space between planets.

This is attested by our everyday language — we say that we dwell on the Earth, not that we live within the Earth. Yet if the Gaia hypothesis is correct, we shall have to admit that we live in this planet rather than on it. In direct contradiction to the earlier scientific assumption that life on Earth’s surface is surrounded by and adapts to an essentially random environment, Gaia indicates that the atmosphere in which we live and think is itself a dynamic extension of the planetary surface, a functioning organ of the Earth.

It may be that the new emphasis it places on the atmosphere of the world is the most radical aspect of the Gaia hypothesis. For it carries the implication that before we as individuals can begin to recognize the Earth as a self-sustaining organic presence, we must remember and reacquaint ourselves with the very medium within which we move. The air can no longer be considered a merely negative presence, an absence of solid things: henceforth the air is itself a density — mysterious, indeed, for its invisibility, but a thick and tactile presence nonetheless. We are immersed in its depths as surely as fish are immersed in the sea. It is the Medium, the silent interlocutor of all our musings and moods. We simply cannot exist without its support and nourishment, without its vital participation in whatever we are up to at any moment.

In concert with other animals, with the plants, and with the microbes themselves, we are an active part of the Earth’s atmosphere, constantly circulating the breath of this planet through our bodies and brains, exchanging certain vital gases for others, and thus monitoring and maintaining the delicate makeup of the medium. As Lovelock has indicated, the methane produced by the microorganisms that make their home in our digestive tracts — the gas we produce in our guts — may conceivably be one of our essential contributions to the dynamic stability of the atmosphere (less important, to be sure, than the methane contribution of ruminant animals, but essential nonetheless). Small wonder that we of literate culture continue to forget the air, this ubiquitous presence, for we prefer to think of ourselves serving a loftier purpose, set apart from the rest of creation. Our creativity, we assume, resides not in the depths of our flesh but in some elevated realm of pure thoughts and ideas that stands somehow outside the organic.[3]

Yet it is only by remembering the air that we may recover our place in the actual world that we inhabit. For the air is the invisible presence, so little understood, that materially involves us in the internal life of all we see when we step out of doors, in the hawks and trees, in the soil and the sea and the clouds. Let us return to this point later. For now it is enough to discern that the Gaia hypothesis implicates the enveloping atmosphere as a functioning part of the overall system. Thus, if we choose to view this planet as a coherent, self-sensing, autopoietic entity, we shall have to admit that we are, ourselves, circumscribed by this entity. If Gaia exists, then we are inside her.


The consequences for our understanding of perception and the function of the human senses are important and far-reaching. Traditionally, perception has been taken to be a strictly a one-way process whereby value-free data from the surrounding environment is collected and organized by the human organism. Just as biologists had until recently assumed, for simplicity’s sake, that life adapts to an essential random environment,[4]  so psychologists have assumed that the senses are passive mechanisms adapted to an environment of random, chance events. The interior human “mind” or “subject” is kept apprised of these random happenings in the exterior “objective” world by the sense organs, mechanical structures that register whatever discrete bits of sensory data — light, sound, pressure — they come into contact with, and transfer these separate bits of information into the nervous system. Here these separate sensations are built up, step by step, into a representation of the external world. It is this internal representation that is ultimately viewed and given meaning by the innermost “mind” of the perceiver.

Such is the classic model of perception propounded by Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley in the seventeenth century, and later formalized by the founders of modern scientific psychology.[5]  Although it has undergone many revisions and qualifications, this account still underlies most of the scientific discourse of our time. Within this account, meaning and value are assumed to be secondary, derivative phenomena resulting from the internal association of external facts that have no meaning in themselves. The external world is tacitly assumed to be a collection of purely objective, random things entirely lacking in value or meaning until organized by the ineffable human mind.

If this sounds like the assumption behind the agenda of to-day’s “value-free” sciences, we should note that each of the natural sciences completely depends, at some level, upon the exercise of human perception for the accumulation of its data — whether through a microscope, a telescope, or even the keyboard and screen of a computer. Yet none of the separate sciences have ever come up with an alternative description of perception that could supplant the traditional account. (Even quantum physicists, who have long recognized the untenability of this description of perception with regard to the subatomic domain, have proposed no substantial alternative.)

Each of the contemporary sciences, then, must still pay lip service to a model of perception constructed in accordance with eighteenth-century notions of the mechanical nature of the physical world and the absolute separation of mind from matter. One important reason for our prolonged adherence to an obsolete model may be the fact that, although it does not describe perception as we actually experience it, this model does describe perception as we need to conceive it if we are to continue in our cultural program of natural manipulation and environmental spoilage without hindrance of ethical restraint. The traditional account of perception as a unidirectional mechanical process is the only account possible if we still assert the convenient separation of psyche, subjectivity, or self-organization from the material world that surrounds us.

The Gaia hypothesis immediately suggests an alternative view of perception.

For by explicitly showing that self-organization is a property of the surrounding biosphere, Gaia shifts the locus of creativity from the human intellect to the enveloping world itself. The creation of meaning, value, and purpose is no longer accomplished by a ghostly subject hovering inside the human physiology. For these things — value, purpose, meaning — already abound in the surrounding landscape. The organic world is now filled with its own meanings, its own syntheses and creative transformations. The cacophony of weeds growing in an “empty” lot is now recognized for its essential, almost intelligent role in the planetary homeostasis, and now even a mudflat has its own mysteries akin to those of the human organism.[6]

We are beginning to glimpse something of the uncanny coherence of enveloping nature, a secret meaningfulness too often obscured by our abstractions. This wild proliferation is not a random chaos but a coherent community of forms, an expressive universe that moves according to a diverse logic very different from that logic we attempt to impose.

But if, following the Gaia hypothesis, we can no longer define perception as the intake of disparate information from a mute and random environment, what then can we say that perception is?

The answer is surprisingly simple: Perception is communication.

It is the constant, ongoing communication between this organism that I am and the vast organic entity of which I am a part. In more classical terms, perception is the experience of communication between the individual microcosm and the planetary macrocosm.

Let us think about this for a moment. If the perceivable environment is not simply a collection of separable structures and accidental events; if, rather, the whole of this environment taken together with myself constitutes a coherent living Being “endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts,”[7]  then everything I see, and everything I hear, is bringing me information regarding the internal state of another living entity — the planet itself. Or rather about an entity that is both other and not-other, for as we have seen, I am entirely circumscribed by this entity, and am, indeed, one of its constituent parts. Perhaps it is misleading, then, to use the term “communication” to describe a situation in which one of the communicants is entirely a part of the other.

The word communication, so often associated with a purely linguistic interchange, has overtones of something rather more conscious and willful than what we are trying to describe. Here we are referring to an exchange far more primordial, and far more constant, than that verbal exchange we carry on among ourselves. What is important is that we describe it as an exchange, no longer a one-way transfer of random data from an inert world into the human mind, but a reciprocal interaction between two living presences — between my own sentient body and the vast, spherical Body of the biosphere. Perhaps the term communion is more precise than communication. For by communion we refer to a deeper mode of communication, more corporeal than intellectual: a sort of sensuous immersion, a communication without words.

Perception, then — the whole play of the senses — is a constant communion between ourselves and the living world that encompasses us.

Such a description of perception, as a reciprocal phenomenon organized as much by the surrounding world as by oneself, is not entirely new to contemporary psychology. Indeed, recent developments in the study of perception indicate that sooner or later it must be reconceptualized as an interactive phenomenon.

For example, research on the evolutionary development of perceptual systems in various species suggests that these systems simply cannot be understood in isolation from the communication systems of those species.[8] And at least two of the most important twentieth century investigators working (independently of each other) on the psychology of human perception — Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Europe and James J. Gibson in the United States — had already begun, decades ago, to speak of the surrounding physical world as an active participant in our perceptual experience.


James J. Gibson published his text The Perception of the Visual World in 1950 and followed it with The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems in 1966 and The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception in 1979.[9]  In these books Gibson challenged the traditional account of perception which, as I indicated above, describes perception as an internal process whereby an initially meaningless mass of sensory data (resulting, say, from the impingement of photons on the retinal nerve cells) is built up into an “internal representation” of the external world.

This account, true to its Cartesian foundations, assumes a fundamental disjunction between the psychological (human) perceiver, described ultimately in mentalistic terms, and the purely passive environment, described in terms borrowed from physics. Gibson called this entire paradigm into question by asserting that perception must be studied as an attribute of an organism and its environment taken together. He showed that if we assume a natural compatibility between an animal and its earthly surroundings — what he and his followers refer to as an “animal-environment synergy” — then perception is recognized not as an indirect process carried on inside the organism but as a direct exchange between the organism and its world.

Gibson felt that artificial laboratory situations had misled psychologists into conceptualizing perception as a physically passive, internal, cerebral event. He believed that researchers studying perception should not construct artificially isolated and static experimental conditions that have nothing to do with everyday life — instead they should strive to approximate natural conditions. If they did so they would come to understand the senses not as passive mechanisms receiving valueless data, but as active, exploratory organs attuned to dynamic meanings already there in the environment.

These dynamic meanings, or “affordances” as Gibson has termed them, are the way that specific aspects of the natural environment directly address themselves to particular species or individuals. Thus, to a human a maple tree may afford “looking at” or “sitting under,” while to a sparrow it affords “perching,” and to a squirrel it affords “climbing.” But these values are not found inside the minds of the animals! Rather they are dynamic, addressive properties of the physical landscape itself, when the land is comprehended in a manner that does not artificially separate it from the life of the various organisms that inhabit it and contribute to its continuing evolution.

In short, for Gibson and those who carry on his work (the “direct perceptionists”), perception is elucidated as a reciprocal interchange between the living intentions of any animal and the dynamic affordances of its world. The psyche, as studied by these psychologists, is a property of the ecosystem as a whole.


The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty had already come to some very analogous conclusions in his major study, The Phenomenology of Perception, published in France in 1945.[10]  He did not seek to build a finished theory of perception but simply to attend as closely as possible to the experience of perception, and to describe it afresh. In doing so he steadfastly refused to construct an explicit philosophical system that we might reify into yet another frozen concept, another “internal representation” to set between ourselves and our environment. Instead he sought a language, a new way of speaking that would not sever our living bond with the world around us.

One of the major accomplishments of his investigations was to show that the fluid creativity that we commonly associate with the human mind, or intellect, is in actuality an extension (and recapitulation) of a deep creativity already underway at the most immediate level of bodily experience. For Merleau-Ponty, it is the organic, sensitive body itself that perceives the world and, ultimately, thinks the world — not some interior and immaterial mind.

Through an intricate and lucid analysis, Merleau-Ponty slowly discloses perception as an almost magical activity in which what he calls the lived-bodyorients and responds to the active solicitations of the sensory world, a sort of conversation carried on, beneath all our speaking, between the body and the gesturing, sounding landscape it inhabits. In numerous later essays, Merleau-Ponty disclosed this perceptual nterchange between body and world as the very foundation of truth in history, in political thought and action, in art, and in science.

In the book on which he was working at the time of his sudden death in 1962 — published posthumously, in unfinished form, as The Visible and the Invisible [11]  — Merleau-Ponty took up his earlier analysis of perception and carried it a step further, seeking to describe experientially the actual world to which our senses give us access, the common domain that we investigate with our rationality and our science. He found that the “invisible” in humankind — the region of thought and ideality — is inextricably intertwined with the shifting, metamorphic, intelligent nature of the enveloping world. If perception gives way in us to thought and reflective awareness, then these are not properties closed within the human brain, but are the human body’s open reply to questions continually put to it by the subtle, self-organizing character of the natural environment.

Merleau-Ponty’s thought is far too complex and elusive to be summarized here. Yet it is possible to experience Merleau-Ponty’s radical solution to the traditional mind-body problem simply by dropping the conviction that one’s mind is anything other than the body itself. If one is successful in this then one may abruptly experience oneself in an entirely new manner — not as an immaterial intelligence inhabiting an alien, mechanical body, but as a magic, self-sensing form, a body that is itself awake and aware, from its toes to its fingers to its tongue to its ears: a thoughtful and self-reflective animate presence. (This corresponds, roughly, to the first stage in Merleau-Ponty’s investigation.)

Yet if one maintains this new awareness for a duration of time, becoming comfortable enough with it to move about without losing the awareness, one will begin to experience a corresponding shift in the physical environment. Birds, trees, even rivers and stones begin to stand forth as living, communicative presences.

For when my intelligence, or mind, does not think of itself as something separable from the living body, but starts to recognize its grounding in these senses and this material flesh, then it can no longer hold itself apart from the material world in which this body has its place. As soon as my awareness forfeits its claim to a total transcendence and acknowledges its dependence upon this physical form, then the whole of the physical world shudders and wakes. This experience corresponds to the second, unfinished phase in Merleau-Ponty’s writing, when he refers less often to the body as the locus of perceptual experience and begins to write of the collective Flesh, his term for the animate, sensitive existence that encompasses us (of which our own sentient bodies are but a part).

Thus Merleau-Ponty, who in his earlier work had disclosed the radically incarnate nature of awareness and intelligence, ends by elucidating the world itself from the point of view of the intelligent body — as a wild, self-creative, thoroughly animate macrocosmos. Perception is now understood as the continuous intertwining, or “chiasm” between one’s own flesh and the vast “Flesh of the World.”

So both Gibson and Merleau-Ponty, pursuing two different styles of analysis inherited from their respective intellectual traditions, arrived at an alternative understanding of perception – an understanding of perception not as a mostly internal, cerebral event, but as a direct and reciprocal interchange between the organism and its world. While Gibson’s followers strive to map this interchange in precise, systematic theorems, Merleau-Ponty sought a new language that could ground the various disciplines in an awareness of perception as radical participation. In doing so he began to uncover, hidden behind our abstractions, a sense of the Earth as a vast, inexhaustible entity, the forgotten ground of all our thoughts and sensations.[12]

These two steps toward a post-Cartesian epistemology are remarkably consonant with the Gaia hypothesis, and with the Gaian implication that perception itself is a communication, or communion, between an organism and the living biosphere.


Still, we must further clarify our Gaian definition of perception by answering two obvious objections. Some may object that it is meaningless to speak of perception as a direct communication between oneself and the planetary macrocosm, since in many situations one’s senses are directly engaged only in relation to another individual organism, as when one is simply talking with another person. Furthermore, even when one is perceptually attuned to many different phenomena at once — when, for example, one is hiking through a forest — still one’s senses are then interwoven within a single specific region of the planet, a bioregion or ecosystem that has its own internal coherence distinct from the planet as a whole. Therefore, if perception is a communion it is at best a communion with relative wholes within Gaia.

But this is merely a provisional objection. We may certainly define specific regions or worlds within Gaia as long as we acknowledge Gaia’s enigmatic presence behind these. Gaia reveals herself to us only locally, through particular places, particular ecologies. Yet if Lovelock’s hypothesis is correct, then it is the overall planetary metabolism that lends organic coherence to the myriad systems or wholes within it. A forest ecosystem is one such whole. A human culture is another, and when conversing among ourselves we are directly involved in the whole linguistic culture that provides the medium for our exchange.

A closer look at perception is also called for at this point. Traditional research on perception has sought to study each sense as a separate and exclusive modality. Merleau-Ponty, however, has shown that to our immediate experience perception is a thoroughly synaesthetic phenomenon. In everyday life, in other words, the so-called separate senses are thoroughly blended and intertwined, and it is only in abstract reflection, or in the psychologist’s laboratory, that we are able to isolate the various senses from one another.

For example, when I perceive the waves that are breaking on the shore below my cabin, there is no separation of the sound of those waves from what I see of them. The swell of each wave as it rolls toward me, the tumbling crash of those waters before they sweep across the beach, only to hiss back down, overturning all the pebbles, to meet the next vortex — these are experiences in which visual, aural and tactile modalities all envelop and inform each other. A certain ocean smell, as well, permeates the whole exchange, lending it an unmistakable flavor.

Remarkably little is known about the mysterious chemical senses of smell and of taste. Within any textbook of perception it is difficult to find more than a few pages devoted to these senses, which seem to resist objective measurement and analysis. Yet it is with these subtle senses that we perceive the state of the very medium in which we move. We both smell and taste the atmosphere in the course of our breathing, and these sensations are so constant, so necessary, and yet so unconscious (or unattended to) that we may truly say they provide the hidden context for all the rest of our perceiving. And as Lovelock’s work indicates, the atmosphere is a complex but thoroughly integrated phenomenon, perhaps the most global of all the Earth’s attributes. As I become more aware that this organism I am not only perceives things through the atmosphere but also perceives the atmosphere itself — that I constantly smell, taste and touch the atmosphere as well as hear it rustling in the leaves and see it billowing the clouds — I will come to realize the extent to which my senses do indeed keep me in direct and intimate contact with the life of the biosphere as a whole.

A second important objection to our ecological view of ordinary perception — as a continuous communion with the animate Earth – will come from those who point out that there is much we perceive that is not of this planet: the other planets, the moon, the stars, and our own star, the sun. While obviously not unfounded, this objection still rests on the assumption that we dwell upon the surface of an essentially inert planet. Yet if we recognize Gaia as a self-regulating entity, we must recognize the enveloping atmosphere as a part of this entity. All that we know of other worlds reaches us via the rich and swirling atmosphere of our own world, filtered through the living lens of Earth’s sky. Even when we consider the dependence of our vision on the radiant light of the sun, we must acknowledge that the sunlight we know is entirely conditioned by the atmosphere that envelops, and is a part of, this living biosphere. While Gaia depends on the sun for its nourishment, we depend on Gaia. If we venture beyond the edges of its atmosphere, it is the living Earth that enables us to do so: we go in vehicles made of Earth and filled up with Earth’s sky — we need this in order to live.

This, I believe, is the deeper significance of James Lovelock’s ideas concerning what he calls the “terraforming” of other planets. By contemplating how humanity might someday transfer the complex Gaian metabolism to other planets in order to make them habitable by human life, Lovelock is underscoring the fact that neither humanity nor any other species we know can exist outside the incredibly complex Terran metabolism of which our own bodies and minds are an internal expression. If we wish to colonize other worlds, we shall have to bring this metabolism with us. We are entirely a part of the life that envelops this planet, and thus the living Earth as a whole is the constant intermediary between ourselves and the rest of the universe.

Our senses never outstrip the conditions of this living world, for they are the very embodiment of those conditions. Perception, we must realize, is more an attribute of the biosphere than the possession of any single species within it. The strange, echo-locating sensory systems of bats and of whales, the subtle heat sensors of snakes, the electroreception of certain fish and the magnetic field sensitivity of migratory birds are not random alternatives to our own range of senses; rather they are necessary adjuncts of our own sensitivity, born in response to variant aspects of a single interdependent whole.

Once perception is understood in this light — as interaction and exchange, as communion and deep communication — then several of the puzzles that haunt contemporary psychology will begin to resolve themselves. For instance, the notion of “extrasensory” perception” (itself a contradiction in term), may be recognized as a necessary by-product of the contemporary assumption that ordinary perception is an entirely mechanical phenomenon. If we assume that the senses are merely passive mechanisms geared to an environment of random events, then any experience of direct, nonverbal communication with other persons or other organisms will inevitably be construed as a bizarre event that takes place in some extraordinary dimension outside the material world.

But what if the living body, when healthy, is in constant communication with the space that surrounds it? What if the senses are not passive mechanisms but active, exploratory organs evolved in the depths of a living biosphere? We have only to consider the amount of chemical information regarding the shifting internal state of an organism that is continually exhaled, expelled, and secreted into the ambient air — information that may be picked up, intentionally or unintentionally, by the chemical senses of any nearby organism — to realize the extent to which a form of subtle communication may be carried on between our bodies at an entirely pre-reflective level.

In a like manner our eyes and our ears are capable of discriminations far more subtle than those to which we normally attend. When these organs are taken together with the organs of taste, smell and touch, as interactive components of a single synaesthetic perceptual system, we may discern that the living body is anatural clairvoyant, and that extrasensory perception is not extrasensory at all.


The recognition of a living Earth provides a condition for the resolution of numerous theoretical dilemmas. I have focused, in this article, on the paradox engendered by the assumption that, at least within the physical world, conscious awareness is an exclusively human attribute. If the external world exists only according to mechanical laws of determinacy and chance, what then is the point of contact between such a determinate world and human awareness? In others words, what is perception? I have suggested that in fact the external world is not devoid of awareness — that it is made up of numerous subjective experiences besides those of our single species — and furthermore that these myriad forms of biotic experience, human and nonhuman, may collectively constitute a coherent global experience, or life, that is not without its own creativity and sentience.

If such is the case, as the evidence for Gaia attests, then perception is no longer a paradox, for there is not the total disjunction between “inside” and “outside” worlds that was previously assumed. Just as the external world is subject to mathematical measurement and analysis, so also the internal world is subject to similar methods of study, as the burgeoning fields of neurobiology attest. But the reverse is also true. Just as the interior world of our psychological experience has many qualities that are ambiguous and indeterminate, so the external world now discloses its own indeterminacy and subjectivity — its own interiority, so to speak. Perception, then, is simply the communion and deep communication between our own organic intelligence and the creativity that surrounds us.

Recognition of the perceptual ramifications of the Gaia hypothesis is, I believe, essential to any genuine appraisal of the hypothesis. Without an awareness of Gaia as this very world that we engage not only with our scientific instruments but with our eyes, our ears, our noses and our skin — without the subjective discovery of Gaia as a sensory, perceptual and psychological power — we are apt to understand Lovelock’s discovery in exclusively biochemical terms, as yet another scientific abstraction, suitable for manipulating and engineering to fit our purposes.

Lovelock himself, in his speculations regarding the exportation of Gaia to the surface of Mars,[13] seems oblivious to the psychological ramifications of Gaia. The idea that the living biosphere, once discovered, can be mechanically transferred to another planet, overlooks the extent to which the discovery of Gaia calls into question the instrumental relationship we currently maintain with our world. Recognizing Gaia from within, as a psychological presence, greatly constrains the extent to which we can consciously alter and manipulate the life of this planet for our own ends.

As I have attempted to show, the discovery of a unitary, self-regulating biosphere, if accepted, completely undermines the classical account of perception upon which each of the separate sciences, until now, has been based. If our senses, our perceptions, and our whole manner of thinking have taken shape in reciprocal coevolution and communion with a coherent living biosphere, then in all probability it is our own Earth whose traces we actually discover in our most abstract investigations of quantum and astronomical spaces, the living Earth peering back at us through all our equations. For until we have recognized perceptually our organic embeddedness in the collective life of the biosphere — until we have realigned our thoughts with our senses and our embodied situation — any perception of other worlds must remain hopelessly distorted.

The theoretical discourse of our time has largely alienated us from the world of our everyday senses, while accustoming us to speak casually of the most far-flung realities. Thus other galaxies, black holes, the birth of the universe, the origins of space and of time, all seem quite matter-of-fact phenomena easily encompassed by the marvelous human mind. But Gaia, as a reality that encompasses us, a phenomenon we are immediately in and of, suggests the inconsistency of such blackboard abstractions. Gaia is no mere formula — it is our own body, our flesh and our blood, the wind blowing past our ears and the hawks wheeling overhead. Understood thus with the senses, recognized from within, Gaia is far vaster, far more mysterious and eternal than anything we may ever hope to fathom.

I have suggested that the most radical element of the Gaia hypothesis, as presently formulated, may be the importance that it places on the air, the renewed awareness it brings us of the atmosphere itself as a palpable yet enigmatic phenomenon no less influential for its invisibility. In Native American cosmology, the air or the Wind is the most sacred of powers. It is the invisible principle that circulates both within us and around us, animating the thoughts of all breathing things as it moves the swaying trees and the clouds.[14]  And indeed, in countless human languages the words for spirit or psyche are derived from the same root as the words for wind and breath. Thus in English the word spirit is related to the word respiration through their common origin in the Latin word spiritus, meaning a breath, or a gust of wind. Likewise our word psyche, with all its recent derivations, has its roots in the ancient Greek psychein, which means to breathe or to blow (like the wind).

If we were to consult some hypothetical future human being about the real meaning of the word spirit, he or she might reply as follows: Spirit, as any post-industrial soul will tell you, is simply another word for the air, the wind, or the breath. The atmosphere is the spirit, the subtle awareness of this planet. We all dwell within the spirit of the Earth, and this spirit circulates within us. Our individual psyches, our separate subjectivities are all internal expressions of the invisible awareness, the air, the psyche of this world. And all our perceiving, the secret work of our eyes, our nostrils, our ears and our skin, is our constant communication and communion with the life of the whole. Just as, in breathing, we contribute to the ongoing life of the atmosphere, so also in seeing, in listening, in real touching and tasting we participate in the evolution of the living textures and colors that surround us, and thus lend our imaginations to the tasting and shaping of the Earth. Of course the spiders are doing this just as well…

Published in Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, edited by A. H. Badiner, Parallax Press; 1990. Originally published in The Ecologist, vol. 15, no. 3, 1985.


[1] J. E. Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 9.

[2] Brown and Margulis, ‘Contaminants and Desiccation Resistance: a Mechanism of Gaia,” in Mitchell B. Rambler, Lynn Margulis, and Rene Foster, Global Ecology: Towards a Science of the Biosphere (Boston: Academic Press, 1989).

[3] lndeed it is likely that our forgetting of the air is at the root of the odd concept, so specific to our culture, of pure mind or mentality as an ideal sort of vacuum without physical attributes.

[4] Lovelock & Margulis, “Gaia and Geognosy,” p. 2.

[5] E. B. Titchener, An Outline of Psychology (New York: Macmillan, 1896).

[6] Lovelock, Gaia. Also, Brown & Margulis, “Contaminants and Desiccation Resistance.”

[7] Lovelock, Gaia, p. 9.

[8] See, for example, Carl D. Hopkins, “Sensory Mechanisms in Animal Communication in Haliday & Slater, eds., Animal Behavior 2: communication (New York: Freeman and Co., 1983), as well as articles by Gerhardt and Wiley in the same text.

[9] names J. Gibson, The Perception of the Visual World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950). The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979).

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962).

[11] “Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

[12] For an in-depth discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy and its ecological implications, see Abram, “Merleau-Ponty and the Voice of the Earth,” in Environmental Ethics, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1988.

[13] J.E. Lovelock, The Greening of Mars (New York: St. Martins/Marek, 1984).

[14] See, for instance, James K. McNeley, Holy Wind in Navaho Philosophy (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1981), on the Navaho concept of ‘Nilch’i.”

David Abram, Ph.D., is a cultural ecologist and philosopher who lectures and teaches widely on several continents. He is the author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Pantheon, 2010), and The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (Vintage, 1997).