We finish Vanishing Face of Gaia today in NW. I haven’t quite decided whether James Lovelock is wise in the “indigenous” sense, or if the native holism we encountered in Wildcat, Eagle Man, and Cajete is quite his. Disparaging references to our “tribal” limitations abound, and we already noted his reservations about shamanistic “alt-med.”
But I do think there’s a clear convergence of views here, between Lovelock’s Gaia and the natives’ Mother Earth. Like aboriginal peoples everywhere, he always simply “wanted to live naturally and respect wildlife and wilderness.” He, too, values balance and harmony. And, he and they agree that she– call her what you will– holds the key to our fate.
His native place was the gauzily-recalled, delight-giving countryside of Surrey, before it was decimated by industrial mechanized agriculture. Was it ever really so innocent? Maybe not, but it was so much more (and less) than a
life-support system for agribusiness farms, sewage disposal plants, reservoirs, and now vast alternative energy sites… What is left of the countryside is fast becoming a set of theme parks with easy access to motorways.
Lovelock’s childhood taught him the names of plants and an intense love of the natural world. He was personifying nature long before he learned to call her Gaia. He was green when green wasn’t cool.
But then came the ’70s urban-centered environmental movement, which he thinks took a wrong turn towards anthropocentrism and away from close contact with real nature. He took a few wrong turns himself, with biofuels, grasses, trees, and potatoes.
Speaking of trees: did you see yesterday’s Times story on cloning redwoods? [slides]
“We want to get the biggest, best genetic representations of the species,” said David Milarch, the co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive. “And make millions and millions and millions of them.”
Mr. Milarch, who preaches his love for all things arboreal with an evangelical zeal, says that his mission is simple, if grandiose: to reforest the land with a variety of the most interesting tree species from around the world, and by extension, halt and reverse climate change.
Don’t know if it will work, but the Lorax would be pleased. We’ve got enough thneeds. But Lovelock is suspicious of efforts to rush Gaia’s own deliberate, self-seeding pace. “Being an impatient man my next mistake was to assume that a return to nature could be hastened by planting trees.” (Cloned or not.) The point is, a forest ecosystem is biodiverse. If all you see is the trees, you miss that.
On the other hand… a tree is also an idea that, when rooted in your mind, helps you think longer-term. That’s what Arbor Day is for: transcendence. It’s the grandpa tree, the giving tree, “the ability to move beyond the end,” the trans-end-dance.
The concept of “environmentally friendly energy,” he says, is flawed, ideologically driven, and a boon to greedy profiteers. We can discuss this, but I’m not yet persuaded– except on point #3, and there we may just have to hold our noses and let the profit motive work for everyone if it can.
Rachel Carson’s “watershed” Silent Spring made Lovelock recognize himself as an Old School evironmentalist, less militant and partisan than today’s activists. He takes some blame for that, with his CFC-measuring ECD. In some ways Lovelock is responsible for Al Gore. (Or as George Bush #41 called him, “Ozone Man.”)
Liberal humanists like me think of environmentalism as a species of humanism– we think of everything that way– and we like the symbolism of windmills. Apparently we’re misguided, though not for the usual reasons. Does wanting your species to flourish really make you a speciesist, if you also understand that your good is inseparable from that of your living host (the world)? Is it so bad?
Lovelock’s time in the American Bible belt impressed him with the “benign ethic” of Southern Baptists. “Benign?” But he just means that the treasured old southern institution of B-Y-O-B, in so-called “dry” establishments, makes that part of the world safe, though just to a point, for puritan moralism. You can have your temperance movement and your wine, too. Similarly, “Just as the Houston Baptists failed to save us sinners from the demon drink, so the greens are failing to save the planet.”
Having come this far in our course of native wisdom, most of us will mostly agree: “we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that we are separate from Gaia in any way.” That last unqualified phrase hangs me up just a bit, I’ll admit.
Does it then follow, though, that whatever remains of the pioneering spirit in our time must necessarily point in just one direction and one course of action (viz., getting out of town)? Or that we need to snuff our campfires? Or that we should give up on goals like “350“?
By the way, 350.org’s founder Bill McKibben says geoengineering is not the solution. It’s “junkie logic.” It refuses to acknowledge that we’ve already transformed our planet in ways we can’t hope to reverse. We’ve turned Earth into Eaarth. [McKibben on Lovelock: "How Close to Catastrophe?"]
Lovelock agrees, of course, doubting our competence “to take on what might become the onerous permanent task of keeping the Earth in homeostasis.” (Ch5) But he goes much further, in suggesting that all attempts to retreat from an imagined tipping point of no return are signs of our pathetic addiction to a way of life we’ve already destroyed.
But “perhaps I am too pessimistic”… perhaps Humanity 2.0 will succeed us, will abandon the worst tendencies of tribalism, and will extend Gaia’s declining years. Perhaps a Great Communicator will transform the post-human mob into an effective, less aggressive global intelligence. Perhaps we’ll live on as the revered “progenitors of a species closer to Gaia.”
But if James Lovelock is right, that won’t be for us to say.
P.S. The “critical thinking”/evolution bill now making its way through the Tennessee legislature includes climate change as one of the topics our reps think need “protecting” with targeted legislation. Here’s some of the “debate“… the call to order and prayer begin about five minutes in.
P.P.S. to STUDENTS: We’re not meeting today. On Wednesday we begin (again) Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline. Try to let me know then if you’re planning a final presentation.