To Gaea, mother of all of life and oldest of gods, I sing,
You who make and feed and guide all creatures of the earth,
Those who move on your firm and radiant land, those who wing
Your skies, those who swim your seas,
to all these you have given birth;
Mistress, from you come all our harvests,
our children, our night and day,
Yours the power to give us life, yours to take away.
To you, who contain everything,
To Gaea, mother of all, I sing.
—Homeric Hymn to Earth
The greatest revolution of our time is the way we see the world. The mechanistic paradigm underlying the Industrial Growth Society gives way to the realization that we belong to a living, self-organizing cosmos. General systems theory, emerging from the life sciences, brings fresh evidence to confirm ancient, indigenous teachings: the Earth is alive, mind is pervasive, all beings are our relations. This realization changes everything. It changes our perceptions of who we are and what we need, and how we can trustfully act together for a decent, noble future. — Joanna Macy, 2006
Love for the Earth
In the late 1990s I had a couple of conversations with Dharmagaian colleagues in which we shared with each other the feeling that it was too late to “save the Earth” from the ongoing destruction caused by industrial society and human overpopulation. At the time, such an admission was difficult to make for environmental activists. After working for years to raise consciousness about environmental issues, to admit to ourselves that we were losing the battle was painful. It was a truth, and a feeling of grief, to be whispered to each other, privately. It was not something to make public, although Paul Ehrlich did make it public in 1998:
[E]stimates of the long-term carrying capacity of Earth with relatively optimistic assumptions about consumption, technologies, and equity (A x T), are in the vicinity of two billion people. Today's population cannot be sustained on the 'interest' generated by natural ecosystems, but is consuming its vast supply of natural capital -- especially deep, rich agricultural soils, 'fossil' groundwater, and biodiversity -- accumulated over centuries to eons. In some places soils, which are generated on a time scale of centimeters per century, are disappearing at rates of centimeters per year. Some aquifers are being depleted at dozens of times their recharge rates, and we have embarked on the greatest extinction episode in 65 million years.
What was true more than a decade ago is even truer now, and more widely acknowledged. But the rate at which humans are depleting Mother Earth has accelerated, and the limits that have been ignored by our economic system are beginning to make themselves unequivocally obvious.
One of the people with whom I had this conversation had been a friend for over 30 years. He had dedicated his life to wildlife photography and filmmaking, in the hope of inspiring people to preserve the endowment of biodiversity that we had inherited. He was witnessing the loss of biodiversity first-hand, and he was in despair.
I told him, “If your mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, you wouldn’t give up on her but would do everything in your power to make her life comfortable and meaningful, wouldn’t you? You would surround her with love and appreciation, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t just give up on her. Well, that’s the way I feel about the Earth, the mother of us all. We’re Buddhists. We witness things as they are with open hearts. We don’t turn away from painful situations, and we don’t give up.”
Of course, the analogy is inaccurate: life on Earth, although badly damaged and greatly reduced in diversity and life-sustaining properties, will probably survive the destruction wrought by humans. Unless we indulge in nuclear war, life on Earth will surely survive humans if we don’t change our ways.
Paul’s Billboard, Crestone, CO
When we talked about “saving the Earth” ten and twenty years ago, we were talking about whether enough humans could be mobilized to change the paradigm by which industrial society relates to the web of life, which is and was brutally destructive. We did fail. The destruction has accelerated along with the growth of the extractive growth economy and human population. The more the global economy has grown, the more the human population has grown, and the more humans consume, the more we deplete our planetary life support system. Now we know that humans are bringing an end to the glorious 65-million-year-long Cenozoic Era, the age of mammals, of which humans ourselves are the latest evolutionary innovation.
The question is, will we change our relationship with the Earth soon enough to save ourselves? Can we do it soon enough to keep some ecosystems intact enough for human survival? And what will be the psycho-spiritual effect upon future generations who will know that they have been left with a depleted planet? These are not rhetorical questions. They are simply the questions that few people ask, because it is so difficult to face the truth of our situation. Like my friend, a lot of people are tempted to turn away rather than fall into despair. Many, I suspect, instead fall into apathy and turn to the distractions offered by the consumer culture, the very thing that is fueling the destruction.
My old friend, by the way, did continue to take pictures, but he turned to making panoramas of landscapes to express his love for the Earth. How could he not find some way to do that?
The other friend with whom I had this conversation was another fellow Buddhist and my co-teacher in an environmental studies course at Naropa University. What does an environmental teacher do when she knows the destruction will not be stopped, but will continue? If you can’t give your students ‘hope,’ should you tell them the truth? What will the effect on them be? These were the questions we were wrestling with. We both wept.
Goddess of Canyons © Suzanne Duarte
We agreed to allow our grief for the Earth’s losses to express itself in our teaching as love for the Earth. To inspire love and appreciation for the Earth among students, in a culture that is deeply alienated from nature, seemed to be a worthy endeavor, whatever happens. I still feel this is true, for love for the Earth arouses us from the dullness of apathy and brings courage (heart) and confidence. It brings us back to life. We need courage and confidence to face the changes that are upon us.
What do I mean by “love for the Earth”? I don’t mean ‘worship’ in a theistic sense. But surely we owe Mother Earth appreciation, gratitude and respect, even veneration, for her gifts, her beauty, her bounty, and her blessings. Surely we owe Gaia at least the heartfelt sense of reciprocity that we naturally experience with our human family and friends. This is how Native Americans and many other indigenous cultures relate with the Earth: with humble gratitude and respect, acknowledging the sacred wholeness and interdependence of “all our relations”— all that lives. In the spirit of thankful reciprocity, many native cultures make offerings to the Earth in appreciation for all she gives, and take only what is immediately needed—leaving the rest for the other ‘relations.’ This was common among cultures throughout the world until ours began conquering and destroying them, labeling their customs as ‘superstitious.’
Euro-American culture is the exception in its extreme and radical separation of humans from nature, which many now see as the root cause of the biological holocaust now occurring on the planet. We’ve been taught—actually brain washed—to think that our civilization is superior to other cultures and not subject to the limits and timing, the jurisdiction, of the natural world. Therefore, through a tangle of misconceptions, some members of our culture may look askance at love for the Earth in any form, whether nontheistic, animistic, pantheistic, or any other mode of reverence for Mother Earth.
However, despite intimations of spirituality, we have science on our side—the Gaia hypothesis:
The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological hypothesis that proposes that living and nonliving parts of the earth are viewed as a complex interacting system that can be thought of as a single organism. Named after the Greek earth goddess, this hypothesis postulates that all living things have a regulatory effect on the Earth's environment that promotes life overall.
The Gaia hypothesis was first scientifically formulated in the 1960s by the independent research scientist Dr. James Lovelock, as a consequence of his work for NASA on methods of detecting life on Mars. He initially published the Gaia Hypothesis in journal articles in the early 1970s, followed by a popularising 1979 book Gaia: A new look at life on Earth. The Gaia Hypothesis has since been supported by a number of scientific experiments and provided a number of useful predictions, and hence is properly referred to as the Gaia Theory.
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy tells us in “Gaia Theory,”
Insights from systems theory transform our perceptions of our planet. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis studied the chemical balances of our atmosphere and discovered that they are maintained within the narrow limits necessary for life, by self-regulating processes. These are the hallmark of a living system.
. . . Like the Apollo photo of Earth from space, this image of Earth as a whole living being has transformed the way many of us now think of our planet home. No longer a dead rock we live upon, the Earth is a living process in which we participate. Earth, as a home for life, is a being that we can both harm and help to heal. Earth takes on a presence in our consciousness, not unlike the presence of gods and goddesses in the lives of our early ancestors.
According to biologist Elisabet Sahtouris, Gaia is the Greek name for the original goddess of creation who became the Earth itself. Being able to visualize the entire planet, see how beautiful it is, have a mythological name signifying that it’s a living being, and know that the life of the planet is sensitive and vulnerable—all of this has helped to release feelings for the Earth that have been repressed in our mechanistic culture. (Some Dharmagaians describe our industrialized culture as ‘autistic.’) Without doubt, the abundance of images and films of the natural world that have been made in the last few decades have also helped to awaken those feelings
Alastair Fothergill, the director of the BBC feature documentary “Earth” and the TV series “Planet Earth,” has said, "There is something about the wonder of nature, nature in its infinite variety and mystery, that touches people in their very souls." But he also said of these BBC productions in a 2007 interview, "This is a last look at the planet which I know will not be there for my children. No one will ever invest this level of resources in this type of film again."
In other words, this is a “last look at the planet” before the species featured in the film “Earth”—polar bears, elephants, and whales—are gone and their ecosystems are degraded, and before the global economy goes into a tailspin. But what happens to the human soul when Gaia’s “infinite variety and mystery,” her magnificent wholeness, is torn and burned to shreds? What happens to our souls when we see it happening? This is a question that is addressed on this website.
Love for the Earth is known as “biophilia,” which means having a filial or family feeling for biological life, the other creatures with whom we share this planet, and on whom we depend for a healthy biosphere. Wikipedia says,
The term ‘biophilia’ literally means ‘love of life or living systems.’ It was first used by Erich Fromm to describe a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital. [E.O.]Wilson uses the term in the same sense when he suggests that biophilia describes "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He proposed the possibility that the deep affiliations humans have with nature are rooted in our biology. Unlike phobias, which are the aversions and fears that people have of things in the natural world, philias are the attractions and positive feelings that people have toward certain habitats, activities, and objects in their natural surroundings. . . . [T]he hypothesis helps explain why ordinary people care for and sometimes risk their lives to save domestic and wild animals, and keep plants and flowers in and around their homes. In other words, our natural love for life helps sustain life.
We have recently begun to speak of “kinship” with the “more-than-human world,” and of having a “feeling for the organism.” A feeling for the organism describes an embodied, empathetic relationship with “the others,” the Earth and her nonhuman beings, as subjects with their own feelings, perceptions,
Manatee and child
abilities, and experiences, in contrast to regarding them as inanimate objects, as has been the cultural habit. Biophilia helps us to nurture and sustain life, while biophobia enables us to destroy life. Biophilia, love, is a supportive, healing orientation towards living beings that, on this planet, are truly all related in the evolutionary process.
As important as our feelings are, though, having an emotional, somatic, or spiritual love for the Earth is not going to be enough to achieve a sustainable human presence on this planet in the long run. We need ecological literacy, too. Indigenous people gained this knowledge over long spans of time, many generations. This probably accounts for why Native Americans base decisions on their likely effects on the next seven generations. We industrialized, urban people don’t have that much time now, but we can become ecologically literate, thanks to ecological science.
“Ecoliteracy” means becoming ‘literate’ or educated in the laws of nature, the way living systems work in the biosphere. It was only with the emergence of the science of ecology, within my lifetime, that the relationships between life forms and between life forms and their physical environments began to be understood. Prior to ecology, biology was purely mechanistic (seeing animals and plants as objects without feelings or sentience) and reductionistic (reducing organic life to its living or dead parts and studying the parts rather than the whole living organism). With an awareness of the importance of the interdependent relationships within and beyond the whole organism, we now understand that a living system is a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, that the biosphere consists of living systems within living systems, and that the relationships between organisms and the larger systems they are part of are what keep the web of life intact on this planet.
We are just beginning to get used to the truth that we are not on the Earth, we are in it. The atmosphere we breathe and that protects the planet from ultraviolet light is created and regulated by the web of life itself. We are made from stardust, water, and sunlight. We are participants in a magnificent, miraculous living system, upon which we depend, and we have the power to harm it or heal it. This is ancient wisdom that was intuited by sages in the East and given names such as Dharma and the Tao. This seemingly simple shift in perspective, which is both cognitive and emotional, affects everything. It is the linchpin of the Great Turning, which is a theme throughout this Dharmagaians website, and which Joanna Macy described as “the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.”
An essential aspect of this shift in perspective occurs when we allow ourselves to feel in our souls the anguish of this moment—of seeing and knowing that all our relations in the natural world are in dire jeopardy due to human activities, particularly the activities of the industrial growth society. This is the filial anguish of a child (a citizen of industrial society) who suddenly sees that s/he has betrayed and injured a parent (the Earth), causing her to suffer a debilitating disease. It is at the same time the filial anguish of a parent who sees that he has endangered his descendants' chances for a healthy, fulfilling life by squandering the family fortune (the biodiversity of the planet).
That is the truth that Dharmagaians have faced. Allowing ourselves to feel this anguish enables us to fully make the Great Turning within ourselves and to participate in creating possibilities for a sane, healthy, decent life for future generations. We know that half measures won’t do it, that we can’t bargain our way out of this corner, so we turn our attention and energies towards creating a life-sustaining collective way of life.
We need love and ecoliteracy in order to heal our relationship with our planet. Can we heal it enough that our species can survive the evolutionary pressures that are now converging? We don’t have much time: we are facing climate change, species extinctions, and ecosystem collapses, on top of social, political, and economic challenges with energy and resource depletion within this century.
Daniel & Doki, Pt. Reyes, CA © Suzanne Duarte
Becoming ecoliterate is not that difficult, for ecological principles resonate naturally within our bodies and intuition, within the human soul. Ecoliteracy is dharma. Once we give our attention to the more-than-human world, it draws us in with wonder and keeps us fascinated, rewarding our loving attentiveness by revealing its awesome mysteries and giving us a feeling for the other organisms that are truly ‘all our relations’ on this planet. The more we learn of Gaia, the more we realize how miraculous and awesome she truly is, and how precious is our human birth, which gives us a self-reflective consciousness that can perceive the dharma of our planet.
The sensory perceptions of the human body are perfectly attuned to the Earth because we evolved within the Earth’s processes. If we weren’t so attuned, we wouldn’t have survived this long. When we spend time in wild nature, our senses open up and we feel alive again because humans are actually sensory organs of Gaia. This is our natural function. Although our senses are greatly numbed by life in cities, causing us to become dysfunctional organs of Gaia, we can regain our sensitivities in nature and away from the electromagnetic fields of our electronic environments. As we become more sensitive, our imaginations also become more alive and creative, for we are also the imaginative function of Gaia when we express Gaia’s mythic dimension.
Opening up our sensitivities and enlivening our imaginations through contact with the natural world helps us to get through the anguish of awakening from the cultural trance of the consumer society. One of the hardest aspects of the Great Turning, for many people, is to realize that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” as the Hopi elders have reportedly said. It’s shocking to realize that there are no parental authority figures who are ‘in charge’ and will ‘fix’ the mess we’re in. None of the so-called ‘leaders’ sees the big picture and is taking responsibility for addressing it because, if they did, they wouldn’t survive the political process. When we have accepted that it’s up to those of us who are awake to find our own way, then we join the Dharmagaians—people with ecoliterate minds and hearts—in the Great Turning.
It’s up to us
The Great Turning involves a psycho-spiritual transformation and evolution in response to the evolutionary challenges that are now converging. The more willing we are, the easier it is. Conversely, the more we resist the imperative of our time for a change of consciousness, the more painful will be the consequences. This is eco-psycho-spiritual truth.
By feeling ourselves as part of this amazing moment in the life of Gaia—by identifying viscerally and emotionally with the life of our planet—we expand our capacities for aliveness, sanity, and creative responsiveness to whatever life brings. There is no way to escape the challenges, no place to run and hide anymore. This is the nature of this time on Earth for humans.
Creative responsiveness begins with opening our hearts to the reality of our time and stretching our capacities for feeling all that humans are capable of feeling—everything from anguish, grief and remorse, to fear and despair, to compassion, devotion and reverence, to wonder and joy. In the landscape of the heart, all these feelings are connected. All are available to us in facing the truth of this moment on Earth and realizing our inherent, indigenous love for the Earth. In opening to them, these feelings connect us to the larger body of life. Our capacity for all these feelings is what makes us fully human. In opening up in this way, our compassion blossoms into the courage and creativity that are necessary for dealing sanely with reality. We won’t make the shift if we won’t allow ourselves to feel. And when we act on behalf of the larger body of life, we find grace and support from the larger body of life.
Gaia needs multitudes of ecoliterate lovers who can act as antibodies in her bloodstream against the virus of apathetic consumerism and denial; for, contrary to commercial propaganda, we are not going to be able to consume our way out of these crises. What Gaia needs is Dharmagaians to heal and restore the fragile bonds that keep life flowing on this planet. And there are actually more of these antibodies around than one might think. This website represents the voices of many of them.
See more on our relationship with Gaia at Gaia Links.
See Deep Ecology, Paradigm Change, The New Cosmology, Ecopsychology, Psycho-Spiritual Evolution, The Animistic Soul Re-Emerges, Dharmagaian Practices, and Sustainable Communities for more on the Dharmagaian way forward.
PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE
I pledge allegiance to the Earth, to the living community of all beings, and to the interdependence of all — one planet, sacred, indivisible, with equal rights to self-determination, safe air, water and soil, economic justice and peace for all.
In this cold commodity culture
Where you lay your money down
It's hard to even notice
That all this earth is hallowed ground --
Harder still to feel it
Basic as a breath --
Love is stronger than darkness
Love is stronger than death
— Bruce Cockburn, The Gift
All Nature's wildness tells the same story—the shocks and outbursts of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, roaring, thundering waves and floods, the silent uprush of sap in plants, storms of every sort—each and all are the orderly beauty-making love-beats of Nature's heart. — John Muir, 1874
© 2009 Suzanne Duarte