Anodea Judith, Ph.D.: We are entering a time when every environmental system on the planet is stressed. Some people fear that we won’t make it as a species. Others are in denial about the gravity of our situation. How do you see our species and its relationship to the Earth?
I look at the current state of our global situation through the long view of evolutionary history. I see the progression of the human story as corresponding to developmental stages of childhood, from our primal infancy, to the cradle of civilization, through 5000 years of sibling rivalry, to emerge in the present time in the tumultuous throes of adolescence. This means we are undergoing an rite of passage that will take us into our young adulthood.
Children are dependent, adolescents are independent, and adults are inter-dependent. So our adulthood means that we come to an understanding of our interdependent partnership with Nature. In this mature relationship we are neither hapless victims nor dominators, but co-creators with the natural world.
If we are entering a rite of passage, who is initiating us?
The problems in our world can be seen as the initiating factors that are forcing us to change in order to survive: global warming, ecological destruction, social injustice, warfare, terrorism, peak oil, natural disasters, epidemic disease – the entire litany of modern challenges are actually part of our initiation rite. These problems are the change agents or evolutionary drivers that push us into a new way of living on this planet. Like many initiations, the challenge is to transform or die. This is the challenge that faces us as a species. Our current way of life will bring death to countless species and ecosystems, including a great many humans.
That’s a pretty heavy statement. Is it really that bleak?
Yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that we cannot continue indefinitely in the direction we are now going – with our whole economy based on consumption and unacknowledged waste, without putting anything back. As population expands, this practice becomes ever more pronounced. The problems we see now: climate change, pollution, illness and poverty – will only increase. Right now 20% of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water. If we do not change our ways, that figure could go up to two-thirds of the world populaton by 2025. If global warming continues, up to 50 million Americans could become environmental refugees, and that is small compared to the impact in the rest of the world.
And no, it’s not that bleak because society is already beginning to turn things around. We are developing alternatives to fossil fuels, such as wind and solar, that provide more sustainable sources, and these sources could provide all our needs if we learn to conserve. We are finally creating hybrid cars that get better gas mileage, and that technology is capable of even more. Lester Brown of Worldwatch Institute claims that hybrids could lower our use of fossil fuels by 85% if they were used widely enough.
We are learning about organic farming with a higher demand placed on natural foods and buying locally, such as shopping at farmer’s markets, which is one of the fastest growing commercial markets in the U.S. There is a huge outcry about global warming now, thanks to Al Gore’s latest movie, and that will galvanize global cooperation like nothing ever has, because we will have a common “problem” that isn’t an enemy to kill, but a situation to solve.
Furthermore, for two-thirds of the cost of the Iraq War, most of the major environmental problems in the world could be solved: soil depletion, deforestation, water pollution, ozone, world hunger, air pollution. We have the technology, and we obviously have the money, we just don’t the political will – or quite enough collective will – to make it happen.
How did we get to such a place where we came to live so alienated from Nature?
If we look at the story of our kind as a progression from birth to adulthood, our beginnings emerged from the primal womb of the natural world. In our earliest infancy, Nature was our universal mother, who nourished us on her abundant breast. As we grew up through our childhood, we rebelled against Nature – asserting our own independence in every way that we could. All worship of the “mother” and the Pagan Nature deities was strictly forbidden in Christian times, along with denigrating the body and earth as “unclean.”
Through science we came to understand Nature, not as a living field in which we were embedded, but as an inanimate “it” that we could control and exploit. That understanding led to our Industrial Revolution and the technology that has both solved and created many problems in our world today. Our initial rebellion from Mother Nature has now led to a dissociation which has brought us up against the perils of human nature.
So from the primal thesis of the natural world, to its antithesis in the “man-made” world, we are now ready for a new and higher synthesis of the two – a balanced relationship of mutual interdependence. This can create a beautiful and sustainable world in which our technology is in harmony with rather than at odds against the natural world. It is not that technology is bad – it has given us the immeasurable gifts – it’s just that it is not in alignment with the natural world. Once that happens, there’s no limit to what we can achieve. But without that alignment, Nature will pose the limits, and we are coming up against them now.
I see our initiation as moving from an adolescent age whose ruling principle is the love of power to a more mature and sustainable civilization organized by the power of love. The imperial model that society currently holds is one of domination, and the social organization of this power is based on a pyramid, with one man on top and power trickling down to a mass of slaves. The model of the heart is one of relationship, where every aspect of the living web is regarded as equally sacred. The new paradigm is ruled by an ecosystem rather than an egosystem, by a web of connection rather than a chain of command. And even as we cover the earth with the internet, the biosphere is still the most complex and elegant web of connection we have on this planet – something that pre-dated humans by billions of years.
What can the average person, who is embedded in this culture, do to live in greater harmony with the Earth?
Each of us has a choice in every moment to honor our relationship with the Earth. We have this choice in what we buy, what we eat, what we wear, where we live, and how we drive. This choice is simultaneously personal and political.
On a personal level, there are many ways to minimize the distance between yourself and the natural world. Choose food with less packaging, less chemical processing, and less trucking. (The average item in a grocery store travels over a thousand miles to get there).
Find ways to experience Nature directly so as to reset the dials on your nervous system, which were, after all, designed to respond to the colors, smells, and visions of the natural world. This can be done by taking trips to the wilderness, riding your bike, or walking whenever possible. This is especially important for children, who now spend most of their time indoors, without developing this important relationship.
You can conserve energy (and money) by using energy efficient light bulbs, and turning out the lights diligently when they’re not needed. In terms of carbon emissions, buy a hybrid car if you can afford it. If not, go on the web and see how you can offset your carbon imprint by making a donation to organizations that are fighting global warming. (see www.carbonfund.org)
On a more political level, there are countless organizations that have arisen to protect the environment. (for a good listing go to: www.webdirectory.com or www.ecologicalinternet.org.) Offer your support to the organizations that are already doing the work. Many of them work on a shoestring budget with volunteer labor. Give them money or volunteer your time or help them get their message out. See what needs protection in your own local area. You can have your long distance phone bills go through Working Assets, which donates part of its money to social and environmental organizations.
Make a point to find out about your politicians’ voting records, and support those candidates that seem to understand what’s at stake. The League of Conservation Voters has a scorecard you can look up on the Internet for the voting records of your representatives.
Most important is that we speak to everyone we can and help them to wake up to both the perils and the possibilities of our situation. Ask stores and restaurants if they recycle. Complain about excess packaging and bring your own bags to the market. Tell your grocery stores you want more organic food. Write your representatives. Talk to your neighbors and to those you meet on buses and trains. Call into talk shows, write letters to the editor of your local paper. Become informed, and then share that information widely.
Do you see Gaia as a living being, and if so what are the implications of such a belief?
I have always seen the Earth and its biosphere as one indivisible whole that is living and sentient. The entire planet has a consciousness that is evolving, and we are part of that evolution. This is supported by science in the way the planet regulates temperature, ocean salinity, and oxygen balance in a highly complex system. This is hard for many people to comprehend in the same way that fleas do not know they are on an elephant.
The first implication of this is that we are all cells of one body, which supports the idea that we are all connected, or all one. But even more, if we view this living being as having an intelligence – just the way our bodies have an intelligence that knows how to heal, digest, and breathe—then we can be guided by that intelligence in all that we do – as part of Gaia, not separate from the Earth. We can regard nature as a very sentient “thou,” that is literally our collective body. We know that if the body is sick, our emotional and mental states suffer as well. Likewise, if the environment is afflicted, then the health of our whole society suffers.
If we attribute such consciousness to our environment, we are more likely to see it as sacred. It becomes something that gives us guidance and spiritual sustenance, in the same way that churches do for many people. A redwood grove is the perfect cathedral for me!Earlier you indicated that when we reach a level of maturity as a species we will live in “balanced partnership with Nature”. What do you think about the notion that we are walking hand-in-hand with the planet down a path that will lead ultimately to the survival of the planet and the distinction of the human species among others? That, in fact, once we are gone, Gaia will simply evolve other forms of life. That it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about saving ourselves.
It’s very true that Gaia can survive without humans but humans cannot survive without a functioning biosphere. But I don’t see it as an either/or situation where we save the planet or ourselves, but that we come to an understanding that they are inseparably intertwined. To do environmental work merely for the purpose of saving ourselves is to miss the point that we are part of a grand experiment in co-evolution, and we have just gotten to the point in that evolution where we can be aware of it and enter the relationship consciously.
It is through our species that Gaia could see Herself – through the first moon landing that beamed back a picture of the Earth floating in space. This was a monumental evolutionary moment in the progression from cooling lava 5 billion years ago to the first self-reflective consciousness. We certainly could go the way of the dinosaurs and become extinct, and Gaia would recover with new life forms to follow. If it took 10,000 years to recover from humans, that’s nothing in geologic time.
Humans are just the latest model in the evolutionary experiment, but not the last. However, we are the first species capable of having such a huge impact on the planet, but even more important, we are the first species capable of understanding that impact and consciously doing something about it. And if we can get that lesson and act accordingly, we just may get to stick around and see what happens!