Earth as Gaia, A Living Planet

 

By Dale Olen 

 

Gaia, the Greeks’ earth goddess, creates the world from a swirling mist.  Into the blackness of chaotic space charges this energetic goddess, swathed in white veils whirling through darkness.  “As she becomes visible and her dance grows ever more lively, her body forms itself into mountains and valleys; then sweat pours from her to pool into seas, and finally her flying arms stir up a windy sky she calls Ouranos — still the Greek word for sky — which she wraps around herself as protector and mate.”[i

Gaia and Ouranos prove a fertile couple spawning the forests and all living creatures.  As a nurturing parent, Gaia raises her human offspring by letting her “knowledge and wisdom leak from cracks in the Earth,” according to Elisabet Sahtouris.[2]  Considered “the primordial element from which all the gods originated,” Gaia became known as “Mother Earth.”  Roman mythology named her Terra, the Latin term for earth.[3]   

In the 1970s, scientist James Lovelock recognized the similarities between the functions of a living body and those of the planet.  He shared his thoughts about a living planet with his neighbor, novelist William Golding, who suggested the term Gaia to describe this lively view of Earth. Lovelock liked the idea and so upgraded Gaia’s status by calling Earth itself by the goddess’ name.  Lovelock’s label implied not so much that Earth was a goddess, but that it was a living entity.  While Lovelock never declared Earth a living organism, and consequently not a goddess, he has described Earth’s modus operandi much like a large and complex living being regulating itself to continue living.  He has called Earth “Gaia” ever since.

In the Gaia hypothesis, “Earth can be viewed as a superorganism with the capacity to regulate its body chemistry and temperature,” clear signs of life, according to geologist, Marcia Bjornerud.[4]  In her worldview, Bjornerud sees Earth as “a supersystem of countless smaller, interconnected systems involving rock, water, air, and life,” all of which teem with life.[5]

Earth lives, then, much like all plants and animals.  The greater part of a tree’s trunk is made up of dead materials, surrounded by living bark and topped with living branches and leafy growth.  But we say the tree is alive.  The entire tree system lives.

Animal bodies work the same way.  They serve as the containers for a variety of organic and inorganic materials from minerals to bacteria.  The heart works as a living organ, as does the liver and spleen, and certainly the nervous system and brain.  We do not think of all these body parts and bacteria, however, as living independently.  We think of the entire body as the living organ with all its beating, breathing, and bleeding parts as a single, vibrant whole.

Viewing the planet as a whole, you discover a similar living being.  All the species inhabiting Earth are its beating, moving organs.  Water runs like blood through river veins.  Soils covering the continents teem with life like skin spread across its body.  Forests act as lungs allowing Earth to breath.  Plants take sunlight and CO2 and give birth to oxygen keeping Earth’s immune system strong.  Immersed in water, the entire planet remains pliable and

flexible, an essential condition for life.  The human species serves as the nervous system and brain of Earth, alert to planetary illness and ready with cures to make her whole again.  And best of all, Earth reproduces itself through a process of recycling and re-energizing its many parts.  Earth, indeed, looks very much like a living being!                          

Lovelock’s worldview of Earth as Gaia reflects scientifically an ancient view of Earth held by indigenous peoples and articulated by the Romans and Greeks several thousand years ago.

Plato, for example, wrote: “We shall affirm that the cosmos, more than anything else, resembles most closely that living Creature of which all other living creatures, severally or genetically, are portion; a living creature which is fairest of all and in ways most perfect.”[6]

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman philosopher king saw Earth as alive as well: “Constantly think of the Universe as one living creature, embracing one being and one soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.”[7]

For much of human history the notion of Earth as a living system rested comfortably in the worldview of people everywhere.  But in recent times, the image of a simple, harmonious, nurturing Earth began to change in the imagination of homo sapiens.  By the time of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Earth had lost its soul and gradually became a machine. Nature was no longer seen as filled with spirit and consciousness.  Instead it spun in the universe as inert matter, the Third Rock from the sun. Even “animals were simply unfeeling machines, incapable of emotions or pain,” according to James Gibson in A Reenchanted World.[8]  A growing industrial market-place began viewing Earth as the source of raw material from which products could be made and sold to hungry consumers.

The Industrial Revolution (1710) celebrated machines and steam engines.  If the earth were a machine instead of a living being, humans could control it more easily.  So, a paradigm shift took place.  Earth began to look more like a controlled, understandable, and predictable machine.  Scientists and engineers could manage and manipulate this machine.  They felt safer in a turbulent, wild world. 

Industrialists and scientists re-labeled Earth as dead and inert.  Consequently, they lost respect and even love for this object that could be exploited for human gain.  As a mechanism to be operated, it soon became a profit center.  Its raw materials could be mined, exploded, burned, sold, and consumed. 

By mid-twentieth century, this dominant picture of the machine Earth began cracking.  As earth scientists discovered the energetic activity of Earth — moving tectonic plates, energy and magnetic fields, understood climates and winds, and the dynamic and sometime unpredictable cycles of water, rock, carbon, photosynthesis, life and death, the world began looking again more chaotic and wild than the steady-state machine they preferred.  It looked more like… well, life!  Somewhat messy, but awesome. 

The worldview of Earth began rolling back to the planet as a living system, Gaia.  Today, that transition in worldviews is in full force.  We live in a society where two worldviews clash—the historically embedded view, recently refreshed, that Earth acts like a living organism; and the 300-year old view that Earth is an inert machine under the control of the human race.[9]  

 



[1] Elisabet Sahtouris, EarthDance: Living Systems In Evolution, iUniversity Press, San Jose, 2000, 6.

[2] Ibid., Sahtouris, 6.

[3] Encyclopedia Mythica, www.pantheon.org/articles/g/gaia.

[4] Marcia Bjornerud, Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth, Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, New York, 2005, 15.

[5] Ibid., Bjornerud, 7.

[6] WWW. Spaceandmotion.com, Plato quote.

[7] Ibid. Spaceandmotion.com, Marcus Aurelius quote.

[8] James William Gibson, A Reenchanted World: the Quest for a New Kinship with Nature, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2009, 8.

[9] Ibid. Bjornerud, confer pages 173 – 187 for a fuller presentation of the changing worldview from Earth as living system to inert machine and back to living system.


[i] Elisabet Sahtouris, EarthDance: Living Systems In Evolution, iUniversity Press, San Jose, 2000, 6.

 

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