Continuing the topic from last week, I want to talk about Living the Questions—that is living with questions that do not, or do not yet, have answers.1
The first question that came to mind immediately when Krista Tippett asked what question are you living with in her solstice gathering came quickly: “How do we grow the Gaian faith?”2 It wasn’t how do I stop the ecological collapse. Perhaps because that’s too big a question to answer. Perhaps because superficially it is clear as a mirror: reduce consumption, stabilize human populations, wrestle control from politicians and corporations that put profit over long-term wellbeing. Or perhaps because I don’t believe that’s possible any longer. After all, if people can’t wear masks to stop killing people like themselves in their own communities, it is unlikely that the collective we will give up our burgers and air conditioners, our cars and our comfort to save poor people of different cultures on the other side of the world.
But spreading an understanding that Gaia is alive and we’re part of this living whole, and completely dependent on Gi for our ability to survive and thrive, seems more tangible. Even if it’s just one person at a time. And even if it’s too late to prevent collapse. For even if it is, history won’t end with the climate collapse. Some countries and populations will survive and they, in this moment of crisis, will search out new ideas, new orienting philosophies, and may adopt an ecocentric way of thinking and being—a philosophy that helps heal Gaia and prevents another ecological collapse a hundred generations from now.
Yet there is a more fundamental question (perhaps with an answer) that should be explored first, and that is:
What Does Gaia Want?
On the surface, that sounds like an anthropomorphic question—granting a thinking personhood to a planetary system. But it isn’t. Just as any organism (even the simplest) will attempt to avoid danger and remain in a state of health or balance, we can say the same thing for Gaia: Gaia wants to regain a state of health.
And it’s clear that Gaia is attempting to do that. As has been extensively researched and discussed, Gaia has adapted to many changing variables—a sun that has become 40 percent hotter, a great oxygenation event, asteroid strikes, and other traumas over Gi’s four billion year lifespan. At different times Gi had different tools available. One of which is the natural ability of healthy forests and oceans to absorb excess CO2 to keep systems aligned. Another, perhaps, is shifting to a new state (my colleague used to always say—like humans getting a fever, wiping out the bothersome pest that’s hurting Gi in the process). But ignoring that teleological analysis, the bigger point is that the biodiversity present on Earth enables a great die off and a regrowth of life that is better adapted to the new state (like the appendix repopulating the gut microbiome after a catastrophic stomach bug). Of course, that lowers the odds even further that humans will make it through this transition, but Gaia is probably ambivalent on whether humans survive or not.3
So assuming that this question is not anthropomorphic, is it answerable? Does Gaia simply want to live? To sustain, or at this point, regain a healthy state? And if so, how?
Regaining a State of Health
That question is probably answerable too, even if the answer is not to humans’ liking.
The first quite obvious answer is to get rid of humans (or at least their ability to have a significant impact). Climate shifts at their most extreme would do this. As would an outbreak-style disease, like the virus that digests tent caterpillars from within (as described in the book Spillover). Not COVID, but something really devastating that would take out the majority of humanity and reduce us to a manageable body burden. Lots of organism live their whole lives with worms or a pesky parasite; as long as it doesn’t get out of control. (And if they do, certain organisms, like the sea slug, will even shed their whole bodies and start again!) So humans, back in a state of low development and perpetual survival mode probably would achieve the goal of mitigating the human threat.
The second—and certainly the one many humans (including I) would prefer if given a choice—is to reform humans. That is to say: bring them back into a right relationship with the living Earth. If humans could shift from being a parasite to even a benign growth, that’d be something, but even better, our species could evolve to be a symbiotic organism, helping to actively heal wounded ecosystems, expand life, enrich soils, protect the planet from external threats, and even sow the seeds of a daughter planet that in a billion years or so could come to life as well. (See endnote 3 for more on that.)
So here’s, in truth, the second question to live with (or perhaps the first question reframed):
How do we bring humans back into a right relationship with Gaia?
That is at the heart of the Gaian Way: to connect us, to submit ourselves to Gaia so that Gaia’s needs are put first (so that we don’t kill the organism that we are part of and depend on). But how?
One way is Love. Bringing children out in nature is an oft-discussed example—and research has found that environmentalists often point to formative childhood experiences in nature. Better developing our understanding of loving Gaia—and even Gaia loving us back—would help in this process. As Robin Wall Kimmerer noted in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond” (pp. 124-5).4
Another way is Beauty. Gaia’s beauty—from walking in the depths of a majestic sequoia forest to the simple daily experience of watching a bumblebee dancing along a field of red clover—can spark awe, reverence, connection to this larger being, even devotion, if we open ourselves to this.
Ritual too could play a part. Nature immersion, meditation, attending to nature’s cycles (in significant ways, such as fasting or following the wheel of the year): all of these could help us reorient from the culture of amusing—and consuming—ourselves to death, to a slower, more deliberate, more connected reality.5
And then there’s Community. A community that keeps focusing its members on these thoughts and practices rather than the latest trivialities, that shares ideas and passion for Gaia, that puts Gaia over ego, that celebrates with them in their times of joy and supports each other in their times of pain and need.
Is there a way to cultivate these? To grow those who understand the threat, the beauty, the sacred calling to help heal Gaia? That’s the question I’m living with. And it’s not an easy one.
In our perpetually distracted culture, it may be impossible to focus most people on shifting our relationship with Gaia. Funnily, a new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio makes that point very clearly—substituting a planet-killing asteroid that’ll destroy Gaia in six months for climate change.6 And yet, even in such clear circumstances, scientists found it difficult to mobilize people (or better said steer around the corrupted political and business interests that tried to use the asteroid to their best advantage).
But I think the sheer noise is what makes it so hard for the protagonists (and even the makers of Don’t Look Up, which I imagine will have its five minutes of buzz but just until the next big movie/album/scandal comes out). Ultimately, the movie sparks the question: how, in the case of climate change, can a slow moving disaster—with few marketers or influencers to push it along—compete in our frenetic world with the rapidly changing relationship statuses of our most popular celebrities?
And when everyone is so busy, who can expect them to find additional time to protest, to organize, to block bridges (risking arrest and discomfort), or whatever tactics may still be viable at this time? And more so, how can anyone find the time or space to rediscover their ongoing relationship with Gaia?
The answer may not be all that different than how people find themselves open to reconsidering their relationship with God. A numinous experience (sparked by beauty or love)? A personal crisis? A supportive community that draws them in? But essential to this is a structure to draw people in—something a Gaian faith still has little of. So perhaps that brings us full circle. Perhaps the question that demands living with simply requires me (and others who feel a sacred bond with Gaia) to keep living with it and trying to share it with the world—and encouraging others in the Gaian community to do the same. It’s not easy with the many other responsibilities we all have, but in the context of an asteroid (or a terminal illness) coming in six months, it might be easier to change those priorities. In a 20-year crisis, while not as easy, it may at least be possible to ask ourselves—of the many trivial obligations and expectations we face each day—does this really matter? Or could I do more to heal Gaia, and spread awareness of and our connection with Gi?
1) This stems from Rilke’s quotation: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
2) A related—or perhaps the same—question is how do we (i.e. those who self-identify as Gaians) grow the Gaian community?
3) It is true that humans could provide a great service to Gaia, defending Gi from asteroids and spreading its basic life blocks to other planets (perhaps with the same mechanism—e.g. redirect the asteroid and send it crashing into Venus populated with extremophilic bacteria that might start the billion year process of establishing life on our sister planet). However, none of that’s worth a mass extinction, a nuclear winter, or the other ways we can greatly pain or possibly even kill this living planet.
4) That’s not to say in a Mother Earth-y kind of romanticized love, where Gaia is kind and kumbaya. But Kimmerer makes a case that a garden can love you back—as it takes care of you. And Gaia certainly takes care of us. Without Gi we wouldn’t be. That’s not to say that Gaia will continue to care for us if we step too far out of line—perhaps because Gaia doesn’t tolerate bad community behavior, perhaps because it’s simply beyond Gi’s capacity, but Gaia has been very patient with us so far.
5) The beauty of this shift is that it is well-rooted in science. For example, as Steven Laureys in The No-nonsense Meditation Book notes: “Meditation isn’t something you believe in, it’s something you practice.” The key is simply making time for all of this…. reprioritizing away from the treadmill of amusement. Not easy, but possible.
6) As interviews with the filmmakers make clear, the asteroid is a heavy-handed substitution for climate change.