The Future or Not the Future? That is the Question.
When Lisa and I moved on to our land in Vermont we lived in a shed that we built the previous year. Our permanent house would be situated not far from the shed. It was spring and our 800-foot driveway was a complete mud hole and the cars had to be parked at the road. Everything, such as laundry and groceries was carried to the home site from the road. The year before, Lisa and I remodeled a house in the Poconos Mountains and a young couple had made an offer to buy it. The money from Pocono house was going to fund the building of our Vermont house. It was time for the closing and I had to travel to Pennsylvania to sign the papers. Everything was falling into place, just as we had planned. After I left, Lisa received a phone call telling her that the loan had not been approved and the deal fell through. When I reached the Poconos I called Lisa and received the bad news. It’s always hard to be on top of the world and suddenly the rug gets pulled out from under you.
I turned around and drove back to Vermont completely depressed. We still owed money on the house and we were paying a small mortgage on our land. Lisa and I were both picking rocks out of fields at an organic farm and just making our payments. I hauled the rocks back to our land on our dump truck. The rocks were separated into building rocks and driveway rocks. The driveway rocks were dumped into the mud hole, which seemed to be a bottomless pit. Big rocks disappear into the abyss. At the end of the day we ate dinner and fell into bed night after night completely exhausted. There didn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
One night I was in bed and couldn’t sleep. I was extremely stressed and full of anxiety. There was little money and if we didn’t start building the house soon it would be too late. The winter comes early in Northern Vermont and has no compassion for those who are not ready. All of a sudden I had an idea. It flashed into my head. We could add onto the shed and with little money, our house would be underway. I could hardly wait for Lisa to wake up to tell her the great idea. As tired as I was I didn’t sleep the rest of the night. Finally Lisa woke up. I described my great idea. Lisa was less than favorable about my plan. There was no way she was going to live in a shed.
A week passed and our situation did not change. After many discussions we decided to go forward. Rocks were brought from the farm for the foundation, logs were cut from our land for the beams, and the work began. What a summer. We erected half of our house and tied it into the existing shed. To this day it’s the one room that looks different. It’s where it all started, what memories.
Together we had developed a picture of what our house would be. We spent hours drawing plans. The change of plans did not come easy. It seemed that there was an immovable force that was holding our picture in place. Society’s collective images also seem immovable. Many events in history have brought us to this point and cemented our existing paradigm into place. It takes years to make major paradigm shift. The transition to a new framework of thought is brought about when many of the concepts of the time don’t quite make sense. There are stresses in society and suddenly an alternative makes more sense. Galileo, Newton, Locke and others contributed to our understanding of the world, but Darwin may have been the most influential. Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection (survival of the fittest) gave value to competition. It was nature’s way to compete for resources. The theory was extended to the economy and capitalism was given the green light. Individuals would compete through the workforce while nations under capitalism would compete economically. Nations that chose other economic strategies such as Soviet Union fell behind. It was clear capitalism had won the race. We are familiar with this path, but are there any alternatives.
Taking a closer look at previous major paradigm shifts may be helpful in deciding our direction. The original major paradigm was the age when humans were hunter-gatherers. The amount of energy input to support this lifestyle was very low. Tools and weapons were simple and made by hand. This period lasted anywhere from 100,000 to millions of years, depending on who is providing the information. Stresses may have occurred to end this period of humanity, but in any event the next major paradigm shift slid into place. The next major paradigm was the Agricultural Age, which lasted about 10,000 years. This lifestyle needed a greater amount of energy to make the tools needed to farm the land and also to produce weapons to defend the territory. The energy base increased while the amount of time the period lasted decreased by at least a factor of ten. The best-known paradigm shift was the shift from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age. It is hard to tell exactly when this shift occurred, but it’s safe to say that it started to pick up speed in the 1700’s. It has only been 3-4 hundred years and already the new paradigm is stressed. The energy base needed to fuel this model has increased many, many times when compared to the Agricultural Age and also the time span decrease from 10,000 years to 3-4 hundred years. This trend may indicate a general picture that may sway future decisions. If the time span of the paradigm is decreased many times with the increase of the required energy base our next paradigm should be carefully considered.
At the same time our present paradigm was being formed there were other individuals that thought humanity should take a different path. The other framework of thought like the present paradigm could arbitrarily begin with Aristotle. Society lived with the idea of the whole. Various scientists such as Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo shook this image. The generalized science of Aristotle was lost. Society lost the ability to visualize the whole, and out of the whole, see the parts that make up the whole. Newtonian Science encouraged specialization. Not only is there no longer a general science; biology, chemistry and other scientific disciplines are divided up even further each studying their specific part of the whole.
It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) that offered something entirely different. He introduced a new way of seeing. We have all experienced seeing a group of shapes that seem to be placed chaotically on a page. When one looks carefully at the group of shapes, suddenly a picture appears. The picture was there all the time. Other pictures offer two images in one form. For example, a picture that appears to be a rabbit or a duck depending on how it is seen. The stimulus of the eye of the observer is the same. The shapes or lines have not changed. It is the way the stimulus is seen that makes the difference. The picture does not appear by studying the individual lines or shapes. The image appears only when the whole picture is viewed. This phenomenon reflects Goethe’s belief that the particular that is to be studied can not be isolated from its environment.1 Many times I have admired the tall Balsam Fir trees in New England, some of which grow on our property. I’ve had to cut some down and the massiveness of these trees always amazes me. Whenever I hike to the top of Mt. Mansfield, the tallest mountain in Vermont, I am equally amazed at the Balsam Firs that are 6-7 feet tall. Many of these small trees are as old as the massive trees on our property. The environmental conditions that these small trees live under are very extreme. Just a quick look and one would think that they were two different kinds of trees. Goethe’s way of seeing, not only captures the whole in the particular but also the particular in the whole. When one sees the duck/rabbit picture, only a duck or only a rabbit may appear to some individuals. When only the duck appears, in one sense it is the whole picture, yet the image of the rabbit is also part of the whole. The whole picture includes both the rabbit and duck and also either image is whole in itself.2
Newton’s work with prisms and white light is well known. White light, according to Newton, contains all of the colors. When the white light is passed through a prism the colors are separated out. Goethe’s scientific explorations are not as well known. Through his observations he came up with different conclusions. A question that troubled Goethe was how do dark colors make up white light? Does that seem possible? Goethe noticed that when a prism was held up against a white background the colors did not appear. If however, he viewed an area where half was black and half was white the colors appeared at the boundary. It is at such boundaries that the colors are formed when looking through a prism. Goethe’s light experiments are simple to replicate and quite amazing. I suggest anyone with an interest try them and observe the experiments for themselves. Goethe’s conclusion from his experiments was that colors were not separated out. Instead colors were formed by the boundary of light and darkness. He believed that the phenomena should not have to be only found in a controlled experiment, but one should be able to observe it in nature. Red, orange, and yellow are formed when light is passed through darkness. This can be observed during a sunset. When looking at the horizon one is looking through the greatest thickness of atmosphere, which provides the darkness. It is at the horizon, where the light shines through the darkness of the atmosphere that red is formed. As the gaze rises from the horizon the thickness of the atmosphere lessens and the oranges appear followed by the yellows. Blue, indigo, and violet are formed when darkness passes through the light. When the gaze rises even further, the atmosphere continues to decrease in thickness and light blue appears. The color changes to dark blue or indigo when the gaze is straight up. On the other side of the atmosphere is the darkness of space penetrating the light from the sun. As one travels upward into space the color changes to violet as the atmosphere thins until there is only the blackness of space. 3 Newton separated his light into quantities (wavelengths) while Goethe through his observations kept white light whole. Society was ready for Newton’s way of science while Goethe’s way of seeing was left behind.
Alfred Wegener was a German scientist at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1905 he obtained his doctorate in planetary astronomy, but became interested in meteorology. He became a soldier in WWI and in 1914 incurred an injury and was hospitalized. It is during this time that he contemplated the way that South America and Africa seemed to fit together like pieces from a puzzle if placed next to each other when looking at a map. He concluded that the continents were at one time a single continent and over time drifted apart. Wegener presented his theory to the scientific community and never gained acceptance. The story seems to be the same. Years later, after his tragic death in Greenland, the theory of plate tectonics was formed and there were many observations supporting Wegener’s theory.4
In the 1980’s, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis introduced a new way to look at evolution. In Darwinian evolution organisms compete for their survival. Through Natural Selection, the strongest survive while the weaker organisms or organisms that cannot adjust to a changing environment die out. Lovelock and Margulis believe that cooperation plays a greater role. They envisioned organisms working together for a common goal of survival. These organisms work so close together that in a sense they form a greater organism. This can be extended to the whole Earth acting as a big organism. This vision came to Lovelock as a whole picture without a great amount of evidence. The idea just came to him. William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, after hearing Lovelock’s description, suggested that Lovelock name the Earth’s life form “Gaia”, after the Greek’s Earth Goddess. Included in Gaia were the biota (collection of individual living organisms), the biosphere (part of Earth where living organisms normally exists), and the physical earth (rocks, soil, water, etc.).5
Lovelock and Margulis formulated the Gaian hypothesis to include and interconnect the biota, biosphere, and physical earth. “The Gaian hypothesis states that temperature, oxidation state, acidity and certain aspects of the rocks and waters are at any time kept constant, and that this homeostasis is maintained by active feedback processes operated automatically and unconsciously by the biota. Solar energy sustains comfortable conditions for life. The conditions are only constant in the short term and evolve in synchrony with the changing needs of the biota as it evolves. Life and its environment are so closely coupled that evolution concerns Gaia, not the organisms or the environment taken separately.”6
This concept has been realized in isolated instances. It has been known for some time that plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, while animals take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide providing a balance. Water is taken up by the roots of plants and travels upward until released into the atmosphere in the process of transpiration. Lovelock’s vision was much broader. This theory provided an image of a continual dynamic relationship between the biota and environment. One could not study the biota without considering the environment and could not study the environment without considering the biota.
In forming his Gaian theory, Lovelock perceived the connection between all the parts of the Earth working together to form one. When Lovelock presented his theory to the scientific community he was ridiculed. Lovelock offered little proof, but the concept was so obvious to him that he thought that everyone would agree. To illustrate this hypothesis, Lovelock devised a simple model. Using splendid imagination, he created Daisyworld. Daisyworld, like the Earth, was heated by a variable star. The luminosity of the sun would increase over time, increasing the temperature of Daisyworld. Carbon dioxide was the only gas in the atmosphere and since it only rained at night, clouds did not interfere with the surface temperature of the planet. The only life forms on this planet were dark daisies and light daisies. Since the temperature of Daisyworld was low due to the low luminosity of the sun, the darker daisies began to flourish due to their dark heat absorbing pigment. As the dark daisies spread across the planet, enough heat was absorbed to actually warm the planet. The sun, being a variable star, began to rise in temperature warming Daisyworld even more. To counterbalance this situation the lighter daisies began to grow because they were able to reflect the sun’s rays while the darker daisies began to wilt. As the sun increased its heat, the darker daisies finally succumbed to the heat reflecting light daisies that cooled the planet insuring its survival.7
Daisyworld provided a model to explain this new concept. Once this new model was presented Don Anderson, a geologist, proposed a mechanism that could occur that would connect plant life with the movement of the continents. Plants utilize carbon, taken from the atmosphere (carbon dioxide) and store the carbon in the roots, stems and leaves. The plant eventually dies and decays releasing the carbon into the soil. Some of this carbon reacts with calcium silicate from the rocks to form calcium bicarbonate, which leaches into the ground water. The water eventually reaches the ocean where the calcium is used by marine organisms to form shells. The marine organisms die depositing their shells onto the bottom of the ocean producing large limestone deposits. It is thought that continents slide along ancient limestone deposits in the process known as plate tectonics.8
One of the most exciting areas of Gaian research is done on the cellular level. Lynn Margulis, co-author of the Gaian theory finds evidence through her and other’s research in microbiology. “Microbes are the building blocks of the rest of life on Earth. And all organisms, from the microbial level on over to the visible world of plants, animals, and human beings, change their environment all the time. One hundred percent of organisms give off gas, transfer energy, and alter their surroundings one hundred percent of the time.”9
Through research in this area, symbiosis has been found to be the norm rather than the exception. Termites, for example, cannot digest cellulose even though they survive by eating wood. Bacteria live in the digestive tract which are able to break down cellulose. Mixotricha, a species of termites that live in Australia, has been studied extensively. The cellulose metabolizing bacteria living inside this species of termite contains three other kinds of bacteria. Two species of bacteria attach themselves to the surface of the Mixotricha and through waves of rhythmic beating, propel the organism through the termite’s digestive tract. Since Mixotricha lack mitochondria, a third species of bacteria has been internalized and provide the metabolic functions needed for the organism’s survival. What exactly is the organism? Is it the whole termite-bacteria relationship or are they separate?10
In the early 1900’s chloroplasts were isolated and grown separately from plant cells. These experiments inspired Konstantin Sergeivich Merezhkovski’s work. He observed that chloroplasts divided separately from the nucleus. From his observations he developed the ‘two-plasm” (cell within a cell) theory. Merezhkovski felt that chloroplasts, mitochondria and other organelles were once separate and through symbiosis became a cooperative, unified cell. Years later both chloroplasts and mitochondria were found to have their own DNA material separate from the nucleus. This evidence indicates that the organelles may in fact, at one time, lived on their own and with cooperation evolved.11
Although Lovelock visualized Gaia, on his own, there were others that had similar pictures years before. James Hutton, (1726-1797), the father of geology, was from Scotland who in his earlier days attended the university for medicine, traveled through Scotlanff and farmed. These varied experiences were instrumental in forming his image of a “whole Earth”. In a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh he referred to the Earth as a super organism and compared the movements of elements through the soil and water throughout the world to the circulatory system of the body.12 He considered the physical Earth and the living organisms as one. “Therefore the explanation, which is given of the different phenomena of the Earth, must be consistent with the actual constitution of this Earth as a living World, that is, a world maintaining a system of living animals and plants.” The Newtonian Scientific Paradigm was well underway and the different scientific disciplines were specialized, each studying their narrow section of science. Hutton’s ideas were lost. The interplay between living organisms and the Earth’s geology was brought to light agaain by Vladimir Vernadski (1863-1945). He developed a theory of co evolution. In his picture the Earth’s environment was partly created and controlled by life. Venadski, however, did not consider the Earth as a unified organism. 13
Chief Seattle made the most striking account of the spirit of Gaia in response to President Franklin Pierce’s purchase of the land of his tribe in 1855. “How can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people… If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers. Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the Earth is our mother? What befalls the Earth befalls all the sons of the Earth. This we know: the Earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the Earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. What ever he does to the web, he does to himself. One thing we know: Our God is also your God. The Earth is precious to Him and to harm the Earth is to heap contempt on its Creator.”14 (This is a condensed version. A more complete version is attached.)
I can’t help but wonder about the comparison of the state of Gaia and by own body when I am sick. Many times when I am sick, I become feverish. I have an image of my immune system rising up to fight the organisms that are making me ill. The analogy, of course, is just my imagination or is it? Many times a person who is ill disregards symptoms until they are hard to ignore. He or she finally goes to the doctor and finds that the illness has spread to all parts of their body. In this case there are two outcomes. In the first outcome, after extreme efforts, the pathogens are defeated and the patient survives. In the other outcome, the disease becomes so extensive that the patient dies. A third hypothetical outcome may be possible. What if the pathogen learns to become symbiotic with its host and actually works to help its survival?
The direction Lisa and I decided to take in our house building process was influence by stress. The lack of money forced us to think differently. We couldn’t afford to purchase an elaborate water system and opted to explore water collection and gravity feed systems. Water was heated by the sun and wood. A composting toilet was built allowing us to raise the humus of our soil. The sun easily supplied the electrical needs. These systems were not only less money to install but used very little energy to operate. If anything went wrong with the system, it was easily fixed. This process was not always pleasant but usually interesting and exciting. As a society living in a fast paced world, do we have the time to explore such options or will the future force us to live these options, taking away our freedom to choose? As human beings do we have no other alternative to competition or through our educational system, can we learn to cooperate with the environment and each other? Time will tell.
1 Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature, (Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1996)
2 Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature, (Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1996), p. 266, 277.
3 Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Gorthe’ Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature, (Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1996),p. 39-49.
5 Lawrence E. Joseph, Gaia: The Growth of an Idea, (N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 8, 29.
6 James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, (N.Y. and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988), p. 19.
7 James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, (N.Y. and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988), p. 34-39.
8 James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, (N.Y. and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988), p. 99.
9 Lawrence E. Joseph, Gaia: The Growth of an Idea, (N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 7.
10 Peter Bunyard (editor), Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth, (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996); Article—“We are all Symbionts”, Lynn Margulis, Ricardo Guerrero and Peter Bunyard, p.175.
11 Peter Bunyard (editor), Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth, (Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1996); Article—“We are all Symbionts”, Lynn Margulis, Ricardo Guerrero and Peter Bunyard, p. 168.
12 Lawrence E. Joseph, Gaia: The Growth of an Idea, (N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 83-84.
13 Peter Bunyard (editor), Gaia in Action: Science of the Living Earth, (Edinburgh: Foris Books, 1996). Article—“Sketch for a History of the Idea of the Biosphere”, Jacques Grinevald), p.34, 43.
14 Senator Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, (Boston, N.Y. and London: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992, p. 259.