Thursday, April 15, 2010


At some point in the distant past some missing link proto-human stood on its hind legs so that it could pick things up and carry them with its fore paws. When it started to fall forward it stuck a leg out and took a wobbly step forward. This process of almost falling then taking a step at the last moment carried on as these creatures progressed from their primitive origins to the complex civilizations of modern times. At many different points along the way some thoughtful individuals have looked at the latest lurch and predicted that this time we will fall flat on our faces -and yet here we still are, taking another precarious step just in time.

The latest trend in the early 21st Century is to predict a global catastrophe based on pollution produced by humanity. It's not a new idea but carries the weight of a huge mountain of scientific evidence collected more thoroughly than ever before. There is a lot to be said for sounding the alarm about our over zealous plundering of natural resources in a planet with a finite size but the scientific community is just as guilty of being egocentric as previous generations who thought that we were superior to other species.

I caught the end of a programme on James Lovelock's Gaia theory last night in which he described the reaction of three different groups: scientists, mainstream religion and new age religion. The religious groups embraced Gaia as supporting their faith in a higher level of being (hence they believe that humans are not the highest form of life); the scientists on the other hand were unable or unwilling to accept that there was some organism at a higher level than us. This seems a strangely myopic view (I was particularly disappointed in Richard Dawkins) - why they can happily accept that an ants' nest can clearly control its own environment without the ants individually knowing how they contribute to the process but can't accept this on a global scale is beyond me.

Now there is a much more ready acceptance of the Gaia hypothesis but even Lovelock himself is guilty of the assumption that humanity falls outside it. If the biosphere has been robust enough to withstand ice-ages, meteorite strikes, continents colliding and any number of natural disasters, why should the efforts of human civilization for a couple of hundred years be so likely to overwhelm it? Just because we are making sentient decisions as opposed to blindly acting on instinct doesn't mean that our decisions aren't part of the Gaia process.

In another programme Brian Cox described our civilization as the pinnacle of life or something. Stephen Hawking once said we are close to understanding the Universe. I'm quite sure there were those in Ancient Greece or Persia or China or any one of a thousand other progressive periods who thought exactly the same thing. And I'll bet there were also those who predicted it would all end in tears as well.

Certainly the explosive population growth of the last Century and a half is causing our species to stagger dangerously but I see no reason why we won't turn this into another step on our winding journey. One of the reasons for this is connectedness. An anthill or termite mound functions as an uber-organism because of the close links in the communication between individuals. Now we have global problems and the ability to create global sollutions. We are monitoring so much of the world so closely that things are less likely to creep up on us than before, which is not the same as being able to predict things but at least our reaction time is much faster than ever before. We are also getting more and more concerned for the health and safety of every individual person on the planet and for a lot of other organisms as well.

I don't see us as outsiders looking at Gaia, shaking our heads and saying "That'll never support 10 Billion of us." I see us as fully integrated into Gaia, with as much right to be here as every seal, crab and elm, making decisions which will inevitably lead to Gaia self-regulating because we can't help it.


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