Gaian Thinking

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Gaian Thinking is any philosophical perspective derived from acceptance of the claim that all living beings on Earth are part of a unified entity called Gaia. It is closely related to environmentalist thought, which asserts the value of preserving a healthy environment for life on Earth (which is Gaia's main function) and critiques human activities that damage the health of the environment.

Types of Gaian Thinking

"In no way do I see Gaia as a sentient being, a surrogate God. To me Gaia is alive and part of the ineffable Universe and I am a part of her."
- James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, p. 218


To think about Gaia is to consider what the nature of her reality is. Religious naturalists will recognize that even James Lovelock's hypothesis about her is only a hypothesis, not accepted by mainstream science and not proven in any sense. Therefore, religious naturalists will not believe even in the non-sentient superorganism described by Lovelock as literally real; that is, they accept that she might exist but will not claim to know that she does exist. For a religious naturalist, belief is limited to facts that have been accepted by mainstream science as the current best approximation of truth. Others who have a less strictly naturalistic worldview, may variously believe that Lovelock's Gaia does exist but is impossible to communicate with, or does exist and has an intelligent mind that can be communicated with telepathically through prayer. Others still may believe that a Gaia more akin to the Greek myth literally exists and can be called upon to intervene magically in human affairs. Each of these various ways of thinking about Gaia will lead to different uses of thought about Gaia.

Strict Naturalistic Gaian Thinking

Strict naturalists do not literally believe in Gaia. But religious naturalists may see a use in thinking about Gaia as a metaphor or personification. Our socially evolved minds do not relate well to abstract concepts. We may become excited about an abstract concept and listen passionately to or even give lectures about its importance but, if the concept calls us to change the way we act on a day-to-day basis, we are likely to ignore that call in our little everyday actions even as we strive to communicate its importance. Imagine a dietitian writing blogs about avoiding sugar in one's diet as she snacks on chocolate covered raisins. Or imagine a fervent composting activist holding an apple core on a downtown street, not even a planter in sight, just asphalt, concrete and glass everywhere, and, of course, a general purpose trash bin. Into the bin goes that one apple core, a little flash of angst, and then it is more or less forgotten, just a tiny scar in the subconscious of that activist as he continues to lecture others about the importance of diverting compostables from the landfill.

We get away with these things because as naturalists, we know nobody is watching. There is no Santa Claus making a list of who has been naughty or nice. Yet, at one level, we don't want to get away with it. We want to be better. We want to gather the power of our individual day to day actions and align them with our highest aspirations. We want to shape who we are. And so we wish to believe that someone is watching. That somehow the little actions that we take to make the world a better place are noticed. We want to know that a powerful figure cares about the chocolate covered raisins and the apple cores in our life. We want help guiding our growth toward being the persons we want to be. We want to be in a relationship with the living world that our socially evolved minds can understand.

Gaia, as a personification, can help us to achieve that relationship. In the dietitian's minds eye, Gaia's face appears on her computer screen; perhaps she actually has an image that represents Gaia to her as her desktop background. As she reaches for the next handful of chocolaty temptations she can't help but imagine the disapproval in Gaia's eyes. She closes the box and moves it out of reach. The composting activist closes his eyes that night and asks Gaia for forgiveness and asks what he could have done. An idea flashes into his mind. He places a small plastic container in his backpack. Next time, he will have somewhere to keep his compostables until he can reach a proper bin.

Once a religious naturalist comes to understand that personifications are like fictional characters, then they can also realize how freely we give ourselves over to relationships with fictional characters while watching movies or reading books. We fear for them. We cry over their losses. We cheer for their triumphs. This is true whether we agree with their world views or not. An action hero might commit a violent atrocity before our very eyes and yet, compelled by the swelling music, we will cheer for him. We suspend disbelief, allowing the hero strength, tenacity and luck beyond that of any realistic human. But we also, it seems, suspend our values, allowing the hero latitude in his actions that we would, one hopes, not tolerate from our police forces. But how long can we go on suspending our values for our fictional heroes before we begin to lose sight of our values and suspend them for ourselves?

In the face of such a question, the idea of purposefully using a personification of a being which does represent our values, to help align our subconscious instincts with our consciously held values, makes more sense. By viscerally experiencing the values of Gaia through imagining Gaia's actions we can alter our own instincts in the way we choose instead of in the way that Hollywood chooses. We can write fiction about her that moves us as powerfully as a James Bond film. We can set time aside to contemplate how she would have us act. We can even pray to her. We can do all this and remain naturalists as much as we remain naturalists when we watch a film in which a superhero throws a city bus at his enemy.

Theological Gaian Thinking

Of course, there are also many people who don't adhere to strict scientific naturalism and therefore have no problem with literally believing that Gaia definitely exists and has supernatural powers. In addition to questions of whether it's reasonable to hold such beliefs, there is a danger that the main concept, that we are part of Gaia, can be lost when people think of Her as a literal deity. Pantheism is one way around this, since pantheist traditions accept the idea that everyone and everything is part of a God or Goddess.

Benefits of Gaian thinking

At its best, Gaian thinking instills a strong sense of:

Large-scale, long-term thinking

Humans are very small when compared with the Universe or even the Earth, and our lifespans are very short when compared with that of the Universe. But Gaia extends across all of Earth's surface, and her age is over a quarter of that of the Universe. Thus, identifying with Gaia allows us to more easily accept the importance of global systems we can't directly see, and of long-term processes that extend far beyond our lifespans.

Being part of something larger than yourself

This is something many people aspire to, naturally enough since humans are social organisms. In the Western industrialized world, a culture of individualism has led to the erosion of opportunities and motives to feel like part of a greater whole. Note that such a feeling need not be synonymous with giving up your individuality, as the philosophy of holons demonstrates. See also Humans in relation to Gaia.

Desire to contribute to the good of the whole

Main article: Gaian Action

Drawbacks of Gaian thinking

Overlooking our Responsibility

If we believe that Gaia purposefully acts to maintain optimal conditions for Life it becomes easy to overlook our individual responsibility. Taken to its extreme conclusion, the Gaia Hypothesis reassures us that nothing we do as individuals or as a species can harm the all powerful Gaia. Gaia deciding to rid herself of human parasites is a common trope given expression in movies like The Happening and Interstellar.

Aids to Gaian Thinking

Images of the whole Earth

Main article: Overview Effect

It's easier to think of Earth as a unified whole when we have images that show it as such, particularly photographs that lack the national boundaries we're used to seeing on maps and globes. Frank White, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and others have argued that such images of Earth from space are one of the main benefits of the world's space programs.

See also

Wikipedia:Gaia philosophy