Humans and Gaia
Gaia, as seen by James Lovelock, is a self-regulating system. It is a web of life, where all the organisms play a part in keeping the Earth in a healthy livable balance. The lands, skies and seas, and the organisms that inhabit them are part of an interdependent system that evolves and diversifies in harmony and unity. The idea is that the Earth is a huge superorganism and all individual organisms and inanimate materials are the components of this superorganism, including us humans. As a part of Gaia, humanity isn’t just living on Gaia but living in her. We aren’t just “of” Gaia, our identity runs much deeper than that, because we “are” Gaia, albeit a small part of her.
We are emerging and developing within Gaia in a similar way that our organs emerged and developed within us as embryos. We are utterly dependant on Gaia for our existence but unlike our organs, we humans do not yet fulfill a vital function within Gaia. We have potential to become an important part of her, but if we disappear Gaia would not miss us. In fact it’s worse, Gaia would flourish even more, as now we are more of a burden on the Gaian system than a blessing. We no longer help to maintain Gaia “in a healthy livable balance.”
In our past we evolved a great talent for abstract thinking and problem solving, involving intellect and imagination. With this we have been able to create tools that help us enhance our otherwise unremarkable bodies and also created complex social bonds. From these we have developed landscape-transforming civilizations, instant global communication and travelled to the moon. Humans do not lack any inventiveness, except perhaps in one respect. Despite our abilities we have a problem, that is we are consuming more resources than we need. It was fine before the industrial revolution, Gaia was usually able to replenish herself with more life and keep things in balance. Then came the industrial revolution, which kept growing and growing until one day we found it is not as sustainable as we once thought. The resources being used were running out, the trees were being cut down faster than they could grow and the amount of chemicals being pumped into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, is more than can be recycled back into the earth’s cycles.
So what’s going to happen now? One day the industrial movement will realize that it has no more materials to work with because it has used them all up, but not before the atmosphere becomes uninhabitable by human beings because of the pollutants that have been pumped there. Is there a way to stop this before it happens? This is where the environmental movement comes in, a movement currently growing as people become more aware of our environmental plight. There are many environmental groups that are working to change things. From those who work practically with nature, with things like organic farming, permaculture and remineralization, to more political and social activism, such as political groups working to change environmental policies and others trying to reeducate the rest of society, especially future generations.
But so far all answers within the environment have been about the effects, such as global warming, nonrenewable resources, save the whales and save the trees. But there is always a cause to any effect and if we follow the thread, we find that at some point, to some degree, humans are responsible. Perhaps its just a question of politics or educating society, but maybe it’s deeper than that, maybe it’s psychological.
Ecology Needs Psychology and Psychology Needs Ecopsychology
Psychology was originally applied with how an individual interacts with human society. The common populace was seen as the measure of sanity. If you didn’t measure up, if you were out of step, then you may have a psychological problem. But what if society’s psychology isn’t as sane as we’d like to think? What have we to measure society’s sanity against? Well how about the very place the human psyche evolves within and depends upon; Gaia. This, as seen above, is itself a society, made up of a community of various organisms, including ours.
But how to connect the two fields of ecology and psychology? Well since the nineties there have been many writings about something called ecopsychology, starting with Theodore Roszak who first coined the term. The idea for Theodore Roszak is that ecology needs psychology and psychology needs ecology. What ecology lacks is a place for the human mind; it talks of carbon and water cycles and an interconnected web of life but leaves us humans feeling a bit estranged as it doesn’t really mention our minds’ place in it. Also psychology needs grounding in a larger sphere of understanding, it needs to understand that the psyche evolved out of its natural habitat so that we are not further estranged from our roots.
In our current state of ecological plight, the word “madness” seems very appropriate. One ecopsychologist, Ralph Metzner, used ideas from psychology to show what sort of diagnosis we could give to humanity today, especially Western society. One is amnesia, here we have forgotten what we are, we have somehow lost an ancient memory of our belonging, and instead we feel like “strangers” that have found ourselves in a place that is impersonal and alien. Another diagnosis could be autism. We have forgotten where we have come from and because of that we no longer feel an empathy with our source. It’s not surprising that myths have arisen that the origin of humans is above and beyond the world and maybe even the universe, such as aliens from another world, spirits from another dimension or some eternal resting place where we as souls no longer have to worry about “earthly” matters. To top it off, humanity may have an addiction, one called consumerism that convinces us that we need more stuff, newer stuff, all the time.
We can do all we want about the effects of our “collective neuroses,” by saving whales, ethical consumerism, ethical industry, sustainable living etc but if these aren’t reinforced by a deeper psychological healing then our actions won’t be quite so effective. As Karen Armstrong said, “Neuroses are much more difficult to get rid of than beliefs. We can all change our opinions more easily than we can eliminate destructive patterns in our lives, however hard we try. It is the same with religion and, surely, the same with a culture. Our religious beliefs may have changed but our emotional compulsions have remained.” If we only change the effects of things, then we can easily slip back into our old habits and compulsions. If we do not add a psychological depth to ecology, then no matter how many trees we try to save, humanity may find itself slipping back into old patterns.
In ecopsychological writings, there is an idea called the ecological unconscious. Where Freud talked of a personal unconscious that contains an individual’s psychology and Jung talked about the collective unconscious, the common psychology of humanity, Roszak talks about the ecological unconscious. We cannot say that the psyche appeared out of nowhere, in fact it has evolved from and continues to evolve within Gaia. Its beginning goes far back through our evolution and gradually appeared. In evolution, nothing is ever lost it is usually built upon, such as the layering of our brain, from a “fish” brain at the core layered over until we have a “human” brain layered over the top.
This ecological unconscious has been denied because of beliefs that we are somehow distinct from nature, or that we are the pinnacle of its evolution. But our evolution does not proceed from nature in an independent way, it proceeds within nature, in an interdependent evolution. So to heal ourselves, we need not only look at our personal and interpersonal relations, but also by placing psychology within a broader arena, that of Gaia, can our health be greatly enhanced, as this is the very place that we grow within and depend upon for our existence. Our reconnection isn’t just a physical one but also a psychological one. Our relationship with nature isn’t just one outside of us but also within us. The journey of the soul is a part of nature, not apart from it.
The Human Mind and Gaia
With this view of a human evolution that depends upon Gaia, we also redefine our identity. Humans have a lot of identities within which our egos may define themselves; I am this individual with this body and personality, I am in this family, I do this work, I live this life, I am this religion, I am this nationality, I am this race etc., all very human definitions. But we can go further back, I am a primate, I am a mammal, I am a vertebrate, I am an animal, I am a living being, I am Gaia and even back to the stars and the Big Bang, seeing our evolution as a part of the evolution of the universe.
For the first time that we know of, Gaia has developed an “ego,” a sense of identity and place. Through the self-consciousness of humanity, Gaia can know herself and her place in the universe. Everything we do, everything we are is an extension of Gaia and her evolution. Our cultures, like sciences, religions and arts can be directed, not only for the advantage of humanity, but also to Gaia, the interdependent system to which we belong. As Gaia evolves, we evolve and as we evolve, Gaia evolves, and even the rest of the universe is in turn enriched by the synergy that is life.