Thursday, 14 April 2011

Mother Earth

This Saturday I'll have a stall at a pagan conference. A gathering of witches and druids and so on. It's the third year in a row and it's been enjoyable enough so far - I don't take a great deal on the day, but it costs very little to set up and I think I get a bit of business from it afterwards. I'm not a pagan. I'm very firmly atheist and don't hold any religion or spiritual belief in any great regard. On the whole they're a very friendly bunch - and I'd have to say I can understand the underpinning of spiritual belief with all things natural. Just seems more accessible to me than the more - what? - human-centred religions. An embracing of the natural world rather than some historic prophetic figure.

The world of science has a religion of its own, of sorts, and at its core it has some resemblance to many of the tenets of paganism. In the 60s, James Lovelock, an environmental scientist working for NASA on the possibility of life on Mars. developed an idea that became the Gaia Hypothesis. He worked on it through the 60s and 70s before publishing Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. Gaia was the Greek goddess of the Earth. The Earth Mother: a central figure in many belief systems. The central idea of Gaia, very simply put, is that the planet is some sort of self-regulating entity, reacting to constantly changing conditions to maintain some sort of balanced environment suitable for life. A range of interpretations have emerged and broadly the hypothesis can be split into Hard and Soft Gaia, which in turn cover a spectrum of more specific definitions.

I don't have the time, the space or the ability to give an in-depth explanation of the full hypothesis. However - I'll give a brief summary a go.... Soft Gaia holds that most of the processes of life on Earth are connected and influence each other and their surrounding environment directly. That living beings have changed their habitat by their very presence. It's hard to deny there's some truth to this and science will always be learning more about how the natural world fits together and operates as it does. Soft Gaia does not claim the planet has an active part to play in this, though. Hard Gaia goes further, though again along a sliding scale of immersion. It suggests the Earth is more actively self-regulating, and to this way of thinking the extreme is a living entity in itself. Mother Earth watching out for herself, taking steps to redress damage inflicted by her wards. Within this, some believe that all life is intrinsically connected to the point of it all being part of one living whole, a being of beings. You can see how this begins to become quasi-religious.

The concept wasn't exactly universally embraced - Lovelock came in for a bit of stick from the scientific world. Nonetheless, it's stuck around and Lovelock has had a long and very successful career. He's a formidably bright guy, and has been an active environmental campaigner, turning to his hypothesis from time to time to reflect contemporary understanding of green issues. The increasing awareness of global climate change and the unfortunate effect humanity has had on pretty much everything around us has ensured Gaia has stayed firmly in the consciousness. Soft Gaia's highlighting of interconnectivity is a productive outcome - we have become better at anticipating the potential implications of actions we may have previously thought of in isolation.

To me, while a nice idea, Hard Gaia is almost a shrugging of responsibility; a dereliction of duty. Like most religions, I see it as a reassurance - someone, something is taking care of stuff. Taking care of us. It doesn't really matter what we do to the planet, because it can look after itself. I see the appeal, but we need to accept that there are consequences for what mess we humans make.

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