LET US IMAGINE that you are in a grove of giant redwood trees on the coast of California and that you are standing on the stump of a tree that has just been felled. When standing it was a vast tree weighing over 2000 tons and 100 meters tall, a spire of lignin and cellulose, a tree that started life over 2000 years ago.
A strange thing about this tree is that during its life nearly all of it was dead wood. As a tree grows there is just a thin skin of living tissue around the circumference, the wood inside is dead, as is the bark that protects the delicate tissue. More than 97% of the tree we stand on was dead before it was cut down.
Now in this way a tree is very like the Earth itself. Around the circumference on the surface of the Earth is a thin skin of living tissue which both the trees and we humans are a part. The rocks beneath our feet are like the wood and the air above is like the bark. Both are dead matter, but the air and rocks, like the wood and the bark, are either the direct products of life or have been greatly modified by its presence. Is it possible that the Earth is alive like the tree?
It was the view from space about twenty years ago, that showed us how beautiful and how seemly was our planet when seen in its entirety. The Earth was also seen from space in invisible wavelengths through the sensors of scientific instruments and their view made some of us re-examine our theories about the nature of the Earth. It led my colleague and friend Lynn Margulis and I, to propose that the Earth itself was indeed in some ways alive like the tree, alive at least to the extent that it could regulate its climate and chemical composition. We called the idea Gaia after the old name for the Earth.
A tree is in many ways a living model of the Earth. Indeed some single trees of the tropical forests are almost complete ecosystems in themselves. They shelter a vast range of species from microbes to large animals to say nothing of numerous plants growing on their branches. Those tropical trees are nearly as self-sufficient as the Earth, they recycle almost all the nutritious elements within their canopy, and with the other trees, sustain the climate and the composition of the forest.
My view of the Earth sees a self sustaining system named Gaia like one of those forest trees. Although some of my colleagues in science are beginning to take it seriously as a theory to test, most main stream scientists prefer to see the Earth as just a ball of rock moistened by the oceans, a piece of planetary real estate that we have inherited. In their view, we, and the rest of life, are just passengers. Life may have altered the environment, or have co-evolved with it, as by putting oxygen in the air, but they see this as no more than the act of passengers who, when on a long sea voyage, may decorate their cabins.
If main stream science is right and the Earth is like this, then to survive it might not matter what we do; so long as we do not foul the Earth so much as to hazard ourselves and our crops and livestock.
But what if instead the Earth is a vast living organism? In such a living system species are expendable. If a species, such as humans, adversely affects the environment, then in time it will be eliminated with no more pity than is shown by the micro-brain of an intercontinental ballistic missile on course to its target. If the Earth is like this, then to survive, we face the hard task of reintegrating creation. Of learning again to be part of the Earth and not separate from it. If we chose to go this way the change of heart and mind needed will be great and it will include also the reintegration of religion and science.
In Newton's time he was able to say, "Theology is the queen of the sciences." I happen to think that, although science has progressed vastly since Newton it has also moved a long way in the wrong direction. Scientists had to reject the bad side of medieval religion: superstition, dogmatism, and intolerance. Unfortunately, as with most revolutionaries, we scientists merely exchanged one set of dogma for another. What we threw out was soul.
The life of a scientist used to be that of a natural philosopher - closely in touch with the real world. It was a life both deeply sensuous and deeply religious, truly in touch with the world. You see, curiosity also is an intimate part of the process of loving. Being curious about and getting to know a person or the natural world leads to a loving relationship.
I SOMETIMES WONDER if the loss of soul from science could be the result of sensory deprivation? A consequence of the fact that 95%of us now live in cities. How can you love the living world if you can no longer hear bird song through the noise of traffic, or smell the sweetness of fresh air? How can we wonder about God and the Universe if we never see the stars because of the city lights? If you think this to be exaggeration, think back to when you last lay in a meadow in the sunshine and smelt the fragrant thyme and heard and saw the larks soaring and singing. Think back to the last night you looked up into the deep blue black of a sky clear enough to see the milky way, the congregation of stars, our galaxy.
The attraction of the city is seductive. Socrates said, 2,000years ago, that nothing of interest happened outside its walls. But city life, the soap opera that never ends, reinforces and strengthens the heresy of humanism, that narcissistic belief that nothing important happens that is not a human interest.
City living corrupts, it gives a false sense of priority over environmental hazards. We become inordinately obsessed about personal mortality, especially about death from cancer. Most citizens when asked, list nuclear radiation and ozone depletion as the most serious environmental hazards. They tend to ignore the consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation, agricultural excess and forest clearance. Yet in fact these less personal hazards can kill just as certainly. Sadly we are the witnesses of the disintegration of creation without realizing that we are the cause.
The humid tropics are both a habitat for humans and in the heartland of Gaia. That habitat is being removed at a ruthless pace. Yet in the west we try to justify the preservation of tropical forests on the feeble grounds that they are the home of rare species of plants and animals even of plants containing drugs that could cure cancer. They may do. But they offer so much more than this. Through their capacity to evaporate vast volumes of water vapour the forests serve to keep their region cool and moist by wearing a sunshade of white reflecting clouds and by bringing the rain that sustains them. Their replacement by crude cattle farming, could precipitate a disaster for the billions of the poor in the third world. Imagine the human suffering, the guilt and the political consequences of a Sahel drought throughout the tropics. To say nothing of the secondary climatic consequences here in the temperate regions.
That this danger is real was illustrated in an unusual recent television documentary about the Panama canal. It showed the history of this amazing feat of engineering and went on to tell how its continued function was threatened. Not as you might imagine, by local politics, but by agriculture. The canal climbs over the isthmus of Panama through a series of locks. The entire system is powered and kept filled with water by the abundant rainfall of that humid region. But the rain and the trees of the forests are part of a single system. Now that the forests are being destroyed to make cattle ranches the rain is declining and soon it may be too little to sustain and power the canal. I hope that somehow the fact that this great work of man, of engineering, is threatened by our insatiable desire for beef, will bring home, to the thick skinned denizens of the cities, the consequences of burning away the skin of the Earth.
A whole and healthy planet comes from the activity of single organisms that evolve with their environment to become a global influence. For us this implies a personal relationship. So what can I do? You may well ask. I suppose the answer is that for each of us there is an appropriate course of action. For us as a family this has meant planting 20,000 trees. I recognize that this may be impractical if you live in a city. But there are many things we do that are harmless in moderation and malign only in excess. I find it helpful to think of the three deadly C's. Cars, cattle and chain saws. You don't have to be a puritan and ban them, just use them moderately. For example if the clinicians are right, and eating too much beef or dairy products are bad for your arteries, reducing the input will not only benefit you, it will be a small negative feedback on the tendency to replace tropical forests with cattle ranches.
I speak as the representative, the shop steward, of the bacteria and the less attractive forms of life. My constituency is all life other than humans because there are so many who speak for people but few who speak for the others. To see the Earth as a living organism makes tangible the concept of stewardship and focuses our hearts and minds on what should be our prime environmental concern. The care and protection of the Earth itself and especially of the forests of the humid tropics. So let's stay selfish, but be guided in our selfishness to keep a world that is healthy and beautiful, and which will remain fit for our grandchildren as well as those of our partners in Gaia.