Put simply Gaianism is a religious philosophy that grants the living Earth (Gaia) its rightful place at the center. Humans are not the pinnacle of evolution but just a small (and not necessarily essential) part of the living Earth.
In ancient times, people understood implicitly and through regularly reinforced myths and stories, that you shouldn’t mess with the living Earth. In many languages, even the name of our planet is synonymous with the Earth goddess. Hertha/Erde/Tierra/Terre are just a few examples.
But living in cities, in “advanced” civilizations where our engagement with nature is minimized and mediated, we no longer understand our utter dependence on Gaia. We no longer understand that we are part of Gaia.
This has led to a dangerous time, where we have allowed Earth’s climate system to spiral toward a new state–one to which humans and countless other species are not adapted. We’ve allowed millions of tons of plastic to pollute the oceans and disrupt marine life. We’ve deforested, we’ve paved over, we’ve converted the lands into genetically modified monocrops. If we were intentionally trying to kill our living planet, we couldn’t do much better than we are now.
Hence, we need a philosophy that reroots humans–us, the wise species–into a symbiotic relationship with Gaia. To resurrect an understanding of a “planetary obligation,” where this obligation is at the heart of our ethical code–where it is our duty to care for and actively heal Gaia. James Lovelock’s research on Gaia Theory made it clear that the Earth is a living planet–not sentient–but alive, a manifestation of the many living systems converging into a being of sorts (or more correctly a holobiont). This planet–Gaia–is our ground of being. Without Gaia we cannot and will not exist. And thus we must heal and restore this planet. And to do that, our best bet is to spread an ecocentric spiritual but scientifically-grounded philosophy–through tried and true methods of missionary efforts rooted in community building, social service provision, and mutual aid.
The first steps are to expand this philosophy, which is now starting in earnest. And also to start connecting those who self-identify as Gaians and bring them into community–even if spread out across the wide body of Gaia. The technologies of the consumer era mean we may be able to grow and spread faster than other philosophies did in centuries past.
And What is a Gaian?
What is a Gaian? That is hard to answer as this is new territory, and surely, there will be an ideal answer and a real answer. For example, what is a Christian? How about: “A person who believes that Christ was the son of God and died for humanity’s sins and will come again to save humanity, and acts according to Christ’s teachings.” Is that accurate? Do all Christians believe this? And even if they do, do they act like they believe it? There are few Christians that achieve Christ’s ideal. The same can be asked of “What is a Muslim?” Or “What is a Buddhist?” Again there will be a spectrum, but I’d argue that this is the ideal definition for a Gaian:
“A person who believes that Earth (Gaia) is a living being and the root of our being, and of which we are a part. Gaia has an inherent right to life above all else, and it is Gaians’ duty to restore and protect Gaia from harm.”
That is what a Gaian is at its simplest. Will it always be that cut and dry? No. Will all Gaians be able to make choices that are perfectly in line with Gaia’s wellbeing rather than their own? Will they never fly to visit far-off family while that option is available, cheap, and expected? Choose to have only one child or adopt to reduce ecological impact? Live simply? Devote their lives to helping others do the same? Ideally, yes, but in reality, there are very few perfect Christians. However, that doesn’t mean Christianity has failed. It means that the ideal is an ideal and real life in a globalized consumer culture makes it hard to achieve that ideal. Gaians will face their own challenges and dilemmas, even as they strive toward the ideal.
But there is more to a definition of a Christian, Buddhist, or Gaian. These are not simply personal beliefs that work silently and in private. They become the basis of a community of adherents—whether in the first Christian communes or today’s mosques, churches, and temples. Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam are shared–and missionary–belief systems, which are both reinforced and molded by the other adherents that surround a believer. Gaianism needs to be of that cloth as well–a shared system that Gaians actively cultivate, shape, and spread.
The Gaian Creed
I remember growing up a Christian and reciting The Nicene Creed every Sunday, which served as one clear way of affirming what a Christian was and who I was. What would a Gaian Creed look like? Perhaps it is as simple as this:
“We believe that the Earth, Gaia, is a living being. That Gaia is at the same time composed of the vast diversity of life and is alive in Gi’s own right. We understand that we depend completely and utterly on Gaia and are part of Gaia. We recognize that current human actions are fundamentally altering Gaia and that if pushed too far, Gaia will shift from Gi’s current state to one inhospitable to humans and millions of other species. Therefore, we commit to living radically sustainable lives—even to an extent that it may alienate us from our kin, our communities, our cultures. We commit to sharing our philosophy and bringing others to understand and embrace their relationship with Gaia and help heal Gaia—and in the process, themselves, their families, and their communities.”
We, as Gaians, commit ourselves to caring for Gaia, restoring Gaia, and living in ways that minimize Gaia’s hurt. And most importantly, we do this even when it’s challenging, and we spread this Way to others.
Let’s break these pieces down. An ethical code that encourages living sustainably, devoting life energy to undoing the damage we’ve done to Earth, should be front and center. As should spreading this philosophy to others. But at times this will be awkward. Gaianism, like any new philosophical or religious movement, will be viewed by some as a cult. It may be hard to discuss with your family. Some may even denounce you. Navigating this will be a challenge for each new adherent—and particularly hard when this is a tiny movement. But as the movement grows, local Gaian communities will be able to offer support.
It’s only 45 years ago that Lovelock even had the epiphany that Earth was a living being. For years, this idea was dismissed. It’s still minimally discussed in schools or even known by environmentalists. Lovelock had to struggle with a lack of acceptance, and surely the Gaian community will as well.
The beauty of Gaia Theory is that it makes clear several things: our dependence, our ability to disrupt things, and our obligation to restore the Gaian system. But it also makes clear our smallness and our ignorance. A liver cell, even a brain cell, cannot fully grasp the workings or purpose of the body it is part of. Nor can we—but we can function as a healthy liver cell all the same, doing what is needed to sustain ourselves and the larger organism. (Of course a liver cell deserves enough food and other resources to sustain itself and do its work, and deserves to reproduce itself so the liver can continue to serve its purpose. It just doesn’t deserve beyond its fair share or the ability to reproduce as much as it likes—as this, rather, describes a cancer cell.)
Our lives should be lived like the cells of Gaia, providing a role that sustains ourselves, the other cells of the system we are nestled in, and sustains Gaia as a whole. More so, until Gaia is healed—for She is in a state of sickness right now and will be for many decades to come—our principal role is to help restore Gaia. We have to work extra hard in that context. Bodies redirect resources to essential parts when crises strike. A virus will be met with the mobilization of the immune system. A wound with a blood clot—with millions of platelets being sacrificed to stop the wound bleeding. In times of illness or hunger, energy will be diverted from growth of fat reserves or muscle mass, and so on. The same goes for us today. Human society needs to stop growing, it needs to stop building more cities, or achieving more “progress,” more technological gadgets, more entertainment. It needs to put all its resources into stopping the sickness, into restoring Earth. Once the current crisis is over, we can redirect our energy back to higher callings, from art and cultural works, to deeper fundamental understanding of Gaia and the universe, and even, perhaps, the birthing of Gaia’s children, seeding other planets with the beginnings of life.
For those who self-identify as Gaians, the question becomes, how do I actualize this? The Gaian Way discusses this, exploring a Gaian cosmology, a theodicy, ethics, rituals, and so on.