Biologist Lynn Margulis, activist John Seed, and writer Stephen Buhner were panelists in this 2005 forum on activism and deep ecology hosted by Larry Buell, director of Earthlands. Buhner is a poet and award-winning author of many books; Seed is a rainforest conservationist and founder of the Rainforest Information Centre; as a scientist, Margulis is perhaps best known for her work on symbiogenesis; to the general public she is most famous as co-author, with James Lovelock, of the Gaia hypothesis (though as we will see she and Lovelock differ). ‘Gaia’ and ‘Gaian’ in this post refer to the hypothesis, not to the goddess.
Buhner (pictured) for the most part read a prepared and lengthy answer. Margulis and Seed spoke off the cuff, though Margulis showed some images as well. Buhner noted that Gaian philosophy calls for a reversal in one’s orientation, from human-centred to life-centred, and from thinking to feeling. What is happening in our environment, he added, is also happening to our interior world. He argued that our culture denigrates the heart, for the heart engenders empathy with and understanding of other organisms through our interconnectedness in ways ‘not accessible to the brain.’ Things, when seen as subjects, not objects, have much to teach us. He said that technological knowledge as a basis for understanding ‘is an ignorance that must be abandoned.’ He gave a personal example of an experience common to shamans but discounted by Western culture, in which pharmacological knowledge comes from the plants themselves, not through human trial-and-error or experimentation. This approach is not limited to indigenous cultures, however. People in Western culture ‘routinely’ have approached non-humans in this way, and he named some famous poets and scientists (pictured is one such poet, Goethe). ‘Making contact with other members of the Gaian system depends on how they are approached.’ The earth presents many opportunities to learn, he said, ‘if only I will unlearn what I think I know.’ When we accept that ‘surrender is not defeat,’ he concluded, ‘we truly begin to learn. Nothing after that is ever the same again.’
In answer to ‘how can individuals and communities best move forward with hope?’, he had a long answer. He said that invisible things make up part of reality, yet they cannot be seen nor measured nor calculated by reductionist methods. As readers, ‘we have the capacity to feel that invisible thing. We need no special training to do so.’ Yet in feeling things, we are accused of anthropomorphizing; however, in getting rid of feelings, he said, actually we are mechanomorphizing the world, ‘and believe me, we have a lot more in common with plants than cars.’ The impact of this denigration of feeling ‘has a lot do with hope and hopelessness.’ He recited a very short poem by Norbert Mayer[sp?]: ‘Just now a rock took fright when it saw me. It escaped by playing dead.’ The poem evokes playfulness and joy, ‘and in that joy,’ Buhner said, ‘there is a hopefulness’, for the poem reminds us that the world is alive and aware, invisible though they are to reductionism. ‘The work we do is part of those invisibles.’
John Seed (pictured) said that ‘unless we could address the underlying spiritual disease that afflicts modern human beings … our actions were bound to be just symbolic,… and unless there’s a radical change in consciousness amongst human beings, nothing’s going to stay saved for very long.’ Encountering deep ecology and the Gaia hypothesis, he ‘realized the earth was fine’ though ‘possibly the Cenozoic era was in trouble,… although,’ he added humorously, ‘I am a Cenozoic patriot and have a strong attachment to human beings and other endangered species.’ Nevertheless, the big picture that deep ecology provided ‘was extremely important,’ giving him strength. He said that deep ecology suggests that the fundamental problem humans have is the illusion of separate between nature and ourselves. The importance of deep ecology to Seed is that it allowed him to get his ‘bearings,’ to align himself ‘with a deeper truth’. Seed found that biological metaphors serve better than mechanical ones, so rather than thinking of this as Spaceship Earth, he preferred that suggested by the Bradley Method to regenerate a plot of land (1. Remove the invasive species; 2. Rather than working on the most polluted part of the plot, care for the healthiest part and allow it to spread eventually throughout); in other words, preach to the choir, support the strongest areas. So to move forward with hope, seek community and like-minded people.
The video points out that there are differing points-of-view of what Gaia is, even amongst the panelists:
- to some, Gaia is Mother Earth, a goddess
- to others, Gaia is a living organism
- to others, Gaia is *not* a living organism, but a system created by life that maintains life
Lynn Margulis (pictured) took us to an exhibit that was at the Boston Aquarium decades ago. It showed a polluted Boston Harbour in the 1970s in one tank, and a healthy Boston Harbour 200 years ago in another. The healthy tank was labelled full of life, the polluted tank dead and void of life. But Margulis found that the polluted tank full of life too, just not the life that sports fishermen wanted. It contained bacteria (pictured), protists, diatoms, etc, that recycled the waste and produced oxygen. It contained life ‘we take for granted.’ She acknowledged that Gaia as a concept is many of the things Buhner said, ‘but it’s a scientific idea too’. Diversity is not just a nice idea, but critical to life, because no organism eats or drinks or breathes its own waste. ‘It’s absolutely essential.’ Western folk or unscientific classification of life puts humans in its own group, not with the rest of the animals–‘that’s how bad it is’–which agrees, Margulis said, with Seed’s argument that the fundamental problem is the illusion of separation between nature and ourselves. She acknowledged that both feeling and rationality are needed, and she recommended The Spirit in the Gene: Humanity’s Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature by Reg Morrison, an Australian photographer, which stresses that, in addition to language and abstract reasoning, spirituality is ‘an evolutionary strategy that helped rescue our ancestors from extinction and drive the species toward global dominance’. Though he’s a little too neo-Darwinist for Margulis’s liking, his writing accords with Gaia theory. Is Gaia a living organism, even a goddess? Margulis says no; to think so is bad science, but Lovelock says let people think so, because it’s better than thinking the earth is just a pile of rocks. So they have agreed to disagree.