In his new book, Eaarth, Bill McKibben notes that one reason we have trouble facing the future being created by the climate crisis is that, "We lack the vocabulary and the metaphors we need for life on a different scale." He offers his "candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future." They are: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, robust.
Some folks looking at that future talk about resilience, and the ways in which that idea applies. These are all good words, and useful for the kind of society he foresees, but I don't think they'll be enough. For one thing, there are some slightly higher-order words that may become very important, like courage, compassion, attention, dedication, fairness. But even beyond that, people need a larger vision, to guide and inspire them. And if it's going to really work, it has to be the right vision.
Fortunately, in the past 30 years there is one word, one concept and one vision that has the proven power to move human souls: Gaia. The sense of our planet as a living organism, prefigured in myth and science, proposed as a hypothesis by James Lovelock and refined by him and others into a real scientific theory, has also proven to be an inspiration and a possible focus.
The breadth and depth of what Gaia can mean for the future is brilliantly suggested in this new compendium of essays (which, not incidentally, has a foreword by Bill McKibben). Prefigured in modern times by an American (Aldo Leopold) and a Russian (Vernadsky) -- both in 1923, though neither essay was published in English until the late 1970s -- the Gaia theory is not some gooey New Age cliché. Aspects of it have been experimentally tested, and it has real consequences for many individual sciences, so some of these essays develop technical matters, including its relationship to systems theory and cybernetics.
But science informs our metaphors, which inspire and motivate and guide our actions, so the history of the idea of Gaia, and the growing sophistication of the concept, is also the subject of several illuminating chapters. That Gaia links new science to ancient understandings is one reason it has so much power.
There are trenchant essays on Gaia and evolution, forest systems, water, biodiversity, and on its relationship to ethics, education and governance. Particularly striking are the essays by Martin Ogle on Gaia as model and metaphor, and David Abram on Gaia and the transformation of personal experience. I don't think I am exaggerating when I suggest that an entire curriculum could be built around this book, producing a very valuable education for the onrushing future. North Coast schools: Why not be the first?