The Wrath of Gaia

God’s Wrath has oft been explored. And for good reason—it’s mentioned at least a dozen times in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. God is known to be infinitely loving and omnibenevolent, but He’ll smite an entire city (or four) if He senses wickedness. But what’s interesting is that the word often used in the Bible for wrath (in the ancient Greek) is not a sudden rage [thumos] but a settled anger [orge], a word that derives from ‘to swell.’ This suggests that God’s wrath is a building but measured response to His assessment of irredeemable sin.

Wrath, in English, means 1) vengeful anger or 2) retributory punishment for a crime, divine chastisement. And what wrath is is important to explore in the context of today’s climate emergency.

This distinction, between thumos and orge, is quite relevant for Gaia’s Wrath, which is even more present and tangible—and knowable—than God’s Wrath.

Gaia is not in a rage. It is not even possible for Gaia to get mad. While a living entity, She is not conscious as we understand it. But Gaia’s measured response to our transgressions [orge] is real—and should frighten us far more than God’s, as Gaia’s is guaranteed. After all, Abraham almost convinced God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (and the other two cities that seem to have been forgotten) if He could find just ten good people in Sodom. Too bad He couldn’t. But Gaia will not be swayed by the many good people trying to make society more sustainable. Only returning to living completely within Earth’s limits—i.e. following Gaia’s Law—will appease Her (and only if we do so in a timely fashion).

Hurricanes as Harbingers

The Christian religion spends a lot of time on sin. Not all religions organize themselves around this idea. The Gaian Way recognizes that there are those things that go against Earth’s laws and limits. Unlike the Biblical God, Gaia does not aim her wrath at those who have committed the transgressions. In fact, it is those that have transgressed the least that are often put most directly in harm’s way (power has its privileges). Instead, Gaia does not punish individuals, but instead collectively punishes all of humanity—and, as with the Flood, possibly much of the rest of the planet’s creatures as well.

Since Hurricane Dorian just decimated the Bahamas (a hurricane certainly made stronger by climate change)—and especially the poorer parts of the island—let’s consider this as a case study. The poor of the Bahamas did not cause climate change, but in this instance, they bore the brunt of its effects (as will often be the case due to the wealthier taking the high ground and having the resources to build stronger structures). This makes it easier for us—the consumer class—to ignore Gaia’s wrath (as it feels random or more likely targeting the Other rather than us).

Hurricanes will continue to worsen due to climate change. More heat is entering the atmosphere and oceans, and that heat needs to be redistributed—hurricanes are one of Gaia’s mechanisms to efficiently and effectively do that. In fact, a hurricane releases 1.5 or 600 terawatts of energy—from half to 200 times the world’s electricity-generating capacity (depending if measuring wind or measuring rain and cloud formation). Gaia doesn’t do this to be cruel—though it might feel that way—but the system, even when unaltered by us, needs mechanisms to rebalance global energy distribution. And now with our transgressions triggering the absorption of huge amounts of new energy into the Gaian system, these rebalancing efforts will grow.

So Gaia’s Wrath, while more devastating than God’s, is more measured, less emotional, and more predictable—in its certainty even if unknowable in its exact timing or location. The question is how will we respond to it?

Two Possible Antiphons

If we’re wise, we will answer Gaia’s Wrath in ways that reduce future wrath—shifting toward a low consumption, sustainable societal pathway (what Christians might call “repenting”)—and in ways that make ourselves safer from the wrath that is now all but inevitable, such as by building human settlements to be more resilient and, in times of disaster, rebuilding in ways that don’t lead them to being destroyed again (or when that’s impossible choosing not to rebuild at all but converting those ‘sacrifice lands’ into wetlands or protected areas that help protect the next tier of development in).

The danger is that instead of taking a rational, scientifically-based, and humble approach like that, as people see more and more of a ‘raging’ planet (even if Gaia is not raging just rebalancing in a measured way), the more they’ll want to tame it. The more the proposals for geoengineering will sound wise rather than like abominations (or at best untried strategies that could cause far more suffering, especially to those not in control of the geoengineering decision making or implementation). It will be essential to prevent interpretation of this wrath as an excuse to subjugate Gaia, whether through geoengineering, biotechnology, or some other hubristic (and in all likelihood profit-driven) strategy that suggests humans are smart and wise enough to actually effectively manage Gaia (when it was our hubris that triggered Gaia’s wrath in the first place).

We have put tremendous strain on Gaia—through our overall population, production, and consumption patterns, particularly over the past three hundred years. And by the very fact that there are now 7.8 billion of us, heading to 9.6 billion by 2050, it is now inevitable that Gaia’s systems will change and in a way that is not adapted to human life. This will manifest as Gaia’s Wrath. But how we respond to that wrath will define ourselves and our future.

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3 Responses

  1. Art

    Wrath implies intention. Continuing to speak of the earth as if it were acting consciously (even if you include a brief reference to the fact that it is not) is, I think, not helpful. Neither is referencing mythical stories as authoritative sources of knowledge. Any grains of truth about the world or our existence buried in any writings purporting to support the existence of a God in any sense remotely akin to the God are obvious on their face but their truth is obscured and distorted by their self proclaimed interpreters to the detriment of us all. Speaking/writing accurately about what we as a species are doing to the planet is important but requires serious mental effort. Imposing mystical moral qualities upon the earth reveals a mental laziness and an ongoing failure to take advantage of the reasoning part of our minds to wrest control of our actions from the necessary but dated heuristics that allowed us to rise from the savanna. Our biology has not caught up to the reality that most of us no longer need to conserve mental energy. The reality of the poor conditions that many still live in does not change the fact that we have here and now the resources to take the time and mental energy required to think through decisions that will impact the world far beyond our individual existence. We continue to choose not to do so because it might upset our here and now. Worse yet we teach our young as if they do not have the resources or ability to follow reason and that instead that they should blindly follow guideposts set up for another time and place. Organized religion is the most obvious perpetrator of this fatally flawed strategy but its tentacles reach into almost everything we do as a group. The earth will almost certainly carry on for billions of years. Whether or not we do for even a few more hundred is not so certain. Every day we allow ourselves to be driven by our instinctive, reactive mind at the expense of reason brings us a day closer to creating a planet not suited to our existence.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks for your provocative comment, though I’m not sure you read closely enough. One definition of wrath is retributory punishment for a crime. Not following Gaia’s law has led to the suffering of humans and other species. Gaia, as I note, “is not in a rage. It is not even possible for Gaia to get mad.” But we can suffer from our treatment of Gaia (call this what you will, but Gaia’s Wrath is catchy to me!). And as a writer, I write borrowing from and referring to the stories that make up people’s understanding of the world. Sometimes it’s the Bible, sometimes it’s Star Trek or even Dogs in Space. So yes, referencing myth is useful, even when I see it as myth not authoritative sacred text.

      But a bigger point you touch on: Progress is not permanent. There is a good chance that this bubble of high technology will disappear, that information will not be available at the stroke of one’s fingers, that calories will once again not be abundant, where myths and stories will be essential for guiding our behavior (hell, for most people that’s the case now). So to think that we’re going to enter a rational Star Trekky future is as absurd as many ancient myths are.

      There is a chance we’re not around in a hundred years, but more likely some people will be–perhaps there will be enclaves of high technology. But most humans will once again eke out an existence from the Earth–but now in a disrupted climate, with contaminated soils, and changed ecologies. Life will be hard. Stories, a connection to the living Earth and non-human brethren, rituals, a philosophy that connects us to the larger whole–including past and future generations–will be at least as valuable as it is today (though many people have lost this in this era of redirected spirituality (to growth, progress, and consumerism).

      Obviously, as this is an organized religion, I am on the side that this building of community through a shared philosophy and belief system has value: in organizing people, in shaping right livelihoods, in offering meaning, and simply making life more joyful through community. It’s not religion, it’s what religion teaches that is the issue (a magical god-person in the sky and an otherworldly afterlife, versus all of life and Earth is sacred and we return to Earth at death, being two examples).


  2. Nico

    It is interesting that the concept of karma seems to apply here, although on a collective level. In such terms, the phenomenon of violent environmental instability is an indifferent and inevitable consequence only commensurate with the cumulative disruption of many millennia of human activity. Individual innocence or culpability are irrelevant to the consequences to be “visited” upon us. In this sense, Gaia could be seen as a perfectly self-contained system of dynamics, of which humans are an organic whole with no exemptions from the ultimate law of cause and consequence (again, the notion of a universal dharma is strikingly pertinent). This seems compatible with a modern scientific worldview, though only on a superficial level. It is dangerous self-deception, with implications of an enormous scale, to seek refuge in modern science and technology. Science and technology, while not the heart of the problem itself, have been and remain the great enablers of that problem itself: human nature. There is no scientific or technological remedy for the eternal human flaws that issue from ego, and that is the crux of the problem. It can only be with wisdom and compassion on an individual level of self that society at large will become enlightened to the point where it can harness with responsibility the promise of science and the power of technology. Nor can any ideology succeed in changing human nature for the better if it is premised on or ever resorts to any degree of compulsion, however disguised it may be or morally correct in the eyes of its exponents and adherents. Clearly, this refers to what is known as political correctness, and such social phenomena as shaming, cancelling and activism which alienates more than appeals.

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