I was thinking of posting about Gaia before hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the historic typhoon that left a million people homeless in India. Beyonce' and Jennifer Lawrence are weighing in, so I figured I would too. Gaia theory is constructed around the notion that the Earth and it's biosphere is a living system. James Lovelock, an environmental scientiest published his first book on the theory in 1979. Using the Goddess Gaia as it's namesake was the idea of William Golding, who came up with another great title for a book, "Lord of The Flies." Environmentalists love Gaia theory, because it's poetic. Environmental Scientists have less affection for it, mostly because it is a theory that exists outside. of mechanistic science which has been dominant since Newton had an apple fall on his head.
I first encountered Gaia Theory in 1993. I was getting a Master's Degree in Psychology at The California Institute of Integral Studies. I was taking a class with Ralph Metzner called "Green Psychology." Ralph was a member of the triumvirate, along with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert, who did the Psychedelic Research at Harvard in the early 1960's that unleashed psychedelics onto a generation. Tim Leary subsequently pursued the life of polysubstance addicted psychedelic prophet, and Ram Dass had become a Guru for the baby boomers, but Ralph with his severe intellectual German mind, had just kept digging at the mysterious roots of being human. The only indications of his 60's origins were a ponytail, and the occasional medicine pouch he wore hanging from his neck, both of which I had found unfortunate. When he spoke passionately, I experienced it like sunshine shining through an ornately designed crystal chandelier. He was blindingly brilliant, and more than a little intimidating. In fact, I didn't write my final paper for his class, because I felt frightened of exposing myself to his piercing intellect. I took an incomplete, and a few months later, realized I was going to need a grade in his class to graduate. I approached him hesitantly and reminded him that I'd taken his class, but hadn't written the final paper, but would now like to. "You took my class six months ago, didn't write the final paper, and now would like me to read it, and give you a grade?" He spoke incredulously with a slight German accent that I had always experienced as menacing. I nodded sheepishly, embarrassed by my desire for him to help me solve my problem. "Well, that is such a fucking bold request, I have to say, 'Yes,'"he responded. As I remember it, he may have even smiled. I know I did. When I got the paper back, I had received an A, that made me extremely proud.
I don't have the paper anymore. But I'd like to share what I learned in his class. Ralph had long since stopped proselytizing about psychedelics, though the scuttlebutt was that didn't mean he was no longer using them. But his passion(as it had become for many psychedelicists) was the environment. Psychedelics had lead him to the awareness of nature, and the way it was suffering by the stewardship of humanity. In the sixties, Jim Morrison sang(mostly likely from a psychedelic state, "What have we done to the Earth? What have we done to our fair sister?" Ralph was still exploring this question. But he was more focused on the psychological suffering resulting from being cut off from an intuitive and nurturing relationship with nature as the organic source of existence, and also from the lack of relationship with the deeper intelligence behind nature's mechanics. He thought all kinds of psychological difficulties had their origins in this alienation. Things like eating disorders, addictions, and a even physical diseases had their origins in people's alienation from nature, or from having been raised by people who were at least a generation removed from a meaningful relationship with the natural world.
Ralph made a very convincing argument. A lot of his theories were influenced by his exploration of indigenous shamanism, and it was much more fundamental than the psychodynamic theories about psychopathology I had encountered throughout graduate school. But it was in my exposure to Gaia Theory where my head was really turned. Al Gore's environmental tome had been published the year before and we were early in the Clinton Presidency, and there was a real sense of optimism about the world. I remember asking his opinion of Gore's book, and his response was "Those assholes know exactly what's going on with carbon in the atmosphere, and they won't do a thing about it, watch." Sadly, there was very little that they did do. In more recent times, Barack Obama stated in his speech the night of his election that history would see his election as a time when the rising oceans receded and the earth cooled." Sadly, although he was both informed and inspired, he also was limited in what he could accomplish(The Paris Accord notwithstanding). Global Warming had been building momentum for a long time even before Gore's book, and recent revelations show that Chevron has known about the effects of rising carbon levels in the atmosphere for over fifty years. One has only to watch "Soylent Green", produced in 1973, to realize that the effects of Global Warming which we are now being experienced were being prophesized long ago.
Ralph wasn't a scientist, though science was not hard for him to understand. He was a psychologist with interests in indigenous wisdom traditions. But he liked Gaia theory and explained it well. To him, the Earth and its' biosphere was an organic system. It was a body. Like a cell, or an animal, or a human body. And like all bodies, what it worked towards was homeostasis. It wanted to function ideally, and was composed to do so. The pre-industrial age composition of the environment was designed for ideal survivabilty of all the species who inhabited the earth. Gaia theory espoused that there was a keen intelligence behind this composition. It wasn't random, it wasn't chance, and it was as fragile as all inspired creations. Gaia theory didn't care so much what the intelligence behind the design was, just that it had an intention and a purpose.
Since human beings invented combustible engines, this fragile balance of the atmosphere has been under assault. Carbon, that had been stored in the earth as decomposed organic material, for millions of years was being harvested and burned. Gaia theory would posit that there was an intelligence behind storing decomposed organic matter this way. That it was stored this way for a reason, and that it was human hubris that thought this system could be hacked without consequences. The consequence of burning carbon and releasing it into the atmosphere is a warmer climate. But Gaia theory would also state something a little bit more far out. That man's lack of wisdom in doing this creates a feedback system where Gaia protects herself. The source of this warming is man. This warming is the same kind of warming you get in an organic organism when a virus starts to multiply. In order to kill the virus, a fever is created that makes the host a less hospitable place to live. In Gaia theory, the virus is MAN. Through his rising population and utilization of limited resource, he creates an imbalance, and imposes himself on the other species(through mass extinctions) designed to maintain the balance of the ecosystem. Thus, one species creates all the imbalance, and through that species insatiable need for energy to be derived from organic resources(decomposed carbon) that species releases the fever that will be his own destruction.
Far out, yes? Perhaps. But maybe only from an anthropocentric perspective. From the Earth's perspective as an organism, the necessity of limiting or culling the population of human beings is just a short term response to a temporary problem. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Man's hominid ancestors first appeared two million years ago. Homo Sapiens have only existed on the earth for between ten and twenty thousand years and have only been burning carbon in industrial amounts for about one hundred and fifty years. This is a very recent and acute problem. And once the source of warming(carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation) is stabilized, it will take awhile for homeostasis to return. It could be a thousand years, it could be two thousand years, it could be ten thousand years, or a hundred thousand. But to the four and a half billion year old earth, this is not a problem. She's got all the time in the world. It is us, whose time is limited.