“You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.” Robert Shaw

“Before Lovelock used the name Gaia, people could not really grasp his ideas at all. His friend, the novelist William Golding, suggested the name of the ancient Greek mother-goddess, Gaia. And when Lovelock tried that name, people began to understand him.” Mary Midgley

One of the problems with Gaia is that she’s very difficult to see. Of course I can see the Earth, it’s unavoidable, but when I say Gaia I mean the self-sustaining living system; a planetary ecosystem or even superorganism. I can’t directly see the all of the processes that go into the whole planetary system and certainly not in just my short human lifetime. It is too large and complex and even today’s science suffers from that limit, itself being quite a young human experience.

If you try to know Gaia by isolating one part, like the atmosphere, a forest or an ocean surface, you lose sense of the “big picture.” To get a sense of what Gaia is its best not to get too carried away with the details because you might lose the context. And here is where we replace the reductionist and atomistic way of seeing things for something holistic or “top-down,” that uses physiology as a model and metaphor for understanding the Earth’s living systems. This requires some intuitive or peripheral viewing to begin to work with, that can be adjusted and refined as our understanding of its workings become clearer.

I say peripheral because it’s one of those things that catches your attention out of the corner of your eye but seems to disappear when directly looked at. Put another way, it’s like when you like too closely at the details of a painting and you lose sense of what the pictures is because all you can see are colours and brushstrokes. Looking at the details of a painting, or of the Earth’s living systems, is a useful and necessary way of learning how the whole has come together, but to get a good view of it all we really have to “fly with the eagles,” get a view of the whole landscape as a working body.

Maybe it is an imaginative metaphor or poetic license. Maybe it is simply a lens through which we can view the Earth and our place on it. The fact is humans have been living with these lenses for a long time, and even science has to use metaphors as it struggles to create language for concepts that are beyond our immediate experience and accessible only through the imagination. By such lenses we are inspired and guided by a vision that has a bearing on our sense of meaning and morality.

Now I want to suggest an exercise, to “connect” with Gaia without intellectual analysis. If you have access to natural surroundings, go there and sense Gaia around you. You can visualize it in your mind, and you can feel it in your heart but also you can connect the experience with your body, letting it resonate through your being. Take any or all examples and see how it feels.

Feel that the Earth is a body, something that can be healthy or unhealthy, that evolves and changes depending on the forces acting upon it and within it.

Feel that Gaia is something to have a relationship with, or as a web of relationships between sky, land, sea, Sun and all organisms that has been evolving since life first appeared on Earth and to which humans are just newcomers.

Feel that life was just a passenger on a volatile rock but that grew and became a very influential force on the planet, where all organisms evolved together to keep the Earth alive.

Feel that water is the lifeblood of Gaia, that it also pumps through you.

Feel that photosynthetic life absorbs the energy of the Sun and then finds ways of sharing that with other organisms, along with nutrients.

Feel that the air you breathe and the food you eat are a source of communion with all other living things.

Feel humanity as an intelligent parasite living off of Gaia like an energy-hungry and resource-greedy disease.

Feel the outcome if humanity carries on like this.

Feel that humanity, like any disease, is killed off by its host in order to be healthy.

Feel that humanity chooses a different fate and works towards a healthy symbiosis with Gaia, directing our intelligence to work in harmony and collaboration with her.

In feeling Gaia this way we embrace a worldview that guides our attitudes and actions to a very different relationship with the Earth than we have now. Personifying the Earth has little to with defying science and more to do with engaging those aspects of the human psyche that cannot be convinced by intellectual analysis alone and creating an empathy with the very system that supports our existence. Harmonious planetary relationships require that we can feel with Gaia, not only think with Gaia.

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“These days we are surrounded by debate and discussion about climate change. It is a complex scientific problem which is still not completely understood, and its implications could have major implications for the human species and indeed the rest of the world. Moreover, humans actions to reduce climate change and adapt to its effects could also have major implications. Inevitably, then, the issue is the topic of heated debate.” Richard Betts, Human-Caused Climate Change in Earthy Realism edited by Mary Midgley

After reading the science behind climate change AND the alternatives, I still wonder how people don’t understand it. Either they deny it completely or take the parts that are theory and think that it is fact. So I thought that I should explain a few of the facts behind it and reveal the legitimate doubt there is behind all of the confusion. This is a very simple overview, and there is more to climate change than just what humans are doing to it, but it’s a place to start…

Simple Fact: Greenhouse gases (like methane and carbon dioxide) absorb heat.

Too little and our climate cools down. Too much and our climate heats up.  Extremes either way make the atmosphere uninhabitable for life.

Not-So-Simple Fact (but a fact nonetheless): The collective action of life on Earth regulates and is regulated by the atmosphere to keep the atmosphere inhabitable.

The Earth is a closed system, barring the constant supply of solar energy and occasional meteorite and perhaps other cosmic phenomena, so it has its limitations, such as how well it can cope with stress to its system and how well it can maintain balance (see homeostasis).

Fact: The Earth’s climate changes naturally, being maintained between livable extremes of glacials (ice ages) and warmer interglacials (like now).

Fact: Humans are also having an impact on global warming.

Humans are digging up and burning carbon, as fossil fuels, and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  The capacity for the atmosphere to absorb heat is increasing, so, yes, it is getting warmer.

Another Fact: Humans are destroying a lot of ecosystems which weakens the Earth’s capacity to maintain itself at habitable levels for life.

One such destructive action is deforestation, which weakens the Earth’s capacity to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere. If we see the Earth like a body, we can say that humans are poisoning the Earth AND taking away the Earth’s ability to remove the poison, which, as the saying goes, adds insult to injury.

Legitimate Doubt: It is known that we are contributing to climate change but it is not known to what extent.

A spectrum between two possibilities exists, a best case scenario and a worst case scenario.

Best case scenario: We might only be warming things up a little more than usual, in which case the Earth will resume its usual climatic course and return to an Ice Age.

Worst case scenario:  That we reach some sort of tipping point where the Earth may not be able to recover sufficiently to return to an Ice Age and move into hotter climatic levels in which humans won’t be able to survive.

So, these things are not doubtful:

YES we can and do affect the planet.

YES we do have to be careful.

YES we can overpopulate the planet.

YES we can overuse resources.

YES nonbiodegradable matter can choke up the system if there is too much of it.

YES we can end up making our planet uninhabitable for ourselves.

And YES, we do have to review our effects on our planet’s capacity for life and effective changes in our ways to avoid potential climatic catastrophes.

The FACT that humanity can contribute to climate change ought to tell us that we are capable of reaching tipping point. Its happened to local civilisations that misused the environment, but now it could happen on a global scale. Considering all of the carbon that can be dug up and burnt and all the forests we are capable of cutting down, it’s not hard to imagine the Earth heading into the Worst Case Scenario, it is not impossible.

Here’s three books that I recomment reading;

Healing Gaia by James Lovelock- This is a more up to date and clarified overview of his Gaia Hypothesis, as it has since been revised, put under testing and shows its successful predictions. It also integrates some of the criticisms leveled at it and works to resolve and include these arguments within it, such as biological evolution and defining life.

Earthy Realism edited by Mary Midgely- With articles written by several people this includes explanations about Gaian or Earth Systems science but also looks at its implications for it in several aspects of human existence, political, social, economical, philosophical, ethical and spiritual.

Collapse: How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared M.Diamond- I haven’t read it yet, but from what I’ve found on the internet of it, it shows some good examples of environmental collapse that causes the collapse of civilisations. In my “to read” list.