Every year millions of people die. In fact, with eight billion now on the planet, last year about 133 million more people were born, and 67 million people died. Many died simply died because their natural lifespans ran their course. Some, however, died earlier than they should have, too many from tragically preventable causes like gun violence, war, or famine. Or from climate disasters and new diseases like COVID, or even simple old preventable diseases like cholera or polio.1 Others, tragically, died protecting Gaia from the abuses of their fellow man. I pause for a moment of silence for these ecowarriors—who will, perhaps, be recognized as saints in a future age. (Please take a moment to remember these heroic individuals.) And while I can’t write reflections on all those who have given their life energy to help heal Gaia and reconnect us to reality (that we are part of and utterly dependent on Gaia for our existence and wellbeing) I do want to reflect on three pioneers who returned to Gaia in 2022.2
We should start with the gaiafather of Gaianism, James Lovelock. His early work to analyze pollutants is reason enough to celebrate his life, as this helped scientists discover (and activists fight) the destructive effects of DDT and CFCs. But he, with Lynn Margulis, also made the realization that Earth is a holobiont—a living system of living systems that helps keep it sustaining its current state.
While trying to figure out a way to determine if there was life on Mars, Lovelock realized that a living planet would have trace gases that wouldn’t exist without life, and once seeing these weren’t present, concluded Mars was dead.3 He then applied that to a more interesting planet, Earth, cultivating, over time, Gaia Theory, which, while still debated, contributed significantly to the development of Earth System Science. There is no way I can do Gaia Theory justice in this context, but it is this discovery (or perhaps more accurately a scientific understanding of this ancient wisdom) that makes it clear that we, and all other species, are part of this living planetary being, and utterly dependent on its healthy functioning. And while few may still fully grasp this understanding (or resist the inevitable conclusions it brings with it), it makes it no less true.
Dave Foreman is often called a “radical environmentalist” or “ecowarrior.” He was the co-founder of Earth First! and in later years he became a passionate advocate of rewilding, first founding the Wildlands Network and then creating the Rewilding Institute. As The New York Times obituary notes, “Earth First! and Mr. Foreman were not just more strident than the mainstream. They advocated a different philosophy, known as deep ecology, which holds that nature has inherent value, not just in its utility to people.” (This is a key aspect of Gaianism as well, even if it still struggles to enter mainstream environmentalism.)
“When I die I want a weasel to crawl up inside of me and eat my liver. I want buzzards to peck my eyeballs out. I want mountain lions to crunch my bones. Because I want to live forever. I don’t want to be pickled and stuck in a lead box. That’s how you die. I want to be recycled. I want to run around the forest on little weasel feet. I want to go back into the flow, I want to be part of the food chain. When death comes, I want to enjoy it. I want to embrace it. Let’s not be afraid of dying. Let’s not kill ourselves. Let’s not pretend that we’re immortal. We’re all gonna die. There’s nothing to be afraid of, nothing to avoid. If you aren’t afraid to die, then you can be happy to live; you aren’t afraid to live, you can open up, you can love somebody else and not be afraid of getting hurt. You can love a place and not worry about losing it, because you have the courage to go out and fight for it.”
If that isn’t a perfect vision of returning to (and living for) Gaia, I don’t know what is.
Herman Daly (written by Tom Prugh)
Third is Herman E. Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics and the co-developer of the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. His death is a major loss to the project of right-sizing the human presence on Earth.
Herman, who began his career as a growth-oriented economist, became one of the strongest voices challenging the mainstream’s blithe assumptions. He realized that economic growth, which fundamentally consists in converting the finite natural world to the human, built world—more people, more machines and buildings, more of our livestock—will have to stop sometime. And that, beyond a certain point, it makes us worse off, not better.
Herman’s “pre-analytic vision,” as he put it—of the human economy as a subsystem embedded within the biosphere and therefore incapable of outgrowing it—is so intuitively right that the wonder is only that the economics profession continues largely to ignore it. Herman’s work, building on that of John Stuart Mill and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, helped launch ecological economics, one of the proliferating branches of the dismal science that are trying to make it a bit less dismal and more reflective of the real world. His tireless advocacy of the steady-state economy—which continually improves but does not grow—has borne fruit in the work of many like-minded economists who have successfully modeled such economies and shown how they can work—and that they must work, eventually.
His professional work, influence, and legacy have helped establish the scientific foundation that describes Gaia and our subordinate place in it. If humanity is slowly, painfully, realizing what we must do to ensure our long-term thriving here on Earth, a large share of the credit belongs to Herman Daly.
A Prayer for All Those Lost
While perhaps best said soon after death, reading Foreman’s words provides the sentiments for a prayer for James, Dave, and Herman (and all others who have died this past year):
May you have the kind fortune of being returned to Earth in an untoxified form, to have your bones crushed by mountain lions, your eyeballs plucked out by vultures, your liver devoured by weasels, with the mice, worms and bacteria eating the rest, so you can once again enter the larger being of Gaia and live on through future generations of life. To life!
1) And remember, too, the millions of non-humans who died in these disasters—the fires, the floods, the storms.
2) Actually, four. One other notable loss this year: Hazel Henderson, who was an advocate for a renewable economy and, like Herman Daly, a proponent of a sane economics, stating famously that “economics is a form of brain damage.” As Kalle Lasn wrote in an Adbusters’ memorial, Henderson advocated for a sustainable economic model “based on renewable energy sources and biomimicry” that “was so ahead of its time that the old guard couldn’t even see it over the curve of the horizon.” It also turns out she was on the Worldwatch Institute board from its beginning all the way until 2001, though ended her tenure just as I started, so I never got the chance to meet her.
3) And yet we persevere in our explorations and fantasies about colonizing this planet, wasting billions of dollars that could be used to heal our sickened (but still living) home.
4) One personal note about Daly (from Erik). For years he was a friend of Worldwatch (and also a board member for some years) and I remember after writing about the value of eco-missionary movements (e.g. the Gaian Way before there was one) that he wrote me this short note:
“I agree that what is needed is fundamentally a religious transformation, even if our secularized society does not want to call it that. Glad you are breaking the ice on that topic. I have tried to open a similar discussion, without much success—see attached essay in De Martino and McCloskey, eds., Oxford Handbook on Professional Economic Ethics. I wish you more success than I have had in this effort.”
Not only encouragement, but a gentle warning that this path isn’t easy, which I admit, has kept me going.