What does the word Gaia mean to you? Until a few days ago, when I came across the word “Gaia” I thought “earth” and “Mother Earth” and then attached to the word the connotations of Greek mythology[i], environmentalists, far-Left idealists, planetary activists, and—because of a BBC drama I once watched —visions of environmental terrorist intrigue. It’s funny how certain words carry with them connotations that may, or may not, be appropriate.
And then a few days ago I started reading A Walk Through Time: From Stardust to Us by Sidney Liebes, Elisabet Sahhtouris and Brian Swimme. I’d come across several references to author and cosmologist Brian Swimme, and when I checked the data base at the local library, this was the only book available with Swimme listed as an author, so I put in an interlibrary request for it. As it turned out, Swimme only wrote the 12-page prologue, the bulk of the book being written by Sahhtouris. (The first listed author, Sidney Liebes, under whose name the book is filed in the library, only wrote the 3-page preface!)
Anyway, the book is about the formation of the earth and the development of life upon it, and at first I didn’t intend to read it all. But it has turned out to be such a fascinating book—apparently written as a companion for the world exhibition Walk Through Time—that I kept on reading long after Swimme’s prologue.
And what does this have to do with Gaia? Well, I discovered that in the 1980’s and 1990’s James Lovelock formulated the hypothesis that both living and non-living aspects of the earth are integrated into a self-organised, evolving life system. Called the “Gaia Hypothesis”[ii] and now sometimes referred to as the Gaia theory or Gaia principle, the concept has been adopted by many ecologists, environmentalists, and global warming theorists.
Now I’m very much into the “systems” concept and general try to see all things within a holistic framework. Still, having grown up with a fairly clear delineation in my head between organic and inorganic forms, the idea that rocks, for example, are part of an ecological evolving life system (except, obviously, as homes, tools and building materials for organic life forms) made me pause.
Looking at the relationship between organic and inorganic material through the lens of [very ancient] history and a powerful microscope, was enlightening. The first bacteria, it turns out, were of course created from primary earth elements hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, oxygen, and phosphorus—none of that “organic” in a contemporary sense. In death, large colonies of bacteria left behind deposits of concentrated minerals which created the variety of metal ores we mine today—also not “organic” in a contemporary sense. Yet the catalyst required for the transformation: organic.
Certainly, on an atomic and molecular level, the atoms of oxygen you breathe in may have once been part of a molecule of rust on a screwdriver, a raindrop, or a buttercup. At a molecular level, there is no organic/inorganic, and we are all part of the same great Gaia system. Organic is made of inorganic, and dissolves back into inorganic in an ongoing cycle. That the earth and its inhabitants change with time is a clear sign of evolution in this process, and the interdependence between the earth and living things is very evident.
The word “Gaia” took on a slightly new meaning for me today. My understanding of the primary relationship we share with the inorganic elements of our world solidified a little, and my appreciation for the amazing interactions that go on around us at a sub-visible level has increased many-fold, because it has moved into my awareness. To quote Marcel Proust:
The real voyage of discovery does not consist of seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.