Gaia's mind: How we fell out of unity.

Principles of scientific pantheism* by Paul Harrison.

Featured, Dec. 12, 1996.

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Two revolutions - the agricultural and industrial - set us over against nature and Gaia. A third, environmental revolution, now in its early stages, will begin the process of re-integration into Gaia.

Evolution towards separation.

All matter in the universe began as part of its unity and remains part of its unity. But for too long we humans have seen ourselves as separate from the whole, different, superior.

In a sense our separation began with the emergence of life. A set of complex molecules divided themselves off inside a membrane and began to reproduce in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics. This states that entropy or disorder must always increase. Life defied this law, but she could only do so by exporting disorder to the surroundings from which she drew energy.

The development of nervous systems was the second step. Higher animals have self-centred impulses, to get food, to avoid danger, to reproduce. They don't see themselves as part of nature or of a species with a common interest. Apart from their close siblings nature seems to them a huge bag of promises, threats and competitors in their own drive to survive and multiply. To a lion, hunger makes the whole horizon look like dinner. To an antelope, fear makes every bush seem like a predator.

Humans have the most fully developed intelligence and self-awareness of all animals. At times this has been used to distance us further from nature. Ever since we have believed in a soul separate from the body, or in a special role allocated by God, we have seen ourselves as superior to the material world. We have seen nature as there for our use only, to deal with as we please.

But full consciousness does not have to mean separation. It may give us an opportunity that is denied to other animals - the chance to embrace a conscious re-unification with nature and the universe.

When we began our journey we were hunter-gatherers. We were part of nature and subject to her rules, and so we were part of Gaia.

But once we began to assert control over nature through agriculture, we ceased to be a harmonious part of Gaia. And when we began to burn fossil fuels on a mounting scale, and to disrupt every ecosystem on earth through pollution and interference, we started to undermine Gaia.

Two revolutions - the agricultural and industrial - set us over against nature and Gaia.

A third, environmental revolution, now in its early stages, will begin the process of re-integration into Gaia.

Hunter-gatherers as citizens of Gaia.

When humans emerged we too were part of Gaia's self-regulating network.

Most hunter-gatherers treat their environment well and tread lightly on earth. They don't destroy nature's diversity. They don't replace it with artificial systems of just a few crops and domesticated animals. Instead, they use natural diversity to the full. They collect dozens of different kinds of wild roots and leaves, and hunt a wide range of animals and fish.

Because their way of life doesn't demand any large scale organization, hunter-gatherer society tends to be easy on humans, too. They enjoy a good varied diet, and work much shorter hours than farmers. Bands are egalitarian. When there's a surplus above basic needs - if one person kills a big animal, say - everyone in the band gets a share. People are their own masters: political authority is limited to the task in hand, and depends on skill and wisdom at that task.

Hunter-gatherer religion reinforces harmony with nature. To avoid over-exploitation there are elaborate rules about which animals may be hunted and eaten, and when. All living things, and many non-living things like rivers or even stones, are believed to possess soul and demand respect, just like humans.

The food crisis and the agricultural revolution.

We shouldn't over-idealize hunter-gatherers. They were humans just like us.

When they grew more successful, their populations expanded. This was the critical development that pushed them to change the way they related to the environment. Where they could not migrate, they were forced to start cultivating plants instead of collecting them. To get more food from the same land they had to clear away diverse natural vegetation and replace it with a handful of food crops. And so agriculture began, about ten thousand years ago, first in the Near East and East Asia, then in other centres.

The agricultural revolution was a crucial moment in our alienation from nature. Agriculture separated us from nature and set us against her. Nature now was seen as a dangerous enemy rather than an ally. She was the tangled forest we cleared to plant our crops. She was the refuge of wild beasts that preyed on our livestock and ate our crops. Wilderness was no longer a resource to be prized, but a threat to be crushed and controlled.

Settled agriculture changed humans as well as nature. Where hunter-gatherers were egalitarian and anarchic, agrarian societies became hierarchical and grossly unequal. Settlements were permanent. Food could now be stored, and wealth could be accumulated. Stronger forms of authority were needed to manage land and rising conflict over land. Inequalities in wealth and power grew. Male dominance increased.

In the religions of agrarian states, the gods were no longer spirits inherent in natural things: they became distant anthropomorphic figures above the skies. Often they were still linked to the natural forces controlling agriculture and the seasons of the farming year.

Imperial states, imperial religions.

The ultimate consequences of permanent agriculture were the huge empires of Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, Rome, China, and India.

Empire intensified alienation from nature. Imperial elites lived in capitals, far from the fringes where farming takes place. Their armies plundered soils and peoples in pursuit of tribute and slaves. To harm the enemy they burned crops and trees. In time of peace they rounded up rare animals for sport or gluttony. The wildlife of the Roman Mediterranean was decimated to fill the amphitheatre or the banquet platter.

As warfare intensified and became the general condition of life, transcendental religions and philosophies emerged in the West: Platonism, pharisaic Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They were mainly a response to growing insecurity of life, and often emerged at times of acute crisis and widespread mortality.

These were imperial religions, aiming for a global audience, divorced from all local environments. They completed our ideological separation from our own bodies and from the world. They taught of a soul separate from and superior to the body. They taught of a future world beyond death, more important and more lasting than this world. They taught that divinity was separate from nature and the universe, not inherent in it.

The fuel crisis and the industrial revolution.

By the sixteenth century in Western Europe, growing populations were running up against a second critical shortage.

As demand rose, the land could no longer supply enough wood, hay and other products for energy, horse transport and chemicals. These shortages drove the second, industrial revolution.

Coal gradually replaced wood. As mines deepened, and horsepower could no longer drain them, steam engines were developed. The chemical industry grew up to supply products previously harvested from nature.

The industrial age expanded agricultural devastation to feed rapidly growing populations. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides replaced manure and crop rotation. Rising pollution and exploitation damaged habitats on a widening scope, reaching global level by the 1980s.

Paradoxically, as more and more people lived in towns and cities, attitudes to nature became much more positive. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Industrial society was more equal, in respect of power and wealth, than the agrarian civilizations that preceded it. Wealth from trade and finance became more widely distributed in the mercantile age. In the industrial age that followed, manufacturers joined the expanding elite.

On the political front absolute monarchy gradually gave way to democracy - though in most countries the vote was still reserved for the propertied.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth century the power of organized labour brought rising wages and political rights for workers. But an underclass of poor still remained excluded from both a decent income and power.

The industrial age had its own characteristic religious expression. Panentheism - the belief that God is both in this world and beyond it - spread. Humanism and atheism were expressions of the age's overconfidence in science and human industry.

The environmental crisis and the ecological revolution.

Today the full consequences of the industrial and fossil fuel age are with us. At the same time booming populations require more and more forest and wild habitat to be cleared for agriculture.

We have seen the consequences of pollution for the atmosphere (Gaia). Acid rain has killed forests and left many lakes almost sterile in Europe and East Asia.

The world's tropical forests are home to the greatest diversity of species. Yet during the 1980s, their total area shrank by over 8 per cent from 1,915 million hectares to 1,760 million hectares. The loss of 155 million hectares equals an area bigger than France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom combined.

Species are dying out at an unprecedented rate - fifty to a hundred times faster than the natural extinction rate. Projections of losses over the next 25 years range from 2 per cent to 25 per cent of species. For some groups of vertebrates and plants between five and twenty per cent of species are already listed as under threat.

Overfishing now affects 70 per cent of world fishery stocks, and is radically altering the ecology of many marine ecosystems. Fishing and silt are destroying coral reefs. Coastal wetlands are being cleared for tourist resorts and shrimp farming. Our impact on the globe is massive. We are interfering in every natural cycle and every ecosystem.

Returning to unity.

Just as the food and fuel crises led to massive changes in our technologies, social institutions and beliefs, so too will the environmental crisis. As the problems grow, so does our concern. More and more people are trying to alter their own lives, and influence those of others, to do less damage to nature and Gaia.

We are in the early stages of our third revolution - the environmental revolution.

Gaia's children: how we can return to unity.
Gaia: unity of life and earth.


Cooperation with nature.
Using diversity:
wide variety of plant and animal species.
Egalitarian. Anarchical. Animism:
spirits in animals,
plants, stones, water.
Religious rules
for conservation.
Agrarian Mastery over nature.
Destruction of habitats & diversity.
Focus on a few species of plant and animal.
Massive inequality. Hierarchical power.
Anthropomorphic gods, outside nature. Agricultural rituals.
Imperial &
Pillage of local environments.
Scorched earth.
Circuses & banquets.
Uncontrolled despotism.
Endless warfare.
God separate
from universe.
Soul separate
from body.
Belief in
better afterlife.
Industrial Replacement of wood and natural products
by fossil fuels,
Rising pollution.
Broadening democracy.
Spreading of wealth.
Exclusion of poor and minorities.
God in universe,
as well as outside.
Scientific secularism.
Ecological Solar power.
Minimized use of materials.
Minimized pollution.
Restoration of diversity.
Participatory society.
Plebiscitary democracy.
Inclusion of all groups.
Eradication of poverty.
universe & nature
are identical
with God.
Reverence for nature.
Religious rules
for conservation.
Fusion of science and religion.

The above text and table is based mainly on:
Paul Harrison, The Third Revolution, Penguin Books, London and New York, 1993.


is a profound feeling of reverence for Nature and the wider Universe
It fuses religion and science, and concern for humans with concern for nature.
It provides the most solid basis for environmental ethics.
It is a religion that requires no faith other than common sense,
no revelation other than open eyes and a mind open to evidence,
no guru other than your own self.
For an outline, see Basic principles of scientific pantheism. Top.

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© Paul Harrison 1997.
January 24, 1997.