Meadow by the river
For two to three hours on most days since mid-July, I have walked in a little piece of Gaia, the name of Earth’s metabolism and homeostasis: a meadow along the river below my studio near Skowhegan, Maine. It is populated by grasses, ferns, goldenrod, milkweed, blueberries, alders and pines, dragonflies dining on mosquitoes, a new beaver pond on a brook draining to the river – where water meets rock, air and life – all under an awesome sky with air and clouds that have brushed the Arctic.
While walking amidst that life, and in other beautiful places during my one year plus in Maine, I ask myself this: how does one best convey the concept of Gaia to others?
During the last six months, I’ve spent the biggest portion of my time developing a new seminar to do just that. It’s called Gaia 101 : A Story of Gaia. (I’m also fond of the spellings Gaea or Gæa, which are pronounced effectively the same.) This post is about its debut in both ‘live‘ (in-person) and online formats, and its relationship to two other projects: Gæa school and The Adaptability Project.
I have designed Gaia 101 to convey a deep and intuitive sense of the scale, speed and severity of the 1-in-50 million year climate change event that has begun, and the systems sciences needed to understand both Gaia and climate change. In fact, let me state that differently for emphasis: one cannot – cannot - fully comprehend climate change outside of a context of systems sciences and geophysiology – the science of Gaia. Period. Gaia 101 addresses all three topics.
Briefly – with much more on the Gaia 101 pages -
there are three coupled parts to the seminar:
- systems sciences that are necessary to understand …
- geophysiology - the science of Gaia, and …
- climate change, which can only be fully understood
from a perspective of geophysiology and systems sciences.
I think that this is the most relevant and important seminar I’ve ever developed; I’ll address that more below. It is also is the core of a book and DVD that are in the queue.
So far, I’ve offered Gaia 101 once in person – the inaugural run, last spring in the ‘experimental college’ at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, a program designed for courses by non-faculty community members. It received strong positive reviews from those who participated; you’ll find a couple of those on the Gaia 101 pages.
I am planning to offer it in person – ‘live’ – multiple times in coming months in the Skowhegan, Maine area, then expand out from there next spring. I am setting up free introductory overview presentations. I’ll announce those in my calendar and elsewhere.
In a live format, Gaia 101 is roughly 10-hours long – that includes lectures, lots of Q & A and discussion. It can be offered in a weekend intensive or stretched over a month.
After several delays – including a complex, months-long transition to a new town, I’m formally launching the online version of the seminar this week.
The online version takes the form of four slide shows – a free introductory overview plus one slide show per part – all enhanced with LOTS of imagery and recorded narration, along with online discussions via pages on this site, email and/or telephone.
With some minor constraints, there are no set dates and times for entry, participation or completion of the online version. Unlike an in-person, ‘live’ class, there are no specific meeting days and times. Participants move at their own pace, taking as much time as desired for reading, listening, study and reflection, questions and discussion with me and other participants. For an average person, that will probably represent about 10 – 15 hours over a month or two. The duration could be more or less depending on one’s desired level of understanding.
Gaia 101 – or Gæa 101 – has become the introduction, or portal, into my entire curriculum of introductory and advanced courses and seminars because all concepts in my curriculum – the principles of systems or Gaia sciences – are represented in an introductory, yet integrated way in Gaia 101. And that’s because understanding and intuiting Gaia and climate change requires at least a rudimentary understanding of all of those principles. The better one understands them, the better one understands Gaia.
Taking this a step further, Gaia 101 is also the first course in – the entry or portal to – a new educational concept – a project – called Gæa school.
Gæa school is not a building or place – note that I am purposefully not capitalizing the word ‘school’ as a place name – but a concept, an idea that I hope will become a global, distributed curriculum without walls. Or to put it differently, Gæa school can manifest live or online within any set of walls, whether a college, community center, house, yurt, a cob or bamboo hut, a dome, an igloo or … no walls at all.
Falls downstream from the meadow, where air, water, rock & life intersect.
In fact, Gaia must sometimes be studied without walls, in a forest, meadow, shrub steppe or desert, by a marsh, pond, river or a seashore.
Gæa school will be grounded in science and rational thinking, but not restricted to it. We must use all ways of knowing to know Gaia: thinking, intuition, sensing and feeling, using science, art and myth. More on that below …
Both Gaia 101 and Gæa school are also integral parts of another project that I’ve been developing with the help of others for a couple of years: The Adaptability Project, or TAP.
TAP has been designed to help people understand the scale, speed and severity of the climate change that has begun, and to prepare for it on individual, family, neighborhood, community and regional scales by increasing our adaptability via shock-proofing systems to meet basic needs like water, food, shelter and energy. (Note that I used the word “adaptability” rather than “adaptation”; the difference is not trivial.) I’ll be writing more about TAP in coming weeks and months …
OK, back to the importance of Gaia 101 and Gaia – or Gæa - in general.
Here’s a bold assertion. Gaia is THE most important idea for humans to understand as we move forward to face the great challenges of the 21st century. It’s more important than economics, politics, human health care, and terrorism … combined. Our understanding of it will influence the survival of our species more than those other issues.
Why? For multiple reasons.
First, because everything that happens on Earth – including economics, politics and your life, and I mean the very fact that you are alive – occurs in the context of Gaia. Without Gaia, there would be no economics or politics. Without Gaia, neither you nor any other living entity would exist on Earth.
Gaia is Earth’s planetary-scale metabolism and homeostasis that automatically – without conscious intention, just like your homeostasis – maintains the temperature and chemical composition of Earth’s air and waters at conditions suitable for life.
Physics, chemistry and biology are necessary but not sufficient to explain how that happens. That is, physics and chemistry alone cannot fully explain why, for example, oxygen has existed at levels greater than 18% but less than 24% of Earth’s atmosphere (by volume) for 300 million years; why ocean pH is slightly alkaline; how sulfur cycles from ocean back to land; or many other aspects of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Understanding those facts requires geophysiology – the main science of Gaia – in addition to physics, chemistry and biology.
How Gaia regulates those characteristics, and why it can be considered as alive as you are is a central component of Gaia 101.
Here’s another reason that humans must learn to recognize and understand Gaia if our species is to survive. Imagine that you saw all living things – other humans, animals, plants and fungi – as inanimate, non-living objects. Not as living, self-regulating entities, but simply part of your “environment” - that abominable twentieth century label for that which is outside of ourselves. You would be less prone to treat them with respect in a way that promotes their health and integrity. But because people know that those entities are alive, they are more prone to treat them respectfully in a way that promotes their health.
The same must be true for Gaia, because our actions during the last few centuries have made it ill – it is running a ‘fever’ called global warming, indicative of disruption of its homeostasis – and its illness will accelerate during this century. If we cannot rationally and intuitively understand that Gaia is alive – a planetary-scale life form with a metabolism and homeostasis that self-regulates, just as any other living entity – then we will continue to abuse it, and ultimately make conditions on Earth unsuitable for humans and many other species.
Goblet or faces?
Seeing Gaia as alive – as a planetary-scale living entity – will require a fundamental shift in perspectives, a phase transition in the language of systems sciences. That shift is metaphorically represented by the image to the left. Depending on how and where one focuses, one sees either a goblet or a silhouette of two faces looking at each other. By allowing one’s vision to shift, one can switch between the two images, but it is difficult to see both simultaneously
Now, and for the last few centuries, we have seen that which is outside of ourselves as ‘the environment’. We see living animals and plants, and inanimate rocks, water and clouds, but most – especially in the modern western world – cannot yet perceive Gaia as a living whole composed of both living and non-living components, even conceptually in our mind’s eye.
We must learn how to shift our perception to perceive it as a planetary-scale living entity. Our comprehension of a living Gaia – within which we live – must become both rationally and intuitively understood, as common to our everyday consciousness as recognizing life in other humans.
Here’s another metaphor. It is inappropriate and disrespectful to view a lover as merely a collection of parts, such as eyes, lips, breasts, hips, legs and genitalia. We must see lovers – and all people – as wholes, even while paying attention, at appropriate times, of course, to individual parts.
Likewise, with Gaia, we must pay proper attention to the parts – organisms, rocks, water, air, energy, ecosystems – but also be able, to borrow a phrase from Robert Heinlein, to grok the whole. We must be able to simultaneously see the parts and the whole, an emergent entity that is bigger than the parts.
Yet a third metaphor, perhaps most succinct: just as we are sometimes guilty of not seeing a forest for the trees, we are in danger of not seeing Gaia for the forests.
Given the importance of Gaia explained above, my goal is to offer Gaia 101 to thousands, and to teach it to other teachers so that they can teach thousands of others, and so on.
To make it available to as many as possible, the seminar fees are set on a sliding scale. My goal is to offer it free while still helping support myself with it since teaching is my ‘day job’. To help with that goal, I am also seeking outside funding (e.g., from philanthropists).
I hope that you will join us for Gaia 101 : A Story of Gaia, and that you will be contributing to the concept of Gæa school as it evolves.
In a later post, I want to address how we can begin to grasp the full sense of Gaia.
By ‘full sense’, I mean using all four components of knowing: sensing, feeling, intuition and thinking, to borrow Stephen Harding’s idea from chapter 1 of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition & Gaia (which I use as a text in one of my Gaia seminars).
Gaia 101 offers an excellent entry into the ‘thinking’ and ‘intuition’ parts of knowing Gaia. In a later post, I want to address the sensing and feeling aspects of it.