The Gaian Way stems not from prophetic words, not from the voice of God, but simply through the understanding that the Earth is a living system, a holobiont on a planetary-scale that we are part of and utterly depend on. It draws not on magic or mysticism but on science. And yet, the Gaian Way does not strip away the numinousness or spiritual power of the fact that we are part of this being, that it nurtures and sustains us, and gives our lives meaning.
So what does The Gaian Way consist of?
As with all faiths, Gaianism has a cosmology, theodicy, an ethics. Below is a quick introduction of each. All of this, and additional elements of The Gaian Way, will be expanded over time.
How did the world form? Unlike ancient religions, science can now provide a strong explanation of the age of the universe, and how it and the Earth formed (4.5 billion years ago). Gaia formed from this ball of rock into a self-regulating and self-sustaining life system (about 4 billion years ago).
Is Gaia the only planetary being in the universe? Surely not. The statistical probability of that is infinitesimal. Are there other sentient beings on distant planets? Probably. Big History offers a nice explanation that many civilizations face a bottleneck—a moment where their capabilities enable them to destroy themselves, whether through splitting atoms, burning of fossil fuels, or other technologies we have yet to discover or weaponize (genetically engineered diseases for example).
It is unclear whether we will make it through our bottleneck. There are so many ways we are making Gaia uninhabitable for countless species including us. We have stepped away from the natural order, growing like a cancer both in numbers and appetites. The next step in our story is to recognize it is time we return to the fold, to heal Gaia, to come back into balance. If we don’t, like a cancer, we may kill our host (or trigger an immune response that will greatly reduce or even eliminate us—e.g. Hothouse Earth). If we make it through that step in our journey, perhaps we’ll be ready for the next.
But what is the next? Ultimately, we are biased by a linear view of history—assuming we’re progressing to something. Perhaps we’re not, but like the yugas in Hinduism, we exist in a cylical reality (our present moment certainly feels like we’re in the Kali Yuga). But assuming we want to keep the myth of progress—of moving toward something bigger and better than what we have now—progress can be understood as helping Gaia to actualize to the next degree. James Lovelock suggests that as humans are sentient we help make Gaia sentient and can defend Her against external threats—such as a life-destroying asteroid (See for example, A Rough Ride to the Future). I’d go a step further. Our fantasies of traveling to outer space are nonsensical. The energy and time needed means very few humans will ever get into space, and without a living planet that we co-evolved with, it is doubtful we’d ever be more than space tourists. Instead, what about seeding new planetary beings—starting with our neighbor Venus? Is it possible to ‘terraform’ a planet like Venus? Could we send bacteria that can survive the planet’s intense atmosphere and over millions of years, thrive, evolve and create entirely new lifeforms and a new planetary organism? Can there be any nobler a civilizational path than to heal and sustain one’s own planetary home and then, once in balance again, to serve as midwife to new planetary beings? That, if we need a civilizational goal, seems far better than increasing annual economic growth by 2-3 percent each year (all at the expense of Gaia’s well-being).
All religious philosophies attempt to explain why we suffer. Some suggest suffering is punishment, whether for transgressions during this life or past lives. Others state that it is our limited understanding of God that we even ask these questions. Others, such as Buddhists, suggest that suffering stems from our expectations. We hope and expect things to go well for us–when they don’t we get angry and sad. The end of desire means the end of suffering. There are some elements of truth to all of these. Our desires, our lack of understanding, our transgressions all play a role in our suffering.
But with modern scientific advances, humans are capable of a far more nuanced understanding of the world. Grasping that the Earth is a complex, self-organizing system means certain forms of suffering are natural: prey/predator relationships, for example, or the chaos caused by violent (but natural) planetary change like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. But some other forms of suffering stem from imbalance, such as when one population grows unchecked, whether that be populations of Homo sapiens or cancer cells. Distinguishing between forms of suffering and minimizing preventable types, while finding mantras and rituals to accept those that aren’t preventable, could serve people far better than many theodicies available today.
Having a robust theodicy will be especially important in getting through the next centuries, when, even in the best case, there will be massive life loss and suffering as sea levels rise from thermal expansion, and a collapsing western Antarctic and melting Greenland wipe cities and even entire countries off the map. God’s (or Gaia’s) wrath could serve to explain these losses, but a more nuanced understanding of system change will surely lead to a healthier coping with those changes. For example, if one simply sees the seas rising as God’s wrath for destroying His Creation, the proper response may be prayer and building massive sea walls (which with the signficant carbon costs involved will further exacerbate climate change). Recognizing that Gaia is not angry because of the damage we caused but is changing because of it, means we should accept these outcomes, yield to Gaia’s changes, and move our settlements and cities (when trying to sustain them comes with significant costs). We should not have blind faith in God or Gaia but recognize that Gaia is a complex living system, which has been pushed to new set points and in the process made the ways we’ve gotten accustomed to living no longer viable. Change, at this point, is inevitable, and accepting this (as Buddhists recognize) will greatly reduce our perceived suffering. But what type of and how much change will be required depends on how quickly we act. Acting quickly to reduce and phase out fossil fuels may mean certain cities will continue to have a future—that, while a difficult change, will prove far less difficult than moving entire urban populations in the aftermath of devastating disasters.
The fundamental starting point of Gaian Ethics is planetary obligation. Gaia is a living planet—one which we depend on and are part of—and it is our duty to care for and actively heal Gaia until once again healthy. This stems from ancient understandings, an ancient Confucian code of obligations to parents (or filial piety). Our parents cared for us when we were defenseless and provided us with food and nourishment. It is our obligation to care for them as they get older and frailer—repaying the kindness and sacrifices they made (which, as parents, was their duty/obligation). As social animals, this is in our interest: elders provide wisdom, experience, skills, that younger generations may lack. And as animals who eventually will age and become more frail, we hope our children will see us modeling this behavior and do the same for us (something in the west that has become rarer and rarer, perhaps because of this lack of understanding).
So, just as we have the obligation to care for our parents we have an obligation to care for our planet. Of course, this is nothing new. Many faiths have now adopted the term “stewardship.” But that has always been corrupted by the idea that humans must care for the Earth because it (with a lower case i) is ours. That we have dominion over the Earth. That is truly nonsensical. We certainly act like that—but that is a sign of our ethical failings not our ethical actions. To convert ecosystems into oil, coal, gas, gold, uranium, and other metals; to raze forests to grow food for our livestock or build furniture and more homes; to allow our populations to grow unchecked; we currently act in a parasitic way. And a parasitic ethical code is not only pain-inducing but unwise when there is no new host to turn to when this one dies. We must care, in perpetuity for our Parent-Planet, for if we do not, we die along with Her, for we will never be weaned from Gaia.
Obligations to Each Other
As we are all part of one unified system, to think that some humans have more rights or inherent worth than others is not only the root of many societal injustices, but impedes the ability to live within Gaia’s bounds. If millionaires enjoy the consumer good life, middle class individuals strive to be millionaires, and the poor strive to join the middle class, there is constant pressure on Gaia: to grow consumption, to extract more resources all in the pursuit of the Consumer Dream. That won’t do. And to maintain an elite consumer class while the majority lives a small-footprint lifestyle will never prove stable (other than through institutional violence). The Scandinavians with their strong levels of equity are a good model—however at an inherently unsustainable level of consumption. Cuba, where everyone is “poor” but actually has better health outcomes on average than rich America, is a better model (even if it is alien to most westerners). Ultimately, regardless of the societal model, we must recognize that we are interdependent. And if we don’t solve the problems of all humans solving the global ecological crisis will be impossible.
How should we live?
But how are we to live day-to-day? What should we eat? Do with our life energy? How many children should we have? How should we prepare for coming changes? How should we celebrate rites and rituals? How should we spread the Gaian philosophy? This requires a longer essay, but in the meantime I point you to the Living Earth Ethics as that does grapple with many of these questions.