Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Isn’t that something?” were the exact words uttered back in December 1968 by an astronaut on board the Apollo 8 spacecraft. This mission would be the first to bring humans into space, and the words above would correspond to the moment man first laid eyes upon planet Earth from the proverbial heavens. And what a spectacular moment it was!  The astronauts understood the magnitude of their unique view and snapped this picture to share it with the rest of the world…

This image later became known as Earthrise and it had tremendous impact on public consciousness. It basically functioned as a macroscope, allowing people to zoom out and see the world from a completely new dimension. The primary lesson learned from this Earthrise photo, which is equally relevant today, is that of interconnectedness. The image doesn’t show any divisions of nations or states. Instead it shows the world itself as a single entity, suggesting that isolated perspectives, those of tribes, states or nations, become dated and detrimental as they don’t fully comprehend that their choices affect those outside their own borders. The macroscopic lens instead promotes a holistic perspective as the best way to understand of the sum of the planet’s parts…

Taking this idea of a holistic perspective a step further, scientist James Lovelock developed a unique theory in the early 1970’s.  His Gaia Theory (aka geophysiology or Earth System Science) analyzed the Earth as a single living organism involving the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil, with the totality constituting a feedback system which seeks an optimal physical environment for life on this planet to thrive. He basically discovered that the Earth, if viewed at a macroscopic level, is alive and self-regulates…. whoa!

By today’s standards, this is a pretty ‘out there’ theory. It however begins to make some sense if you break it down… I found a pretty striking analogy in the comparison of Earth’s elements with something that is easier for us to identify with… our own bodies!

Check this out…

Earth… Person_ Bones, muscles, flesh, tissues    Planet_ Rock, soil, minerals, vegetation
Air… Person_ Breath, respiration, sound, voice    Planet_ Winds, atmosphere, clouds
Water… Person_ Blood, lymph, hormones    Planet_ Rivers, lakes, rain, oceans, tides
Fire… Person_ Brain, nerves, subtle energies    Planet_ Lightning, bioelectricity, radiation

It kinda makes sense, right?… Another similarity worth noting is that the Earth’s surface is 70% water, and our bodies are 70% water.  And regarding our bodies… what a fascinating instrument!  Were you aware that in a single year, 98% of your body will replace itself?  And that by the time you are 70 years old, your body will have been replaced over 60 different times?!?  Where does all of this physical matter go?  I certainly don’t have the answer, but feel it’s pretty clear that we’re a part of some physical flow that’s greater than ourselves…

Running with this planet vs. person comparison a bit longer… if the Earth does indeed self-regulate like our own bodies do, it most likely has its own set of rules for survival. Humans, for example, maintain a core body temperature of 98.6 degrees, and when that temperature goes up a mere 3 or 4 degrees we become ill with a fever… our system becomes out of balance. The Earth also maintains a sense of stability… its surface temperature has stayed at a steady average of 57 degrees for tens of thousands of years, but it happens to be in the process of rising. Since 1750, planetary temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees and climate scientists are saying that we should expect between 2 to an astonishing 11.5 degrees more warming during the 21st century. If this is to be the case, the planetary system will be severely out of balance (fever) and will have to counter-regulate in ways that we can only leave to our imaginations… and by continuing our current pace of development, deforestation and pollution (the primary sources of rising temperatures), we will effectively be further limiting the planet’s immune system from allowing itself to heal… things could get interesting!

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Let’s take a completely different approach real quick… imagine yourself sitting on a chair in outer space, staring at our home planet with a remote control in hand… press fast forward on the remote and watch the planet spin 10,000 times faster than it currently is doing.  What an amazing site this would be!… You would see the planet inhale and exhale as each season comes and goes (the planet actually withdraws CO2 from the air for plant growth in summer months, and returns it into the atmosphere each succeeding winter)… you would see generations of animals live and die, yet adapt and thrive in a fluid and peaceful way (similar to the notion that every second, 500,000 cells in your body die and are reborn, but you still look the same). Press pause and zoom in on a boulder in isolation… Ok, so it would be easy to argue that this chunk of rock doesn’t account for much, that it is not alive. Well, it would be equally easy to argue that a particle in your fingernail is equally inconsequential and unconscious. But this chunk of rock and bit of fingernail both become integral parts of maintaining life for both of their hosts… what it comes down to is that the Earth should not be seen as a big rock infested with living organisms anymore than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. It is in and of itself a miracle of life, an entity that does everything it can to harbor the best conditions for biodiversity to thrive… we need to do a better job of understanding and respecting this, and soon!

Ok, so you’re still sitting in this chair in space… let’s say you set your remote to fast forward the last 100,000 years to a period of 10 minutes. The first 9 minutes and 59 seconds would be a pretty smooth and enjoyable site… the last second however would be a different story!  Abrupt alterations to the Earth’s landscape and atmosphere would be dramatic in this second (250 yrs real time)… 135 billion tons of crude oil would be extracted from beneath the planet’s surface in this second, with the majority of it being burned and sent into the atmosphere as hazardous carbon emissions. In this second, atmospheric concentrations of Co2 and methane would increase by over 36% and 148%, respectively.  Also in this sliver of time, 3 million square miles, or about half of Earth’s tropical forest cover, would have been cleared, taking with it hundreds of thousands of unique species.  And finally, at 9 minutes 59 seconds you’d see Earth’s most unique species, the human, have a population hover around 790 million.  One second later, when your timer hits the 10 minute mark, you would notice the human population grow almost 8 fold to 6.9 billion people… wow, what a second!

El Capitan Spring - Yosemite National Park, California

What the Gaian perspective does more than anything else is open our eyes to a revealing truth that we human beings are just one part of this super organism Earth. This fact makes us humble and helps us to recognize that whatever magic we can create with science and technology, we will still be destined to remain engulfed by a sense of mystery…. And this leads me to another integral facet of comprehending this macroscopic perspective… mystery!

Our contemporary worldview doesn’t have much of a place for mystery or mythology… The westernized mindset is based off of the notion that it has always known everything, and will continue to always know everything… This in turn doesn’t leave much room for creative evolution as it implies that we’ve hit a ceiling of intellectual understanding, and that any new ideas will be met with resistance… Well, the great Joseph Campbell strongly advocated that a culture without mythology is lost and subject to a slew of social ills… I couldn’t agree more, and feel that this idea of Gaia just might become a symbol for a new mythology.  It would transcend and synergize all other mythologies, promoting the similarities of cultures and species by creating a fundamental shift from You and I to We… sounds good to me!

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Ok, so I admit this all sounds a bit pagan… you may be thinking to yourself that the Gaia Theory seems to have a lot in common with indigenous worldviews, but don’t let this for a second suggest that we have to go back to primitive times to uphold its ideals… The truth is, cutting edge science and technology are integral components for better understanding Gaia and this new mythology.  Science may have charts and maps for every corner of the Earth, but it is merely at the tip of the iceberg in regards to what it can tell us about our home planet… A couple weeks back I read that scientists were baffled by the recent discovery of a type of sea slug that is actually half animal, half plant… the thing creates its own chlorophyll… how cool is that?!? And speaking of plants, we are just beginning to uncover the hidden intelligence of our flora friends. Scientists have uncovered that plants communicate with each other via aspirin-like chemicals, and that their root systems exchange these chemicals with various fungi in elaborate networking relationships inside the soil. It has been proven through studies that trees can actively defend themselves against serious insect attacks by communicating a warning to other trees in the vicinity.  A step further, recent technologies have shown that plants may actually be able to respond to thought… polygraph experts attached a plant to a lie-detector, burnt its leaves and watched the needle go ballistic, and more importantly, in experiments where a person merely thought about injuring the plant, the polygraph indicated the same frantic spikes… some pretty incredible stuff!

The point being, there is a universe of exploration that has yet to be done on Earth. Our current understanding of human and other species’ potentiality is about 5 on a scale of 1 to 1000!  A key to moving upwards on this scale is to recognize that we are not evolving above nature or other species, but on a journey with them… This is the core of Gaian mythology, the emphasis on a collaborative, inclusive, and creative evolution.  It is thrivability in motion.

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The macroscopic lens allows us to zoom out, slow down, and readdress our relationship to the Earth. It shows us that many of the answers to our greatest questions are not lost amongst the stars, but are here today within the grasp of our own world. It reemphasizes the magic and enchantment that surrounds us each day, and reminds us that we are but one of several million species sharing an experience. And this experience can be absolutely beautiful if we step back and appreciate the world for what it is… an absolute miracle!

-j

About Joshua Foss


Joshua is a leading voice for transformational change. He is the editor of Metro Hippie, co-founder and director of development of the Ecala Group, and adjunct faculty at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is also an ambassador for the Living Building Challenge and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, trade shows and summits.