Becoming part of Gaia’s cure, instead of what ails her

Milkweed-with-Monarch-ButterflyI will never forget one hot summer day when I was about eight years old, and a Monarch butterfly took it into its head to land on my arm and delicately lick up my sweat with its long, probing tongue.

I froze, wanting the Monarch to stay with me as long as possible, and watched with total fascination and delight as it balanced on my warm brown skin and enjoyed the salty treat I had to offer.

Eventually, with a graceful swish of its elegant wings, it rose up in the air and twirled off to land on a nearby stand of sweet-smelling pink milkweed flowers.

I felt blessed by the encounter, and ever after, when I see a Monarch I approach cautiously and respectfully proffer my arm, hoping to feel again the light touch of those fragile black legs and tiny tongue.

My childhood connection with Monarchs came to mind this week as I read the deeply disturbing news that “the number of monarch butterflies that completed an annual migration to their winter home in a Mexican forest sank this year to its lowest level in at least two decades, due mostly to extreme weather and changed farming practices in North America.”

Mexican conservation authorities report that “The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December,” which is “a 59 percent decline from the 7.14 acres of butterflies measured in December 2011.”

So now, along with the bats and the goldfinches and so many other species that I have known and loved in my 50 years on the planet, I must bid farewell to the Monarch butterflies too?

Carolyn Baker

Carolyn Baker

Trying to find a way to cope with the pervasive sense of grief I feel on a daily basis, I turned this week to the works of Carolyn Baker, who has self-published two books that have been striking a chord with thousands of people.

In 2009, she published Sacred Demise: Walking the Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, followed in 2011 by Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.

Baker comes out of a psychology background, having served as a consulting psychotherapist for many years, but she draws on a wide range of sources that I too have been poring over in recent years, from Joanna Macy to Derrick Jensen to James Lovelock and many more.  Andrew Harvey, author of two books on “spiritual activism,” wrote the forward to her second book.

What all these folks have in common is the strong, level-headed recognition that human civilization is headed for a collapse.

The butterflies and the bats may be going first into the void, but we will not be far behind.

The current noise and controversy over questions like “to frack or not to frack,” “to build wind turbine generators or deep-sea oil rigs in the Arctic,” or “to erect solar arrays or thousand-mile oil pipelines” are just that—so much noise, which obscures our ability to focus on what is driving the debate on all these issues: the fact that our planet cannot and will not support 7 billion people at current levels of consumption.

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

The eminent eco-scientist James Lovelock, who, with Lynne Margulis, developed the theory of Earth as a complex living system he calls Gaia, has just published what may be his final book (he was born in 1919, making him now just seven years short of 100 years old).

Grimly titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia, Lovelock sadly predicts that global heating will force the die-off of much of humanity, and a retreat of the survivors to “lifeboat” places on the planet that will remain habitable on a subsistence basis for those able to live close to the land.

Lovelock uses the metaphor of disease to describe what is happening to our planet these days.  This passage is worth quoting in full:

“When we are first infected by fatal disease organisms, they grow in our bodies without our noticing.  We call this the incubation period, and it can be as long as several weeks.  Then at some stage in their growth, or in our bodily reaction to it, we feel unwell, with fever and pain.  Soon, a matter of hours with the most virulent influenza, homeostasis starts to fail and we collapse and die.  This is when physicians speak of massive organ failure.  In the whole course of fatal disease there is no tipping point but instead a downslide that starts imperceptibly and then grows ever steeper until we fall.

“We became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago when we first used fire and tools purposefully.  But it was not until about two hundred years ago that the long incubation period ended and the Industrial Revolution began; then the infection of the Earth became irreversible….

“The disease that afflicts the Earth is not just climate change—manifest by drought, heat, and an ever-rising sea.  Added to this there is the changing chemistry of the air and the oceans, and the way the sea grows acidic.  Then there is the shortage of food for all consumers of the animal kingdom.  As important is the loss of that vital biodiversity that enables the working of an ecosystem.  All these affect the working of the Earth’s operating system and are the consequences of too many people.  Individuals occasionally suffer a disease called polycythanemia, an overpopulation of red blood cells.  By analogy, Gaia’s illness could be called polyanthroponemia, where humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good” (232-33).

Lovelock sees the demise of the current terrestrial epoch as inevitable.  But he also reminds us that Gaia is a tough old planet, who has survived many other total collapses of biodiversity in her past.  “After every one of these catastrophes Gaia recovered, taking her own time—sometimes as long as millions of years,” Lovelock says.  “During these periods of convalescence there was always somewhere on Earth a refuge for living organisms, a place where the climate and the chemistry still favored life.  And so it surely will be when polyanthroponemia resolves” (235).

Lovelock faults our human tribalism and the selfish, competitive shortsightedness of a predator species for our current predicament, quoting the biologist E.O. Wilson, who said towards the end of his life, “How unfortunate that the Earth’s first intelligent social animal is a tribal carnivore” (239).

This is “our agonizing condition,” Lovelock says; “we have the intelligence to begin to expand our minds to understand life, the universe and ourselves; we can communicate and exchange our deep thoughts and keep them outside our minds as a permanent record.  We have all this but are quite unable to live with one another or with our living planet.  Our inherited urge to be fruitful and multiply and to ensure that our own tribe rules the Earth thwarts our best intentions” (240).

Lovelock ends his book by looking ahead to a mythical time in the future, when the survivors of the collapse of human civilization “evolve to become as beneficial a part of Gaia as were the photosynthesizers and the methanogens,” who “might serve within her as our brains do in each of us.  We would be an important part of what had become in effect an intelligent planet better able to sustain habitability” (248).

It is our duty, he says, as human beings living through these great Transition Times to ensure that enough of us survive to pass on our genes to the future, in the hopes that future iterations of human beings will overcome our tribalism and selfishness and put our remarkable creative intelligence to work for the good of the planet and all her denizens.

The question becomes then, what should we be doing now to prepare for the future that awaits?

This is where Carolyn Baker’s work becomes so important.  Navigating the Coming Chaos is nothing less than a workbook for inner and outer transition where the focus is on strengthening one’s resilience and connection with a sense of purpose and meaning in a world gone increasingly mad.

“I am not a survivalist,” Baker says.  “I have never believed that the prime objective in preparing for the Long Emergency is to remain alive.  None of us is enthusiastic about death, but we will all die.  To deny this fact and focus primarily on survival is to embrace the heroic perspective and, in my opinion, to miss the point….

“I believe that navigating a collapsing world will entail constant observation of various forms of death—the death of infrastructure, the death of abundance, the increasing absence of goods and services that we now take for granted, the death of institutions, the disappearance of employment and shelter, the increased scarcity of food and water, the death of landscapes and yes, the literal deaths of people and animals.  The collapse of industrial civilization and the lifestyle it has provided is a catastrophic death of a paradigm and a way of life.  While we may look ahead to the ultimate blessings unleashed by this death, it will nevertheless be traumatic to live through the magnitude of losses it will manifest.

“If, however, we can begin now to make friends with death, as the Buddhist tradition has taught for thousands of years, we may be better prepared emotionally and spiritually to navigate a civilization dying on myriad levels….

“Simply put, the essential question is not: How can I survive the collapse of industrial civilization?  But rather: Why am I here, right now, in this place, at this time, experiencing the end of the world as I and my species have known it? (166).

Much of Baker’s book, like Starhawk’s most recent book The Empowerment Manual, is dedicated to prompting self-reflection leading to the recognition of what we are here on this Earth to do—and how we can successfully work with other awakened humans to accomplish our purpose.

The biggest challenge seems to be how to learn to work together harmoniously with each other and with the other living elements of our planetary home.

Gaia callingFor me, it seems clear that what I need to be doing now is to rekindle the instinctive sense of kinship I had with the natural world as a little girl; to find ways to become a channel for the love I felt, and still feel, for the gaudy Monarch butterflies who sailed regally through the fields of my childhood.

Sooner or later I will be following them into oblivion. But let it not be before I’ve had a chance to do my utmost to wake up my fellow travelers on this planet to the state of emergency we now face, and to help create the community structures that will enable at least a critical few of us to survive into the distant future.

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10 Comments

  1. I could not agree more. Great post with reading suggestions I want to check out. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Martin Lack

     /  March 15, 2013

    Hi Jennifer. Great post. I admire James Lovelock’s vision and tenacity greatly, but I do not understand why he persists in unnecessarily dressing-up his ideas in vague New Age spirituality. Although his ‘Gaia Theory’ was once dismissed in such terms, it has now been embraced as simply another way of expressing the reality that the Earth is a self-regulating global ecosystem in dynamic equilibrium – one that has made complex life on Earth possible; and one that we humans have now destabilised.

    On Wednesday, I had an amazing 35-minute conversation with Guy McPherson. I say “amazing” because he says life where he is (i.e. in southern New Mexico) will be impossible with 5 years – mainly because many proteins in plants begin to breakdown when temperatures exceed 50 Celsius.

    Having said all that, a quotation from Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia earned pride of place at the very end of my new book, The Denial of Science: Analysing climate change scepticsim in the UK. The quotation in question needs no further comment from me:

    Unless we see the Earth as a planet that behaves as if it were alive, at least to the extent of regulating its climate and chemistry, we will lack the will to change our way of life and to understand that we have made it our greatest enemy. It is true that many scientists, especially climatologists, now see that our planet has the capacity to regulate its climate and chemistry, but this is still a long way from being conventional wisdom (Lovelock 2006: 21-2).

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 22, 2013

      Have been meaning to reply to you, Martin–mainly about the “vague New Age spirituality” of Lovelock’s Gaia theory. I continue to believe that the human yearning for meaning that comes through in the popularity of “vague New Age spirituality” is important–that it may hold a key to our evolution as a moral species. It’s something I think about quite a bit and want to write more about–do not have time right now, but I will come back to it, and in the meantime, I’d be interested to hear more from you about why you feel the scientific ecological narrative is so much more compelling that the spiritual ecological narrative.

      Reply
      • Martin Lack

         /  March 22, 2013

        Thanks Jennifer. I have been having an interesting time – objecting to ‘vague New Age spirituality’ and – at the same time – getting angry about reductionist scientists who think they have all the answers.

        I think James Lovelock’s ideas would have been taken more seriously more quickly if he had not made them seem so pantheistic. I am someone who used to be n evangelical Christian and, even though my divorce has shaken the faith I used to have, I am still inclined to think God is not a paranoid schizophrenic. That being the case, all roads cannot lead to Him/Her. Truth is not relative. Someone is right; and others are not quite there yet…

        At the end of the day, in a post-modern and post-Christian world, I think we have more chance of convincing people of the validity of our message by appearing rational than we do if we appear to be irrational.

  3. “How unfortunate that the Earth’s first intelligent social animal is a tribal carnivore”
    Yep.
    Tragically unfortunate.
    Thanks Mr Wilson, and thanks, as always, Jennifer.

    Wish we could avert the pain to come, but that would require an epochal transformation of human instinct – from tribalism to collaboratism, from “carnivore” to mindful and elegantly sufficient consumer.

    There are so very many people who are trying to rescue the future for humanity and for all life in the biosphere; the impetus to change our destructive instincts is evident in all the compassionate community initiatives, in all our meagre individual decisions to live ethically……but we are too few, too late.

    I often wish we could gather those who love our planet and are grateful to be part of the wonder of life, those who do not seek power and who resist greed, you know, good people – and all escape together to cohabit in a part of the world magically protected from the ravagers and the unthinking acquirers.

    That being impossible, I feel more sympathy than ever for the poor beagles of Milgram’s Learned Helplessness experiments. We will all be in those cages….

    Reply
  4. leavergirl

     /  March 21, 2013

    Interesting that the few remaining tribals are pointedly NOT ruining the earth. Nothing like blaming “humanity”, eh? People read Quinn, and forget. If you want to blame, place it squarely in the lap of *this* culture. The one we are addicted to.

    Martin, McPherson has prophesized many things, most of them false. Like, for example, that there would be no cars on the highways in 2012. Yeah, and stone age by 2018. Riiiight.

    Reply
  5. Anna

     /  March 22, 2013

    Some years ago I was walking on the beach at Nags Head, NC. To my surprise and delight, a Monarch Butterfly flew past my shoulder. During that morning walk, a long line of Monarch Butterflies flew past me in a slow and steady cadence, on their migration southward. I couldn’t believe the tenacity of that beautiful colony, flying above the churning surf where the coastline juts sharply out into the Atlantic Ocean, where one senses the exposure of the place even on fair weather days. It’s frightful that the species is strong enough to endure the forces of wild coastal elements but not the chemistry of farming techniques.

    Reply
  6. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  March 22, 2013

    “I am still inclined to think God is not a paranoid schizophrenic. That being the case, all roads cannot lead to Him/Her. Truth is not relative. Someone is right; and others are not quite there yet…

    “At the end of the day, in a post-modern and post-Christian world, I think we have more chance of convincing people of the validity of our message by appearing rational than we do if we appear to be irrational.”

    I don’t know, Martin–look where our vaunted “rationality” has gotten us?! I think the respect for life that comes with pantheism, whether it’s Buddhism or traditional indigenous religions worldwide, is much more likely to land human civilization in a sustainable place, don’t you?

    Even within a monotheistic framework, why wouldn’t the Divine be expressed through every blade of grass, every cell and atom?

    Reply
  7. rogerthesurf

     /  March 23, 2013

    Whilst we are all debating Anthropogenic Climate Change and similar things, UN Agenda 21 creeps/infiltrates where you least expect it!

    In fact it is often difficult to tell Agenda 21 from Climate Change warnings apart!

    In my country we are suffering this terrible infiltration from the UN with Agenda 21 in our legislation, local government and education.

    Take a read of my blog at http://www.thedemiseofchristchurch.com and make sure you read the examination exemplar that I talk about there.

    Are the UN and Greens communists?
    Well after reading the above mentioned examination exemplar, there is no doubt on my mind!

    Regards

    Roger

    Reply
  8. Thanks! Our poor earth needs all the help we can give it, and articles such as your’s go a long way to triggering consciousness of the peril facing us.

    Reply

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